Post date: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 11:43
Updated date: 10/20/21
Bowfin Picture amia calva

The bowfin is wholly carnivorous, and exceedingly voracious....He is the ravening wolf of the dark lagoons, the nightmare of the slumbrous coves. Skulking in deep water by day, he invades the teeming shallows by night, spreading terror and bloody execution in his wake.

(from "Hellhound of the Sloughs" by Havilah Babcock, Field & Stream, April 1944)


The bowfin is an absolute thrill to catch, hardy, aggressive, and very widespread.  It's a perfect target for the dedicated roughfisher.  Of all the ancient species of bowfins that once lurked in dinosaur infested swamps long ago, only one species still exists today. And he's not going anywhere. Although they are scorned in many areas, they also have a cult following among those people who appreciate tough, nasty fighting sportfish.


Other Names:  Dogfish, Cabbage Pike, Grinnel, Mudfish, Cottonfish, Spottail, Blackfish, Cypress Trout, John A. Grindle, Swamp Lawyer, Shoepick, Shoepike, Choupique, Scaled Ling

The Ojibwe word for bowfin is zhigwameg.


The bowfin is a beautifully efficient predator equipped with a strong, muscular body and razor sharp teeth. Ancient fishes that have survived for millions of years, bowfin can breathe air by gulping it at the surface. Bowfin are elongate, mottled fishes with a long dorsal fin and a rounded tail. The dorsal fin is used for slow, stealthy propulsion - the bowfin ripples its dorsal fin for stealthy movement when prowling for unsuspecting victims. Two tubelike barbels project from the nostrils. Male bowfin sport a round spot, called an occellus, at the base of the tail. During the spawn, the fins and lower bodies of male bowfin turn bright lime-green. Beneath their lips, the mouth of a bowfin is jam-packed full of sharp, jagged teeth. 



Bowfin inhabit rivers, lakes, swamps, and ditches. They often lurk in the thickest weeds available, although I have often seen them cruising barren mud flats on the Mississippi, in six inches of water. They are normally encountered in shallow water less than four feet deep. River backwaters and sloughs are prime bowfin locations, as well as shallow, weedy lakes. Invariably, the best bowfin waters have high populations of baitfish, in the form of minnows, bullheads, or sunfishes.



Good bowfin spots can be found through trial and error, but a dedicated roughfisher can increase his or her odds of finding one by careful observation.  On hot, calm summer days, bowfin (like gar) will come to surface to gulp air. The telltale disturbance on the surface is a sure-fire indicator that you've located a prime bowfin location.  But don't skip over spots just because you don't see any bowfin surfacing - they can remain submerged indefinately when the water is well-oxygenated.

Additionally, since bowfin inhabit shallow waters, they can often be located and fished for by sight - a thrilling endeavor that always puts a smile on my face.

Bowfin can be caught on almost any variety of tackle. Wire leaders are imperative, as their formidable teeth are better at slicing through unprotected lines than any other freshwater fish. Bowfin reach a weight of about 10 pounds in the north, 20 or more pounds in the south - but they fight a lot harder than their size would indicate, so tackle should be stout. Many tactics will catch bowfin, although finding them is the first challenge. If you know that good numbers of bowfin are present in the area, a good method to locate them would be hanging a four-inch shiner beneath a slip bobber near heavy cover. Bowfin often will try to drag the bait back into their weedy lairs before swallowing it, so it is necessary to let them run quite awhile after the strike. Where bowfin are roaming the muddy flats of a large river, I've had success freelining them with larval salamanders and smallish sucker minnows. A good method for catching bowfin on artificials is to wade the weedy shallows, looking for bowfin lurking amongst the weeds. Once you've stalked up into good casting range of a visible fish, toss a lure or fly past the fish and retrieve it erratically across the bowfin's field of vision. Lures to try for bowfin include spoons (especially weedless models), spinners, and crankbaits.  Bowfin strike both topwater and subsurface presentations savagely, and their bony skull necessitates a very strong hookset. Check your hooks for sharpness.  Be prepared for a serious battle when you hook into a bowfin. They will jump, tailwalk, run, lunge into cover, burrow, and even thrash onto shore when hooked. One of the hardest aspects of bowfin angling is landing the fish. They are extremely muscular, and can easily slip out of your grasp if you're not careful. Bowfin are beneficial predators that efficiently prevent panfish populations from stunting, so unless you've got a good bowfin recipe, be sure to practice catch and release.


Bowfin are well known for their love of backwaters and obstructions in rivers but I find distinct satisfaction in chasing the bowfin experience at dusk or after dark in the extremely shallow water surrounding the worst jungles.  Artificials can produce smashing strikes but often water is so full of vegetation and other cover that casting is not possible.  So often it’s a lighted bobber and a piece of cut bait hanging 3 inches underneath.  The bobber will still lay lifeless and flat until all of a sudden the float will stand up, seeming to flare with urgent excitement, and then bob and dip under the surface, steaming off across the water at the head of a large wake.  To experience that moment is why I am a roughfisherman


What can I add about bowfin. 
The most Bad assed fish in North America. 

Look for bullhead! I have had amazing luck over the last few years in areas with a HUGE populations of bullhead. You know the spots. Areas filled below dams where there are schools and schools of 4-6" black bullhead. Nobody fishes there because all you get are bullhead. 
It seems to me in these places the Bowfin key in on Bullhead. I will use bullhead chunks and HAMMER bowfin all day long. Some of these spots have produced 20-30 bowfin a day for me and my friends.


I will also dish on a little secret tip that actually was developed by the Carp Chaser. If there is a night when the jungles are a little too full of mosquitoes try a stop at boat launch or any channel cut through the cattails at your local lake, you may be surprised to find what lurks there.  However, contrary to the widely held myth that most roughfish will bite on anything, I believe that Bowfin that hang around these high traffic areas can become highly conditioned and educated (not bad for a dinosaur) and will not fall for a nightcrawler, spinner bait, or even a minnow.  Cut bait will often do the trick – but don’t be afraid to try something completely different like a chunk of beef jerky or sausage on a free line – just fish it ‘casual’ as it was a left over goody chucked out of the boat at the end of the day.  It sounds funny but just watch what happens at end of the day at the launch and think like an opportunistic fish!


Range Map

Photo Credits:

DavidG, Dr. Flathead, MN Bowfin Angler, Drew Geving, Corey Geving, BenC, Muskymags, Gunnar

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