A rare catch: Local angler hauls second longnose gar from Shenandoah River

Colton Manich, 23, of Edinburg, holds a longnose gar he caught while bow fishing in a section of the Shenandoah River in Woodstock on Sept. 6. The longnose gar is the second such fish Manich has caught in the river in the last two years. Photo courtesy of Colton Manich

It wasn’t exactly Ahab chasing the elusive white whale, but when Colton Manich saw the familiar cylindrical shape and long tapering nose lined with rows of razor-sharp teeth of a longnose gar in the Shenandoah River about a month and a half ago, the pursuit was on.

Over the next six weeks Manich, a 23-year-old Edinburg resident, spent days on the river specifically hunting the gar, a species not native to the Shenandoah River. It wasn’t just the opportunity to haul in the rare catch that spurred Manich on. Almost exactly two years ago, Manich harvested his first longnose gar out of the same section of the Shenandoah’s North Fork in Woodstock. Now he was out to prove there were more.

“We went down there specifically trying to get this fish, so it wasn’t like we were just doing a common fish float,” Manich said. “Once I saw it I was determined like, ‘I’m gonna get that fish to show people that there’s more in here.’ (That) was kind of what my attitude was.”

On Sept. 6, Manich once again delivered proof that there was indeed a gar in the Shenandoah River. Equipped with a bow, Manich, along with his girlfriend Gretchen Tayton, her 2-year-old son Uriyah and friend Victor Green, all of Edinburg, put in on the Shenandoah River to seek out the fish. Shortly after getting on the water, Manich caught his first glimpse of the gar as it ran out from under the same tree where he had initially spotted the fish about six weeks ago. Manich couldn’t get a clean shot as the gar swam upstream in the opposite direction of his canoe.

A couple hours later the gar reappeared, and this time Manich attempted a shot from about 15 to 20 yards away that, he would find out later, had nicked the fish’s tail but failed to connect cleanly enough to allow Manich to reel it in.

Finally, another hour later, and in a location about 100 yards upstream of the previous encounter, Manich spotted the gar for what would be the final time.

Manich recalled seeing a musky dart out from the left-hand side of the canoe occupied by he and Green, with the gar not far behind. The gar then circled in front of the canoe before Manich lost it in the shadows. Anticipating the direction the fish had traveled, Manich kept his bow drawn. Moments later, Green spotted the gar as it came to the surface of the water and Manich fired, this time connecting with his target.

“When I hit him he came fully up out of the water and that’s when I knew we had him and he was locked on,” Manich said. “Came fully up out of the water with the arrow still in him, which kind of surprised me because the last one I got didn’t give that kind of a fight.”

Manich, who said he is “mind-blown” that no one else has spotted, or at least reported seeing, a longnose gar in that section of the Shenandoah, reported his catch to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and posted photos on his Facebook page and said the general reaction to his latest encounter with a gar has been surprise.

Steve Reeser, a state fish biologist, said longnose gar are listed in “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia” – comprehensive guide to the state’s fish population written by Robert E. Jenkins and Noel M. Burkhead – and are generally found in the Potomac River below the fall line, the lower Rappahannock River, the James River and the Tennessee River drainage in Virginia.

Though coming across a longnose gar in the Shenandoah River is extremely rare, Reeser said state wildlife agents actually encountered one on two separate occasions in the two years since Manich’s first catch, each time in the same section of river where Manich caught both gar. Reeser added the agents may have even caught the same fish Manich harvested on Sept. 6 during an electro-fishing exercise on one of those trips.

“If we saw a species that we felt could become invasive, be a problem, we would dispatch the fish. We would remove it from that body of water,” Reeser said. “… Gar, they are found in the drainage in the Potomac so it’s not that they’re that foreign.”

Reeser said the gar Manich caught likely came from someone transporting the fish to the Shenandoah River from elsewhere. Reeser emphasized that it is illegal in Virginia to release any fish into bodies of water other than private ponds.

Although the longnose gar isn’t exactly a welcome resident in the Shenandoah, Reeser said it’s not considered a “voracious predator” like a smallmouth bass or northern snakehead, and he believes longnose gar could live and reproduce in the Shenandoah River without posing much of a problem to the surrounding ecosystem.

Reeser added that he doesn’t believe longnose gar are actively reproducing in the Shenandoah’s North Fork due to the very low number of reported sightings, and he doesn’t think state wildlife officials have any immediate plans to further investigate the issue.

“I’m not overly concerned about it,” Reeser said. “That would be a different case if it was a different species. If it was a silver carp or bighead carp or northern snakehead or something we would feel would be really detrimental to the other fish there, we would certainly be out doing more survey work to see if we could find more and take actions if we could. But with the longnose gar, they’re close enough that they’re found in the drainage that it’s not a five-bell alarm.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com