What is a Bowfin?

If you've just caught an unusual looking fish and think it may be a bowfin, or if you've been catching them for years and never really knew them, then you are in the right place. Read along and learn a little. For more in-depth information on Bowfin, be sure to visit our Science page.

Family - Amiidae
Genus/Species - Amia calva
'Amia calva' means 'bald fish' in Latin

A 14" pre-spawn male caught 3/23/03 in S.Illinois. Note the dot on the tail and the green and turquoise fins.

female A 28"+ female from S. IL

Sarah H. sent this pic. Her Mom Karen's first fin ever, the colorful mouth it exhibits is typical of spawning male fins. Thanks Sarah!

Who needs evolution when you've attained perfection! Bowfin date back to the Mezozoic Era, Jurassic Period - more than 150,000,000 years ago. Imagine fishing for bowfin while dodging a T. Rex and Tricerotops (Pack a .44 Mag as a backup?? Nah, more like .50 BMG - California, you're out of luck. . . and you're dinner.) It's amazing that these fish have survived unchanged for all those years, that they are among the toughest fighters to swim in American waters, and yet they get little respect. How many b@$$ anglers have thought they had on the new state record from the size of the fight, only to discover a lil ol' mudfish? While those two-pound bass are sulking because a front moved through, that little five-pound bowfin is more than willing to take your lure or bait and then try his best to bust your tackle. Weak points in your rig? He'll let you know.
If you do manage to land this fighter, here's what to look for to identify it as a bowfin:


First, the long dorsal fin that gives the fish it's most common name. The dorsal has more than 45 rays and covers over half the length of the fish.

The body is heavy and cylindrical, with a wide bony jaw. The catfish has a similar shape [wholly unrelated species-the bowfin has no living kin], but unlike the cat, the bowfin has scales. Coloration is dark on top, light on the bottom, in shades ranging from silvery green to tannic browns. Spawning males sport psychadelic turquoise, lime, and emarald greens.

The bowfin has sharp teeth that will make hamburger of a careless thumb. Although flesh heals, a stout leather glove, well-wetted before touching the fish, is recommended and preferable to Channellocks. Just past those teeth on the lower palate is the hard gular plate.

The bowfin has a tiny pair of barbels above the nostrils.

Average size depends on locale. In warm southern waters better than 25" long and 5 pounds is the norm, while up north you more likely to catch 3-5 pounders. The current kept World Record, from South Carolina, is 21 pounds, 8 ounces. The current Catch and Release World Record is 37", caught by our own Brian R in NY.

Juveniles and males typically have a dark spot just ahead of the full, rounded tail; this spot is lacking in adult females.

Although Bowfin are primarily gill breathers, they do have a primative lung and can breathe air. They can be seen gulping air at the water's surface. For more on this unusual behavior, see the Science pages.

Bowfin vs. Snakehead

Repeat after me, "A bowfin is NOT a snakehead! A bowfin is NOT a snakehead! A bowfin is NOT a snakehead!" The Snakehead, a foreign invader of several species that is currently on the "kill it" list, somewhat resembles a bowfin. In the states with bowfin populations, it is far more likely that you've caught a bowfin, not a snakehead. To prevent any fine bowfin being mistaken for this Chinese terrorist, please take a close look at the pictures below to see the difference. Most notable is the anal fin (just behind Nick's right hand in the bowfin pic below) - only an inch or two long in the bowfin, but almost half the body length in the snakehead.

Bowfin = Short anal fin

Snakehead = Long anal fin

The snakehead, genus Channa, is unrelated to the bowfin, genus Amia, but their similar features are the result of convergent evolution. DustyW explains "convergent evolution is defined as the evolution of similar features independently in different evolutionary lineages, usually from different features or by different developmental pathways. Basically, this means that each evolved to their current form in completely different environments, but for the same purpose: to increase their chances for survival."

Now if you are fishing snakeheads in their native habitat that's another story.

Habits and Habitats

Young bowfin grow fast - 12" or more in the first year - by feeding on insects and crustaceans. Adult bowfin are opportunistic predators. Anything that gets too close is liable to become supper. Fish, insects, crawdads, amphibians - you name it, they eat it. Like all predators, they play a crucial role in keeping the fishery healthy by preventing overpopulation and stunting.

Bowfin prefer slower water in rivers and streams, but they can be found in faster water too, hiding behind that "smallmouth" looking rock. Try fishing the pools just below the fast water, the oxbows, and the back waters. Bowfin can also be found in ponds and lakes. Work the weeds, brush, snags, and undercuts, and don't be afraid to fish at night; bowfin do a lot of nocturnal feeding.

After spawning in the late spring, male bowfin guard the nest and the fry. FYI bowfin eggs are edible and are sold as caviar (not that I'm a caviar eater - just something I discovered along the way. See the Links page). Keep an eye open to make sure our bowfin don't go the way of Europe's sturgeon.

Bowfin are found in the throughout the Eastern US, in the Mississippi and its tributaries, and in the south as far west as Texas.

Original artwork by Michael Yanega, Bowfin Print Works

Also Known As:

Beaverfish. Blackfish. Choupic. Choupique. Cottonfish. Cypress trout. Dogfish. Grindle. Grinnel. Grinner. Lawyer. Mudfish. Poisson-castor. Scaled ling. Shoepick. Shoepik. Shoepike. Shupik. Speckled Cat.

Garman referred a webpage forum to me that I found quite interesting. The topic concerned the fish nicknames; the response is authored by Christopher Scharpf of the North American Native Fishes Association.

Re: NANFA-- Fish Folklore/ language history
Christopher Scharpf (ichthos@charm.net)
Thu, 08 Nov 2001 10:57:45 -0400

Choupique comes from the Choctaw word shupik, meaning mudfish (another name for bowfin). Choupique is simply a Cajun spelling of shupik. It's a delightful coincidence that cabbage pike is a French-to-English translation of choupique. My source for this information is Mathews, 1951, _A Dictionary of Americanisms_.

I've made a hobby of collecting alternative bowfin names and tracing their etymological roots. Here's what I've found so far:

dogfish -- inspired by the bowfin's large canine teeth.

mudfish -- inspired by its ability to survive lengthy periods in the mud of drying swamps and lakes

shoepike -- Choctaw for mudfish

choupoqie -- Cajun for shoepike

cabbage pike -- literal French-to-English translation of choupique

cypress trout -- refers to the cypress swamps where bowfin sometimes proliferate

buglemouth -- may be a variation of "bullmouth" (bugle once commonly meant buffalo or young bull)

cotton fish-- derives from the opinion that eating cold or improperly cooked bowfin is like having a ball of cotton in one's mouth.

speckled cat, blackfish and spot-tail -- all descriptive: bowfin can be variably speckled and blackish, and adult males have a spot, called an eyespot or ocellus, on the tail.

scaled ling -- refers to the bowfin's cursory resemblance to the lingcod, or burbot

beaverfish -- seen from above in turbid waters, a swimming adult bowfin may resemble a swimming beaver

poisson-castor -- French for beaverfish

brindle -- also descriptive; it's usually used to describe dogs and cows that are streaked or spotted with a darker color, especially yellow-brown.

grindle -- whether brindle led to grindle, grindle to brindle, or whether the two names are independently derived, is not clear. The spelling "grindal" was used as far back as 1709, when English botanist John Lawson encountered the "soft sorry fish" during his explorations of North and South Carolina. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), grindle and its various spellings are from the German gründel, meaning ground or bottom. There are several other derivations of grindle that could apply to the fish: grindel, an obsolete British word for a narrow ditch or drain; grindel, an Old Norse word meaning fierce or angry; and grindle-tail, a breed of dog in 1600s England.

John A. Grindle -- The _Dictionary of Americanisms_ notes that Virginians gave the bowfin this "dignified" name.

German bass -- may be a reference to grindle's Germanic provenance.

lawyer and lake lawyer -- these have me stumped. The OED dates the names from at least 1850 and says they are "jocular" allusions to the fish's "voracity." A similar explanation is given in Blatchley's _Fishes of Indiana_ (1938): "...the alleged reason for the application of the name 'Lawyer' is that it will bite at anything and is good for nothing when caught. Another party states that these onery customers are called Lawyers because they are bull-headed and slippery." (Apparently, lawyer bashing goes way back!) However, one unverified and perhaps apocryphal explanation traces the name to an 18th-century Indiana lawyer named John A. Grindle who, so the story goes, was inordinately fond of fishing. The _Dictionary of Americanisms_ notes that Virginians gave the bowfin the "dignified name" of John A. Grindle

BTW, burbot are also called lawyer. So is a bird, the black-necked stilt (Himantopus nigricollis), supposedly because of its "long bill"! (Get it? Bill!)
Any others?
Chris Scharpf

I was just looking through the list of common names and you missed one I've heard. "Grinner"- Due to the curvature of the lower jaw, Mr. Bowfin looks like he's smiling! I've heard this one both up north and down south, so it does not appear to be regional.
Jim R 01/26/06

April 2010, Aquarium Bowfin

Here's some pic's of Butch, my pet bowfin. I've raised him from a pup [1 inch] to what he is now [about 6 inches]. He's 2 years old and is a hit with everyone who comes over as he attacks everything that goes in the tank of course. I had a largemouth for 13 years that was much smarter but Butch is much cooler. He has cheated death twice showing incredible resilience. Thought you might be interested.

Brian O. , 04/08/10

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