How many folks have fantasized about actually putting their hands on a dinosaur?

I’ve never done that exactly but, a few years ago while fishing in a brackish creek off the Neuse River, I came pretty close. Something I first thought might be a red drum slammed the jig I was casting and put up a powerful fight for several minutes.

When I finally worked the fish to the boat I was surprised to see it wasn’t a drum at all. It had a broad, flat head and a dorsal fin that extended nearly its entire length. I had a bowfin!

Bowfin (Amia calva) are unique for several reasons, one being that they are holdovers from prehistoric times. They are the only surviving member of the family, Amiidae, which dates back to the Mesozoic Era – the “age of reptiles.”

When bowfin first swam in the world’s waters – 150 to 200 million years ago – most of North America and Europe were joined as one huge landmass and T. Rex was the toughest dude on dry land. Fossils dating from that age show that bowfin

have evolved some but, structurally and physiologically, are very similar to their ancient ancestors. In their modern form, they are ganoid fish, which means they have thick, bony scales, similar to gar, but also have a slimy covering like catfish

and eels.

One of the most distinctive features of bowfin is the dorsal fin that extends from right behind the gills, down the cylindrical body, almost to the rounded tail. In that respect, they are similar to snakehead fish, an invasive species that is not elated.

The two can be differentiated by looking at the anal fin. In a bowfin, it is short. In a snakehead, it runs nearly half the length of the body. To date snakeheads have not been found in eastern North Carolina.

Adult male bowfin can also be identified by a black spot, sometimes rimmed with orange, near the tail. It’s thought to be an adaptation that confuses predators.

Females don’t have the spot. In addition, during spawning season, male bowfin often exhibit bright yellow-green hues on their undersides, gills and mouths. (The equivalent of human boys donning their flashiest clothes to attract girlfriends?)

Both sexes have sharp teeth, a fact that some unwary anglers have learned the hard way.

Another adaptation is that bowfin are capable of bimodal respiration; they can breathe through their gills or by gulping air at the surface. In the latter case, oxygen is vented to a “swim bladder lung.” This explains how they can survive in water

that has is very low in oxygen and might create serious problems for some other species. It might also account for stories that describe bowfin living for hours or even days out of the water.

There is no doubt bowfin are some of the toughest, most adaptable fish that have ever lived. Fossil evidence indicates that they once swam in waters throughout North and South America, Eurasia and Africa. Today their range is restricted to fresh and brackish waters on this continent, including much of the eastern U.S., southern Canada and the Mississippi River drainage. Bowfin can live in almost any kind of waterway but seem to prefer lowland rivers, swamps, bayous and lakes. They are voracious predators that will feed on pretty much anything smaller than they are – crustaceans, insects and small fish primarily – but don’t appear to be any more of a threat to popular gamefish than any other predatory species.

The fact that bowfin will eat almost anything is good news for anglers who would like to tangle with one of the powerful fish. Medium-weight tackle with 10 to 20 lb-test line and #2 to 2/0 hooks are usually sufficient. In places where bowfin

are plentiful, fishermen will sometimes use a wire or heavy monofilament leader to avoid getting bitten off. They also prefer circle hooks with the barbs bent down to facilitate unhooking fish. In respect to bait, fresh chunks of mullet, bream or other fish, or live minnows, are hard to beat. Bowfin will hit nearly any kind of subsurface artificial lure at various times and fly fishermen in some areas target them with large, weighted streamers that imitate minnows.

In eastern North Carolina, a good bet for catching a bowfin would be a bottom rig or under a cork float in one of our coastal plain streams. A quiet spot in any of the tributaries of the Neuse, White Oak, Pamlico, Cape Fear or New rivers could

produce. Bowfin are ambush feeders so fishing around structure or along a brushy shoreline is usually a smart move.

Regardless of where they’re found, anglers should be ready for a struggle when a bowfin is hooked. Pound-for-pound, they are some of the most powerful fish that swim. And, they can get pretty husky. While the average bowfin is 18 to 24 inches

long and weighs 2 or 3 pounds, they can reach 15 lb. or more. The North Carolina state record tipped the scales at 17 lb. 15 oz. It was caught on cut bait in the Black River on June 21, 1997. The world record, that weighed 21 lb. 8 oz., was taken

from Forest Lake in South Carolina in 1980.  

Most bowfin caught by sport anglers are released to fight another day. Some people do eat them but there is a lot of debate about their value as table fare. At least one source says they are considered “… quite palatable if cleaned properly and smoked, or prepared fried, blackened, used in courtbouillion, or in fishballs or fishcakes.” One concern is that mercury can accumulate in a bowfin’s tissue over a period of time and some places have an advisory recommending they not be

consumed by at-risk groups like pregnant women, and that their consumption be limited for everyone. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has issued such an advisory for waters south and east of I-85.

In some areas, bowfin roe is prized as caviar. Called “choupique” in Louisiana, it retails for around $7 an ounce. Everywhere they’re found, bowfin are probably more valuable as hard-fighting fish that offer a lot of sport, even in the dog days of

summer. And, an angler who lands one can brag that he caught a fish that swam with the dinosaurs.

Ed Wall can be reached at edwall@embarqmail.com or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com