[TIPS] The Legendary and Extraordinary Bowfin

Fishing for bowfins can be both challenging and exciting

Catching a bowfin this size may be the most fun thing you do all summer. Here's how to make it happen. (Photo courtesy of Keith ''Catfish'' Sutton)

Jim Spencer of Calico Rock, Arkansas, is one of few anglers I’ve encountered who truly enjoys fishing for bowfins. He’s fished for the species throughout the South. And he claims to have caught a bowfin on an Arkansas bayou in 1973 that tipped the scales at an even 22 pounds – eight ounces heavier than the current world record from South Carolina.

“I wasn’t particularly record-conscious in those days,” Spencer says, “and after weighing the fish and showing it off, I gave it to a friend who fed it to his hogs.”

Spencer goes on to relate just how exciting fishing for bowfins can be.

“I once pitched a spinnerbait to the far end of a log and hustled it back to the boat. The lure was within two feet of my lowered rod tip, and I was about to lift it from the water when everything blew up in my face.

“It was possibly the most violent strike I’ll ever see in my life, regardless of the species. No white marlin ever slashed a trolled skipjack any harder than when that grinnel hit my fast-moving spinner.

“The water around the lure erupted like a miniature volcano, and it seemed that most of the displaced water landed on me. I set the hook purely out of fright, and when the fish felt the bite of the steel hook, it swapped ends and pulled off 15 feet of line against the heavy drag before I could even get the rod tip up. It was all I could do to hang on to my fishing rod.

“I backed off a quarter-turn on the drag in case the fish decided to make another run,” he continued. “It was a good thing I did, because the fish shook its head a time or two and plowed off in a new direction. The fish ran off 20 feet of line this time, and I barely managed to stop it before the fish reached a log pile.

“But that run took the starch out of the fish, and a couple minutes later, I had the 10-pound bowfin beside the boat. It was still making short, powerful lunges in every direction, but I was finally in control.”

Spencer leaned over the boat and used pliers to twist the lure free. “The grinnel lazed in the water two feet from my face, eyeing me sardonically,” he recalled. “Then it gave a flip of its tail and was gone, leaving me with a well-chewed spinnerbait and another good soaking.”

The bowfin is a living fossil, the last surviving member of a family that swam the earth with the dinosaurs. It has several nicknames, including mudfish, dogfish, cypress trout and blackfish. Southern anglers know it best as “grinnel,” though more vulgar monikers often are used by frazzled fishermen with broken lines, mauled lures and shattered poles.

These relics range throughout Southern lowlands and north through the Mississippi River watershed to the Great Lakes. The long, cylindrical body is crowned with an unbroken dorsal fin extending two-thirds its length.

The wide mouth thickly studded with razor-sharp teeth fits the fish for the predatory role it thoroughly fulfills. The olive body color looks like it was issued for World War II combat, and the nose sports two short, tube-like whiskers.

Bowfins are the stuff of legends. In Louisiana, for instance, folks say a cooked “choupique” will uncook itself if left untouched overnight. Some believe that, given a ritual burial during the proper moon phase, a bowfin will metamorphose into a live snake.

These tales have no basis in reality, but the truth about bowfins is no less astounding. For example, the bowfin’s lung-like air bladder allows it to survive under remarkable conditions.

James Gowanloch, in his book, Fishes and Fishing in Louisiana, wrote, “They have actually been plowed up alive in lowland fields of Louisiana, weeks after flood waters have fallen and the land has become dry enough for cultivation to begin.”

A Canadian report describes a bowfin that was dug from the earth where it lived in a chamber four inches below the surface, one-quarter mile from the nearest river.

When fishing specifically for bowfins, use the same tactics used when fishing for largemouth bass. Work lures around dead timber, weed beds, cypress trees, buckbrush and other cover, and get ready for action.

Your fishing tackle should be sturdy. I use a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod and a heavy-duty baitcasting reel spooled with heavy line. Black plastic worms have been my best producer, but I’ve also caught grinnel on spinnerbaits, spoons, crankbaits, jigs, topwater plugs, live minnows and crawfish.

Sight-fishing for bowfins is one of the most exciting forms of the sport. In summer, bowfins rest at the water’s surface, gulping air to compensate for decreased oxygen levels caused by hot weather. The angler sights a bowfin on the surface, then casts a baitfish-imitation plug a few feet in front of it, allowing the lure to remain motionless except for an occasional twitch.

If actively feeding, the bowfin will soon make a headlong dash for the plug. When it does, hang tight to your rod. The strike of a surface-feeding bowfin is like the strike of a lightning bolt, and the angler who’s not prepared for it may find his favorite rod and reel headed for Davy Jones’ locker.

Bowfins are ignored by most anglers. But these prehistoric fish have much to offer the angler in search of fish-fighting fun. Five- to 10-pounders are common in many waters, and a hooked bowfin puts up a fight unrivaled by the sportiest gamefish.

Give these misfits a try. There’s always a chance you’ll catch the next world record. Jim Spencer proved it’s possible.

Just be sure you don’t feed it to the hogs.