Species spotlight: Choupique

Fishing for sac-a-lait, Lloyd Brandt ended up catching this choupique.
Fishing for sac-a-lait, Lloyd Brandt ended up catching this choupique.

Bowfin is known by several different names

The bowfin (Amia calva), whose more common name is mudfish, is a close relative of the gar. Its stout body and long dorsal fin, which covers almost three-quarters the length of its body, give the fish a snaky or eel-like appearance.

It has a rounded tail and can range in color from light green, dark green, to black with mottling, depending on diet and quality of the water in which it swims.

In Louisiana, the fish is known as choupique (pronounced ‘shoe pick’).

Adult males are easily identified by a distinct black spot with an orange halo at the upper section of their tail.

Choupique are found throughout North America. They are found nowhere else on earth, although fossils within the Amia calva family have been found on every continent except Australia.

Breathing machine

Like most fish, mudfish have gills which allow them to breath under water, but they also have modified air bladders, which give them the ability to gulp air above the water’s surface. This helps them live in times of extreme drought, as they burrow into the mud to stay wet, breathing air through their bladder when other fish would die.

Large lakes, small ponds, and slow moving rivers with mud and dense vegetation are ideal habitats for mudfish. They are highly tolerant of stagnant water and are not negatively impacted by poor water quality.

Mudfish are opportunists and very adaptable when it comes to eating preferences. When young, they eat mostly insects and tiny plankton. As adults, they eat other fish, crawfish, snakes, turtles, leeches, and even rodents.

Prime target

Most anglers catch mudfish while targeting other species, especially largemouth bass.

Soft plastic worms, jigs, live minnows, and even topwater lures will draw strikes from mudfish.  But most anglers are happy to tussle with these fish, which are sporty fighters when hooked. Some anglers even report targeting these fish once they know of locations they inhabit.

Mudfish typically spawn from March through June, but it can begin much earlier in the year during unseasonably warm weather.

The nest-building duties are performed by the males, who fan out nests with their tails while clearing vegetation with their mouths. Once females lay their eggs, which they usually do in the dark, males protect the nests, then stay with the young hatchlings as they learn to fend for themselves.

While a select few anglers report enjoying eating this fish, the majority of people do not eat them. Their eggs, however, are highly sought after and are prepared just like caviar.

Last survivor

This fish is believed to be the only remaining member of a group of fish which lived almost 200 million years ago.

Mudfish are native to both Louisiana and Mississippi, but are sometimes misidentified as the Northern snakehead, an invasive and destructive fish.

Aside from the name choupique, mudfish are known colloquially throughout the southeast by several different names, including grindle, grinnel, dogfish, blackfish, and leather fish.

State record

The Mississippi state record stands at 18 pounds, 14 ounces and was caught by B.H. Toney at Ross Barnett Reservoir in November of 1978.

The current choupique world record (21-pounds, 8-ounces) was set in Forest Lake, a community lake in Florence, S.C. by Robert Harmon in January of 1980. Harmon was trolling with a Rebel Deep Runner when the big fish hit.