Back in July I had the amazing chance to help land my first two bowfin. Really Charlie the six year old caught the first one. It was a new species for me, one I knew nothing about, but I was hooked. By far the most epic battle I’ve ever had with a fish.
Claire and I fished some known bowfin stomping grounds on Saturday, trying to find some more of these prehistoric-looking fighting machines. We tried lures, nightcrawlers; even live bluegill caught in the same stretch of river… And not so much as a tap on our lines. In my obsessive research, I found many pictures of bowfin taken at the same stretch of water we were fishing, so I had high hopes of connecting with one. The two from July were basically happy accidents- this time I wanted to specifically target these creatures.
Although I was able to catch a few bluegill, there were no bowfin to be found. There were no tell-tale wakes at the top of the water, no sets of ripples from bowfin gulping air at the surface. That’s right- these guys can breathe air. Just one of the many features that make them pretty badass!
The next morning, I was back out a o’dark thirty. On the road well before sunrise, my kayak was strapped to the roof and I was making a pot of coffee quickly disappear. An hour after leaving home, I arrived at the gate to the canoe launch to find a forest preserve officer opening it up. Great timing!
15 minutes later I was in the foggy river, paddling upstream toward my destination. Beef jerky and trail mix and water in my pack, next to boxes of topwater frogs, spinnerbaits, and a variety of other lures I thought could entice bowfin. Twice I had to get out of the kayak to go over beaver dams, but otherwise I did not stop paddling until I reached my destination.
It was a small indentation in the grass on the riverbank, so small you might miss it if you weren’t looking for it. I’d been here before, back in August, but didn’t have the nerve to paddle into what seemed like a solid wall of grass. This time was different; a fellow blogger and fishing friend from Windy City Fishing had hipped me to this bowfin spot, hidden past a small stream through tall grass. This time I was going to make it, see this pond, and hopefully catch some bowfin!
I paddled through the grass, floating in what seemed like a couple inches of water. About twenty feet from the river, I arrived at a clearing. There were cranes, big pieces of metal; lots of equipment, rocks, cement- it was a construction site.
There was a set of pipes that passed underneath a railroad- that was my path to bowfin heaven. Not only was there a lack of water in the pipes, but there was an entire construction site between me and my goal. I stood there, standing at the edge of the site, deciding what to do.
I expected to find at least some semblance of water I could paddle from the river to the pond, but what I saw was a muddy stretch studded with rocks; a few puddles here and there. I squinted, trying to look through the pipes and see the pond on the other side.
I hopped a small tarp-like fence and entered the construction site. Hey, I came all this way, I might as well look around.
I could see where there might usually be flowing water, but now it was all mud and puddles. There was no way to get the kayak through this stretch without carrying it myself, watching out for construction equipment and perhaps the people coming to operate it. I climbed up to the railroad tracks and looked toward the pond. Through the trees I could see the glass-like surface, and I could have sworn I saw movement, little splashes. Fish doing their thing.
A barbed-wire fence prevented me from scaling the hill and getting down to the pond from above, so I descended the other side and investigated the pipes. They were just big enough for a person to walk through, and there were completely filled with huge spiderwebs. I looked more closely and saw many large spiders. At the end of the tunnel I saw the pond, close enough I could see fish moving at the surface.
I considered my options- turn around, paddle back downstream, fish somewhere else? Trespass through this construction site to fish the pond, which could also be trespassing? Could I carry or drag my kayak over the little fence and rocks, push it through the pipe, and make it to the pond?
Well I certainly wasn’t turning around- I drove an hour and paddled for 15 minutes upstream to get here.. I was going to fish this pond.
Bringing my kayak, fully loaded, through the construction site seemed like a bad idea. If the site became populated with construction workers, it would be fairly difficult to leave with a boat on my shoulders. I decided to “park” my kayak in the grass on the river-side of the fence and walk to the pond. I grabbed my pack, my rod, and picked up a sturdy stick as I hopped the fence.
I got to the pipe and peered in- I felt a little like Indiana Jones, sneaking into some long-abandoned temple filled with giant poisonous spiders in pursuit of something ancient. Well, that was close. The bowfin is surely an ancient fish; it was swimming when the dinosaurs were around. And there were surely many spiders.
I crouched down and slowly made my way through the pipe. My rod in my left hand, the stick in my right; I waved the stick in circles in front of me, hoping to catch all the spiderwebs before my face did. For the most part it worked, although I had to shake off the stick every few steps because it was full of spiders. Little frogs hopped out of my way as I crept toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
And then I was at the pond. I stood on a cement precipice outside of the pipes, looking out across the pond. Every few seconds, there was a big splash. This was happening all over the pond, as far as I could see- splash…. gu-PLUNK… splash….. splash. Could these be bowfin? I wondered if they were carp.
In front of me, not twenty feet away, I saw the unmistakable face of a bowfin come to the top of the water and take a gulp of air. In a flurry of bubbles it was gone, but I knew what was splashing. It was bowfin, and they were everywhere. This really was a bowfin pond.
Directly across the pond was a house inhabited by a man I’d heard thought he owned the pond. I didn’t know whether that was true or not, but I didn’t feel like finding out how much authority he really had. He put up barbed wire after all; probably didn’t want people fishing his pond. I decided to fish a spot out of the line of sight from the house. Slowly, using the stick as a wading staff, I made my way to a secluded part of the pond, hidden from view.
There were bowfin everywhere. When they jumped, I caught glimpses of torpedo-shaped bodies and orange-tipped fins. These were not carp, these were not jumping bass, these were the mighty dogfish. Everywhere!
I began fishing, throwing everything in my tacklebox. I started with spinners, big bass lures I’d read bowfin love to hit. Nothing, not a tap. I tried some inline spiners; I found a giant orange spoon on the bank (perhaps a relic of a previous bowfinning outing?) and tied it on. It cast like a cannonball and crashed into the pond the same way. Nobody was interested.
I tried to figure out what these fish were doing; were they hunting? Were they eating? Were they mating? How could I get their attention? Squinting into the blazing sun, I saw what I thought were minnows jumping at the surface. In my limited experience fishing, that only happens when they are scared by something. Something with lots of teeth and a big mouth perhaps?
I tied on a little white jig and twister, hoping to emulate those little minnows being chased by toothy monsters. I fan-cast, trying to work every inch of pond I could get to, but couldn’t entice any bites. About four feet from me, I did get a small panfish-like bite, but I missed the hookset and lost whatever it was. I doubted it was a bowfin. Of course I fished that same spot for another 20 minutes.
After a while, I thought I heard activity on the other side of the train tracks; might be a good time to check my kayak is still there and see if anybody is doing construction work today. Crouching, I walked back through the pipe, through the construction site, and found my kayak right where I left it.
I drank some water, ate some jerky, and decided to fish the river a bit. Perhaps I could get some panfish and use them as bait; after all, it worked in Michigan! I stuck some nightcrawler on a jighead and dragged it along the bottom slowly.
Suddenly I got a hit, and visions of bowfin clouded my view- so much so that I didn’t realize it was actually a bullhead until I calmed down and looked at it.
As soon as I put it back in the water, I kicked myself- I should have used it as bait! That was the whole idea, wasn’t it?
While I was unhooking the catfish, my jig fell back into the water. When I was done releasing the fish, I picked up my rod and there was a bluegill attached to the jig! It let go of the worm and plopped back into the water. I couldn’t find anymore, so I headed back to the pond.
Standing there in the pond, trying not to fall in, my wading boots barely gripping the muddy slope of the bank, what must have been a 32″ bowfin shoots out of the water not twenty feet from me. It was a fat fish, muscular; I watch it in slow motion, the water slowly explodes around it’s weapon-like body. I’m taken by its fins, which seem orange when backlit by the sun. It is an impressive beast- if I were a little fish in this pond, I’d be terrified.
In fact, standing waist-deep in this pond, I wasn’t completely at ease… Later I would read that male bowfin have been known to bite humans that wander to close to nests. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.
I tied on a homemade crankbait, one I carved from cedar and painted white and red. Old style, like those “plugs” everybody’s grandfather used to fish for bass and pike. I hoped it might be a convincing minnow and get some of these supposedly aggressive creatures to strike it. At this point, I just wanted some action! Even a small baby bowfin would have been awesome.
A few casts later I had a hit- not a super-aggressive nuclear attack, but a hit. I pulled up a nice largemouth bass who had a ridiculous C-shaped bite cutting through his back half. I’ve seen plenty of fish with bird wounds (herons, kingfishers, etc) but this was certainly not one of them. I don’t know any birds around here who have a C-shaped mouth! This was a bowfin bite. And it was big. As I was unhooking the poor little bass, who was not at the top of the food chain in this pond, he unhooked himself and quickly scurried away.
In this pond, it was clear who was in charge. It was the bowfin.
I caught another largemouth a few casts later, a bit smaller than the first. Although I was happy to get some action and even happier to catch fish on a homemade crankbait, I was still pining for the large toothy fish jumping all around me. They were certainly more active earlier in the morning, but even now- at 11am- there was plenty of action.
Could these bowfin be chasing little bass around? Could that be their primary food source!?
I tied on a largemouth colored topwater and worked it across the water. Come on, I said, there’s a defenseless little largemouth bass here for you! Come and get it! I just want to take your picture, I pleaded with the fish. They were not listening, and did not oblige me.
And then, it was time to go. I woke up at 4:30am, got to the launch at 6am, fished continuously from 6:15 to 11:30am; it was time to head home to my ever-patient fishing-widow wife. As I reluctantly turned toward the pipes, a very large bowfin jumped just a few feet away from me. I remembered Googling “why do fish jump” about a year ago, and the top hit was “because they don’t have fingers.”