Bowfin Fishing 101: How to Begin Hooking the Ancient Dogfish

If you fish, you are usually a curious person, at least aquatically. You long to find out what swims below the water’s surface, how it feels on the end of a line and very often, how it tastes.

Bowfin fishing tips

Naturally, when you first hear about a sportfish called a bowfin, your angler’s curiosity begins to stir. It should..

First, this under-recognized freshwater species dates back to primordial times, when man fished with a sharpened stick if not hands.

Secondly, it looks like nothing you’ve ever caught in freshwater before, barring a faint similarity to freshwater ling cod or burbot.

Finally, it fights with incredible strength, often putting bass, trout, muskie, pike and walleye to shame pound for pound.

It may not be the tastiest among these sportfishing rivals, but it can be prepped to justify its serving at the dinner table.

Fortunately, catching these dinosaurs of the water no longer requires a spear or deftness of hand.

A few Facts about the Bowfin (Dogfish)

Very likely, you’ve heard this fish called by another name: grinnel, mudfish, dogfish or swamp muskie. Like a tyrannosaurus rex, it sports a mouth full of sharp teeth and likes its meat, in the form of other fish and water creatures.

A sport-caught bowfin usually ranges from 14 to 24 inches, but trophy fish exceed 40 inches.

These beefy fish feature a slimy body with a long dorsal fin extending to its tail, much like a freshwater ling, except that a bowfin’s dorsal is contiguous, whereas a ling’s separates near the middle.

Its exceptional length allows the bowfin to swim backward as easily as forward in an undulated fashion.

How to catch a Bowfin

The bowfin’s oddness doesn’t stop there. Its nostrils consist of tubular extensions, like very short straws, and a dark spot that imitates an eye at the cusp of its round tail fin.

This fake eye (called an ocellus by scientists) fools would-be predators and actually performs as a homing device to keep its vulnerable youngsters near its parent in post-spawning season.

The fish’s bronze-to-brown sides sport large scales and sometimes dark, wide, sinuous lines that resemble a maze.

This is truly one of those creatures odd enough for an angler to say, “I think I’ve seen pictures of these,” upon catching one accidentally for the first time.

Where the Bowfin Dwells

Found in lakes, streams, seepage ponds and brackish wetlands dotting the Midwest, South and Eastern Seaboard, the bowfin demands heavily vegetated water—where common gamefish can’t dwell.

Vegetated Water is the ideal habitat of the bowfin fish

The bowfin can sustain oxygen sucking plants and the resulting nitrogen because it actually breathes oxygen from the air to store in its bladder that acts as a lung. When exhausting this oxygen storage tank, it rises to the top to inhale a bunch more.

Perhaps its unusual oxygen intake helped this creature outlive the dinosaurs.

Look for the bowfin in these shallow, weed-choked waters where small, newly born food fish find their meals. The bowfin feeds voraciously. Usually, you will find them ready for hooking any time of the day that you find these shallow fish nurseries.

If you can get into a swamp without getting stuck, you can even find them there. Essentially, bowfin choose the path less traveled by most other fish.

It can even survive on land longer than a day. Into trashing your rod and picking up a fish with your bare hands after the water recedes from a flood? The bowfin is your huckleberry, if you can keep a grip on its slimy body.

Gear for catching Bowfin

Because of their strength, you can use a steelhead-size rig on the heavy end or a stout, crankbaiting bass rig on the lighter end of the spectrum.

Anglers specifically targeting bowfin often prefer baitcasting rods and reels but a solid spinning rig can just as effectively be applied.

Pay more attention to the question of line to use than to which type of rod or reel.

  • Fluorocarbon’s strength, agility and stretchiness wins the day as the best line, especially on a spinning rig.
  • A moderate-test braided or Dacron line also fits the bill on a bait-casting rig. You can even tie a fluorocarbon leader onto the swivel leading to your braided line.
  • Generally, use line of 17- to 35-pound test for this toothy oddball.
  • Spool your reel with at least 175 yards of line but 200 is a better volume. Add backing if your mono, fluoro or braided line falls into the 150-yard or lower range.

The bowfin likes to run, mostly into its favorite abode—aquatic gunk.

Because of its aggressiveness, the sinker, swivel and hook don’t require special consideration outside of water depth or current for sinker and size of bait for hook(s).

The hardiness of a good ol’ fashion barrel swivel of sizes 5 to as large as 1 work perfectly.

Hooks, especially when fishing bait, should range from No. 8’s to No. 2’s in size.

Bait and Lures for Bowfin Fishing

Because the bowfin detects odors better than it sees its prey—thus the projected, tubular nostrils—bait performs best for these primitives.

  • Use nightcrawlers, bits of small fish, minnows (dead or alive but check state regulations for the latter), salamanders and waterdogs, frogs or even stink bait (bait balls) commonly used for catfish.
  • Equally, crayfish (crawdads) and other crustaceans find favor from the bowfin.
  • Since their favorite waters usually feature brackish, murky qualities, a shiny spinner with bait tipped on the hook can also fare well.

No matter the bait you choose, make sure it is one bulky and rigid enough to not fall easily off the hook. Stinky and sticky works best when it comes to bait.

Retrieve your offering slowly. Give the bowfin time to detect it. When you feel a hit, set the hook hard as this fish features a strong set of jaws and jaw plates.

Can you eat Bowfin?

Some anglers who catch the bowfin incidental to targeting other gamefish—bass, walleye or catfish, for example—prove too quick to throw them back or unwisely onto shore as a “garbage fish.”

Bowfin should not be wasted.

First, they can be cooked to please the palate as long as you keep them cool or on ice as soon as taking them off the hook.

At home, soak the filets in salted water with vinegar and a bit of lime juice for several minutes. You can then bread it or season it as you would a walleye or other more popular gamefish before plopping it into the frying pan or oven.

Secondly, this often maligned species actually performs a role in balancing the populations of other foraging fish, rather than exterminating an entire population of gamefish.

This balance maintains gamefish populations that provide an angler with large as well as moderately sized fish, rather than a sea of undersized ones or none at all.

Sources: Florida Museum: Bowfin |

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