The bowfin (Amia calva)—also called mudfish or dogfish—is a living fossil, as it is the only living species in the ancient family Amiidae. It is known to gulp air and can live in poor water conditions if necessary, much like gar species.
A predatory fish, the bowfin has a large mouth, well-developed teeth, and tubular nostrils used for smell. It is typically shades of green and gray, with a single spot at the base of its caudal fin that sometimes fades with age. During breeding season, the male’s mouth, throat, belly, and ventral fins will turn a vibrant turquoise green color. Bowfin can grow from 15 to 28 inches in length, sometimes larger, with females typically larger than males. Individuals are known to live up to 12 years in the wild and much longer in captivity.
Bowfin can often be confused with snakeheads, non-native fish from Africa and Asia that many people worry could be the next big river invader. Though they may be similar in appearance, bowfin and snakeheads are not related and can be differentiated by their head shapes and fins. Bowfin have broad, rounded heads while snakeheads have long, flattened heads. Further, bowfin have lower-placed fins that are usually green tinted and a short anal fin, while snakeheads’ pelvic fins are beneath their pectoral fins and they have a long anal fin that stretches about two-thirds the length of their bodies. Both species could be confused with burbot; however, burbot have two distinct dorsal fins instead of one elongated fin.
The bowfin is native from Quebec to Texas and Florida, including the St. Lawrence River basin, Great Lakes basin, and Mississippi River basin. It has been introduced to many other parts of the United States. Look for the bowfin in swamps and wetlands, including low flow areas such as many of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers’ backwaters. It is commonly found in areas with clear water and vegetation.
The bowfin consumes anything small enough to ingest, making it an important species for ecosystem balance.
When present, bowfin will control populations of other fish including sport fish. This is often viewed as a bad thing, but actually the bowfin can help prevent overpopulation and stunted growth in traditional sport fish species, and who doesn’t want to catch bigger sport fish?
The bowfin is not a traditional sport fish itself and is often viewed as less than desirable; however, some anglers will target the bowfin (and even eat it) as its aggressive behavior makes it fun to catch. A bowfin can be caught on several different rigs designed for traditional sport fish (for example, basses and panfish) including crank baits, spinners, or live bait.
So next time you catch a bowfin, know that it’s a living fossil and a sign of a healthy ecosystem and return it to the water unharmed (unless you want to try eating one)!