The bowfin is a stout-bodied, nearly cylindrical fish. The dorsal fin extends more than half the length of the back and has more than 45 rays. The tail fin is rounded, with the hind part of the backbone curving into the upper part of the fin. The head lacks scales. Each nostril has a barbel-like flap. The fins lack spines. Upperparts are mottled olive-green, shading to pale green on the belly. The dorsal and tail fins are dark green with darker bands or bars. Young fish have a black spot near the upper part of the tail base; this spot can persist in adults.
Similar species: Snakeheads are native to Asia and invasive in America. They resemble bowfins and can live in similar habitats. Snakeheads, however, have an extended anal fin, and their pelvic fins are positioned near the pectoral fins and gills.
Adult length: 15–27 inches; weight: 1–5 pounds.
Most abundant in the Mississippi Lowlands, though it occurs along the entire length of the Mississippi River. Also stocked in private lakes.
Habitat and Conservation
Bowfins occur in a variety of habitats but tend to avoid those with swift current or excessively turbid waters. In the Mississippi Lowlands, the bowfin is found in a variety or habitats ranging from swamps to ditches to pools of sluggish streams. Along the Mississippi River, it is more often found in backwaters and oxbows than in the main channel. In our state, the bowfin prefers the swampy, sluggish waters of the Bootheel, so the health of bowfin populations depends on our maintenance of what's left of those swampy habitats.
Hiding by day in deeper water, bowfin venture into shallow water to feed at night. They surface occasionally to renew the supply of air in the swim bladder, which functions something like a lung.
Young feed primarily on microcrustaceans and aquatic insects. Adults eat fish, crayfish, insects, worms, and frogs. Gizzard shad are a favorite item, followed by golden shiner, bullheads, and sunfish.
The bowfin is the only living species remaining in its family. Its closest relatives appear as fossils that lived 180 million years ago.
Spawning lasts from April into early June. Males build nests in shallow, weedy sites, and they guard the eggs and fry. When the fry are ready to leave the nest, they travel in a swarm with the male. This schooling behavior lasts until the young are about 4 inches long, when they go their separate ways.
Generally classed as a poor food fish, and often held in contempt by many anglers, the bowfin still has a place in sport fishing. Though it is not the most spectacular fighter, it has strength and endurance.
Like many fish, the bowfin begins life as an egg and small fry, vulnerable to predation. As it grows, however, it becomes a predator of fish and crayfish smaller than itself.