Alligator Garfish are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America, and one of the best tasting. Normally considered a “trash fish,” if you aren’t going to eat this blast from the paleolithic past, then please leave them for me and my crew to enjoy.
We’d just finished a wonderful Sunday get together celebrating the christening of one of my best friend’s son, and were busy digesting some pretty delicious food, when Joel rolled up with his latest bowfishing kill in the back of the side-by-side. A 70 lb alligator garfish.
Joel is a very special kid. It would take more words than I could devote to this blog to describe Joel, but I’ll give you the condensed version. Joel has taken 16 trips around the sun; however, he has more hunting and fishing experience than most men in their 40’s or even 50’s. His father and uncles are amazing outdoorsmen, and Joel has taken up that roll for the next generation. He was home schooled growing up, and the backwater swamps, and bayous were his playground. He was able to do his studies in accordance with the ebb and flow of nature in order to accommodate his hunting and fishing. He is half my age in years, but his skills as an outdoorsman quite frankly leave mine in the dust. He is very unique in all of the ways that you would want a young man of his age to be.
Even though this fish would be quite a trophy for most grown men who bowfish regularly, this fish is nowhere near his largest in length or weight. Even so, he drove up, and after shaking my hand, and taking a few pictures, he asked me “Do you want some gar meat?” Now, most of you are saying to yourself “Gar meat? That’s disgusting…Everybody knows that garfish is a ‘trash fish.’ They taste fishy. I wouldn’t eat that if my life depended on it.”
I must admit that I used to feel the same way. And trust me, they taste nothing like what you would think (if they are cleaned correctly). I almost don’t want people to know how delicious they are, because they might overfish them. Don’t let their not-so-attractive outer appearance fool you. They’ve become one of my favorite freshwater fish, and they are so unbelievably versatile to cook with. Their texture more closely resembles that of incredibly tender alligator meat than it does fish. Thus, they don’t tend to “flake” and fall apart during the cooking process like other fish. Therefore you can use cooking techniques that you would normally reserve for chicken, or red meat, but never fish. However, they are equally as delicious prepared any way that you would traditionally cook fish (fried, baked, broiled, etc.). Much like any other food, the secret to unlocking the most incredible flavor and reducing the most inedible flavor is in the preparation, and preservation of the food.
Below is the easiest method to cleaning an alligator garfish, courtesy of Joel, the wild man:
- First you need a pimp Hawaiian shirt. Colors may vary.
- Second, get the fish out of the hot sun, and cleaned shortly after harvesting.
- Then, lay your gar out on a cleaning station, table or something flat.
- With either a pair of tin snips, a hatchet, or in this case a sugar cane knife, you want to cut laterally through the thick scales and hide of the fish just behind the head. It will take quite a few whacks because these fish have become pretty tough over the millennia. They’ve been around since the early Cretaceous Period.
- Next, you can use a knife (which you will dull quite badly) or a pair of tin snips to cut through the scales and hide (which are thick like armor) down the length of the spine to the tail of the fish.
- Joel used the sharp hook on the cane knife. He said when he has a helper wearing leather gloves he has them grab the fish by the gills, and he uses the hook on the cane knife like you would a gut hook to cut a line down the fish’s spine. When he is cleaning one of the prehistoric beasts by himself, he favors the tin snips.
- Next you simply cut away the skin on either side of the line cut down the back of the monster fish.
- You will eventually end up with the skin and scales cut away revealing the meaty interior.
- Next, use a pair of pliers, or tin snips to pull away or cut away the bones connecting the dorsal fin. It doesn’t have to be perfect because you are just doing this so that you can remove the skin flaps all the way on both sides of the tail.
- Next, make a lateral cut behind the head of the fish cutting through the meat on either side of the spine.
- Using the same technique that you would to remove a deer backstrap, cut away the meat from either side of the fish’s spine.
- You will make a cut along the spine strait down into the fish until you hit the ribs. Then you will follow the cut along the ribs until you cut free the tube of meat.
- Then do the same on the other side of the spine.
- You will be left with two delicious fillets similar in shape to a deer or hog’s backstrap. Not to mention they are huge.
- If you have a sizable fish, you will be left with some serious meat.
- You will then discard the remaining fish carcass.
- Just a little side note, don’t ever eat gar fish roe (eggs) because it is one of the few freshwater fish species that have poisonous fish eggs.
- The most crucial step in this process is to make sure that you cut away any pink, red, bloody or discolored looking portions of the meat. This is the part that will impart fishy or nasty flavors to the meat. I believe that the bad reputation that this fish has as table fare is due to improper removal of the fat. You should be left with beautiful, pure white meat with little to no discolorations.
- Much like any other kind of fish, it is always better fresh. It will still freeze okay, but it is best to use a vacuum sealer or some other method to remove any air from the bag when freezing. Or you can do like we do, and have a huge fish fry with family and friends.
If you want to see a delicious recipe with this fish, check out Grilled Alligator Garfish Recipe.