Bowfins—a.k.a. mudfish and grinnel—get a bad rap. They won’t win any beauty contests, and they’ll also wreak havoc on your favorite bass lure. The truth, however, is that bowfins are exceptional targets in their own right. They are aggressive and will outfight any bass or trout around. Best of all, these fish can be found from Texas to Florida, and Minnesota to Quebec, so there’s a good chance some hard-brawling bowfins live close to home. If you want to tangle with these brutes, here’s where to find them, and how to gear up properly for a battle you won’t soon forget.
Bowfins thrive in everything from gorgeous clear lakes and rivers to the muckiest, nastiest swamps you can find. Regardless of the aesthetics of their home, the water is likely to share common traits. In particular, vegetation is key. Bowfins need heavy salad for spawning, and they also love to hunt and ambush in grass and weeds. Finding them in open water is fairly rare, but access to deeper water is appealing to these fish. If you find a quiet, vegetated area—be it in a bog or a backwater on a pristine river—focus your efforts on the section closest to the main river or a deeper channel cutting through the swamp.
These fish have strong jaws and even stronger wills. Once you set the hook, bowfins will make every effort to run you into any nearby snags or cover. With that in mind, you’ll want to bulk up your outfit, line, and terminal tackle for a bowfin hunt. Bass rods designed for frogging or throwing large swimbaits have plenty of backbone for the forceful set you need to drive hooks into a bowfin’s hard mouth. They’ll also provide the power required to muscle these strong fish away from snaggy structure. Fifty- to 65-pound braided line is a smart choice, as its lack of stretch aids in a positive hookset. Finally, whether you’re soaking bait or throwing lures, make sure your hooks are superstrong and honed to a needle point.
Dunk and Reel
One great thing about bowfins is that they’re just as happy to eat a piece of cut shad or bluegill hanging below a bobber as they are to chase down a spinnerbait. This makes them excellent targets for anglers of all skill and energy levels. When you’re floating bait chunks, try to set the distance between your bobber and the hook so the bait is suspended within a foot of the bottom or just above any vegetation. While opinions vary, I find that circle hooks do a much better job of sticking these fish than J hooks. If you’d rather cast lures, it’s hard to go wrong with white. Soft finesse baits and spinnerbaits are excellent choices. If you find bowfins in very shallow water, they won’t hesitate to destroy a hollow-body frog sloshing overhead.