By Ed Wall
How many folks have fantasized about actually putting their hands on a dinosaur? I’ve never done that exactly but, I’ve come pretty close. I’ve caught bowfin (aka mudfish, dogfish, grindle, et al.).
Bowfin (Amia calva) are unique for several reasons, the most significant being that they are holdovers from prehistoric times. They are the only surviving member of the family, Amiidae, which dates back to the Mesozoic Era – the “age of reptiles.”
When bowfin first swam in the world’s waters – 150 to 200 million years ago – most of North America and Europe were joined as one huge landmass and the T. Rex was the toughest dude on dry land. Fossils dating from that age show that bowfin have evolved very little since then and, structurally and physiologically, are very similar to their ancient ancestors.
In their modern form, bowfin are ganoid fish, which means they have thick, bony scales, similar to gar. But they also have a slimy covering like catfish and eels. One of their most distinctive features is the dorsal fin that extends from right behind the gills, down the cylindrical body, almost to the rounded tail.
Adult male bowfin can also be identified by a black spot, sometimes rimmed with orange, near the tail. It’s thought to be an adaptation that confuses predators. Females don’t have the spot.
In addition, during spawning season, male bowfin often exhibit bright yellow-green hues on their undersides, gills and mouths. (The equivalent of human boys donning their flashiest clothes to attract girlfriends?) Both sexes have sharp teeth, a fact some unwary anglers have learned the hard way.
Another adaptation of bowfin is bimodal respiration; they can breathe through their gills or by gulping air at the surface. In the latter case, oxygen is vented to a “swim bladder lung.” This explains how they can survive in water that is very low in oxygen and might create serious problems for some other species. It might also account for stories that describe bowfin living for hours or even days out of the water.
There is no doubt bowfin are some of the toughest, most adaptable fish that have ever lived. Fossil evidence indicates they once swam in waters throughout North and South America, Eurasia and Africa. Today their range is restricted to fresh and brackish waters on this continent, including much of the eastern U.S., southern Canada and the Mississippi River drainage.
Bowfin can live in almost any kind of fresh water but seem to prefer lowland rivers, swamps, bayous and lakes. They are voracious predators that will feed on pretty much anything smaller than they are – crustaceans, insects and small fish primarily – but don’t appear to be any more of a threat to popular gamefish than any other predatory species.
The fact that bowfin will eat almost anything is good news for anglers who would like to tangle with one of the powerful fish. Medium-weight tackle with 10 to 20 lb.-test line and #2 to 2/0 hooks are usually sufficient. In places where bowfin are plentiful, fishermen sometimes use a wire or heavy monofilament leader to avoid getting bitten off.
Some anglers also prefer circle hooks with the barbs bent down to facilitate unhooking fish. In respect to bait, fresh chunks of mullet, bream or other fish, or live minnows are hard to beat. Bowfin will hit nearly any kind of subsurface artificial lure at various times and fly fishermen in some areas target them with large, weighted streamers that imitate minnows. Bowfin are ambush feeders so fishing around structure or along brushy shorelines is usually a smart move.
Regardless of where they’re found, anglers should be ready for a struggle when a bowfin is hooked. Pound-for-pound, they are some of the most powerful fish that swim. And, they can get pretty husky. While the average bowfin is 18 to 24 inches long and weighs 2 or 3 pounds, they can reach 15 lb. or more.
The North Carolina state record tipped the scales at 17 lb. 15 oz. It was caught on cut bait in the coastal plain Black River in 1997. The world record weighed 21 lb. 8 oz. It was taken from Forest Lake in South Carolina’s piedmont region in 1980. Bowfin will bite any time of year but are most active when the water is warm. Night fishing for them during the dog days of summer can be an effective technique and unique experience.
Most bowfin caught by sport anglers are released to fight another day. Some people do eat them but there is a lot of debate about their value as table fare. One source has said they are “…quite palatable if cleaned properly and smoked, or prepared fried, blackened, used in courtbouillion, or in fishballs or fishcakes.”
One concern is that mercury can accumulate in a bowfin’s tissue over a period of time. Some places have an advisory recommending they not be consumed by at-risk groups like pregnant women, and that their consumption be limited for everyone. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has issued such an advisory for waters in the state south and east of I-85.
In some areas, bowfin roe is prized as caviar. Called “choupique” in Louisiana, it retails for around $7 an ounce. However, bowfin are probably more valuable as hard-fighting fish that offer a lot of sport. And, an angler who lands one can brag that he caught a species that swam with the dinosaurs.
A male bowfin could be considered “Mr. Mom.” He prepares the nest, protects the eggs during incubation and watches over the young until they are about 3 or 4 inches long.
Bowfin can live 10 to 12 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity. Females live longer than males.
Unlike sturgeon roe, bowfin caviar turns red when heated.
In keeping with the nature of its tough and aggressive namesake, one of the United States’ most successful warships in WWII was an attack submarine named the USS Bowfin (SS-287). Called the “Pearl Harbor Avenger,” it was credited with sinking 23 enemy ships.