By Jeff Nations
Colton Manich knew what he saw during a recent fishing trip on the North Folk of the Shenandoah River.
That cylindrical shape, long tapering nose and those rows of razor-sharp teeth were unmistakable in the 21-year-old Edinburg resident's mind. Manich had spotted a longnose gar, he was certain of it.
Getting anyone else to believe it ... that was a different story.
"People just looked at me like I was crazy," Manich said. "No one had ever heard of a gar in the Shenandoah River. I was never more determined in my entire life than to prove to them that there was a gar in our river."
Manich went out and got his proof on Sept. 28. On a canoe float trip down the Shenandoah to bow fish for carp on a sunny afternoon in early fall, Manich and friends Casey Coffman and Dakota Jernigan of Woodstock and Shane Bollinger of Edinburg spotted that same mysterious fish holding in the middle of the river. Manich and Bollinger were downstream, hoping Coffman and Jernigan in the other canoe would flush carp toward them when Manich spotted the fish he'd first seen -- or thought he'd seen -- two months earlier near the same spot in the river.
This time, Manich was ready. He stood up in the canoe, took aim and pulled -- and missed the fish. He tried again twice more, and missed both times before the gar disappeared into deeper water.
Manich said he and Bollinger searched for about an hour to try and locate their elusive prey, then gave up and headed back upstream to rejoin their friends. On the trip back down, they saw it again. This time the gar was laid up in the shallows. Manich steadied, took aim ... and missed again. Then again.
After that fifth shot, the gar darted out from the bank, circled around the canoe and came back into view one more time. This time, Manich didn't miss with a shot from about 5 yards away.
"Shane was paddling, and full credit to him for keeping it steady," Manich said. "I was shaking the whole time trying to get steady for a shot."
Manich had his fish, but even he didn't realize just how rare a catch it was. According to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) Region IV District Fisheries Biologist Steve Reeser, longnose gar have only been observed a handful of times -- and never taken live -- in the Shenandoah River.
"That is extremely, extremely, extremely rare," Reeser said. "We have never got our hands on a live longnose gar from the Shenandoah."
Reeser said longnose gar are listed in "Freshwater Fishes Of Virginia" -- the comprehensive guide to the state's fish population written by Robert E. Jenkins and Noel M. Burkhead -- with a statewide distribution in the lower Potomac River near the fall-line, the lower Rappahannock River, the James River, the Roanoke River and the Tennessee River drainage in Virginia.
Despite that rarity, the longnose gar isn't exactly a welcome resident in Virginia's waters. Not classified as a game or sport fish, the longnose gar is not protected by state creel-limit regulations. That puts it in the same category as the northern snakehead and other exotic imports, although Reeser said the native northern gar isn't nearly the nuisance those fish create.
Reeser isn't sure how Manich's longnose gar got in the Shenandoah, although it likely came from someone illegally transporting the fish to the river from elsewhere.
"It is against the law to move a fish from one body of water to another in Virginia, other than to a private pond," Reeser said. "That's how northern snakeheads and other things we don't want get into the river system."
Manich, who took up bow fishing about a year and a half ago, normally harvests the equally undesirable carp from Virginia's waters. He said he uses those fish for compost, or gives them to a friend who does the same in his garden so that nothing he catches goes to waste.
As for that longnose gar, Manich is making an exception.
"He's at the taxidermist right now," Manich said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD