Angling for Oddball Fish
The canoe slips quietly through the water toward the river bend where the two friends had found luck on previous outings. The mist hangs heavy on the water. It’s just light enough to see where to cast. Once at their destination, spinner baits are tossed to likely looking spots along the bank and retrieved just under the surface. The angler in the bow gets his lure about 3 feet from the boat and is already scanning the bank, planning his next cast. That’s when the explosion happens. A vicious strike and brief hard battle, followed by a limp line. It’s a common story on this river — fish on, fish gone (oh yeah, spinner bait’s gone, too).
This sounds like a scene from a big bass honeyhole, but the fish that caused all the commotion was a bowfin, an ancient relic that has changed little for millions of years.
Missouri is home to a number of fish species that, for one reason or another, never have attained the popularity fish such as bass and crappie have with anglers. With very few anglers seeking out these off-the-wall species, many waters contain large, untapped populations. Two of these fish, the bowfin and gar, will seldom, if ever, grace the cover of a major fishing magazine. But in reality, their ferocious strikes and subsequent battle on the end of your line will put most game fish to shame.
The earliest ancestors of bowfin date to the early Jurassic period, approximately 180 million years ago. Gar date back to the Permian period, nearly 300 million years ago! They saw the dinosaurs evolve, flourish and go extinct, so they must be doing something right. Their no-nonsense approach to capturing prey might be responsible for their success. In addition, they can rise to the surface and gulp air into an air bladder — which functions as a primitive lung. This allows them to survive in waters containing insufficient oxygen to support most species of fish.
The bowfin is native to the Mississippi River drainage and the Bootheel region of Missouri. Bowfin are most abundant in relatively clear waters with little to no current. Many of the ditches in southeast Missouri and the area surrounding Mingo National Wildlife Refuge support populations of bowfin. They are known by many colorful local names including cypress trout, grinnel, dogfish, scaled ling and swamp muskie.
Bowfin tend to seek shelter in