Fly-Fishing for Bowfin

The first time I ever heard of bowfin was a couple of years ago, when I was ice-fishing for pike on Lake Champlain with a couple of friends from Orvis—I didn’t work here yet—and a few of their friends. Several of the guys were members of a bass-fishing club that held events on the big lake, so while we waited for the tip-ups to go off, there was lots of discussion of the fishing to be had during warmer weather. Bruce Woodruff happened to mention catching some big bowfin by accident while looking for largemouths in the weeds, and I asked if they were good fighters.

“Oh yeah, they fight like hell,” he said. “But they also tear up a perfectly good spinnerbait.”

I didn’t think much about the species until last fall, when I was talking to guide Drew Price, who spends much of his time plying the weedy bays of Lake Champlain for all manner of oddball species—from carp to gar to bowfin. He affirmed Bruce’s opinion of the bowfin’s fighting qualities and said he’d gladly show me one of his favorite bowfin spots when our schedules worked out together.

Last Thursday morning at 9 a.m., we met at a boat launch on Champlain a couple hours from my house. Drew has a very cool canoe, made for duck hunting, with a square stern and a flat, sloping bow. It’s very quiet in the water, which allows him to sneak up on fish, and it’s quite stable. He’s outfitted it with an outrigger system that allows the boat to move well in the water even when angler and guide are both standing.

Because the big lake has experienced record high water this year, we were able to paddle back into spots that would normally be weed-choked or even dry during a normal year. In fact, we spent much of the time in flooded timber, which was where we caught our biggest fish.

As we paddled out, Drew explained the process. Bowfin, he said, are not afraid of the boat, and we’d basically be dapping for them—with just a couple feet of fly line out of the rod tip. I must admit that I found this hard to believe. Drew sensed my skepticism, so he doubled-down: “Not only are they not afraid of the boat, he said, but they will sometimes swim toward the boat to see what’s disturbing their territory.” Yeah, right.

He’d rigged me an 8-weight Hydros, with a floating line and a flat, 18-pound-test leader. The fly was a nymph of his own design, with lead eyes, marabou, and rubber legs, which provided a lot of action in the water. It looked a lot like a bonefish fly, but was considerably heavier and darker.

Champlain Bowfin 3

The bowfin is an indiscriminate predator. It seems all mouth, when viewed from the front, and its conical teeth would do a number on your skin.

photo by Phil Monahan

After about 45 minutes, Drew spotted our first bowfin, as it swam right under the boat. “It’ll come back!” he barked, but I assumed he was being overly optimistic. Sure enough, though, the fish’s big head appeared from under some weeds, checking us out. I reached out with my rod tip, dropped the fly in the water right in front of the fish’s nose, and gave it a twitch. Nothing. I twitched it again, and watched in amazement as the fish opened its mouth, flared its gills, and sucked the fly right in. I set the hook hard, the battle was on.

A fight with a bowfin is a close-quarters affair, with no long runs or periods of inactivity. The fish basically goes bezerk for a minute or two, and you just mostly hang on. (Two of the fish I caught jumped, while the other tried to wrap itself up in the weeds.) I wrestled the fish near the boat, my rod bent almost double, and Drew netted it.

When I finally saw it up close, I was astonished by how prehistoric and downright scary the thing looked. In fact, the bowfin is the last surviving species of the family Amiidae, although its ancestors coexisted with dinosaurs. The fish was about 8 pounds with a huge mouth full of conical teeth that would surely do some damage if you got your hand in the way. The body is muscular and eel-like, but the fin doesn’t go all the way around the way it does on, say, a burbot—a species I had caught in Alaska years before.

Champlain Bass

Looking for bowfins, we spotted several largemouth bass, which were eager to strike a fly.

photo by Drew Price

We ended up catching two more bowfin over the course of the day, including one that was about 30 inches and between 10 and 11 pounds.  (See the video above.) We also caught a couple of decent largemouths, a mess of perch, and one stunted bluegill. We saw several carp “mudding,” but couldn’t get one to eat.

Although it leaves something to be desired as far as presentation goes—I didn’t make a cast farther than 20 feet all day—it’s a fascinating fishery. While scanning the water for bowfin and bass, I got a good look at just how fertile such weedy back bays are and how vital they must be to the life of the lake as a whole. Schools of baby bass, 4-inch pickerel, and countless other tiny fishes live in water that most folks would see as “useless” because it’s not conducive to boating, swimming, or “regular” fishing.

Champlain Perch

The weedbeds were full of yellow perch, often in schools from which we caught several.

photo by Drew Price

6 thoughts on “Fly-Fishing for Bowfin”

  1. This is an awesome article. I have recently been thinking of pursuing bowfin on the fly. I used to catch them all the time on spinning tackle, and they are a blast to catch. These fish have been given a bad rep in a lot of areas unfortunately. Here in North Carolina I used to find them dead all along the banks where fisherman tossed them on shore to die because they thought they were harmful to their bass and bluegill fisheries. Little did they know how ancient these fish are. Its also of note to add that these fish can breath air through their swim bladders! So they are able to withstand anoxic conditions. I used to find large fish swimming in shallow swamp pools where very few other fish can survive. They are an amazing predator and fun to catch. I hope that this fish gains the respect that it deserves and that people will enjoy fishing for them.

  2. Pingback: Bowfin - The North American Fly Fishing Forum
  3. Pingback: Adventures with Bowfin | Moldy Chum
  4. The bowfin gets a bad wrap, but that’s ok. More for fly guys like me. It’s no trout, but it makes great practice for any fly fisherman. I live in southern Indiana. The Ohio river is about a block from the house. I am the only guy around that seams to fly fish this area. This multi species waterway may be unconventional to most. No trout or salmon, but it has just about everything else you would expect to encounter in freshwater. Fishing for unconventional species gives me confidence with my gear. When the trout and salmon trips come, I’m well rehersed on how to handle situations. Leaving the big water of the Ohio.Today I kayaked the flooded backwaters and creeks to target carp, gar as well as bowfin. Casting to about 50 carp with no luck. I switched to streamers and the action was on. Gar after gar struck hard, but I only landed 3. These bone heads are not easy to hook. Most spat the hook after a bit of a fight. The real fun began when I reached the back of the creek. Bowfin males build nests in root systems off the bank. Anything that comes near the nest gets a mouth full of teeth. I couldn’t even get my kayak back into these areas. Close quarter combat is the best way to explain what went down today. Polarized glasses made spotting bowfin and gar easier. If I couldn’t see the bowfin in the root systems, I still knew they were in there. I used some nymphs with rubber legs and maribou, but streaters worked best. For the most part I matched the hatch to minnows in the area. Didn’t really matter. Anything that came near was hit hard. A couple gar I casted to were chased off by bowfin that wanted the fly more. I was surprised to see these fish even chasing off the gar, competing for the fly. Once hooked the explosion of thrashing in shallow waters was epic. No long runs, but pure power holding territory. In a bit deeper water I found some larger females holding in log jams. I get into all kinds of fish in these creeks off of the Ohio. You would be surprised how many types of bass can be found in these creeks. If the conditions are right, I find monster largemouth, spotted bass, striped bass, as well as hybrids. Dont be afraid to take a go at a small creek. You will find joy that a bass boat will never see. Even if you have to kayak, or hike. Do what you have to do to find waters nobody else fishes. These areas are usually untouched by the masses of fisher people. Let that be their mistake and your treasure. Anybody could go back there with a bow and arrow and clean it out. I prefer the challenge of fly fishing. I as well enjoy the challenge of catch and release. Anybody can kill a fish. At the end of the day, knowing these fish are still alive is worth more than words can describe. Death sentence is best reserved for the invasive species.

  5. An awesome article and video surrounding a very rare species where I’m from. There was a spectacular hatch a few years back and it caused quite the stir in the local angling community as many were convinced they had caught the most hated invasive species, a snakehead. After confirmation of the catch, we went out targeting these hard fighting fish and much to our surprise, were able to pretty regularly catch these prehistoric looking fish. I love this fish, so much so that I even wrote an article on how to identify them to hopefully help others identify this living dinosaur of a fish. Can you believe we can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Jurassic period? Had the movies showed this hard fighting fish, I might have paid more attention! Linked below you will find my own article on these fish. Thank you for read, and for the great read!

  6. I live in south carolina near charleston. We have oxbow lakes and muddy creeks everywhere. The kayak club I belong to actually has a contest every year we lovingly refer to as the jurassic classic. It has become a most anticipated tournament over the years and I plan on entering this year with my 8wt. We generally see fish in the 25-30 inch range and a few 31″ specimens are caught.they truly are an amazing fish, and I’ve had them charge my kayak as I was netting them. Be careful if you use fish grips, they will literally break their own jaws trying to get away. And remember that the fight starts anew when you get them I’m the kayak!! Tight lines!

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