Larry Lyons: A prehistoric fish is roaming our lakes

Published 11:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

lyonsA number of years ago wife and I were fishing the hallowed waters of Lake Okeechobee in Florida hoping to hook up with one of its legendary monster bass.

Our bait was shiners big enough to class as sport fish themselves tethered to bobbers large enough to suspend the Titanic. With bait this size, there would be no small bass here; it would be a hog or nothing. After several hours of the nothing part we were near dozing off when her bobber disappeared.

When she set the hook, the rod was nearly jerked from her hands. The reel’s drag screamed and the pole bucked wildly. The slugfest raged for 20 minutes but finally we could make out a huge form in the murky water next to the boat. A scoop of the net and it was aboard. Much to our amazement, this thing had no resemblance to a bass. It was a mottled, muddy brown color with a long, supple dorsal fin that ran all the way down its back to the tail. Its body shape resembled a bullhead more than anything but it was huge – 12-plus pounds according to the scale.

I knew exactly what it was for. I’d seen hundreds of them, though nothing near that big. It was a bowfin. Back in my high school days while normal guys were pursuing girls and illicit beer, my buddy and I spent our nights spearing bowfin. Nearly every spring weekend as the sun sank below the horizon we’d launch our boat. A pair of hissing Coleman lanterns lashed to the stern cut through the black water and lit up the shallow lake bottom as we stealthily rowed the shoreline. Our quarry was bowfin, or dogfish as they are almost universally called here in southern Michigan.

They are highly predacious on other fish and of poor eating quality, which, right or wrong, gives them the status of trash fish and are legal to take with a spear or bow and arrow.

Few people in these parts have even seen a bowfin, much less realize they abound in many of our lakes and rivers. They while away the days in relatively deep water but come nightfall they slide into the shallows to feed and, in the spring, breed. Despite being one of the toughest fighters on the end of a line because of their lowly status, very few people intentionally fish for them. What few that are caught are usually by accident. Even our beloved youth sport of spearing them has fallen out of vogue so around here bowfins go almost entirely unnoticed.

Bowfins are found only in the eastern U.S., have no relatives and are one of the most ancient of fish. They once swam amongst the dinosaurs and have remained nearly unchanged for 150 million years. Their preferred habitat is slow moving rivers but they can live in water almost completely devoid of oxygen by coming to the surface and gulping air into their swim bladder, which serves as a lung.

They can even survive for periods of time out of water buried in mud. Farmers have actually tilled up live bowfin from fields that had recently been flooded.

Bowfins are one of the few fishes where males take charge of maternal chores. They clear out the nest, not the female, and after spawning they vigorously defend the eggs and young, which is quite rare in fish. They have even been known to bite humans in defense of the family. Another defense tactic is to leap out of the water, stirring up the water to obscure the young as they flea into hiding.

Bowfins carry a host of interesting local names. Here in the upper Midwest they’re typically called dogfish because of their long, sharp canine-like teeth. In the south they are called mudfish because of their ability to live in the mud of drying out waterways.
Cottonfish is another because when eaten cold or improperly cooked, it’s like having a ball of cotton in your mouth. There are dozens of other names, including my favorite, lawyer fish, reportedly because they bite at anything and are good for nothing after they’re caught.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.
He can be reached at