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The Bowfin

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New York’s Disrespected Living Fossil

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One of New York’s most unique fish, the bowfin is the sole living survivor of a group of fishes whose fossil representatives date back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The features of today’s bowfin differ very little from their fossil ancestors dating back 65 million years, so they offer a true glimpse into New York’s prehistoric past.

Bowfin are widespread through the eastern United States. Their native range extends from the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers and Lake Champlain west through the Great lakes and south down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Texas border, east through the state of Florida and up the Atlantic coast. In New York, they can be found in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain drainages and have been introduced into a few waters in the southeastern part of the state.

The bowfin’s appearance is as distinctive as its character. Their body is roughly torpedo shaped, with a bullet-shaped head. Their mouth contains rows of short, sharp teeth on both the upper and lower jaws. The fin along their back runs more than half the total length of the fish, and the tail fin is larger towards the top than the bottom. Bowfin are greenish in color, sometimes with brown or gray shading, and have a white or yellow underside. The fins and underside of males often take on a bright lime green color during the spawning season. Male bowfin also have a distinctive dark spot near the tail fin that is oftentimes ringed with orange or yellow.

Bowfin spawn in New York in May or June. Like bass, male bowfin build nests and attract spawning females who deposit eggs and leave the spawning grounds. Males guard the eggs and young until they reach sizes of 3 inches or more.

The bowfin has a fleshy swim bladder that functions much like our lungs, allowing them to obtain oxygen by gulping air. Although bowfin are often found in the same heavily vegetated areas preferred by largemouth bass, they are particularly well-suited to swampy habitats with low oxygen. The bowfin is a voracious predator, with a fondness for crayfish, but will readily feed on any available fish.

Wherever they are found, bowfin suffer from a bad public image. They are known regionally by a variety of common names–dogfish, mudfish, grindle, ling, and lawyer–all suggestive of their status as a fish people love to hate. Both anglers and the earliest generations of fish biologists thought that the bowfin’s predatory nature made it a threat to more desirable sport fish. Efforts were undertaken in many waters to reduce bowfin numbers.

We know now that bowfin are an important part of the balance of our fish communities, helping control the numbers of prey fish capable of overpopulating our waters, and rarely consuming other sport fish or acting as a serious competitor with them for food.

While their aggressive nature does not threaten populations of more popular fish, it does instill them with many of the traits anglers prize in a fish. They frequently attack lures aggressively and can put up a tremendous fight, particularly when fishing with lighter tackle. Bowfin can be caught while fishing the same habitats, and with the same techniques and lures used for largemouth bass, and seem particularly fond of the color purple. Their fighting instincts can make landing them a struggle, and their sharp teeth also make them well-equipped for breaking fishing lines.

Bowfin reach sizes that would challenge any angler. The current state record is a 12-pound, 14-ounce fish caught from Lake Champlain. The world record is a 21-pound 8-ounce fish caught in South Carolina. Their flesh is soft, and not considered edible by most, so this is a fish best suited for the catch-and-release angler.

Because they are not generally valued as a sport or food fish, few detailed studies of bowfin have been conducted by fish biologists. One recent exception is a study by Cornell University biologists on Oneida Lake. They implanted radio transmitters in 40 bowfin and tracked them from 2009-2011.

Prior to the study, most biologists assumed bowfin were lethargic fish, staying close to preferred habitats and moving little. Many of the Oneida bowfin proved much more energetic—sometimes moving eight miles or more between weekly locations. Bowfin occupied unique spawning and growing season habitats, but individual fish returned annually to the same areas they were found in the year before, exhibiting a fidelity to home areas. This study adds a little light to the character of the bowfin, and combined with their unique place in New York’s fish fauna, will hopefully help people appreciate them and their place in our waters.

Note: Bowfin are commonly confused for the notorious snakehead, but can be easily differentiated by comparing the anal fin, which runs nearly half the length of the body in the snakehead and is short in the bowfin).

These regulations apply to New York waters of Lake Erie, the Upper and Lower Niagara River, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and designated areas of the tributaries to these waters. Areas of the tributaries which are subject to these regulations are generally defined as the bridge closest to the mouth upstream to the first barrier impassable to fish. Tributaries with different boundaries and exemptions are listed separately below. Note that there are also seasonal tackle restrictions and restrictions on night fishing in the tributaries. Statewide angling regulations apply for species not listed.

Lake Erie and Tributaries

Species

Open Season

Minimum Length

Daily Limit

Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout (including Steelhead), Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Pink Salmon

All year

12″

3 in any combination

Lake Trout

All year

12″

1

Northern Pike

1st Sat. In May through March 15

22″

5

Walleye

Statewide angling regulations apply

Muskellunge, Tiger Muskellunge

3rd Sat. in June through Nov 30

54″

1

Yellow Perch, Sunfish

All year

Any size

50 of each

Black Bass

1st Sat. in May through Friday before
the 3rd Sat. in June

20″

1

3rd Sat. in June through Nov 30

12″

5

Dec. 1 through the Friday preceding the
1st Sat. in May

Catch and release only

Artificial lures only

Lake Sturgeon

Closed

Possession Prohibited

Upper Niagara River and Tributaries

Species

Open Season

Minimum Length

Daily Limit

Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout (Including Steelhead), Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Pink Salmon

All year

12″ Except any size in Ellicott Creek in Amherst State Park

3 in any combination

Lake Trout

All year

12″

1

Northern Pike

1st Sat. In May through March 15

22″

5

Walleye

Statewide angling regulations apply

Muskellunge and Tiger Muskellunge

3rd Sat. in June through Nov 30

48″

1

Yellow Perch, Sunfish

All year

Any size

50 of each

Black Bass (north of the Peace Bridge)

Statewide angling regulations apply

Lake Sturgeon

Closed

Possession Prohibited

Lower Niagara River and Tributaries

Species

Open Season

Minimum Length

Daily Limit

Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout (including Steelhead), Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Pink Salmon

All year

15″, except 21″
for Rainbow Trout

3 (Trout & Salmon) in any combination not to include more than 1 Atlantic Salmon or 2 Lake Trout

Lake Trout

Jan. 1 through Sept. 30

None, except only 1 Lake Trout may be between 25″ and 30″

Atlantic Salmon

All year

25″

Muskellunge and Tiger Muskellunge

3rd Sat. in June through Dec. 15

48″

1

Northern Pike

1st Sat. in May through March 15

22″

5

Black Bass

Statewide angling regulations apply

Walleye

1st Sat. in May through Dec. 31

18″

3

Jan. 1 through March 15

18″

1

Yellow Perch, Sunfish

All year

Any size

50 of each

Lake Sturgeon, American Eel

Closed

Possession Prohibited

Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and Tributaries

Species

Open Season

Minimum Length

Daily Limit

Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout (including Steelhead), Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Pink Salmon

All year

15″, except 21″ for Rainbow Trout or Steelhead

3 in any combination not to include more than 1 Rainbow Trout (or Steelhead) in the tributaries

Except 9″ in Irondequoit Creek (entire), Lindsey Creek and Skinner Creek
(Oswego and Jefferson Counties), and the Black River (Jefferson County)

Lake Trout

Jan. 1 through Sept. 30

None (except no more than 1 shall be between 25″ and 30″)

2

Atlantic Salmon

All year

25″

1

Northern Pike

1st Sat. in May through March 15

22″

5

Black Bass (Lake Ontario & tributaries except in Jefferson County)

Statewide angling regulations apply

Black Bass (Lake Ontario and tributaries in Jefferson County & St. Lawrence River and tributaries)

3rd Sat. in June through Nov 30

12″

5

Fishing for black bass (including catch & release) is prohibited outside of the open season.

Walleye

1st Sat. in May through March 15

18″

3

Muskellunge and Tiger Muskellunge

3rd Sat. in June through Dec. 15

48″

1

Lake Sturgeon, American Eel

Closed

Possession Prohibited

Yellow Perch, Sunfish

All year

Any size

50
Except Yellow Perch and Sunfish may be taken in any number in Jefferson County

Lake Erie Fisheries Research Center

178 Point Drive North

Durkin, NY 14048

716-366-0228

Lake Ontario Fisheries Research Center

514 East Broadway

P.O. Box 292

Cape Vincent, NY 13618

315-654-2147

 

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