Target Bowfin, The Bait-Crashing Bullies
Most bowfin are caught by accident. Here's a plan for a hot bite during the dog-days.
Whether you call them bowfin (the American Fisheries Society accepted common name), mudfish, grinnel, cypress bass or the whole host of other monikers, this feisty predator is highly underrated. They have a nasty disposition, a face full of teeth and a penchant for ruining fishing lures. What more could you want? OK, so their flesh has a cottony texture that turns to mush if not eaten shortly after catching it, but that attitude is hard to beat in freshwater. Plus, the bite is red hot during the dog-days of summer when most other fish snub your offering.
On June 21, 2014, Jimmy Tucker, of Statenville, broke a 38-year-old Georgia state record, one of the oldest on the books. That original 16-lb. bowfin was caught from the Okefenokee Swamp by Charles Conley in May 1976. Jimmy’s fish came a few miles downstream in the Suwannee River and weighed 16-lbs., 3-ozs.
I had the pleasure of certifying the new record bowfin late that evening. It was well-worth the trip to the office, as when I opened the cooler, I could not believe the size of that fish. It filled up a large Igloo cooler and looked more like a grouper staring up at me than a freshwater fish. It is common to see bowfin up to 8 pounds, but fish larger than that are rare. The fish staring back at me from the cooler was enormous, even though I have seen a bunch of bowfin. As I was certifying the fish, Jimmy and his fishing partner, Tyler Carter, shared the story of the catch.
They were fishing one of their favorite stretches of the Suwannee River south of Fargo. Bowfin were not their target, they were trying to catch panfish and pickerel. They had a decent catch, enough for a good meal, when Jimmy decided to switch to an in-line spinner to see if he could pick up a few more fish. His choice was a south Georgia classic, a silver-bladed Mepps Spinner sporting a treble hook dressed with a white bucktail. This lure has fooled many a fish from the Suwannee, so Jimmy started flinging it. He threw the spinner against one of the many cypress knees sticking from the swollen river. It was like the hundreds of other casts he had made that day, but all of a sudden the water erupted with a huge boil. Jimmy laid into it, and the fight was on.
“There is no way that I could have landed that monster on my Zebco 33 and 10-lb. test if he had not gone straight up the river,” Jimmy said.
At that point it was just a tug of war as the fish swam up the river with the annoying angler trailing him. I am sure it was quite a sight to behold! The whole time Jimmy and Tyler were discussing how in the world to get the monster fish in the boat without a net. It seemed that the net eluded them that morning when loading the boat. Their decision was to tire out the fish as much as they could and grab its mouth with pliers. The plan worked to a T, as Tyler grabbed the bottom lip while the fish slashed boatside. They were able to wrestle the behemoth into the boat, and the rest is history.
Jimmy will be recorded in the record fish list that comes out with the new fishing regulations in early 2015, but the irony is that he was not even fishing for bowfin. And, that is how most bowfin are caught—as a by-catch while fishing for other species. While I know that there are some anglers who actually target bowfin, I have only talked to a single group of anglers who do so. They leave their home in north Georgia every summer and head to the Okefenokee Swamp for a week of targeting the toothy fish. They typically catch from 50 to 100 bowfin per day using in-line spinners. They said that one day a gold blade is better and the next silver produces best. During the week they usually make several trips to local sporting goods stores to restock equipment. The day I talked with them, they were headed to try to find a replacement for a rod that a big bowfin snapped.
South Georgia bass-tournament anglers would argue that the best way to target bowfin is to go bass fishing! But, you can actually up the odds of wrangling with the toothy, feisty critter by using the following techniques. Bowfin are distributed all across our state, but the south Georgia rivers and swamps have populations well worth targeting them. Tops on the list is the Okefenokee Swamp, but the Altamaha, Satilla and Suwannee rivers and Banks Lake are all destinations worthy of a bowfin trip.
You do not need fancy tackle for chasing bowfin. I usually stow my high-end, light-action rods and pull out the heavier, tougher ones if I ease into shallow waters for bowfin. A Shakespeare Ugly Stik is an excellent choice because of its durability. The new GL2 Ugly Stik rods are both light and tough, and the medium and medium-heavy versions are perfect. Pair it with a Pflueger President (#6935) spinning reel spooled with 20-lb. test Spider Wire braided line, and you are in business. The braided line is an important component, as braid does not twist as badly as monofilament line. If using spincasting tackle, do not use a bottom-of-the-line outfit, as it takes a good drag to handle lots of 3- to 8-lb. fish (and you can tangle with dozens of them during a good day).
Bowfin will take both cut bait and lures. In the Okefenokee, I like to catch a flier (a panfish species that looks like a cross between a bluegill and a crappie) and filet it into strips. I typically thread the strip (about finger-sized) onto an unweighted hook or a hook suspended about 2 feet under a float. On systems where live bait is allowed (the Okefenokee is not one of them), bowfin will slurp up commercial-grade shiners suspended under a float.
Bowfin have been caught on probably every genre of lure, but they are suckers for flashy ones. Inline spinners and traditional bass-style spinnerbaits will get the attention of a bowfin. Bottom-bouncing lures, such as jigs and plastic worms are other good options. Jigs are especially good when vegetation is not too thick to work them because crayfish are a common prey item consumed by bowfin in most systems. In rivers, bowfin cannot lay off of a jig bouncing in front of their nose.
Expect to lose lots of tackle when targeting bowfin, as they are masters of mangling a spinnerbait. Just as with your rod and reel, you will want to use tough lures, not flimsy ones. Choose spinnerbaits with thicker-than-usual wire. Sometimes gold blades work best, and sometimes silver is better, so just try both to see what they want that day. Jimmy’s lure of choice that Saturday in June was a Mepps inline spinner with a silver blade and a treble dressed with white bucktail, and this is a traditional lure in the Suwannee River. It is a tough lure that will fool pickerel, warmouth, flier and bowfin and will hold up to lots of bone-jarring strikes.
Bowfin live in many habitats, but fields of lily pads are where they are often the most numerous in the swamp. In rivers, look for them in shallow, muddy oxbow lakes. Whatever system you choose, it probably will not take you long to find them in the shallows.
My biggest bowfin to date was an 11 1/2-pounder that I saw cruising the shallows while I was bass fishing in a pond. I pitched my black plastic worm in front of it, and it whacked it…a swing and a miss. I rehooked my worm and relocated the fish sitting just a few feet away from the first strike near a patch of cattails. I cast past it and reeled to the fish, and it mauled my Texas rig. The “submarine” used all of its wiles but could not shake the hook or break my line. My biggest bowfin had a common thread with Jimmy’s and so many other big bowfin—it was by-catch while I was fishing for another species.
When the dog-days set in and you are tired of only catching a few fish, tie on a spinnerbait, head to the shallows, and set the hook on some feisty bowfin. You never know, yours might be the next state record.
Bowfin or Snakehead?
The native bowfin is sometimes confused with the snakehead, an exotic fish that has become established in some mid-Atlantic and south Florida systems. Fortunately, snakeheads have not been observed in Georgia.
The two easiest characteristics to tell you which species you are dealing with are the jaw and the anal fin (the farthest one back toward the tail on the underside). On the native bowfin, the upper jaw extends farther forward than the lower jaw. The exotic snakehead has somewhat of an underbite—the lower jaw sticks out the farthest. The native bowfin has a small anal fin, much less than half the length of the dorsal fin (the big fin on the top). The snakehead has an anal fin that is more than half the length of the dorsal fin. I hope that we never get snakeheads in Georgia waters, but this guide will help you check next time you question your catch.
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