Updated: Dec 15, 2022
By David Graham - June 26, 2021
In 20 years of chasing Bowfin it seems that solid tips and techniques for specifically targeting them are still few and far between...
Anglers seeking to catch their first bowfin, are new to an area, or simply want to find more bowfin don't need to harp on the "how-to's" of rigging, bait selection, or other terminal tackle so much as the "where-to's" of finding them.
Coaxing the bowfin into a bite is not particularly difficult. They are extremely opportunistic feeders and will happily take soft plastics, hard plastics, dead... live... and cut baits presented in all areas of the water column - top, middle, and bottom... their teeth, jaw pressure, and habitat may demand certain terminal tackle requirements - but ultimately, rigging for this fish is pretty elementary.
Rather, anglers seeking to key in on bowfin need to look into ' competitive environmental arenas' that favor the bowfin. There are elemental factors that are beneficial to the proliferation of bowfin that can leave them hardly challenged by competitive species.
Key Factors: The bowfin is a bimodal breather - this evolutionary adaptation means that in low oxygen conditions, the bowfin can 'gulp' oxygen from the surface. In such conditions, the bowfin has this unique advantage over its competitors (largemouth bass for example). Anglers looking to find their first bowfin, or bigger numbers of bowfin, should look to take out the variable of competition. Therefore - your first agenda is seeking out oxygen depleted waters.
What are the signs? The quickest way to find oxygen depleted water systems is by scanning for nutrient rich soils. The tell tell sign is an abundance of vegetation. A slough - sluggish creek bed - or swamp can be found with the use of any laptop or smart phone device by scanning Google maps or other satellite mapping applications. In many cases - the historic range of an old river or creek with a now disrupted natural flow will twist and wind across the landscape like a highway. As such, following the route of these marked water systems can lead you to isolated pools that seldom see a steady flow of new water. Where creeks appear and disappear or sit idle as isolated lagoons and lakes there is often an abundance of vegetation that absorbs and depletes the water of its oxygen. In these environments, competitors like largemouth bass or other predators will either seek new areas or fail to be competitive with bowfin. Thus, a greater percentage of bites will be from your desired target.
Upon identifying these marked areas of creek bed or slough - zoom in.. look for areas where the swamp has formed in isolated pockets, pools and lakes. Keep in mind there is often more water than can be seen under the canopy of thick overhanging brush and trees. (Below - you can see evidence that some water bodies have gone eutrophic... see the bottom circled lagoon with an abundance of duckweed or other green on the surface) this is evidence of oxygen depleted water systems.
While this is not necessarily the preferred habitat of Bowfin - it is certainly a more advantageous environment. In these conditions, bowfin can flourish and grow in population with minimal opposition from competitive species. While this is beneficial to anglers looking to up their numbers or simply find better chances at just catching one... you may not necessarily find quality sized fish where the genetic strain is fraught with fish that didn't have to rely on any real size or strength to make it to a reproductive age.
Reaching your destination: Getting in front of unspoiled and unchallenged populations of bowfin may mean rolling up your pantlegs and doing a little work... especially if you have any hopes of hopping into isolated pools like those shown above. I can't recommend enough the use of small watercraft for this. I personally prefer a lightweight canoe. I use a Sportspal S-13 which is a light weight, super wide bodied aluminum canoe that weighs very little, but has a high weight capacity. The square stern allows me to mount a trolling motor or even a 3hp outboard. The big body of a canoe means I can tote more gear. The ability to pick up the canoe and drag it across dead sections of creek and into isolated pools opens up endless opportunity to reach unspoiled groups of fish that may have never seen a bait or lure.
Sluggish creeks like those shown above are ideal places to find bowfin. Because there is no consistent - regular flow, the deeper pools of the creek are isolated ponds much of the year. Where this lack of flow exists - excess vegetation in the water that dies will not be swept away, rather it falls to the bottom - the decomposition process consumes dissolved oxygen.
***Key in on visible riverbeds... especially where a river or creek body has no visibly continuous flow. Follow these green outlines - zoom in and search for isolated pockets of water!
Another method for finding areas with dissolved oxygen - and isolated and condensed populations of bowfin is scanning river systems notorious for seasonal flooding. Rivers that have dramatic peak and valley periods are often dotted along their margins with 'oxbow' lakes, or dead arms of where the river historically ran through the country.
These little margin ponds and lakes are often only replenished with seasonal rain, flooding, or ground water. With a little time and research - a simple Google search should reveal whether or not bowfin have been sampled by biology teams or by anglers in the main river system. Play a simple game of 'you're getting warm.... hotter... you're on fire'. Bowfin that exist within your local river will almost certainly inhabit that same river's runoff lakes, dead arms, and oxbow systems.
Growing up in South Carolina - I fished the Congaree River heavily. It is a pristine river system with all of the beautiful aesthetics of the deep south you could hope for. The range within the Congaree national forest in particular is scattered with numerous tiny oxbows and lagoons along its edges. The river can also hit a mean flood stage.
I remember through high school and college I would tote my jon boat to the Congaree - and literally tow my kayak upriver behind the boat... using google maps I would pull my jon boat up along the edge of river and tie off... then dismount my kayak and drag it through the forest up to a mile into the untouched oxbows. I caught many bowfin this way... but an experience like that goes beyond just catching the fish. The element of adventure in just FINDING the fish is satisfying beyond description. Looking for new bowfin waters often puts you in company with natures finest - where encounters with wildlife are at every turn.
Pulling my boat into the narrow opening of an old creek which lead into a hidden lagoon off the Congaree River in South Carolina
Accessing the oxbow lakes sometimes meant towing my kayak behind the boat - then dragging it over land and into the lake. Occasionally, access roads may be close enough to the oxbow to park your vehicle and walk in from there on foot.
Guys... searching for oxygen depleted water has A LOT of advantages if you're just looking to find a few fish and quick. This isn't the method for trophy hunting, you may not find the biggest fish. But, this method takes away a lot of the guess work. Because bowfin are surfacing more frequently and more aggressively for oxygen where there is depleted oxygen, you will get a visible confirmation of their presence in most cases. Even the sight of other bimodal fish like gar are a good sign that bowfin lie below, as the two species exist convergently almost everywhere. Where there is one, there is often the other.
When I started searching for bowfin 20 years ago - finding them was largely a 'boots on the ground' affair. I started almost entirely from square one.... zero information... entirely by trial and error. Today, however, we have seemingly unlimited technology at our fingertips. One amazing application you can download for FREE to your smart phone is the FishBrain App. There is no need to get any premium access or anything - the app is equipped with interactive mapping systems that allow you to peruse the landscape at your fingertip, filtering out the exact species you want to search for in precise locations.
As awesome of a tool that this may be - keep in mind you are relying on the honesty of a fisherman in WHERE he/she is catching their fish... so, take that with a grain of salt, have a healthy skepticism. Nevertheless, a broader view of the app will at the very least tell you that you are NEAR bowfin. In many cases I will scan the landscape on my own via google maps, mark areas that look promising - and may find the same area on Fishbrain to see if anyone else has had luck there, or atleast nearby. A great tool for confirmation - and another way to take away some of the guess work!
Now... This is but ONE method of finding bowfin. It is not to say you cannot or will not find bowfin in oxygen rich water with consistent flow of current. They can be found in large numbers in the chilly, crystal clear ultra-oxygen rich waters of natural springs... They can and WILL be found in main bodies of river systems and major lakes as well. This is simply a method for finding unchallenged populations of bowfin that are not sharing the environment with competitive species like largemouth bass. In these areas - you will find good numbers of fish, but not necessarily the BIG ones. This is because as generations of fish are spawned out - they are growing without challenge. Smaller, slower, weaker fish are able to pass their genetics on without challenge.
Still, an important piece of advice for those who are looking to up their odds of finding their first - or simply dial in new areas where the action may come a little faster.