Trash Fish Tuesday: Bowfin

Trash Fish Tuesday
Trash Fish Tuesday: Bowfin

Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.

Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem. Every dog has its day, and for the commonly dubbed “dogfish,” aka bowfin, today’s that day.

Dogfish. Swamp bass. Cypress trout. Mudfish. Choupique. Cottonfish. Grindle. Marshfish. Scaled ling.

Bowfin might garner more informal nicknames than any other fish species in North America. But what’s in a name? With apologies to Shakespeare, that which we call a bowfin, known by any other name would still be a downright badass, ready to shake the “trash fish” label (and possibly your hook and ego in the process). As the connotation of these nicknames suggests, however, bowfin (like other “trash” or “rough” fish) have long received disdain from the broader fishing community. Again, we have the usual BS folklore to blame: they are detrimental to game fish, no fun to catch, and certainly no good to eat. And again, these common beliefs are off base.

While bowfin came by these regional nicknames and misaligned opinions in relatively recent times, the fish remain largely unchanged over evolutionary time. They are an ancient, primitive fish, a living fossil akin to gars. Taxonomically, bowfin (Amia calva), are they only extant member of the Amiidae family. Amia being Greek for “fish,” and calva being Latin for “smooth” or “bald,” in reference to their scaleless head. A quick look at a specimen explains the origin of their common name—a long, bowed dorsal fin running the length of their backs. A longer, impartial look at bowfin as a species should convince any rational angler of their value as a sport fish. In order to give them their due, let’s dig a bit further into their various nicknames.

Where I grew up in Wisconsin, “dogfish” was the regional nickname of choice. Aside from the recognized common name, it’s probably the most frequently used moniker throughout the country. Due to a generally slow and stealthy—almost sluggish—swimming motion aided by their long, undulating dorsal fin, bowfin may appear as lazy as the backwaters and swamps they often inhabit. Anyone who claims bowfin aren’t fun to catch, however, would be, well, barking up the wrong tree. Bowfin viciously attack lures or bait and possess hook-bending strength. They commonly reach 8 to 10 pounds and record bowfin sometimes weigh upwards of 20 pounds—nothing to scoff at. Their fight at any size can shame equivalent game fish. As the saying goes, or should go: “It’s not the size of the dog[fish] in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog[fish].”

Bowfins’ indiscriminate aggression toward various fishing tackle—which most bass anglers in their range can attest to—coupled with rows of sharp teeth, fuels the myth that they are detrimental to prized game fish populations. But bowfin aren’t selectively eating your favorite game fish. They will eat the most abundant prey available. These may include game fishes, but also forage fishes, crayfish, etc. In this way, as with other native non-game fishes, bowfin help to maintain ecosystem balance, resulting in healthier fisheries and larger game fish.

At the same time, bowfin can be difficult for anglers to specifically target. They live in still and flowing water, and, as noted, consume a variety of prey (or lures). In my college days, a friend claimed to know a “bowfin hole” on the Wolf River where you could catch more bowfin than any other species. The next Wisconsin state record allegedly swam in this hole. He claimed to have caught two or three bowfin that would have, had he known at the time, bested the official record mark of 13 pounds 1 ounce.

Fish tale or not, this friend said he would take someone to the secret location in exchange for intel on a prime morel foraging spot—which, in that neck of the woods, is analogous to giving up your first born. Nobody took him up on this offer. Had I known bowfins’ worth as table fare back then, I may have considered it. That said, I’ve still got a couple secret morel locations back home, and I don’t yet see his name next to bowfin in the state record book.

Bowfin and morels—two words rarely used in the same sentence. In fact, bowfin are so maligned as table fare (unlike morels) that the nickname “cottonfish” refers to the conviction that bowfin are generally mushy with pale flesh. In the realm of fish and game cooking, we know proper meat care and preparation pays dividends, and bowfin are no different. They are often caught in relatively warm water in the dog days of summer, generally leading to softer flesh. They also don’t keep well; frozen filets thaw into a squishy, cotton-like mass of tissue. Bowfin should be kept alive as long as possible before fileting, and then immediately prepared for the table. Even if the filets are a bit soft at this point, they firm up in a frying pan. The lightly breaded end product rivals pike or walleye.

If “bowfin” and “morels” have previously shared a sentence, that prose likely originated at a high-end restaurant or specialty retailer. Unlike their primitive counterparts, gars, which possess toxic eggs, bowfin eggs are a delicacy, a la “Cajun caviar.”  Indeed, accepting the bowfin-for-morel location trade with my buddy might have proved mutually beneficial.

Choupique, Mudfish, Swamp bass, Cypress trout, etc.
Louisiana spawned the term “Cajun caviar,” along with most things Cajun. Throughout the state, bowfin are often referred to as “choupique” (pronounced “shoe-pick”), a Cajun-French name stemming from Choctaw “shupik” or “mudfish.” Contrary to some people’s assumptions, this name has nothing to do with the taste of the fish, but instead references certain places they’re found. Bowfin can occupy murky habitats that many view as unappealing, further contributing to their stigma. That capacity to survive in warm, stagnant water where more desirable game fish cannot doesn’t make them “trashy,” however, just versatile. Like gar, bowfin can gulp air, allowing them to live in water with low levels of dissolved oxygen. Anecdotal accounts of farmers tilling up live bowfin after floodwaters recede from fields suggest they can even survive in mud for short periods of time. This adaptation also happens to be useful for anglers keeping them alive prior to cleaning and cooking.

Bowfin are found in lakes, rivers, ponds, and marshes throughout most of the Mississippi River drainage, and their native range extends eastward to portions of the Atlantic coast. “Swamp bass” are especially prevalent, and increasingly popular, across the Deep South. They aren’t limited to marshes and swamps, however, as this nickname suggests; bowfin swim in many crystal-clear lakes of the upper Midwest and New England as well.

Mistaken Identity
Bowfins’ slimy, atypical appearance leads to some confusion in regard to identification, both benign and problematic. With somewhat similar coloration and elongated bodies, bowfin (aka “scaled ling”) are sometimes mistaken for burbot (aka “ling”). Burbot, ironically, are another slimy species with various nicknames—i.e., “poor man’s lobster,” “lawyer,” and “eelpout.” While also quite debatable (read: wrong), burbot hold their own skewed value in some anglers’ eyes. But, at least mistaking bowfin for burbot confuses two fishes native to North America.

A more troubling mistake happens when anglers mistake bowfin for the invasive and menacing northern snakehead. Again, bowfin are native and beneficial to native ecosystems and game fish populations. Snakehead are invasive, voracious predators, and a big worry for managers and anglers alike. Just recently, they were detected in Georgia for the first time.

As such, now is a good time to brush up on distinguishing these two species. While both have elongated dorsal fins, snakehead also have a long anal fin and irregular dark blotches down their sides. In contrast, bowfin are generally more solid brown in coloration, have a short anal fin, and also exhibit a telltale black spot at the base of their rounded tail. In order to help control invasive snakehead and maintain ecosystem balance, snakehead should be properly identified, killed immediately, and reported to your local fish and game department. After landing a majestic bowfin, however, you can and should release it to fight another day. Unless, of course, you wish to try your hand at a morel cream sauce served over fried bowfin with a side of Cajun caviar. Bon appétit.

Living Fossils
Fisheries management has come a long way in the past century, especially when in regard to ancient native fishes of North America, like the two we’ve examined recently in Trash Fish Tuesday. That said, we still have a long way to go. In a 1992 essay, University of Idaho professor of fishery resources, Dennis Scarnecchia, wrote:

“Much of the pressure on fisheries researchers and managers to destroy gars and bowfins has come from anglers, and there is every indication that this pressure will continue. It is up to us to look at gars and bowfins not just from the narrow perspective that they eat some game fish, but from the perspective of how they can contribute positively to ecosystem stability and function, to balance among predators and prey, and to more successful and satisfying angling.”

So, c’mon folks, it’s 2019—time to stop mislabeling these important and remarkable native fishes as “trash.” Go catch one, give it the same butchery care as you would your favorite food fish, and eat it with an open mind. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Feature image via April Vokey.

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