Why Cut Bait Is Better Than Live Bait For Bowfin
By David Graham: 11-7-2022
Dead, alive, flesh or plastic... if its in the path of a big hungry bowfin, it's really quite irrelevant. We don't need to complicate things with bowfin fishing... they are as opportunistic as they come. The interest I have in this species has never been in the tactics, its purely the opportunity to encounter the fish and show my respect to the species that turned me into an angler.
Still, there are approaches that will up the odds - or at the very least cut out some of the variables that might interfere with a bowfin finding your presentation - whatever that may be. When it comes to using bait - I prefer it cut and bloody!
Bowfin are indeed a predator... but they will just as happily grab dead baits. A cut bait will offer a lot of advantages over a live bait just by nature of the environment you find bowfin living in.
Invariably... more bowfin will be found around some kind of mess. Weeds, timber, and muck of all sorts. It is their nature to hug close to cover and concealment both for their own protection, and also for their advantage as an ambush style predator. Their tendency to stay inside or nearby dense vegetation and other structure serves a major disadvantage to the use of a live bait.
Live baits like minnows, shiners, crayfish etc. have a survivors instinct. They will kick, crawl, thrash and move around. While this does send out pulses into the water that a bowfin can detect - and will certainly draw an aggressive bite response... the same instinct your bait fish has to survive will draw them into the snags.
With bowfin, you need to stay close to the cover, within a few feet... but a live bait will more likely find its way wrapped around limbs and find shelter and hiding spots down in the grass. You will not be able to control where the bait is set up as easily.
If you are absolutely keen on catching a bowfin, and don't want the headache of by-catch... eliminate the predatory response of local competitors. A live bait wiggling around is subject to assaults from bass, pickerel, pike, gar, and anything else that sees fit to consume it. A stationary dead or cut bait on bottom will not be hassled to the same degree as a frantic bait fish that will be triggering a response from virtually every other species in sight.
Playing To Their Senses
A live bait does send pulses through the water that can be detected by the lateral line of nearby predators and trigger an aggressive reaction... but again, we want to eliminate the attention of the other fish. Bowfin rely very little on a sense of vision... they are a short range predator with a small bite radius. What they lack in vision though they make up for with a very advanced sense of smell. A bowfin that has picked up the scent of a cut bait or injured fish will wander around in search of it.
With a smaller baitfish like a bluegill, or any other hand sized species of fish, I will use chunks. Descale the bait. Scaling a bait will expose the oils from the flesh better - and eliminates the risk of a stray scale getting on the point of the hook. Scent will freely wash from the flesh of the fish easier this way.
A descaled chunk of bait is softer to the bite, easier to chew. The fish will take the bait in quicker to swallow if its not having to spit scales.
I like the head - or the portion of chunk with the body cavity in it (where the guts are). These sections really put that scent cloud out into the water.
On larger bait fish like a large tilapia or mullet - I will use fillets. Having more of the fillet exposed is optimal... but leave skin on one side! Descale the fillet, but leave the skin. The skin on the fillet is tough and durable - it holds a hook well.
In the most ideal situation - I am fishing for bowfin in very sluggish moving water... not totally stagnant pools. I like a little bit of flow either provided by the natural movement of swamps or the circular motion of an eddy pocket... somewhere the scent will be carried or circulated past the nose of a hungry bowfin - and draw them out.
Precision and Manageability
Because a cut bait doesn't move.. you can put it exactly where you want it. In most cases I will fish multiple rods and hit different sections of a water body to figure out where they're at. I may stick a bait mere inches from a grass line, right off a drop off, or at the edge of timber. I can stay as close to the snags as I want without the fear of the bait swimming its way into it.
Once I figure out where most of my bites are coming from, I can direct the other lines to similar areas. Multiple lines in this scenario are more easily managed and controlled compared to a live bait that is either moving itself, or more likely to be taken by other species of fish.
Maintaining The Bait
Another convenient factor with cut bait is the ease of maintaining it. Unlike a live bait... you don't have to care for it or keep it alive! Cut bait can be kept and stored frozen or refrigerated if you have leftovers for days at a time. Still, best practice for me has always been keeping the bait alive until the point of use. I will often keep a livewell with cichlids, bluegill, or live tilapia with me. Depending on their size it will give me the option of using them live or chunked. Keeping them alive until use will ensure you have the freshest bait possible. I have always been a proponent of fresh bait over older stinky bait. I feel very strongly that bowfin prefer a good clean fresh bait.
Keep this in mind next time you want to go out in search of bowfin! While the sit-and-wait approach of bait fishing often gets a bad rap from the artificial only guys... its simply a different way to pursue a fish that can be caught on many different methods. There is a time and place to spend time along the water just sitting idly, reflecting, and appreciating things.