Bowfin: An ancient fish with an attitude

Bowfin aren’t present in huge populations, but they can grow to hefty sizes ­— and are legendary fighters.

Grinnel, mudfish, dogfish, beaverfish, blackfish, cottonfish, cypress trout, lawyer, choupique, scaled ling, marshfish, speckled cat — just some of the local names for a fish whose official common name is bowfin.

Bowfin are easily recognized by the flattened head, continuous dorsal fin over two-thirds of the back and rounded tail. The fish is generally olive green to brown on the back and sides with a white belly. The young have a reddish-orange eye spot near the tail. This eye spot is retained by adult males but not females.

The local names are interesting. “Choupique” (pronounced shu-pic) is Creole French, but it is derived from the Choctaw name “shupik” that translates to mudfish. “Cypress trout” might be a product of an elongate fish (trout-like appearance) that lives in cypress swamps. “Cottonfish” derives from eating improperly cooked or cold bowfin that, supposedly, is like chewing on a cotton ball.

I’ve often wondered if “grinnel” might have come from “grinner” — look at one head-on and tell me that rascal isn’t grinning at you.

Behind those grinning lips is a large mouth full of pointed, snake-like teeth, which might explain the name “lawyer.” OK, no more lawyer jokes in a fish biology column, and I’ll let you speculate on the origin of the other names.

The bowfin is native to the eastern two-thirds of the United States, but it has largely disappeared from the Missouri River basin. Bowfin populations still exist from the East Coast north to the Great Lakes, throughout the Mississippi River basin and along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Bowfin are common in shallow, clear waters with areas of dense aquatic vegetation.

The swim bladder of bowfin is heavily vascularized (meaning it has a lot of blood vessels) and functions as a lung. Bowfin extract oxygen from the water with their gills at water temperatures below 50 degree Fahrenheit but increasingly gulp air at the water surface as the water warms.

A connection between the stomach and the swim bladder allows air to pass into the swim bladder, where oxygen is extracted and circulated throughout the body. Their air-breathing ability coupled with tolerance of warm waters allows them to exist in shallow oxygen-poor backwaters inhospitable to most sport fishes.

Spawning occurs in the spring when water temperature is 61 to 66 degrees — about the same temperature of the crappie spawn.

The male makes a nest of matted vegetation and lures a female to the nest. A large female can deposit up to 20,000 eggs in the nest. The eggs hatch in eight to 10 days, and the 1/4-inch-long fry attach to vegetation with an adhesive organ.

By nine days post hatch, the fry have grown to about 1/2 inch and become free swimming. The free-swimming fry follow the male parent in a dense ball while feeding on zooplankton, and the male aggressively guards the brood.

The school breaks up when the young reach 4 inches.

The young grow to about 8 inches in their first year, and continue to grow rapidly to about 18 inches. They become sexual maturity by age 3 and to 24 inches by age 6 or 7.

Maximum size of bowfin is 34 inches and 20 pounds. The world record is a South Carolina fish that weighed 21 1/2 pounds. The Mississippi State record is 18 pounds, 14 ounces.

The diet of young bowfin switch from zooplankton to aquatic insects, but then they quickly begin a fish diet.

Bowfin are a hard-fighting sport fish on medium-weight tackle. I’ve heard more than a few reports that bowfin, when prepared correctly, are good to eat. I’ve never tried them (with so many good fish to eat, why mess with bowfin?), so I won’t recommend them.

Although of questionable value as a food fish, a market is developing for bowfin caviar. Overfishing of sturgeon — particularly the beluga sturgeon from eastern Europe and Russia — has sent caviar fanciers and fish-product sellers searching for alternative sources of caviar.

Shovelnose sturgeon have long been harvested for their roe, and more recently paddlefish and bowfin roe have entered the market. Bowfin caviar sells for more than $10 per ounce, substantially less than paddlefish or shovelnose sturgeon caviar ($20 per ounce).

All are cheap compared to beluga sturgeon caviar at $115 per ounce.

Bowfin are rarely abundant, and expansion of harvest for caviar could easily deplete populations.

About Hal Schramm 182 Articles
Hal Schramm is an avid angler and veteran fisheries biologist.