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Bowfin catches attention of one angler, not many others

| Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008

Henry Veggian took one look at the fish -- with its large scales, bony head, and long, single dorsal fin -- hanging on the wall at Tackle Unlimited in Jefferson Hills and thought he was seeing an alien.

It had to have come from Europe, he thought, or perhaps Asia. It certainly couldn't have come from around here.

"I thought it had to be an invasive species. I'd never seen anything like it in my life," Veggian said.

Truth be told, the fish was pulled from the Monongahela River. It was a bowfin, a species native to Pennsylvania but rare in most places and misunderstood in even more.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission describes the bowfin as a "living fossil" because it has characteristics of the most primitive fish on record. A lung-like swim bladder, for example, allows it to come to the surface, stick its head out, and gulp air if it can't get enough oxygen otherwise.

You won't find them just anywhere. Bowfins are considered a "candidate" species in Pennsylvania, which means they are uncommon, but not so rare as to be "threatened" or "endangered."

Their numbers actually seem on the upswing in some places, though.

"Eight years ago, there were only a couple of places where you found them, at least in my area," said Freeman Johns, the Fish and Boat Commission's area 1 biologist, based in Linesville. "People caught them in Conneaut Lake occasionally, and Presque Isle Bay.

"Then, all of a sudden, the population just exploded."

Bowfins now seem to be doing very well in those two lakes, as well as in places such as Edinboro Lake, Pymatuning Lake, French Creek, and Geneva Swamp, Johns said.

They likewise occasionally show up in the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers -- an angler caught a 21-inch specimen on the North Shore just a few weeks ago -- as well as in Somerset Lake, said Rick Lorson, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's area 8 biologist based in Somerset.

Whether that's a good thing depends on your perspective.

Veggian, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh when he saw that mounted bowfin and now a professor at the University of North Carolina, has become a big fan of the fish. Though he never caught one during his years in Pittsburgh, he now fishes for them exclusively.

"When you feel that first strike, it's incredibly fast and strong. I liken it to a dog shaking a toy," Veggian said. "And if you do hook one, even the people who hate them will tell you that bowfins put up an amazing fight. They'll tail walk, they'll roll, they'll take all of your line if you let them.

"They're everything you could want in a gamefish and more."

Traditionally, though, the bowfin has been much less appreciated, said Chuck Meyer, the New Lenox, Ill., founder of the Bowfin Anglers Group.

Some view them as a trash fish at best, he said. Others see them as something that will decimate populations of more desirable game species. A few even believe -- mistakenly, in all cases -- that state regulations here and elsewhere require anglers to kill bowfins when they find them.

That's too bad because bowfins are lots of fun on a hook and line, he said.

"You don't have to go out of your way to kill these things. They're not going to destroy your fishery, they're not going to eat your firstborn," Meyer said. "They're just a good fighting gamefish."

Veggian -- who's come to love a fish he once didn't recognize -- agreed.

"I can't believe they're so undervalued and underutilized."

Additional Information:

Ways to catch it

Bowfins can be caught on a variety of baits, live and artificial, Chuck Myer said.

Crankbaits, rubber worms, flies and poppers made to look like mice and frogs, and even things like Rooster Tails will all catch fish, he said. Live, locally-caught bait -- like crayfish and minnows cut into 1- to 2-inch squares and drifted on a 2/0 circle hook with as little weight as possible -- also work well.

The fish can get big, too. Johns said he's seen fish as long as 28 inches. They'll weigh six pounds or more.

To learn more about bowfins, visit Meyer's Bowfin Anglers Group Web site. Also keep an eye out for the bowfin book Veggian is working to have published through North Carolina University Press. It's tentatively titled 'Welcome to Bowfin Country.'

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