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Homage to bowfin: And deliberately trying to land one

Jared Gibbs passes on his love and appreciation of bowfin, a fish around for 150 million years or so.

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Jared Gibbs setting lines for bowfin as the sun set Monday night at Peoria Casting Club.
Dale Bowman

CHILLICOTHE, Ill.--Monday was my kind of revival meeting.

As Jared Gibbs had me cast for bowfin in the last light at Peoria Casting Club, he said, `There is no such thing as a trash fish. They all have a purpose.’’

Preach it brother.

This summer I noted Gibbs defending bowfin and knew I needed to fish with him.

Bowfin (Amia calva) are commonly known as dogfish. Solomon David said in Louisiana, they’re known as choupique. Other names include swamp muskie, mudfish, cypress trout and grinnel.

David is the greatest academic champion of bowfin I know. I met David, an assistant professor in biological sciences at Nicholls State University, when he was a researcher with the Shedd Aquarium.

David handled his first bowfin when sampling Michigan’s Muskegon River in 2000. I caught my first while night catfishing on the Illinois River with the late Dominic “Big Knobs’’ Culjan. Gibbs also caught his first while catfishing.

The main event Gibbs had in mind was fishing live bluegill and cutbait in the dark. But there is always a chance of bumping into one with a lure, why I cast a shallow bay in the last light.

Bowfin eat a wide variety, one reason that Gibbs’ assessment that lures that work for bowfin are ``random’’ is spot on. Bowfin have an gas bladder that allows them to gulp air and survive in low-oxygen water, maybe a reason they’ve been around for 150 million years.

Beside their ancient roots, bowfin are cool parents. Males (defining dark spot on their tails) are very involved, clearing a nest and aggressively guarding eggs and fry.

Gibbs is truly an evangelist for boffin.

He took advantage of time off for a broken collarbone to take people out for bowfin during the heat. Six caught their first with him. Of the 26 bowfin caught in that stretch, five were longer than 28 inches and the two biggest were 29 1/2 inches (8 1/2 pounds) and 30 inches (11 pounds).

``I am looking for the state record,’’ he said. ``I’ve got five pounds to go. But how many are out there looking for bowfin?’’

Charles Keller (Sept. 23 1984, Rend Lake) and Dan Nugent (Sept. 14, 1992, Bay Creek, Pope County) share the Illinois record for bowfin (16 pounds, 6 ounces).

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Taylor Parkhurst caught this 29 1/2 inch 8.9-pound bowfin in July while fishing with Jared Gibbs.
Provided

``When I started [in the heat of July], it was all bowfin,’’ Gibbs said. ``The last two weeks [with cooler weather], I’m catching more catfish.’’

As dark came, we moved near the mouth with the Illinois. He cut bluegill caught earlier. He put out one live one. But he has better success on bowfin with cut bait than live bait

For lures, Gibbs used braided line and wire leaders. For fishing cutbait and live bait, he used a 30-pound monofilament leader and 15 or 20-pound mono line.

Gibbs sets the drag light so he can hear the line pulling off when a bite comes.

``I hear reels going off in my sleep,’’ he said.

First hook-up came off. The second was a thick 5-pound channel catfish.

``My best bowfin nights are when it is 100 degrees out: Dog days of summer, dogfish,’’ he said.

He suspects that’s because bowfin can survive reduced oxygen in hot backwaters.

Bowfin are special.

David said there is ongoing work at the American Fisheries Society level, including the possibility of new species of bowfin. Years ago, up to 10 bowfin were combined into one species.

``In the next couple years, bowfin will expand out from one species,’’ said David, who noted bowfin extend from Canada to the southern United States.

Historically, bowfin were listed as rough fish or course fish, sometimes trash fish. Slowly the perception that bowfin, gar and buffalo are trash fish changes. (Though not fast enough.)

``They are great fighters, they fight harder than bass and are a challenge to catch,’’ David said.

Again, spot on.

Down south, David said they are enjoyed as a food fish. But there is a key factor. They need to be kept alive until ready to be cooked. He thinks the quick breakdown of bowfin flesh is related to an enzyme in their tissue.

``It is gaining popularity, but it has nautical miles to go before catching up to walleye or bass,’’ David said.

Our big excitement came when Gibbs was pulling rods before we moved. I saw his rod bent down and rushed over with the net. It was a pissed-off snapping turtle, biggest (30 pounds) I’ve seen while fishing. We finally got it back in the water. (Eventually, I will figure out how to get the video embedded.)

I planned to leave at 11 p.m. But we had two hits right before then and extended it 15 minutes.

It was time.

As I climbed the bank, Gibbs said, ``I think the tide is turning. You have to respect a fish that hasn’t changed in a 100 million years.’’

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A rod holder as seen at sunset while fishing for bowfin along an Illinois River backwater.
Dale Bowman