Looking like a cross between a pit bull and a piranha with a personality to match, bowfin have a face only a hardcore angler could love. Bass guys hate bowfin because they tear up expensive lures and chew holes in nets, but bowfin fishing has a particular allure for those who know how to catch these toothy monsters.

Bowfin Fishing on a Lake Before Time

For backwoods anglers who appreciate the bowfin’s tenacious bite and vicious fight, late winter is the best time to score on these prehistoric fish. Bowfin are the only remaining ancestor of a species dating to the Jurassic Period. The fish’s long, powerful body and broad, boney head is reminiscent of their dinosaur relatives.

Be prepared to come up on the losing end of a fight with a bowfin. The vicious fish strikes with a hard-as-rock mouth lined with needle-like teeth. On the hook, in addition to jumping, running and diving, bowfin employ a death spiral and will often break lines or throw hooks.

[ See the widest selection of boats and gear in the Kayak Angler Buyer’s Guide ]

Best Bowfin Fishing Rig

These heavyweights take a light touch. When I first started fishing for bowfin, I used a heavy-action rod, stout braided line and extra wide, heavy-gage hooks to penetrate the bowfin’s stony jaw. No luck. I was frustrated after losing fish after fish, so I decided to change my tactics.

Turns out heavy-gauge hooks would bounce right off the bowfins’ jaws, often coming back with the points curled over like I had set the hooks on rocks. There are only a few places in a bowfin’s mouth where a hook can find purchase. My friend Rob Kyle, the bowfin master, had the solution.

Make hundreds of casts to cover acres of water, just be ready when this dinosaur comes to play.

Kyle suggested I use light wire hooks that will bend under pressure and slide into the sweet spot. I replaced my heavy hooks with thinner, wide-gap hook and a needle point to take advantage of the smallest gap in a bowfin’s armor.

Next, Kyle told me to check out my sinkers. I discovered they were covered in teeth marks. The heavy rod was pulling the sinker into the bowfin’s mouth, prying open the fish’s jaw and loosening the hook. I switched to a medium-action rod with a slower tip for a more forgiving fight. I’ll admit, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this so-called trash fish.

Now, I use the lightest Texas-rigged sinker I can get away with, usually 3/16 or 1/4 ounce, and a light-wire, 4/0 EWG hook. Rig the hook with a Culprit Fat Max soft-plastic in June Bug or Red Shad color. Another option is Z-Man’s TRD on a VMC Wacky Jig with a 1/0 hook, the hook is small enough to stick into the bowfin’s jaw.

I tie the worm to an arm’s-length of 20-pound monofilament leader attached to 20-pound braided line.

Woman winter kayak fishing for bowfin
A stubborn attitude and rock-hard jaw are tough to beat. | Feature photo: Chris Funk

Where and When to Catch Bowfin

Bowfin like calm water in flooded backwaters and oxbow lakes. I often spot bowfin sunning in open patches of thick weed beds. Stump fields or downed trees are another favorite bowfin hotspot. The fish will gulp air, so listen for swirls and splashes. The bowfin’s thick skull shows up distinctively on the fish finder making it easy to mark fish suspended off the bottom.

I chase bowfin all year, but my favorite time is the pre-spawn in late February. As the water warms, bowfin gather ready to spawn. Any slow-flowing, swampy area should hold these ancient fish. Make hundreds of casts to cover acres of water, just be ready when this dinosaur comes to play.

This article was first published in the Winter 2018 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

A stubborn attitude and rock-hard jaw are tough to beat. | Feature photo: Chris Funk



  1. A bowfin is for sure a fish on my bucket list. They are very rare around my parts of IL but hopefully, I can snag one some day. I had no idea they were such a tough fish. Now I really want to catch one.

  2. There was a spectacular hatch a few years back and it caused quite the stir in the local angling community as many were convinced they had caught the most hated invasive species, a snakehead. After confirmation of the catch, we went out targeting these hard fighting fish and much to our surprise, were able to pretty regularly catch these prehistoric looking fish. I love this fish, so much so that I even wrote an article on how to identify them to hopefully help others identify this living dinosaur of a fish. Can you believe we can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Jurassic period? Had the movies showed this hard fighting fish, I might have paid more attention! Linked below you will find my own article on these fish. Thank you for read, and for the great read!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here