By David Graham: January 31, 2023
Now, we have covered several topics and approaches with regards to bowfin on this site...
.... but we have to address artificial lures! When it comes to lure fishing for bowfin, there are some key factors to consider.
Vibration/Noise - Bowfin rely heavily on their sense of smell and vibration. What they seem to lack in great vision, they make up for with a very strong sense of smell and feel of vibration. For the same reason as vibration, any noisy lure that rattles, clacks, or disturbs the surface will attract the attention of a curious bowfin.
Speed - Bowfin are an ambush predator. They stage in dense cover waiting to use extremely fast bursts of short range speed to attack. Fast moving lures may pass through the short strike range too quickly for bowfin, resulting in more missed opportunities. Fish noisy and erratic lures at a slower pace, give bowfin the opportunity to find and react to your lures.
Weedless Application - Lures need to be suited towards the environment these fish are overwhelmingly found in. The bowfin's nature is to be in and around heavy vegetation and cover. To really pick apart an area and thoroughly search for bowfin with lures - weedless application will really be key!
As detailed in my article 'Finding More Bowfin', bowfin will invariably found near heavy vegetation, timber, snags and 'muck' in general. This is a variable that really does not change with this species. Ideally, artificial lures for bowfin will be designed to fish in and around structure and weeds. (ie, weedless)
Topwater Frogs/Topwater lures:
Frogs and other topwater lures are generally best in Spring - when water temperatures are in the low to mid 60's. This is when male and females will spend more time in the shallows in preparation for spawn. While the shallow water bite will remain most of the summer, often times the larger females retreat into deeper grass margins.
Bowfin are notorious for crushing frog lures. Bass anglers throwing frogs around shallow pad fields will often experience the ferocious strike of a bowfin. I have found a stop and go retrieve most effective when frogging for bowfin. Popping frogs, or frogs used on a broken retrieve are excellent lures for bowfin.
Keep in mind that bowfin need time to react to disturbances on the surface of the water. Topwater lures that require a steady retrieve without stop will often pass over and by a bowfin too quickly for them to react... or must pass immediately over them in order to draw a response at all. Popping frogs, or any topwater lure that can stop and go, and be worked slower and more methodically may be the better option for bringing bowfin out of hiding to search for your lure. Bowfin will not generally torpedo across the water from 15 feet away on a fast moving surface lure... but that is not to say they never do that. I generally will not use frogs or other topwater lures in more than 3-4 feet of water, as bowfin won't generally travel much more than twice their body length to find a lure.
A weedless chatterbait really hits all the marks that drive a bowfin crazy. Chatterbaits will generate a vibration and noise that bowfin are keenly sensitive too. Rigged weedless with any trailer that will provide additional flash or motion, chatterbaits can be slow rolled and even jigged around in the thick stuff. Similarly, spinnerbaits offer the same advantages - with chatterbaits maybe having the advantage in grass.
These are great 'search baits' when trying to find fish all Summer. In the heat of the Summer bowfin will stay in and around shallow grass, but they want easy access to deeper pools of 5+ feet of water. Chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, or other bladed baits will be ideal for working any depth level on hot summer days in search of where the fish are staged. Look for long grass lines on a slope, or steep drop into deeper water. Bomb long casts parallel to the grass line and slow roll bladed baits along the edges.
I will throw crawfish all year long in any season... on hot summer days especially when the sun is high and fish are bedded deep in the weeds, I like picking grass mats apart with weedless creature baits and softplastics. As water temps cool off - or I find more fish are holding in deeper pools at any point of the season I like using craw patterns and other weedless plastics on bottom. A major part of the bowfin's natural diet is crayfish. They spend a great deal of their time on or near the bottom - in close proximity to the same vegetation and timber that crayfish hide in. Bouncing soft plastics and jigs around the bottom in thick cover is an extremely effective method of catching bowfin,
Look for holes in grass mats or thick beds of hydrilla to pitch/punch with finesse jigs, Texas rigged creature baits, or virtually any other crayfish like pattern. Soft plastic worms will work just as well. I really like weedless free moving hardhead jigs. Separately attached weedless hooks mounted to the football head weight will allow the plastic bait to move more freely through the water.
A disadvantage here is that larger/healthier bowfin can be very investigative and cautious of lures when benefitted with options... their acute sense of smell can be the difference between a bite and an upturned nose. In some cases, artificial scents and salt could benefit your slower presented lures!
I will generally try a weighted/weedless soft plastic in any scenario... but particularly when bowfin are down deeper in weedy beds - or deeper weeded waters 4 feet more more. A soft plastic craw pattern is also my go-to in situations where I can visibly sight cast to bowfin. Being able to pitch a soft plastic to specific target fish and control the movement or rate of speed exactly as I like right up to their face.
While bowfin do possess a jaw full of teeth - their teeth are not designed for cutting. Conical, inward facing teeth like that of a python - bowfin teeth hold and don't allow prey to slip out. Still, some kind of abrasion resistance is important in part because of their teeth, but also because of the environment they live in. If their teeth and erratic twisting, shaking, and tailwalking don't sheer through your line - all of the weeds, timber, and other snags they live near will.
I would recommend atleast a 40lb flourocarbon leader for abrasion resistance. You should not be so concerned with a leader shy bowfin... As of late, however, I have actually moved to using a heavier braided 'leader'. I have been using 100-150lb sections of thick braided line as leaders for bait rigs and lures alike.
I like how pliable braid is... you can use this as a rig to help avoid cut offs without losing some of the action and movement you would want in your lure - all without worrying about whether the fish will be spooked by the sight of the leader itself. Braid seems to hand being spiraled and twisted better than flouro or mono lines as well, considering the bowfin's habit of deathrolling... Because bowfin fishing is generally a close quarter game of yanking fish away from snags, you need extra power behind a quick tug from the snags.
Rod and reel
In scenarios where the fish are holding inside of thick cover, I suggest your typical flipping setup. A 7'6 heavy power, fast action rod is perfect for bowfin fishing. Not known to spook easily, you can actively pitch and jig with this setup right over the top of ideal beds of grass and heavy cover. Your typical low-profile, high gear baitcasting reel will be perfect for accurately picking apart grass beds much the same as would be done while pitching and flipping for bass.
Where longer casts down grass margins are working - a basic 6'9 med. heavy baitcasting setup with fast action will be suitable to send long straight casts and retrieves with something like a spinnerbait or chatterbait.
For the most part, a 6'5 to 7'0 med-heavy spinning rod and a 4000 size spin reel will be versatile and simple enough to get the job done with these fish. I often use a sturdier spin rod designed for inshore saltwater fishing. A sturdy rod/backbone is key to drive a strong hookset through the bony structure of the bowfin's mouth.
By their nature, bowfin are ambush predators. They are at home, and most efficient where there is dense vegetation. Bowfin will either be inside of, or right outside of grass lines. On cloudy days or otherwise lowlight conditions, look for bowfin to be on the move and patrolling outside of the grass lines. On overcast or windy days I will generally opt for a more fast paced approach, fishing parallel to grass lines and bombing long casts with a spinnerbait or chatterbait to slow roll down the grass edge.
On flat, sunny days... bowfin will often times be bedded down seeking shade and concealment. On these conditions I like a slower, more methodical approach. Punching pads with a jig'n pig, or other weighted-weedless craw pattern. Look for holes in hydrilla, pads, or hyacinth. Sometimes a second or third cast into the same exact location will draw the bite. Bowfin, despite being considered an aggressive predator, will usually not move far out of their way to find your bait, especially while bedded down... it will need to cross right infront of their face within 12 inches oftentimes. This means for every patch of thick grass, hydrilla, hyacinth, pads or whatever, you should be looking to thoroughly comb 90% of the fishable area. It could be your 3rd or 4th cast to the same hole before getting hit.
The most ideal circumstance to fish for bowfin will be visibly casting to a specific fish. Because bowfin have such a short strike radius and stay close to cover and concealment, blind fishing for them can be very challenging. In Springtime and some Summer occasions on a grass flat, shallow canal or creek, sight fishing is best.
Stay slow and keenly aware... bowfin can be incredibly difficult to spot if they are sitting totally idle. Bowfin are also not quick to spook off, in many cases... you are not casting at all, but literally dropping a lure directly on them from right at your feet, kayak, canoe, or boat. It is often not until their distinct dorsal fin begins to undulate that you even detect they are there at all. It is also not until their dorsal begins to move that you can guarantee a bite. I have observed idle bowfin lying still in the canals of South Florida to be completely and totally obtuse for any presented baits or lures. If the dorsal does not move, they are not going to bite. The fluttering undulation of a bowfin's dorsal is a direct pre-strike indicator. If you can get that dorsal to flutter, you have their interest!
Keep these factors in mind when pursuing bowfin on artificial lures. There are certainly environments and conditions in which lure fishing may be the better option even over baits... But there is also the personal satisfaction of the pursuit and the hunt of the fish - and fooling them with tactics and controlled presentations. The bowfin is an amazing species that can be uniquely chased and challenged with live bait, dead bait, topwater, bottom, and flies.