Fishing For Bowfin

By Barr H. Soltis


So, what exactly is a bowfin? According to Wikipedia:

"Bowfin (Amia calva) are basal bony fish related to gars with common regional names that include mudfish, mud pike, dogfish, griddle, grinnel, cypress trout and choupique. They are regarded as being the sole surviving species of the order Amiiformes which dates from the Jurassic to the Eocene, persisting to the present. Although bowfin are highly evolved, they are often referred to as 'primitive fish,' because they have retained some morphological characteristics of their early ancestors."

"Bowfin are native to North America and their range is limited to much of the eastern United States and adjacent southern Canada, including the drainage basins of the Mississippi River, Great Lakes and various rivers exiting in the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. Their preferred habitat includes vegetated sloughs, lowland rivers and lakes, swamps and backwater areas; they are also occasionally found in brackish water. They are stalking, ambush predators known to move into the shallows at night to prey on fish and aquatic invertebrates such as crawfish, mollusks and aquatic insects."

The body shape of the bowfin is long and tapered with a long dorsal fin, fan-like tail and a short anal fin. Males have an obvious large dot called an eye-spot on or near the base of its tail; females do not share this marking.

Latching onto a fighting fish and hearing the sound of your drag releasing line is sweet music to every angler's ear and the bowfin will not disappoint. Without doubt, it is a fierce fighter from hook set to the bank, where the bowfin puts on an exciting final display of determination; keep your rod tip up.

The largest certified bowfin catch was made by Robert Harmon in 1980, while fishing in Forest Lake, Florence, South Carolina. It tipped the scale at 21.8 pounds. Even if you hook into a bowfin in the 10 pound bracket, be prepared for one hellacious fight.

My dedicated bowfin/catfish rig started with a stiff, seven foot Shakespeare Ugly Stick Catfish casting rod with a 23-1/2 inch long handle, including the butt cap. I found this was too long a handle, absolutely unnecessary and unwieldy for casting from canal banks or fishing the bayous in a small boat. Fortunately, my fishing partner Mike Z. is quite handy and removed about four inches from the butt end, thus turning it into a real handy power rod.

Shakespeare Ugly Stick Rod Specifications (unmodified)

  • Model: USCACAT701MH
  • 7 foot overall length
  • 15 - 30 lb. line rating
  • 1/2 - 3 ounce lure weight
  • Medium heavy rod power
  • Moderate/fast rod action
  • 8 stainless steel rod guides, including the tip
  • Country of origin: USA
  • 2017 MSRP: $39.95

For the reel I opted for the Swedish manufactured Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C4 Model 6601, a left hand retrieve, round reel bait caster with an added Abu Garcia power handle. This is a powerful reel and quite fitting for landing the largest of bowfin and big catfish.

Abu Garcia Ambassador C4 Reel Specifications

  • Model: 6601
  • 6.3:1 gear ratio
  • 4 stainless steel ball bearings + 1 roller bearing
  • Carbon Matrix drag system
  • Compact bent handle and drag star
  • 6 pin centrifugal brake
  • Synchronized level wind system
  • Country of origin: Sweden
  • 2017 MSRP: $139.95

As for other tackle, I use KastKing copolymer 30 pound test line tied to a steel leader, an offset hook with a two inch shank and a three inch Comal glow-top popping float (model 35G-UPC) positioned about 2 - 3 feet above the hook, depending on the depth of the water. For weight I usually attach one or two heavy split shot to the line above the leader.

Bowfin have very sharp teeth that can easily cut your line, so a steel leader and a strong hook with a long shank is the best way to mitigate the issue. This is not to say that braided line would not work well, but I am not a fan of braids. However, a line that does not stretch would clearly be advantageous when setting a hook in the bowfin's hard mouth.

While we are discussing the bowfin's teeth, be careful not to get your fingers anywhere near their mouths, as they are more than capable of ruining your day. The best and safest way to hold a live bowfin is by grasping it from behind its head and using long-nose pliers of appropriate length to remove the hook.

Now it is time to bait the hook. Like catfish, bowfin love crayfish and cut bait, but they will also eat shrimp. I once hooked a bowfin with a spinner bait while fishing for bass and I can say unequivocally if there is one fish that will destroy artificial bait it is the bowfin.

Catching bowfin is not complicated and it is actually quite easy. Pitch your line in the water. When the float (cork) is pulled under and your line starts moving in one direction, give it about 10 seconds and set the hook with authority. Sometimes, when they are not biting, you may have aggravate them a bit. This is the reason for using a large popping float.

After catching a bowfin you have three obvious options. Release it, keep and eat it or give it away.

There are folks here in southeastern Louisiana who would never dream of eating a bowfin, which is known as choupique (pronounced "shoe-pick"), if for no other reason than bottom feeders reportedly have high toxic levels of heavy metals. I suppose it depends on the water quality where you are fishing. I can neither confirm nor deny the claim.

However, there are others who fry them, the same as you would a catfish, and I am among them. From a culinary perspective, you should filet them immediately after catching, place the fillets in ice cold water and refrigerate until it is time to use. Cut the fillets cut into relatively small pieces, dredge in Creole or Cajun seasoned all-purpose flour (or corn flour) and fry.

Fried bowfin fillets are quite tasty, but they lack the firmness of catfish. Their fillets do not freeze well, so do not be surprised if you find them mushy after defrosting. About the only thing you can do at this point is to make to make fish balls, or patties.

Surprisingly, there is one other use for the bowfin and that is its roe. It is glossy black in color, served in some restaurants and sold commercially. No, this is not fine Russian caviar, but it sure costs less.

Of historical interest, the WW II vintage Balao class submarine USS Bowfin (SS 287) was named after the bowfin fish, most likely because it stalks and ambushes its prey without prejudice. During WW II, the USS Bowfin sank 16 enemy ships, two schooners and 13 smaller vessels. In closing, I'll say that if you ever have an opportunity to go choupique'n, I promise you will not regret it.

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Copyright 2017 by Barr H. Soltis and/or All rights reserved.