About Bowfin: A Strange Catch

bowfin illustration

Duane Raver U.S Fish and Wildlife Services / Wikimedia

Bowfin are so named because of their dorsal fin, which looks like it runs from the back of their head all the way around their tail halfway up the belly. Although I spent the first twenty-one years of my life around creeks and streams in McDuffee County in east Georgia with many hours on Clark's Hill Lake in that area, I never saw a bowfin until I moved to Griffin, Georgia.

In 1972 I was exploring my new home county, checking out the fishing opportunities. I stopped by the bridge over the Flint River on Highway 16 and walked down the bank. An older man showed me a "grinner," the only fish he had on his stringer. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I didn't see another one for a couple of years.

In 1977 had nearly forgotten about that strange Flint River fish when it was brought back to me at Bartlett's Ferry. When something tapped my plastic worm, I set the hook and it took off. I saw a flash of gray in the water and just knew I had a big bass. It fought hard but when my companion netted it, I wanted to throw it back—net and all! The critter I had hooked was gray with a wide mouth full of sharp peg-like teeth. The fin running from the back of its head looked like it ran all the way around to the middle of its belly and made it look bigger than it was. It probably weighed about 6 pounds.

I brought it home and asked someone how to cook my trophy which was the first time I heard about "planking" a fish. Facetiously, that is the method where you nail a bowfin to a plank, roast it over an open fire, throw away the fish, and eat the plank. Bowfin are not very tasty according to my sources!

Bowfin are also called mudfish, cypress trout, grinners, grindle, dogfish, and assorted unpleasant names. They will hit just about anything and can destroy a crankbait or spinnerbait.

In a West Point tournament in the early 1980s I was catching bass on a white spinnerbait up the river. I limited out the first day and could not wait to get back up there on Sunday morning. I had not fished for more than a few minutes when something big ate my spinnerbait. It was a 9 pound bowfin and it totally destroyed the only spinnerbait I had been able to catch bass on. I was not happy. My biggest bowfin hit a Little George tailspinner jigged on an old roadbed, also at West Point in January. Another bowfin at West Point broke my heart when it hit a topwater plug on the very first cast early one morning in a tournament.

Although bowfin are thick in the Savannah River just below the Clark's Hill dam, I have never heard of one in the lake. I check with area biologists and they don't know why, but they have never found bowfin in Clark's Hill. West Point is full of these fish, however.

A book I have says they are the only remaining member of an ancient group of fish, and they certainly look the part. The IGFA lists the all-tackle world record bowfin at 21½ pounds. I hope they don't get much bigger!

Bowfin live throughout the Southeast, from the Mississippi River to the Canadian border and south through Florida. If you want to catch one deliberately, they like live bait and artificials, seeming to be especially fond of blue worms. West Point may be your best bet. 

This article was edited and revised by our Freshwater Fishing expert, Ken Schultz.