After a quick evening hike the night was still young and I was inspired to do some fishing. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of kayak fishing for bluegill– which has been extremely successful– but last night I was game for something different. I’d heard reports of a monstrous species (one of my all time favorites) being caught not far from our house. I decided it was time to find out if I could catch one.
I fish often. I wade rivers, I kayak lakes, I shore fish, I hike down tiny blue lines; I fish for little fish, big fish, weak fish, strong fish, tasty fish, yucky fish, pretty fish, ugly fish. A few years ago every trip was an adventure, each new catch a new personal record. Now things are different: fishing isn’t a novel new activity, it’s part of who I am. It’s something I do for fun, but for better or worse not every trip is a true adventure.
Last night was indeed an adventure.
My truck was loaded with three rods, a bag of filleted bluegills, a frozen shiner wrapped in plastic wrap, a cooler full of ice, my trusty fillet knife and most of my fishing gear. I pulled up to the river, parked, and headed down to the shore. The spot didn’t look especially fishy, but then again the fish I was after don’t hang out in the riffles. The slow-moving river was just where I expected to find them.
I grabbed a mostly-frozen bluegill– sans fillets– from the plastic grocery bag and cut off a piece. I threaded it onto a big hook and lobbed into the middle of the river. I did the same with another rod, which I then propped up against a freestanding grill that happened to be near the water’s edge. I opened a package of fishing bells– miniature versions of the metal ones cows sometimes wear around their necks– and affixed one to the tip of each rod.
While I prepped some other people showed up and made a beeline to what seemed to be their spot. They told me earlier in the day they’d caught a 21″ largemouth bass. “Awesome!” I said. “Good luck!”
But I wasn’t after bass, even a 21 incher.
It wasn’t long before I started to get bites. Without warning I heard the jingling of the tiny bells and saw my rod tip violently twitch. Doing my best Jeremy Wade impression, I snuck over to the rod, carefully grabbed the butt end and set the hook… Into the air.
I inspected my bait. Large chunks were missing. Something was taking bites out of my bluegill scraps.
This happened five or six times before it occurred to me to downsize my bait– I was using large chunks of fish, but wondered if smaller chunks would help me hook whatever was playing with my bait. I cut off a smaller piece of fish, this time some shiner, and stuck it on the hook. Lobbed back out into the river, it made a large “ker-PLUNK” and sank to the bottom.
There was some excitement downstream: one of the other folks hooked a fish! “It’s big!” I heard. After a short fight they pulled it out: a 14″ smallmouth bass.
“Nice work!” I shouted over to them.
Jingle jingle went one of my rods. Then nothing. Then jinglejinglejingle–jinglejingle– and my rod tip went crazy. I ran to the rod, grabbed it, and set the hook as hard as I could, causing the bell on the tip to fly off and land far behind me.
Fish on!
Immediately it took a bunch of line off my reel, then abruptly changed direction and started swimming directly towards me. I couldn’t reel fast enough!
Once it was within five feet of shore it apparently saw me and reversed direction again, exploding out of the water like some sort of piscatorial bomb. It was ten feet away and I felt splashes of water on my face!
“Do you have a net?” yelled a guy from downstream.
“No, not really… but I have a grabby thing,” I said, although at the time I had no idea where it was. The guy started to run over to help.
My rod was doubled over, looking like it would snap at any moment. My reel was screaming, my rod bouncing like I had a bull on the other end.
Then the beast was closer, about five feet away, and I saw it.
A bowfin!
“Holy shit!” I think I said. I couldn’t believe I had hooked exactly what I intended to hook. This is why I was here, fishing with scraps of fish, in this spot on this river. To catch bowfin.
And then my line snapped, flying through the air to land in a tangled pile of monofilament at my feet. The fish escaped.
“What was that?” asked the guy who had almost reached me, out of breath.
“A bowfin!” I exclaimed giddily.
A pause. He looked back at me. His face told me he’d never heard of such a thing, that maybe I had just made that up.
“Oh,” he said, unconvincingly. “Nice!”
I thanked him for coming over, and he returned to his group to continue fishing.
“What did he have?” I heard the lady ask him when he got back.
“A bowfin?” he said, the question mark clearly at the end of his statement.
“A what?” she asked.
I felt the momentary urge to become a bowfin evangelist– to spread the Good News of the mighty choupique– but instead I rebaited my hook and tossed it into the slow moving river.
During the next hour I hooked a few more bowfin, each time as exciting as the last. Each time I lost the fish. Another one bit clean through my line– not unexpected as they have a mouth full of teeth, one of the most shocking aspects of this fantastic fish. I lost another one very, very close to shore. With a ferocious headshake it snapped my line with such force the monofilament flew back at me and whipped my neck painfully.
It was getting dark. The folks downstream were packing up. I wished them a good evening, they wished me luck, and I rebaited my hooks.
Now I was getting bites often enough I couldn’t even sit down! I missed many fish. I wasn’t sure whether it was bowfin or something else that was playing with my bait (based on the little bullhead I caught later, my guess is the little catfish were the culprits).
As the sun set I learned what I feels like to have a large snapping turtle on the end of my line; the bait just slowly swims away. No real fight, just a big hulking mass. When I got the first turtle almost to shore, once again I said “Oh shit” and quickly pulled out my pocketknife to cut the line.
Someday I’ll land, keep, and eat one, but not today. Safer for everybody if I just cut the line.
I rebaited and waited. Not long.
Soon I had something else on my line. This time I knew it was a bowfin. I have some experience catching them– actually, just one extremely entertaining fishing trip a couple years back.
After a quick but intense fight, I pulled my prize out of the water.
We took a picture together, then I set it down and hit it on its head to kill it. I picked it back up and walked back to my truck to place it in my cooler. Later that evening when I cleaned it I would regret keeping the fish, but I was determined to find out what bowfin tastes like.
I returned to my rods and tossed my line back out into the dark.
There was a fish! I ran over, practically tripping over myself in the dusky light, reached down, grabbed the rod, and made an epic hook set.
Fish on!
WheeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEE… EEEEEEEE! went my reel as line peeled out.
Did I hook a salmon?
This bowfin and I were locked in a battle for the ages. It took line out at the speed of light, then charged toward me, then exploded from the water with remarkable force. I kept my drag loose to accommodate the brutal attacks. When I got the fish close my jaw dropped.
It was a biggun! Definitely the biggest bowfin I’d ever seen. Definitely the biggest fish I’d ever caught on that river.
Finally it was starting to tire. For some silly reason I hadn’t packed my large net and only had a tiny trout net. It would have to do! Bending down over the water, I steered the fish into the net– which was large enough only for its head– and in one fell swoop got it onto the shore.
What. A. Monster.
Shoulders for days, teeth of nightmares, cold, predatory eyes.
Bowfins look like prehistoric monsters because they are; they are a very old species. Related to gars, they are the last surviving member of an ancient fish family. They are literally in a class by themselves. And for my money, they are the toughest, fiercest fish I’ve ever caught. They are tough as nails. They can even breathe air, apparently surviving out of the water for up to 24 hours! For a fish, that is hardcore.
I took a few pictures before my phone inexplicably died. As is often the case with fishing pictures, it seemed much bigger in person.
What a fish. A true river monster.
I picked it up, admiring its formidable front end and muscular middle and back ends. Bowfins look so different than other fish around here; their single long dorsal fin is unmistakeable (well, some folks mistake them for the invasive snakehead).
I returned it to the water, and after a few moments it slithered away into the river.
By midnight I’d hooked three snapping turtles, five bowfins– landed three, kept one, and one small bullhead. The bites were dying down and I decided to call it a night… An epic, wild, exciting weeknight of fishing.
And now I know where to find bowfin twenty minutes from my house.

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