The first time I ever heard of bowfin was about a dozen 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 a couple years later, 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.
On a July morning, 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.
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.
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.