What Is A Bowfin – The Complete Breakdown of this Cool Fish

By Get Fishing •  Published: 02/01/23 •  5 min read

If you’re looking for a challenging fish to catch, try the Bowfin. This species fights hard when its on the line, but not many anglers have come across them despite being listed as “least concern” on the endangerment list. 

What is a bowfin

What is a Bowfin? 


This striking fish is native to North America, and is considered by some to be “primitive” due to characteristics that it still shares with its ancestors. About 250 million years ago, the Bowfin (Amia calva) was a widespread species that is now much more controlled and can be hard to find. 

Why is it Called a Bowfin?

The Bowfin earns its name from the long dorsal fin running from its mid-back to the base of the tail. This dorsal fin has anywhere from 145-250 rays. 

What Type of Fish is a Bowfin? 

There are so many ways to classify this species, and they can be confusing. Here are a few scientific descriptors for the Bowfin and what they mean:

The Bowfin is a freshwater species with an impressive history, stretching back as far as the Early Triassic period. 

What Does A Bowfin Look Like?

If you’ve never seen a Bowfin, you’ll recognize immediately that it comes from a primitive background. This fish has an elongated body, undulating dorsal fin that runs from the mid-back to the base of the tail, a surprisingly short tail, small pelvic, anal and pectoral fins, and a predatory head and mouth. 

Bowfins stand out due to their skull, of which there are actually two layers! To say they’re ‘hard headed’ is an understatement. They have two sets of very sharp, small teeth. 

In terms of coloration, this fish is an olive to brown with dark bars and reticulations that create a pattern of camouflage along the body.

Bowfin Habitat

This species prefers lakes and rivers, vegetated sloughs, and swamps. They can sometimes be found in brackish water. Bowfin like shelter and will hide under heavy vegetation or root tangles, making them hard to see. They prefer slow-moving, shallow water.

Where Can I Find Bowfin? 

Despite their widespread distribution millions of years ago, these days Bowfin can be found along the eastern US and southern Canada. However, they range throughout North America and inhabit many freshwater sources and drainage basins. 

What Do Bowfin Eat? 

Bowfin are incredibly carnivorous and known to stalk and ambush other fish. However, they’ll also go after crawfish, insects and mollusks. Due to the shape of its body, this is a very agile fish and competent predator. They move quickly and silently due to the long dorsal fin. 

How to Catch a Bowfin? 

Because Bowfin are opportunistic feeders, you can attract them with anything that’s flashy and will catch their attention. Flashers and poppers will draw them out of their cover, but using bait such as the Gulp Minnows, which mimics their natural prey, will also go a long way in catching these fish. 

Realistic lures such as the Rebel Crawfish or Berkley Champ Minnows, paired with the right gear to create smooth and seamless action, will be tempting to the Bowfin.  

How Big Do Bowfin Get?

The average length for both male and female Bowfin ranges from 22-28 inches, however they’ve been known to get to 40+ inches. Females are usually larger than males. 

How Fast Do Bowfin Grow?

Bowfin grow quickly, and in the first year of life they can reach 9 inches in length. 

What is the World Record Bowfin Fish?

The world record Bowfin, as noted by the IGFA, was 21 lbs 8 oz and caught by Robert Harmon in January, 1980. This fish came out of the Forest Lake in South Carolina. 

What is the Lifespan of a Bowfin? 

It’s not uncommon for Bowfin to be kept in aquariums, which is how we know they have incredibly long lifespans. The longest-living Bowfin is reported at having been 33 years old. 

Can You Eat Bowfin Fish?

Technically you can eat Bowfin, but they are by no means a prized fish when it comes to food. When preparing Bowfin, you should kill and filet it immediately before you plan to eat it, as the flesh goes soft and murky-tasting quickly. However, it’s said to taste better when smoked.

Are Bowfin Invasive?

No; Bowfin are native to North America. However, at one point, they were considered ‘nuisance’ fish and fishermen believed that due to their predatory nature, they were killing game fish in water sources. This was proven by research not to be true, and now the Bowfin is seen as beneficial to ecosystems. 

Can you Bowfish Bowfin?

If you’re a Bowfisherman, this might be a species you want to try out. Bowfin hang out in shallow water and will often come to the surface to gulp in air, making them easy targets. 

Is a Bowfin the Same as a Dogfish?

No, Bowfin and Dogfish are not the same fish. The Dogfish is a saltwater species that belongs to the shark family. 

Is a Bowfin the Same as a Snakehead?

No, the Bowfin and Snakehead are not the same fish although they share a similar appearance. The Snakehead is native to areas of Africa and Asia. They, too, have an elongated body and are predatory fish. 


If you’re after an interesting species with a direct line to the past, check out the Bowfin. They’ll be challenging to catch and fight hard once they’re on the line. Happy fishing!