By David Graham (featuring Drew Price and David Hurley): 1-2-2024
Could the maligned bowfin finally be experiencing a renaissance of sorts? While still flying below the radar - the species seems to have come a very long way in the last 10-20 years. I would credit that to the efforts of a lot of diehard and vocal anglers with platforms and influence that have taken the stand for this incredible fish in recent times.
Fly anglers really seem to be embracing and promoting the pursuit of unique new species willing to throw-down on a lure or 'fly'... and any angler seeking a first rate battle that should be fortunate enough to find a bowfin at the end of their line will generally fall in line and eagerly sing the praises of this awesome species.
Long thought of as a bait thieving bottom feeder - the bowfin is an opportunistic species of fish that will absolutely seize on the opportunity to inhale an artificial lure or fly. The tough/bony structure of their mouth, immense jaw pressure, narrow strike radius, and uncanny ability to hide in plain sight makes them a unique challenge to fly anglers.
Because of the tough/bony jaw structure and mean set of shoulders... the typical suggestion for bowfin are 6 to 9 weight rods. Drew Price, who has chased this fish for over 20 years, feels the 8 weight is that perfect sweet spot.
" an 8 weight has a lot of backbone for when they head into the bush and for larger fish. I have heard people claim you need heavier but I completely disagree. When you get lighter it works but I like having the strength to yank them back when you need to. I think a stiffer rod is important in most situations. It will allow you to get a better hook set." - Drew Price
Still, in a more open water setting there are opportunities to go a bit lighter. David Hurley favors a 6wt... but states that in scenarios where the approach is more like vertically jigging or 'dapping' a heavier or stiffer rod is better.
"The fly rod, unlike most conventional rods, is far more parabolic and when forced into a “trout-set” won’t give you the leverage needed for a sturdy hook set." Hurley
The reel itself is secondary in importance to the rod. This is not a species that will take off on long blistering runs. The game here is getting the fish to the net as fast as possible all while contending with an absolutely chaotic and sporadic fight among heavy cover.
"Countless times I have had them go into lilies and they somehow pull the fly out and lodge it in a stem. You think it is still on but they sneak away- sometimes even coming back to see what stung them!" -Drew Price
Because the pursuit of bowfin by fly is often done as a close quarter visual pursuit, fly line is less important than the leader itself.
"I typically only have less than a foot of line out of the rod tip while hunting. I do prefer to use a line like the Orvis Bankshot which gives more flexibility for casting when there are opportunities to do that. What is important is the leader. It is short. No more than 5 foot. More frequently I use a 3 to 4 foot leader. I use a short piece of heavier tippet on the loop of the line- 20-30 lb, maybe a foot or so" Drew Price.
Price's setup is beneficial in preventing the loop on the fly line from being cut by the tippet itself. He suggests the use of a swivel or tippet ring... or a simply blood knot to attach the 2-4 foot flourocarbon (12-20lb). Bowfin are not known for being line shy. Price and Hurley are consistent in this assessment. The teeth of bowfin are more conical, not designed for cutting, so a bite tippet is not necessary unless in scenarios where the trip could become a multi-species endeavor that includes fish like pike or musky.
Aside from the terminal tackle and obvious gear needed to catch bowfin on the fly. Several other pieces of gear should be taken into consideration. Because the nature of the pursuit of bowfin on fly is largely visual - anglers shouldn't leave home without a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Look to find a pair that will provide high contrast of color, where a stationary bowfin sitting on bottom will stick out as much as possible.
Drew Price specifically suggests amber, brown, or yellow hues. The necessity of a good pair of polarized sunglasses was echoed by Hurley, who specifically favors Maui Jim HT lenses for cutting glare.
Hard tools like long nosed pliers/hemos, and a set of jaw spreaders will help navigate the problem of a bowfin's powerful toothy jaws when retrieving a fly from its mouth. Be mindful though bowfin will often thrash and deathroll when handled - and a fish held with something like a metal boga style grips could damage itself.
A durable landing net will be critical as well. Bowfin are not the kind of fish you want to 'lip' by the thumb! Getting the fish landed as quickly as possible is key.
Bowfin are very opportunistic predators that will generally not turn down an easy meal that comes close. The focus in presentation should be more around getting the fly into the strike radius of the fish in the firstplace. One of the most effective methods for catching bowfin on the fly will be visually seeing them, and then using a heavy fly to "dap" in front of the fish. Bowfin generally have a short strike radius not much wider than the length of their own body.
"I have come to rely on very specific hooks that are short shank and heavy wire. I have most recently been using the Kona Big Game Hunter in sizes 2-3/0. It has been a great hook. The key takeaway is to have a short shank hook since longer shank hooks give a leverage advantage to the fish in the fight. The shorter shank also allows for a quicker hook set in my opinion. Weight is key for what I do. I use tungsten or lead eyes on the front of the hook, Clouser style (hook point up). On top of that I fill the space between the eyes and the hook bend with lead wire. They are real bombs." - Drew Price
Price began using his own custom pattern called the "Mr. Bow-Regard" years ago specifically for this approach. In recent years he developed the "Mr. Bow Squiggly" as well. Two flies specifically designed to entice the bite of a bowfin. Price also cites the use of Changer Craws, other Game Changer style flies, wooly buggers, carp flies.
In the crystal clear flats of Michigan's great lakes bowfin, David Hurley has made similar observations.
"My experience is they aren’t too picky with fly patterns. It’s the mechanics of the fly and hook that become important in getting the fly effectively in the zone and keeping the bowfin hooked. I’ve had plenty of luck on black and bright colored patterns. I prefer something that has contrast to the environment you’re fishing in that can be more easily detected by you and the fish" - David Hurley
Hurley utilizes weighted flies no bigger than 2-3" with medium dumbbell eyes. Something like a Flats Jordan fly can be used to mimic anything form a goby to a crayfish. The front of the fly has a small shank where the dumbbell eyes are tied and it is then attached to a hook that completes the back of the fly making it lay the hook up like a clouser but articulated. The free range articulated swivel action of the hook appears to help it find softer parts of the bowfin’s mostly bony mouth.
"The most important thing is the sharpness and diameter of the hook. You shouldn’t go too thick or big with bowfin hooks. This is often the biggest mistake I see when people tie flies specifically for bowfin. A thinner, smaller (size 6-4) quality hook will do a much better job staying in place. Something I really can’t explain but if I had to guess it has to do with the small amount of tissue real estate from the palate to the lips. The smaller hook is able to dig in more effectively and stay hooked. Jaw spreaders and quality hemostats are a must". - Hurley
While it isn't always so difficult to get a bowfin to bite, keeping them hooked up is another story! A proper hookset is key in this game. David Hurley guides seasonally for the species and has hosted fly anglers from all over the country.
"I coach my clients to strip set and keep pressure at all times. It’s important to keep the head in the water. They have a tendency to thrash on top which is usually when they throw the hook. Since we sneak up on them, we do a lot of close combat boat-side fishing for them where the bowfin is awkwardly close". - David Hurley
Fly rods being 9 feet can pose a challenge when the fish is 3-6 feet off the bow in 2 feet of water. Price suggests stripping the 7-9ft leader into the eyes of the rod, leaving as little as two feet of leader out of the tip. This gives a vertical leverage advantage for a hook set, but the key here is to do a big strip set while technically "trout setting" on the bowfin. This must immediately be followed by continuiing to strip tight, keeping the rod pointed at the fish and minimizing rod bend.
Generally in Spring as water temperatures start to creep into the mid 60's, bowfin will begin to creep up into shallow vegetated flats in preparation for spawning and bedding. This will be the best opportunity to find males and big females up shallow and more visible. Most bowfin will remain in and around shallow vegetated flats for the entire summer though.
Drew Price typically looks for fish in water 3 feet or less with heavy weed cover. In springtime during higher waters they may venture off into flooded forests, swamps, and marshes. This is where the water warms up first each season.
The thrill of fly fishing for bowfin is in the pursuit. Chasing bowfin is much like hunting, and requires a thorough and careful combing observation of the waters they live in.
"Careful placement will often lead to a grab. Jig the fly to get the reaction you are looking for. You will see their dorsal come up and undulate before the strike. They routinely do what I call the "smash and grab". They hit the fly do a 180 and take off." - Drew Price
The bowfin is a tremendous native species that American anglers should take pride in and test themselves against. They present a number of unique challenges that have seen them survive the test of time and a recent shift in perception among anglers. Special thanks to Drew Price of Masterclass Angling. and David Hurley for expanding on their knowledge of fly fishing for bowfin!