Dogfish don’t bark, but they sure can bite
The bowfin, commonly called dogfish in the Midwest, is truly a one of a kind fish. It is scientifically known as Amia calva, which is derived from the Greek, Amia meaning fish and calva meaning smooth. The common name of dogfish comes from their impressive set of very sharp conical teeth; much like a tyrannosaurus rex.
The bowfin could logically be called a Jurassic Park fish. They are the sole survivor of a group of fish dating back 150 million years to the Jurassic Age when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They are factually a living fossil.
Bowfins are native to North America, common in the Eastern U.S. and southern Ontario and Quebec. They are found from the Mississippi River drainage east to the St. Lawrence River, south to the Gulf Coast, from east Texas to all of Florida. In the U.P., they can be found in the Menominee River, in Lake Huron off Cedarville, and the Lake Superior basin only in the St Louis and Middle Rivers in Wisconsin. We are at the northern limit of its range. However, many LP lakes have bowfin populations.
Bowfins are named after their long dorsal fin, which runs 2/3 of the body length, which enables them to swim forward and backward. An average female is 26-28 inches long and five pounds, while the typical male is 20-26 inches and four pounds. Males have an eyespot near the tail, which is black surrounded by an orange halo. Bowfins have the unique ability to breathe with their gills or gulp air, which is then absorbed into the blood in the lung-like air bladder. They can survive out of water for 2-3 days. Their diet consists of anything that looks edible, but is mainly other fish. They prefer water bodies with heavy vegetation, but do inhabit clear water lakes.
The male bowfin’s fins turn a brilliant lime green during the spawning season, making him a very handsome fellow. Spawning is May-June, when water temperatures get to 61-66 degrees Fahrenheit. The male builds a nest in 2-3 feet of water out of vegetation and mates with multiple females. Say hello to Mr. Pit Bull. He aggressively guards the nest and young after hatching. There are numerous reports of waders being attacked and bitten by dogfish.
If you have never had the opportunity as an angler to catch bowfin, please add it to your bucket list. You will not be disappointed and may become a dogfish admirer. In this angler’s opinion, they are among the hardest fighting fresh water fish, if not THE toughest. A five pound dogfish will fight harder than a 10-pound steelhead, but without the aerial show. One day on South Lake Leelanau, while walleye fishing with a jig, twister tail, and minnow, a fish was hooked. A full dozen minutes later, after many strong runs, a 7-pound dogfish was brought to the surface and landed five additional minutes later. Tough, tough fish!
They also get very big. The world record is 21.5 pounds and was caught in Forest Lake, South Carolina. The Michigan state record bowfin was taken from Little Crooked Lake in Livingston County and weighed 14.5 pounds. The Minnesota state record is 11.25 pounds taken from the St Croix River, while the Wisconsin state record is 13 pounds 1 ounce, taken from the Willow Flowage, near Rhinelander.
If you are an aquarist, you might consider getting a bowfin, as they are a beautiful, unique fish. They are easy to care for and eat most anything, including raw meat. Please do not add them to your expensive tropical fish, as those will quickly become fish chow.
Are they edible? Most say no way, but others say they are very good eating. There appears to be no middle ground. Personally, this angler has never tasted dogfish. Many people that eat them either brine and smoke them or grind them to make fish patties. The Cajuns favor them and have many recipes that sound wonderful, providing you like highly seasoned food. One recipe found said to coat the fillets with horse manure and cook until done. Next scrape off the manure, discard the fish, and eat what is left! Whatever you do, if you are lucky enough to land a bowfin, is up to you. How adventurous are you?