Targeting Bowfin

Green Tide

I stood quietly with my son, Ben, on the bow of the boat. We drifted silently over the large weed flat, where strands of vegetation grew up though the shallow water and into a thick carpet on the surface. We gazed intently into the small windows of the clear, calm water between the weeds. There, we got quick glimpses of the other world below. We were not casting, but motionlessly perched on the bow, gazing intently into the water like blue herons. To other folks out on the lake, it must have appeared as if we were one of many other bass fishermen on the lake. However, bass were not our prey.

A quick burst of high power on the electric motor chopped through the weeds like lettuce in a blender. It made a bit of a disturbance for a moment, but then the boat glided silently for a dozen yards while we searched. Our concern of spooking fish was quickly disregarded when, after just 10 minutes or so, we spotted our quarry.

The fish moved across the bow, slowly and deliberately, and not the least bit concerned with the hulk of the approaching boat. I pointed it out to Ben, and he gasped at its size. Armed with a heavy baitcasting rod and a live shiner, Ben lobbed the bait out near the fish, and it landed with a loud “plop.” We watched the fish stop and turn immediately toward the bait. The shiner flipped and wiggled on the hook, making a futile effort to swim away. It fought against the hook and the heavy line as the predator approached. Time seemed to slow for us as we watched. Five feet from the boat, the giant bowfin confidently crept to within kissing distance of the bait. Its long eel-like dorsal fin rippled down its length like a piece of ribbon in a steady current. It then promptly opened its mouth and sucked in the bait.

Ben heaved back on the rod, setting the hook. The heavy fish hesitated for a moment and shook its giant head a couple times, then quickly took off like a streak through the weeds. Its strength caught Ben off guard and he fought to keep the rod in his hands as line peeled quickly off the reel. He started reaching for the drag, thinking it needed to be tighter, but the run had stopped. He started reeling in a heavy weight but, unfortunately, there was only a giant mass of weeds on the end of the line. We checked the drag setting with shaking hands and wobbly knees. It was already very tight.

Bowfin have powerful jaws and are opportunistic feeders, though they primarily feed on small fish and crayfish.
Photo: Ben Cantrell

My fascination with the bowfin began many years ago when my wife’s uncle John caught one on a shiner in Lake Champlain. He was using what he called his “cod rod,” and it closely resembled a broomstick. We didn’t even know that it was a bowfin at the time, but it weighed about 12 pounds and the sight of it made us all want to catch one. The state record for bowfin in Vermont is 14 pounds, 8 ounces.

Since then, our family has caught bowfin while bass fishing, both on bait and lures. One day, I lost one that hit a topwater bass fly. Now that we were looking for them, we saw them swimming around and underneath the boat in the weedy, shallow waters where they live.

Most of our hookups with bowfin have been random, so I talked with others and read stories about hunting and targeting bowfin specifically. I also read about sight-fishing them in shallow water like the flats species in salt water. I wanted to catch one on purpose, and I really wanted to land one on a fly.

We continued easing along through the weeds, spotting small baitfish, sunfish, and some bass among the jungle of weed growth. Instead of constant casting and working the water, we stood still as we looked for bowfin. The water was so calm that I felt like I was like looking into an aquarium. Unlike other species of fish, where the best action is usually found earlier or later in the day, this kind of fishing is best with the sun high in the sky because you can see clearly into the shallow, weed-choked bays and backwaters where bowfin live. Often, we’d spot a bowfin motionless and hidden in the heavy cover, where it was hard to present a bait near its head. These ended up being the fish we spooked; however, other bowfin were on the hunt. They cruised slowly along the weed edges, fearless of anything, including us.

Bowfin feed primarily on other fish and crayfish, but they are opportunistic and will probably try to eat anything they can get their jaws around. I talked strategy with Ben; we needed to haul those fish up out of the thick cover before they could bury themselves in it. We double-checked the drag. Ben was alone in the back of the boat when I heard him announce that he’d spotted one.

“He’s looking at the bait!” Ben announced.

He was poised over the edge of the boat, intently watching the action unfold. Suddenly, there was an eruption of water, the rod bent deep, and Ben struggled to hold on.

“Lift up!” I yelled, as I grabbed for the net.

As I leaned over the side to get ready, the fish tail-walked across the surface. Water and weeds flew through the air right next to the side of the boat. I lunged with the net, and the fish miraculously landed inside it. The hoots that Ben and I hollered echoed throughout the bay.

In the spring spawning season, male bowfin turn bright green, adding to their exotic allure.
Photo: Solomon David

We admired the strange fish as we pulled it from the net. A bowfin has a long, continuous dorsal fin that gives it the appearance of an eel or a snake. Bowfin are tough, and they have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. A closer look at its face reveals whiskers like barbules protruding from its snout. In terms of a bowfin’s demeanor, it is very similar to that of a northern pike – aggressive and territorial. In the spring spawning season, the males turn bright green, adding to their exotic allure. They can breathe air and are able to survive in water with very low oxygen levels. Bowfin are even able to burrow into the mud and survive out of the water for extended periods of time.

We released the fish and re-rigged the rod with fresh bait, eager to find another bowfin. Over the next hour, we floated back and forth across a large opening in the vast expanse of heavy weeds. There were many fish around, and we spotted them rolling on the surface and prowling along the edge of the weeds. Most fish showed interest in our bait and flies, closely approaching our offerings with erect fins. We anticipated the chaos that would follow from another bite with pounding hearts and shaking fingers. However, eventually the fish turned away. We breathed out a great sigh, not realizing that we were holding our breaths. It’s hard to describe the emotions that a fisherman feels when he watches a big fish almost eat his offering, only to turn away.

Eventually Ben and I moved away from the “pond” we had been patrolling and moved to a new area. I had been trying several different fly patterns and colors, and even though the fish had showed interest, none of them had decided to take a bite. I put on a Clouser Minnow fly in a light color, thinking it closely resembled the shiners that had been readily eaten earlier in the day. As Ben and I moved through a particularly heavy area of weed growth, I spotted a very large bowfin off to the side of the boat. It was near the surface, in an opening just big enough where I could make a presentation to it.

A male bowfin hides in some shallow vegetation.
Photo: Solomon David

I made a short cast with just a few feet of fly line, which landed at the edge of the opening. The fish kept moving slowly, and for a moment, I thought the fly would be ignored. However, as the fish went past the fly, it turned toward me at the last moment, straight toward the fly. I marveled at its width and the size of its huge head and mouth. I jiggled my rod tip slightly, which made the fly bounce up and down, waving bucktail seductively in the fish’s face. Then, in the blink of an eye, the fish’s giant mouth opened up and it sucked in my fly completely. I stripped in my line and came tight to the fish, leaned back, and put a bend in the rod. For a moment, the fish didn’t even run. It just hovered there, shaking its head while I pulled on its face with the line. When the hook didn’t pull free, the fish panicked and fled into the seemingly impenetrable mass of weeds. The short section of free line I had burned through my fingers – I felt the sting even with a stripping guard in place. I battled the fish, using all the pressure I could apply. However, after a few minutes, I pulled all my line back in and was only rewarded with a pile of seaweed that would nearly fill a 5-gallon bucket.

After that long-distance release on the fly rod, the action slowed considerably. Ben and I started heading back toward the area that seemed to have the most fish. The breeze had picked up a bit, and we saw little green dots traveling along the small ripples moving across the water. I looked around the boat, and realized that Ben and I were surrounded by this moving mass of green. There were distinct trails of green bits moving through the open sections of water, and where there was solid vegetation on the surface, the green bits formed a mass, and eddies of clear water remained on the downwind side of the weeds. We moved the boat further along, and the thickness of the green eventually obscured the water below. The surface had become a thick cloak of bright green that reminded me of the color of the green ghost who “slimed” Bill Murray at the beginning of Ghostbusters. Remarkably, it was the same color as the belly of a spawning male bowfin.

Ben and I moved back and forth across the bay, fruitlessly searching for clear water to fish in. We ran up and down the lake for a couple of miles, but in each bay we encountered the same conditions – thick, green water. We could not see the bottom, even though it was only two feet deep.

Bowfin are native to Lake Champlain, and continue to thrive there today.

Lake Champlain is massive. It runs north and south along almost the entire border between Vermont and New York. It has been called the sixth Great Lake, and it supports an incredibly diverse fishery of both cold- and warm-water species. However, in recent years, increasingly dreadful blooms of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) and unacceptable levels of E. coli have plagued Champlain. Both of these bacteria cause beach closures in the prime summer months, the months when everyone wants to swim. The blooms of algae blow around the lake in massive blobs, and their size and position change based on the water temperature and the wind direction. The worst blooms occur during the hot, calm conditions of late summer, and they can become toxic. The state of Vermont has a website where you can track the location of the latest bloom.

The main culprit of the blooms is runoff from farms and wastewater discharges. The larger towns surrounding the lake are in desperate need of upgrades to their water treatment facilities, a problem that has existed for decades, and the cumulative effects seem to be reaching a tipping point. The problem will not be fixed overnight, and like most other issues, the solution will come down to money. Lawmakers are battling to decide the most effective way to pay for the changes that need to occur.

Yet, bowfin are thriving in the lake, as they have for millions of years. In addition, bass, trout, salmon, northern pike, and other species continue to provide anglers with opportunities to catch some very large fish. Every time I fish at the lake, I am amazed at the biomass of fish and other life forms that live in and around it. Champlain is certainly a resource that deserves maximum effort on our part to protect.
Ben and I did not hook or see any more bowfin that day, but the vision of that bowfin’s big mouth sucking in my fly has stuck with me. I do not know in what condition the lake will be in 100 years (or even 1,000 years), but I know the odds are good that the bowfin will still be there.

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