Updated: May 15
By Justin Hinkeldey: May 12, 2023
In 2022 genetic work finally seemed to confirm suspicion that many in the tight-knit bowfin rings had for some time... that there appears to be a distinct difference between the northern and 'southern' strains of bowfin.
Whereas it had been widely accepted that there was one sole surviving member of its genus (Amia Calva) there now seems to be a biological distinction between this predominantly southeastern species and the newly recognized 'Amia Ocellicauda'. The differences are marginal... but noteworthy still, differences in the number of teeth and some exaggerated coloration found with Amia Ocellicauda.
The newly identified 'Amia Ocellicauda' has a specified range along the Mississippi River basin - including areas like Arkansas, Missouri, upper Midwest regions of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana. While Amia Calva is more at home along the coastal plains of the Southeast - the two could be differentiated as 'northern bowfin' and 'southern bowfin'... as A. Ocellicauda extends up into regions of New England, Canada and Quebec.
Seasonal Patterns For Northern Bowfin
Winter: In the winter months - ranging from November through February, expect bowfin to hunker down in deeper water. Bowfin here seem specific to certain 'wintering holes' where they will congregate together in a state of relative dormancy. In especially cold conditions, bowfin can meet a state of metabolic suspension. Nevertheless, bowfin are still occasionally captured by ice fisherman.
Spring Transition: In March, our bowfin up north will become progressively more active with the ice melt.... moving into shallower water where they will occupy much of their time totally embedded in vegetation and mud in preparation for spawn. We have observed bowfin locally to stay mostly dormant during daylight hours in the early spring (late March-early April), and mostly active at night. Bowfin are nocturnal by nature, relying less upon eyesight and more so upon acute senses of smell and vibration they use the night to get nutrients for the coming spawn... and retreat into cover and concealment during daylight hours.
We will use headlamps to spot the fish cruising in the shallows. Using chunks of fresh cut bait or shrimp, we simply scan the shallows with a headlamp - and drop the baits in front of any fish we might illuminate.
Typically we will find them in shallow vegetated areas along connecting swamps, river mouths, and even popular marinas. Perhaps what separates the northern bowfin from its southern counterpart most is the vibrant green and blue coloration males will get during this period to impress females for spawn. This is also the prime time to find trophy females in the shallows, which get considerably larger than their male counterparts.
In May, as the water begins to really heat up into the mid 50's and low 60's, daylight activity for these fish begins to pick up. In my local waters we like to blind cast for them with cutbait suspended under floats over grass - while also tossing artificials around. Spinnerbaits, flukes, frogs, and jerkbaits are all personal favorites of mine. During these conditions, backwaters are at full capacity of ready to spawn bowfin.
As May transitions to June, females will spawn out and and scatter back out into deep-water adjacent weed beds. Males, however, remain in shallow weed protected nursery areas to protect nests and continue to provide security and protection over the fry after birth. During this phase bowfin are extremely colored up - displaying neon greens and blues. Flashy dangerous coloration serves to ward off potential predators like musky and bass - male bowfin are extremely protective of their young.
Summer Heat: In the heat of the Summer (July-September) we do more typical bowfin fishing... covering brush and weedbeds and any other backwater ambush points. Low-light conditions seem most effective, where our best luck has come at sunset and into nightfall. With a charged metabolism in the warmer waters - we often speed up the pursuit, combing and searching potential waters with buzzbaits, frogs, and spinnerbaits. A live panfish can also trigger some especially violent reactions.
Fall: As Fall comes generally in October, bowfin begin to get trickier in the Midwest, and our fish start to retreat back into their wintering holes. During this time fishing for bowfin slows down significantly and opportunities to sight fish bowfin in the shallows are few and far between.
With the dramatic seasonal swings in conditions we have here in the north - pursuing Amia Ocellicauda can be uniquely challenging. It has become a favorite target of mine, consistently challenging old thoughts and accepted norms for the species - and keeping me on my toes as an angler each and every time!
Special thanks to my buddy Justin Hinkeldey for contributing this awesome bowfin piece to the site! Justin is an exceptionally talented multi-species angler out of Wisconsin. His diverse exploits across the country for freshwater and saltwater fish can be seen on his instagram page @_fishingaddiction__ as well as his youtube page https://www.youtube.com/@_fishingaddiction__