- There may by has no harder-fighting fish, even in Missouri!
- This one’s not for the fish fry.
- The “Grinnell’s” ancestors swam with dinosaurs.
By Jim Low
Ask a dozen Missouri anglers what the Show-Me State’s hardest-fighting fish is, and you probably will hear the smallmouth bass mentioned. Stripers and hybrid striped bass will certainly come up, along with the mighty blue catfish and the fearsome muskellunge. Even the lowly goggle-eye and bluegill have their loyal followings. But take the survey down in the Bootheel Region, some sagacious minnow-dunkers will tell you that pound for pound, nothing strikes harder or fights more tenaciously than a bowfin.
Also known as grinnel, cypress trout, dogfish and mudfish, the bowfin (Amia calva) is not granted the dignity of being classified as a sport fish in Missouri. But if that title was based on mangled crankbaits and broken lines, the bowfin would top the sporting list. It has a pugilist’s build, stout and heavily muscled. And if you think muskies are torpedo-shaped, you haven’t handled a bowfin. Their bodies are as close to cylindrical as possible, while still possessing a head and tail.
The bowfin has had to earn its street creds over a period that spans geological ages. It and the gars are survivors of a family that swam with plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs 180 million years ago and an ancestor of most extant fish species.
Its native distribution encompasses the coastal plains of the southeastern and eastern United States, the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and southern Great Lakes, all the way to southern Ontario and Quebec. Beyond that, it has been introduced to parts of nearly every state east of Kansas.
Like gars, bowfins have swim bladders that double as lungs, sucking in air to obtain oxygen when their gills can’t glean enough from water. This permits them to survive conditions that would spell doom for most fish. In Louisiana, farmers occasionally turn up live bowfins when plowing crop fields in low-lying areas. Presumably, some of these fish would survive until the next time neighboring streams flooded, if not for levees that keep cropland dry throughout the summer.
Bowfins can reach impressive sizes. The pole-and-line record is 19 pounds for Missouri, not that much short of the International Game Fish Association’s all-tackle record of 21.5 pounds. Most caught in Missouri weigh around 5 pounds. That raises the question of how you catch one. The answer is “very carefully.”
Bowfins lack the bony spines that make handing catfish, bass and bluegills tricky, but their mouths make up for this disadvantage. Hundreds of small, razor-sharp teeth line their capacious mouths, and they know how to use them. It’s not unusual for a bowfin to thrash about wildly while being unhooked, grabbing a finger, hand or any other available portion of an unlucky angler’s anatomy. Those teeth also come into play before bowfins reach the boat. Abrasion-resistant monofilament or high-tech braided line made of Kevlar-like material are a must when angling for bowfins.
In fact, most hooked cypress trout never make it to land, boat or net. They have a variety of escape strategies other than sawing through line with their formidable dentition. The most common is brute strength. Drag settings that are sensible for bass can result in parted line when one of these brawlers makes a power run. Better to err on the light side at first. On the other hand, failure to cinch down the drag enough can be costly too. Strategy No. 2 is making for the nearest submerged log or root wad and executing a quick 180-degree turn that negates the flex of your fishing rod. Given a solid anchor point to pull against, a bowfin will find a weak spot in your line every time.
Bowfins have bony mouths, so sharp, stout hooks and low-stretch lines are helpful in making positive hook sets. Once your drag stops screaming like a cat with its tail in a blender, don’t attempt to muscle a bowfin in. Trying to land or net one before wearing it down is a sure way to lose it. Even a seemingly worn-out bowfin can rally for a few more runs. When you do get it within reach, use pliers – not bare hands – to work the hook loose.
Medium to stiff-action bass rods and quality baitcasting reels are best for this critter. For terminal tackle, anything that would work for largemouth bass or flathead catfish is a good bet. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, noisy top-water plugs, jig and pork frog, buzz-baits and dark plastic worms all are proven bowfin baits. So are live minnows, cut shad and crayfish.
Bowfins are most active between dusk and dawn, when they prowl the shallows. Unlike most other fish, bowfins perfer tepid water, and they will bite all day long right through the hottest months. Daytime fishing is most productive in deeper water.
Muskies have nothing on bowfins when it comes to vicious strikes. Not for nothing, does an Arkansas friend of mine call the bowfin “Dr. Death.” Also like muskies, bowfins sometimes follow bait all the way to boat or land before striking.
Bowfins are virtually absent from the Missouri River, probably because 99 percent of suitable habitat there disappeared decades ago under the tender ministrations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE). In the Mississippi River, they are more common above St. Louis, ironically again thanks to the CoE, which has created a series of impoundments. But if you really want to catch cypress mudfish, Swamp East Missouri is the place for you. Several Conservation Areas (CAs) in the region offer good bowfin fishing, but the gold standard is the wetland complex comprised by Duck Creek CA and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. With a combined area of more than 27,000 acres, these two areas offer a lifetime of exploring. Much of Mingo is trackless swamp, best accessed by canoe or kayak. Duck Creek is much more accessible and produced, both, the current pole-and-line record (19 pounds, 1963) and alternative-methods record (13 pounds, 6 ounces, 2013).
By all accounts, the bowfin is far from first-rate table fare. If not filleted and iced immediately, their flesh becomes mushy, and even then, it has a strong fishy taste. This critter is the poster child for catch-and-release fishing.
To the east, the lower Current, Black, Little Black and St. Francis Rivers, and their associated sloughs and backwaters, all have significant bowfin populations. I sometimes wonder how the Asian snakehead will fare if it ever faces head-to-head competition with Missouri’s official bayou badass. I wouldn’t bet on the invader.