Back in the golden days of my childhood, the late 1930s and most of the ’40s, my cousin Lawrence and I would exchange visits of a few days each summer. When I went to Tampa to visit, we would go fishing at the Ballast Point pier, or crabbing in the shallows of Tampa bay. When he came to visit me at our farm in the Florida flatlands, we’d go ditch fishin’. The two locations provided vastly different environments, so we each looked forward to the different fishing experiences.
One hot July afternoon we headed about a mile down the hard road to where the ditch widened out into a canal and got deeper. Although a year younger than I, Lawrence was the biggest so he got to sit on the bicycle seat and peddle, while I rode on the handlebars and carried the fishing tackle. We stopped at a place that looked like we’d have a good chance of catching a garfish, an experience Lawrence had so far missed.
As best I remember, we had caught a catfish or two and a couple Warmouth perch before Lawrence hooked into a gar. It was a big one, well over two feet long. He had quite a tussle with that fish before he got it dragged up the canal bank with the skinny bamboo pole he was using.
It being hot summertime, with little rain for quite a while, the shoulder of the road had only patches of grass (mostly sandspurs), and most of the ground was inches thick with sand and muck dust from years of wind and traffic. By the time Lawrence had that garfish trapped under his tennis shoe, it was hard to tell what the dust clump, trapped in garfish slime, contained. He finally managed to get the hook out of that fish’s bill without getting his hands permanently damaged by the two long rows of sharp teeth.
Lawrence started to kick the gar back into the canal, but I stopped him because those critters eat the small perch and bream – which are good eatin’. The garfish lay there, deeply coated with a thick layer of sand and dust while Lawrence stood there with dust all over him and his arms coated with dust covered fish-slime and a bit of blood from his hand-to-bill combat with the critter.
The next day, we were back at the same place, hoping for a good-sized catfish or two, when Lawrence spotted that garfish carcass, just as covered with sand and muck-dust as when we left it the day before. That time, he did kick it back into the water; I guess you could call it a revenge reflex. We fished for an hour or so but I don’t remember any good-sized catfish. However, I do remember the surprise Lawrence and I had when, after a half-hour or so, that dead garfish began to move its gills. Within a few minutes the gar slowly swam down the canal and hid under some lily-pads.
I learned later that as well as having gills, garfish have an air bladder lined with small blood vessels that acts much like a lung in air-breathing creatures. This allows them to live in oxygen-depleted water – and out of water — for extended periods of time by refilling the air bladder with fresh air.