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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Bad, Bad Bowfin

Bad, Bad Bowfin

Monsters from the age of dinosaurs still lurk in Texas waters.

By Larry D. Hodge

 

The attack usually comes unexpectedly, its suddenness exceeded only by its viciousness. An angler threading a spinner bait through vegetation in shallow water is often the victim. The only warning may be a long V streaking across the water, followed by an explosive, slashing strike and a line-breaking, rod-busting battle.

Anglers, allow me to introduce you to Amia calva, generally known as the bowfin but also by — as befits its almost mystical status — an astounding variety of common names: Dogfish. Beaverfish. Blackfish. Choupic. Cypress trout. Grinnel. Lawyer. Mudfish. Poisson-castor. Scaled ling. Shoepike. Speckled cat.

The bowfin isn’t really a trout, but it does date from the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic Era, a time when dinosaurs ruled the land and many-toothed terrors ruled the water. The bowfin was one of the latter, and while Tyrannosaurus rex and its ilk came and went, the bowfin somehow survived. All the other members of the family Amiidae went extinct, but bowfins can still be found in the eastern half of North America from Canada to Florida to East Texas.

Occasionally, and usually much to the surprise of the angler, bowfins can be found on the end of a fishing line — and they are never happy about being there. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist Richard Ott of Tyler had a typical experience.

“I caught one that weighed about 8 pounds on a cane pole while fishing for crappie,” he says. “I chased it around the boat several times before it totally smashed the pole on the gunwale. I ended the event by hand-lining what was left and pulling the fish aboard. That was as irritated a fish as I have ever handled.”

While many bowfin catches are accidental, some people target them. TPWD Inland Fisheries Division Director Phil Durocher waxes nostalgic about fishing for bowfins as a kid growing up in Louisiana.

“My brother and I would walk atop a pipeline across the swamp to a fishing and camping spot,” he recalls. “One time I looked down and spotted a huge bowfin bowfin photo beneath the pipeline. She was as big around as a watermelon. I rigged my cane pole with a crawdad and bobber and spent half an hour bouncing it up and down in front of her before she bit.”

To appreciate what happened next, you have to understand that Durocher was not fishing with an ordinary cane pole.

“You got the biggest one you could find,” he says, making a circle with thumb and forefinger as big as a quarter. “You cut the small end off and tied on strong line and a big hook.” In effect, Durocher was fishing with a vaulting pole and clothesline, but even then he underestimated his quarry.

“When she took the bait I reared back to set the hook — they have a very bony mouth — and broke the pole in two. It’s not easy to break a cane pole. We stood there and watched her go across the swamp, the bobber coming to the top every now and then.”

The bobber proved to be the key. The two bailed off the pipeline, chased the bobber down and used their other pole to snag the line, finally landing the fish, which became the basis of several meals.

“Clean them immediately, cut the meat into thin strips and fry it crisp,” Durocher says. Otherwise you’ll understand why one of the common names of the bowfin is cottonfish. Walleye it’s not.

It’s easy to tell if the fish on the end of your line is a bowfin. The name is a clue. The fish has a single, continuous dorsal (top) fin that runs from the middle of its body almost to the tail. While the round body has scales, the head does not. The back is a mottled olive green, shading to lighter green on the belly. Males tend to have a black spot near the base of the tail, and during the spring spawning season they turn spectacular shades of green, turquoise and yellow. Despite the lack of respect they get from anglers, they are one of the prettiest native fish in Texas.

And scariest, too. Don’t forget that mouthful of teeth.

Looking for bowfin

Despite the fact that many people have never heard of them or seen one, bowfins are widely distributed in East Texas and they’ve been there a long, long time.

“I think one of the neatest things about bowfins is the fact that they are an archaic relic that coexisted with the dinosaurs and have remained basically unchanged since,” says Craig Bonds, TPWD’s regional director for Inland Fisheries in East Texas. “Like gars, bowfin can ‘gulp’ air utilizing a lung-like air bladder that is connected to the fish’s pharynx. This large bladder can be used as a breathing organ to supplement the gills and is definitely advantageous to the bowfin in swamps, sloughs and backwater areas where dissolved oxygen is limited.”

 The bowfin’s Texas range includes the Red, San Jacinto and Sabine river basins, as well as the lower reaches of the Trinity, Brazos and Colorado rivers. And although they are commonly associated with shallow, weedy areas with submerged timber, bowfin are where you find them, says Charles Meyer of New Lenox, Illinois, founder of the Web site www.bowfinanglers.com.

“While fishing for shortnose gar in an Illinois river, my inline spinner was hit by a freight train,” he says. “At first I thought it was a large catfish, but then it leaped clear of the water, and in that instant I knew that was no cat. Fighting this fish, I was grinning from ear to ear. I finally landed it, and what do you know — the fish was also grinning from ear to ear. A big round head, a large smiling mouth — it reminded me of Charlie Brown. With fangs.”

Until that moment, what Meyer knew about bowfins was what he’d read — that they live in dark, dank swamps befitting cousins of the monster from the Black Lagoon.

“But I had stumbled across my first one in a fresh, free-flowing stream in a pool below the rapids,” Meyer marvels. “He had been hugging the boulders on the far shoreline, an opportunist waiting for an easy meal. He wasn’t a big one, maybe 4 pounds, but the way he fought was astounding. I was thinking 15-pound cat, or maybe a foul-hooked monster carp. He was irritated that his snack was fighting back, and he rose to the challenge. What a fight! My hands were shaking.”

Meyer was hooked, too — on fishing for bowfins, or “finning,” as the sport’s aficionados say.

“I love fishing for the sport of it, and bowfins are great sport,” he says. “Most times you’ll think you have the new state record bass on the line. Upstream, downstream, on the bottom, 2 feet in the air — a bowfin will go anywhere to beat you. Headshaking is common, as is charging the boat or bank while you are cranking like a madman to keep a taut line. Young, aggressive males will hammer the bait and run; a Big Mama may just park, pick it up and chew, with barely perceptible line twitches your only clue. Take up the slack, give a couple of fast cranks and then hang on!”

I go looking for my first bowfin on the Neches River above Lake Palestine. A few hundred yards downstream from the put-in, I find what I am looking for: a backwater area with tangles of vegetation and fallen timber so thick it is difficult to force the kayak through. It’s just the sort of place I think a fugitive from extinction might hide, a place anglers avoid because they know a submerged log is going to eat their favorite lure. Finners know that log may have fins, gills and a rotten attitude.

I’m totally unprepared for what happens. As my spinner bait sails toward splashdown, a flash of yellow catches my eye — then as abruptly as it appears, disappears. A few strokes of the paddle moves the kayak deeper into the tangle of fallen branches and solves the mystery. Peeking from a hole on the underside of a snag is a bright-eyed prothonotary warbler, the first I’ve seen outside the pages of a birding guidebook.

Gazing at the masses of floating vegetation lushly greening the river, savoring the quietness of a place where motors dare not go, admiring one of the prettiest birds I’ve ever seen, I begin to form a different opinion of bowfins. Maybe they are a prehistoric monster. Maybe they are fanged Charlie Browns with a Pigpen reputation and a Lucy disposition. But they also live in places where I, too, like to be.

I look at my reflection in the water. What stares back at me looks like it might be a cartoon character. Or maybe a finner.

Time will tell.

Finning in Texas

Once you’ve landed your first bowfin, you’ll discover that taking it off the hook can be as exciting and challenging as catching it.

“Use a stout leather glove, wetted, to get a good grip behind the gill plates,” advises Charles Meyer. “Once in a while you’ll get one that puts up no fight at all — until you have him in hand. Don’t fall for it. A ’fin will play possum and thrash around when you least expect it.”

In keeping with their prehistoric heritage, bow-fins will try to eat anything that doesn’t eat them first. They will take cut bait, live bait or lures, though they prefer natural local food. Spinner baits seem to be a favorite of Texas finners, though more than one warned me that “the spinner bait will be damaged.” A stout rod and reel with braided line and possibly a metal leader will bring more fish to hand. Circle hooks, which catch in the corners of the fish’s mouth, require only steady pressure to set.

The Texas state record bowfin is a 17.65-pound giant caught in 1993 from Lake Fork by Brenda Walsh. Bowfin are not classified as a gamefish in Texas, so there are no limits. All you need to ­pursue them is a fishing license and the nerve to use it.

For more information on bowfins and photos and stories of other people’s catches, go to www.bowfin anglers.com.

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