The last surviving members of the order Amiiformes, bowfin are prehistoric predators from the Jurassic period. Encountered throughout much of the country and across the entire state of Florida, most people think of bowfin as nasty, slimy, ugly and undesirable trash fish. I happen to have a different opinion and truly believe that bowfin are exciting game fish. They’ve seen dinosaurs come and go and are nature’s ultimate predator, capable of surviving in the most extreme conditions.
Part of the reason for their freshwater reign of terror is due to the fact that they are capable of breathing air by using their swim bladder as a primitive lung. This enables them to survive in tiny mud holes and waters that lack sufficient oxygen content. Forget everything you know about evolution, because bowfin are the ultimate predators that have remained relatively unchanged for over 100,000,000 years.
Part of the reason for their freshwater reign of terror is due to the fact that they are capable of breathing air by using their swim bladder as a primitive lung.
If you’ve never seen a bowfin they have a mossy green or brownish back and a lighter colored belly. They are also equipped with a long dorsal fin, short anal fin and a smiling mouth full of razor sharp teeth. The fish we encounter in Florida range from 2 to 6-pounds, although I’ve guided many clients to bowfin over 10-pounds. Because bowfin respond to a wide variety of tactics it shouldn’t be difficult to get connected.
While they can be encountered in the same general areas that you would find largemouth bass, there are a few specific features to look for that will tip the odds in your favor. Look near shallow mud bottom flats in the vicinity of coves or fingers, on deep rock edges, around fallen trees, near culverts with water flow, and in the thick grass and sticks way back where you wouldn’t think any living creature could survive. I like to find them by motoring around these areas and keeping an eye out for fish that are coming up and gulping air. While you can certainly catch bowfin on any given day of the year, I’ve noticed that the warmer months offer greater opportunities, as the associated low water levels really condense the fish. Because they aren’t picky eaters, you can catch bowfin with any of your favorite techniques. These predators are aggressive, opportunistic feeders that prefer to dine on large insects, grass shrimp, and crawfish.
A great way to target bowfin is by sight fishing with cut bait. I like to use half of a medium size bluegill, but almost any cut bait will work as long as it stays on the hook and is heavy enough to cast. For increased appeal, I like to score the skin of the bluegill.
Circle-hooks work great because they don’t get hung up as easily as J-hooks and the fish are less likely to be hooked in the gut. For casting cut bait you’ll want to use a 7′ medium-heavy spinning outfit with 20 lb. braid. When you spot a cruising ‘fin cast well past the fish and drag your bait across the surface at a medium pace. Drop your bait in front of its head and that should be enough to seal the deal. When using circle-hooks you don’t need to set the hook, simply reel tight.
When you stumble across an area where you spot bowfin surfacing over deeper water, fishing deep with fresh cut bait or a dead shiner is a highly effective technique that almost always produces. There are two rigging techniques you can use, with the first incorporating a Carolina rig with a 2-foot leader and 3/0 circle-hook. Slowly drag your bait of choice along the bottom and remember not to swing back and set the hook. The second method uses a 3/8 oz. bullet weight in front of a 4/0 worm hook and an 8-inch ribbon-tailed worm. To make this offering even more appealing I like to add a small bluegill strip.
Bowfin are also super fun to catch on big soft plastics. For this approach I’ll use my favorite baitcasting reel with a superfast 7:1 retrieve and a heavy 7’6″ rod. Two proven enticements include the Big Easy swim bait by Gambler Lures and the Skinny Dipper by Reaction Innovations. Again, this is all about sight fishing and you’ll want to cast past the fish and work the bait across the surface so it pushes a nice wake. Once a hungry bowfin has keyed in on your offering all you have to do is pause it briefly and wait for the explosion. With these big swim baits I would recommend waiting for about three seconds before setting the hook, and here you have to swing pretty hard to get the hook to penetrate their bony mouths.
No matter your preferred technique or favorite body of water, for freshwater anglers around the state these hard fighting fish offer incredible action and a really exciting change of pace from typical largemouth bass fishing. Whatever you do though, do not try and lip a bowfin like a bucketmouth bass without a protective leather glove or your thumb will quickly become a shredded bloody mess.
If you think about it, it is really incredible and somewhat sad that this resilient species has survived for more than 100,000,000 years, yet they still don’t get the respect they deserve.
Bait & Switch
This method is one of the more difficult to master and works best in shallow water. I use an 8 or 9-weight fly rod with floating fly line and 15 lb. tippet. You can catch them on an assortment of flies, but the most important factor is fly durability. My good friend Marty Arostegui loves catching bowfin on fly and I’ve guided him to several bowfin world records. He is a fishing machine and just caught his 400th world record, which was a 62.5-pound alligator gar on fly. Marty ties the ultimate bowfin fly, which can take a beating from their sharp teeth. It is black and white and sinks very slow. When attempting the bait & switch I’ll work the cut bluegill setup previously mentioned and cast past a sighted bowfin. When the fish gets a glimpse, which could take several casts, it will start to follow the offering. I’ll try and tease the bowfin about 10-feet from the boat and then pull the bait away quickly. When he’s following the cut bait you have to be careful not to let the ‘fin get too close to the bait because if you do, he will turn on those afterburners and quickly grab it. After you pull the bait away place a fly right in front of its head. If you get it right hold on because you’ll be in for a wild ride.