Gar Gumbo with Andouille & Shrimp
Ever since the introduction of snakehead to the Potomac River watershed, bowfishing has exploded in popularity. At night, on the creeks and tributaries of the river, you can hear them before you see them- first, the thrum of a generator, and then a blinding light cast over the surface of the water. Big, flat-bottomed jon boats, fitted out with elevated decks for shooting cruise the shallows. From a distance, the illuminated water under their bows looks grey and unworldly. The humidity on summer nights makes everything look foggy, heavy, and the clouds of insects surrounding their lights only add to the effect.
They’re looking for dark, long shadows resting a few inches below the surface. Most of the time, it’s the snakehead they’re after, but if a gar or carp cross their path, it’s a dead fish.
All three species are “rough fish”- fish not considered to be a sport species. That means they can legally be taken with a bow, and limits, when they apply, are high. The snakehead are gaining acceptance as table fare, but the gar? They’re considered by many to be trash fish, inedible, not worth fishing for. Some people say they’re invasive, that they’re eating all the other fish that we’re supposed to care about.
Here’s the thing. Gar are a native, ancient fish. They’ve been here longer than just about anything else.
“Gar are our elders by a wide margin. They've been around for over 100 million years. Some of the gar's more famous prehistoric contemporaries were Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor. Gar evolved at a time when giant reptiles ruled the air and sea, and grasses, yes grasses—wheat, corn, everything you spend all summer mowing—would not evolve for another 30 million years. Gar are older than grass. Homo sapiens' earliest primate ancestor was still 65 million years away when the first gar pumped water through its gills.”
And they’re beautiful. Look past their long, toothy grin- although that, too, has a beauty of its own. In the spring, during the spawn, I love to watch their languid courtship dance- one large female, followed by several smaller males, moving slowly and porpoise-like through the clear water. Its mesmerizing- these ancient, predatory beings, caught up in a gentle, fluid ritual that has existed, and will continue to exist, for as long as the gar do, and certainly longer than there are people to observe it.
If you’re lucky enough to have an appreciation for these fish, you probably already know that they make fine table fare. But if you’ve never tried gar, you’re not alone.
Gar are often overlooked as a food fish. Which is a shame, because the filets are firm and meaty- “tastes like chicken” is cliche, but accurate. They’re a little harder to filet than most fish, but a pair of tin snips will do the job, and from there you have a clean, firm filet that has a surprising meatiness- think monkfish, or lobster without the sweetness. This texture lends itself well to recipes that involve simmering or poaching. In our case, we’ve put together a spicy gumbo that brings together a few different species we pursue here. We serve it with Carolina Gold rice, a heirloom variety of rice that is unparalleled for its texture and taste. You can source it here.
Gar Gumbo with Andouille and Shrimp
Prep time: 1 hour
When you fillet your gar, make sure you cut out the bloodline, especially if you plan on freezing it. It can impart a strong, fishy flavor if left on.
½ lb gar fillet, cut into ½” chunks.
½ lb smoked venison or goose andouille sausage, cut into ⅓” circles
½ lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
5 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz okra, cut into ⅓” circles
1 medium onion, diced
2 bell peppers, seeded, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 jalapeno, seeded, diced
1 bay leaf
4 cups fish stock (or any light colored, mild game stock)
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
Make the roux: Melt butter in pan over medium heat and stir in flour, dissolving any clumps. Stir and cook until it reaches an even dark blonde color and remove from heat.
In large saucepan or dutch oven, sweat onion, garlic, celery and bay leaf with a little bit of oil over medium low heat, cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add in sliced andouille sausage, jalapeno, bell peppers, okra, and remaining spices. Continue cooking for 10 minutes, then add stock and bring to a simmer. Add roux, stirring until evenly mixed in. Season with worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, then add more paprika, cayenne or other spices to your taste.
Add gar, stir and simmer for 3 minutes, then add shrimp. Cook until done (2-3 minutes) and serve over buttery Carolina Gold rice.
Carolina Gold Rice
4 cups Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice
3 quarts water
¼ lb butter, cubed
Preheat oven to 350. Bring water to a boil, add in a generous dash of salt. Add rice, stirring one or twice to keep rice from sticking to bottom of pan. Bring pan back to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Strain rice in colander, spread on sheet pan, spread out cubed butter and bake for 5 minutes at 350F. Once out of oven, fluff and mix rice to evenly distribute the butter.