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Bowfin: A Deeper Appreciation

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

By David Graham: 12-7-2021

We need to really start talking about just how bad ass this fish is. Talk of bowfin - and bowfin in the media always hits on a few obligatory casual statements...

"they can breathe air" "they are prehistoric" - just for example

But things like that cant be stated casually... to say something is prehistoric should stop you in your tracks. It requires a deeper appreciation and perspective. The bowfin has fossil records dating them back over 100 million years! - turning up somewhere on the evolutionary ladder in the transitional period between the Jurassic and early cretaceous period. That's not a casual factoid - that is a mind-blowing and truly incredible fact and to really know and understand where they came from and what they've gone through to get here is a 'knock you on your ass' statement.

We need to consider what the world looked like 100 million years ago - and everything that has happened since then. Given that the bowfin has been around literally since the time of mega fauna - earth's dinosaurs - that by default means they survived the catastrophic event that ended roughly 75% of all plant and animal life on earth some 65 million years ago. What came after that period was a freakin ice age... The bowfin predates the existence of mankind by over 100 million years - they rode the tides of continental drift... witnessed the formation of our continent, and predate its colonialism by an incomprehensible amount of time.

Now we can appreciate just how long this species has been on earth - but considering what the animals of the earth looked back then only makes their survival more impressive. The bowfin spawned into existence during the period of earth's super predators - when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This was a period of unimaginable beasts of proportions we can scarcely imagine... when natural selection DEMANDED that creatures become bigger, faster, and stronger. The Xiphactinus for example was a late cretaceous period predatory fish that grew to 17 feet long and looked something like an enormous tarpon with razor sharp teeth.... the bowfin outlived it.

Today we see shades of the past in fellow survivors like crocodilians, sharks, or even giant sturgeon and alligator gar in the North American freshwater realm.

Josh Dolin (@haverods_willtravel) with a big white sturgeon

Still, while the bowfin paralleled these animals historically - they did so without the advantage of immense size or armored hide. They needed to compensate in other ways. To encounter a bowfin on the end of one's line is to bare witness to the tenacity and ferocity once utilized to evade and escape monsters beyond our imagination. What the bowfin lacks in size it makes up for with bursts of energy and aggression possessed by no other fish of equal size.

Today the bowfin continues to thrive - unlike many of its prehistoric counterparts, its not threatened or in decline. Its evolutionary perfection was reached millions of years ago... and while the very term 'prehistoric' can be confused with archaic or outdated, the bowfin attained advanced characteristics that continue to help it survive ever changing climate conditions, habitat encroachment, and new 'competitive' species both introduced and naturally evolved.

I love the pursuit of this fish - because each opportunity to encounter one is a rare chance to get a glimpse into a forgotten time - to look into the eyes of a fish as a lens into the past. A tried and tested warrior fish that has seen every obstacle we could imagine and continues to thrive.


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