Updated: Dec 15, 2022
By David Graham: 1-29-2022
My last deep dive into bowfin fishing centered around methods for finding more bowfin. But trophy hunting doesn't always mean going to the places loaded with fish. There is a distinct thrill in catching the 'big one' that anglers share across all spectrums despite how different we all are. So I want to share some of the techniques or approaches I use to finding BIG bowfin. In my recent article 'Finding More Bowfin' the primary approach was keying in on oxygen depleted waters that favored the bowfin from a competitive standpoint, mostly due to their ability to breathe surface oxygen. We have to look at every body of water as a competitive arena, and the environmental factors that balance it. In oxygen depleted waters, the bowfin has a competitive edge over other predators and prey that allows them to proliferate mostly unchallenged. As I stated in that article though, that means sometimes you'll find smaller fish in those areas... because the fish are not having to rely on any great size or strength to make it to reproductive maturity. The smaller fish are encountering one another more frequently and and therefore able to pass on weaker genetic traits more often. So, if the target is finding BIGGER fish, you have to look at the ecosystem as a balanced whole. Interspecies 'competition', availability of diverse food sources etc... Where different predatory species occupy the same territory, natural selection will demand some species to get bigger, faster, and stronger. With that in mind, anglers looking to find big trophy bowfin should look for healthier bodies of water with quality sizes and populations of multiple species of fish. A stagnant blackwater swamp wont fit the bill... Below is a comprehensive breakdown on where to find bigger bowfin in lakes, rivers, and creeks.
Lakes The bowfin is an opportunistic-ambush style predator. They will invariably be within or in close proximity to weeds and heavy cover just by nature of how they have evolved... finding heavy vegetation should be objective number 1 - but I have found bowfin, especially large female bowfin, like deeper pools to be readily accessible. If you can find wide expansions of weedy flats with isolated pockets or cuts of uncharacteristically deep water for the area, the larger bowfin tend to concentrate on the weedy edges of those drop offs. You hear about a lot of bowfin being caught near boat ramps, marinas, and public access places... because in those areas there are often man made navigable channels that have been dredged out... When I fish lakes, I key in on those man made navigable channels because they often times cut through shallow weedy flats. See the example below..
Now, the bowfin could be along the shoreline of the channel itself, OR they will be just inside the intermittent openings into the shallow flats. Because those little openings are a funnel point for unsuspecting prey - and an ideal ambush point for a predator like the bowfin.
The photos above are areas I have personally fished. Excellent examples of a weedy flat with immediate access to deeper water at a funneling point. Most predators will favor this area, not just bowfin. Man made navigable channels are usually made to give boaters a route to cross shallow or otherwise treacherous areas... but the pattern here is simply finding weedy areas that are within range to deeper waters. Many lakes are fed by rivers and creeks, or have dead arms of what once WERE rivers or creeks. Those areas have natural channel basins below the surface that offer the same deeper waters with grassy shallow margins. The example below is Lake Istokpoga (Florida), which has a healthy and balanced population of very big bass, and some enormous bowfin as well. The example below shows a dynamic area with all three elements I just mentioned... all surrounded by a big expansion of grass flats.
In these areas, anglers should again key in on the grassy areas with the closest proximity to the deeper cut throughs. Below is a good example of a public access point where we often see bank anglers catch bowfin (I fished this lake when I was a kid living in Arkansas). That is because these navigable channels run across weedy flats. Here you see an amazing bowfin habitat by the visible natural channel of a creek. Big bowfin will stage on the grass margins right off of this channel.
Rivers and Creeks I use a similar approach in larger river systems to find big bowfin. I will search for grassy margins with quick access to deeper water... and areas that are ideal ambush points. In larger river systems I look for grassy coves, river arms, and creek mouths. The example below is along one of my local rivers where I have caught some very big bowfin. This stretch of river has many of the features I look for all within short range of each-other. This stretch of river is extremely diverse - with bass, stripers, snook, tarpon, jack crevalle, longnose gar, Florida gar, catfish, even juvenile bullsharks... not to mention the predatory wading birds and alligators - all coexisting together with bowfin... with all of that, a bowfin better get bigger, faster, and stronger quick!
The mouth of creek tributaries is an ideal setup for bowfin - where access to deeper water is available, and oxygen rich water is pushing baitfish through. Where shallow weedy waters sit at the margin of the mouth - bowfin are generally staged there, and travel into and out of the creek seasonally. While the bowfin may travel deep into these creeks and arms - focus your efforts on the mouth of these zones which are the hot spot funnel zones. In most cases, bowfin and other ambush predators will be lying in wait in the grasses along these edges. Its the optimum ambush zone where the biggest and baddest lay claim to the best seat.
Below would be another great target zone - just outside of this navigable channel there are two dead arms/coves off the main river. Both of them are completely loaded with water hyacinth. Water hyacinth sits on the surface, meaning there is an enormous underwater ecosystem below the floating mass that will attract fish like bowfin. Here the bowfin have a safe haven where they can ambush prey, but also relatively close access to deeper, flowing water.
Creeks Creek fishing for bowfin can be very productive - but sometimes creeks only provide good numbers, and fewer BIG fish. I have found that creeks with consistent (but slow) flow of current offer better chances at big bowfin. Sluggish or stagnant lowland creeks, or creeks with seasonally interrupted flow often have lower oxygen content - and thus provide a less competitive environment for bowfin. In more sluggish, oxygen depleted creeks, there are often good numbers, but fewer quality sized fish. Creeks within close proximity to their main source of water - be it a main river or lake - generally have the best flow, higher oxygen content, and deeper pools, food sources, and more competitive predatory species. While its sometimes hard to ascertain where the scattered deep holes of a small creek are from google maps, there are indicators to where they may be. Many smaller lowland creeks that cut through cypress forests have unusually deep holes scattered along the the edges. I have fished very narrow creeks that ran mostly no deeper than 5 feet, but found random holes up to 20 feet in the most unassuming areas. As a general rule of thumb, the deepest areas will be on the outside of the sharpest bends. In the summer months these isolated deep pools are the coolest temperature points of the river and attract a lot of forage species. You can also look for large bulges or pockets in the creek from maps view. often times there are eddy pools here and deeper depressions. See one example below.
On a smaller scale - tributary creeks, like bigger rivers, will have smaller streams and creek arms that stem off of them. These arms and stems are catching points for debris that flow down stream. The example below shows a large bulge in a creek where a deeper pool is with a dead end style arm stemming off of it. That arm has amassed an enormous gathering of hyacinth that again, creates a perfect environment for bowfin to hide and ambush prey.
Approach with Cut/chunk Bait Now - if you are able to identify these key areas... you also need to know how to fish them. Big bowfin are experienced and intelligent. For the sake of simply trying to encounter one, bait fishing is the easy first step. Because larger bowfin often live in areas balanced with other large predators - I tend to lean towards dead or cut baits when I am specifically targeting quality sized bowfin. A big female bowfin LOVES large chunk bait.
A chunk bait is less likely to get intercepted by another predator species
Stationary cut baits will remain exactly where you want them to and are easy to control - unlike a lively bait that will often times swim into nearby snags - so placing one tight to a grass margin is easier.
You can cut bait to the size an dimension you so choose
A cut or stationary bait may not attract an aggressive response. A big bowfin might not feel compelled to commit to the bite when its not reacting to the erratic movement of a live bait.
If there are catfish in the area, you may be in for a long day of stolen baits. I have caught more quality sized bowfin on fresh cut - locally caught bait than on anything else. While a bowfin will take store bought baits farmed from God only knows where, or even frozen shrimp, I am a firm believer that you can eliminate the uncertainties of a picky eating monster by catching fresh bait from the same waters you will be fishing. If I cannot catch bait from the same water, I will at the very least try to catch native bait somewhere nearby, and keep it alive up until the point I plan on putting it in the water. This approach gives several advantages - one being simple familiarity. A large bowfin will have less to be cautious of when they recognize what's infront of them. Bowfin have a very acute sense of smell, far superior than other species. They can sense fresh cut bait from far away - and they know when something is amiss. A large, well-fed bowfin clearly has options... and is more likely to pass on older or unusual baits. There is very little that can be done to weed out the unwanted catfish (or bullhead) bites on cut bait. What I can say though, is you have a marginally better chance at keeping them away with fresher bait. Big, smart bowfin are more likely to turn their nose up at an older stinky bait as opposed to a catfish... at the same time, a catfish will detect the odor of older mushier bait much quicker than it will a freshly cut chunk of bait that was just alive moments ago. Strategy I do a lot of my fishing out of a canoe or boat - something that gives me the ability to reach more remote or unpressured areas. When bait fishing I will typically run up to 4-5 rods at a time and fan an area out.
Shown below is an example of how I typically set up outside of the 'funnel' point type areas I showed earlier. placing baits right at the grassy margins (lilly pads in the photo below). I may even place a bait right in the middle of the through-point where fish may be entering into and out of the channel, creek arm or whatever.
Below is an example as shown from earlier in a lake - grassy flat right outside of a navigable channel. I try to place baits right where the drop off from the grassy flat goes down into the channel.
An advantage to running multiple lines is also to ascertain what area the bowfin are actually held up in. I try to fan out in all elements - like below... working the edges of the hyacinth mat, out towards the main channel, in the middle of the deeper hole, or up against the bank. Once I start getting play on the line in one particular area I know where to direct all lines.
As a general rule of thumb... bigger baits mean bigger fish. But the reality is simply that bigger baits keep the smaller fish at bay. A huge bowfin will still eat a small bait, but its not going to be able to if something smaller gets there first. I like to use larger chunks of bait just to weed out the smaller fish. I like the head, or the first chunk after the head (the one with all the guts) best. I have found that scaling your chunk bait, knocking all scales off, releases the oils and scent from the flesh easier, and incites the bowfin to swallow the bait quicker. A scaly bait will get chewed longer, and then you run the risk also of a stray scale winding up on your hook point. Here in Florida we have very big Tilapia, in some cases a filet or chunked filets are my absolute favorite!
This same approach will work well with live baits. A live bait will trigger a much more aggressive and urgent predatory response from a bowfin - but again, controlling multiple live baits at the same time is hard, and the impulses those baits send out into the water may attract a lot of unwanted attention. Keeping a cut bait on the bottom keeps it out of the field of vision from more vision oriented predators that are typically patrolling the higher parts of the water column. **This style of fishing will require a lot of patience... if you're in an area catching one after another, you're probably not in an area with challenged populations of bowfin - you're going to find a lot of small or average fish. I will keep baits in the water atleast 45 minutes to an hour minimum with no bite before moving or trying something different.
The Tackle and Gear I can't necessarily suggest any fancy setups with a bowfin. They don't require any highly technical rigging. I run medium-heavy to heavy inshore spinning tackle spooled with 40-50lb braided line. The purpose of the braid is to be able to extract the dogged fighting bowfin away from the refuge of weeds and other snags quickly, and to get a direct line of pressure with no stretch to the hookset. I use a basic sliding float rig - I really like unweighted balsa floats. I have been using a 5 inch Thill float above a 3~ foot 40lb flourocarbon leader. I have found that a 3 foot section of heavy braid or dacron is just as effective though. Unweighted balsa floats are very streamlined, lightweight floats that slide across the surface with very little resistance. The aim should be minimizing resistance to avoid dropped baits.
The flouro will serve mostly as an abrasion resistance measure to the teeth of the fish and any potential hazards from snags below the surface. My go-to hook is a 1/0 Octopus hook. Anything bigger really isn't necessary. It is low profile enough to keep a weary fish from dropping it, but sturdy enough to hold up against even a really big bowfin. You'll still end up going through a lot of hooks though... the bony interior of the bowfin's mouth will curl the tip of most hooks rendering them useless... so I buy 100-piece packs off Amazon.
I have really gotten into baitrunner options. With bigger chunk baits I like to give the fish at least some leeway to run with the bait (as much as is safe around heavy cover) ... flipping the leaver arm right at the point of hookset. I find fumbling around with an open bail or trying to tighten and loosen drags before setting the hook is too distracting and leaves more room for error. Next time you are out targeting trophy bowfin, take all these things into consideration. The bowfin is a swamp dweller, but it doesn't mean you have to go to the deep swamp to find them. Search for BIG bowfin in the shallow grassy regions in healthy lakes, rivers, and creeks near deeper water patrolled by other predators and prey. Look for dynamic environments where bowfin have competitors, ample food, and predators of their own. Key in on elements like this that weed out the weak and meager, and have a healthier genetic strain as a result.