Pushing the Envelope:
All about Catching Bowfins
from a Poled Canoe
The wonderful thing about fly fishermen is their readiness to try something new, or, as test pilots call it, push the envelope. That edgy expression is perfect for what subscriber, Richard Hart has found in Vermont. It involves stalking bowfins in a poled canoe with a platform on the back. Thanks, Richard for continuing to stay in touch.
For the past eight years, I have fished the Vermont area in and around the nice town of Burlington. Nearby Lake Champlain is an area of over 8,000 square miles bordered by Vermont, New York, and Quebec to the north. The diversity of fishing and species in this area is large, and Vermont Fish and Wildlife(http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com) recently introduced a Master Angler program to help promote fishing and reward anglers that catch species of a certain length. Their program includes 33 species, and until recently, no one had managed all 33. Angler Drew Price recently completed it after an eight-year commitment to learn their biology, habits, and locations, making him Vermont’s first “Master Angler” (http://www.masterclassangling.com).
Drew regularly guides out of a non-motored Indian River canoe. When he’s not guiding or working as a teacher, he’s out on the water learning how to catch the 33 species. Most were caught on the fly, but there were some species that had to be caught with more conventional fishing methods.
I have had the luck and pleasure to fish for bowfins (Amia calva, aka mudfish) with Drew for many years. It’s a team effort, just like being guided on the flats. Together, Drew and I have achieved over 15 IGFA tippet class and length records. Including the longest and the heaviest caught on the fly.
I recently returned for my annual trip in July, and although we found very low water this year, we managed to land our biggest fish yet: an amazing fish over 82 centimeters, qualifying it for a new potential IGFA length record. In four days, we landed five fish that qualify for the Vermont Master Angler program (over 28 inches).
Drew’s 20-foot-long canoe is retrofitted with a high poling platform at back, where he mostly surveils the water and uses his standard flats pole, or “stiffy” to push thru the many shallows of Lake Champlain’s creeks, and sand flats. The canoe has a quick-release anchor weight, spare paddles to get in and out of areas, and a seat for an angler at the front. There’s plenty of space for tackle, and a much-needed Yeti cooler for the day’s fishing. He sometimes fishes two people at a time. He charges only $300 a day, and it’s often a full day.
Drew has guided TV fishing stars and fly-fishing industry leaders, and he has many regular clients. So, if you decide to try to book with him, and if you’re lucky enough that he has a day or more free, then make sure you’re ready to fish serious and hard. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the wildlife and the fish in the area, and he’s a hard taskmaster. His feeling is if he’s going to work hard paddling you out to the spots and pole the shallows searching for fish, you had better be ready to scan the waters, and have your fly ready to cast. If you’ve fished flats for cruising tarpon or searched for tailing permit, then you understand that the guide wants you ready and able to cast the moment a fish is spotted.
The season to fish for bowfins on Lake Champlain is generally from ice out (around March) onward until freeze time, sometime around October. These prehistoric mudfish are a great challenge on the fly when you stalk, hunt, and sight-fish for them. It’s a sport that is increasing in popularity, and Drew has it dialed in—everything from the fish’s habits to specific flies he has tied and how exactly to cast at them. There are so many things Drew has learned about “hunting bowfins,” as we call it, that you really have to go and fish with him to learn all the tricks and techniques. Suffice it to say he is the “bowfin whisperer.”
For example, in addition to being ready to cast your fly at a moment’s notice, you need excellent sunglasses to get good vision in the water. I like Costa’s low-light brown-lens versions. Many of the fish turn up in the weeds at the bow of the canoe, so, as the angler, you are constantly scanning the front area that Drew is blind to. Drew has a clock drawn on the back of the seat the angler sits on, so when you’re standing in the front scanning the water, he is quickly reminded of what direction to move in.
Imagine, if you will, that you see a fish two feet deep, hidden among the many weeds in the lake, and you shout, “Bowfin 2 o’clock, 10 feet out.” Drew will then manage the canoe based on your verbal instructions. “Okay. Move slowly forward, fish is moving toward 1 o’clock.” This is only necessary if he can’t see the fish, or until he has a visual on the fish. Often, as you’re scanning the water, he’ll see fish in his wider scan area up on the poling platform. He’ll shout, “Fish at 4 o’clock, 20 feet out.” Then you need to turn your body at an angle getting ready to cast, because moving your feet or changing position can create waves or noise that spooks the bowfins. Similarly, Drew cannot always move the whole canoe, as that too would spook the fish. As I mentioned before, it’s a team sport.
The bowfin, in the same species genus as gar, has been unchanged for over 150 million years, and it is found all up and down the US East Coast. So much so that I’ve fished for them in my home state of Florida.
In southern Florida, the males unfortunately sometimes get mistaken for the invasive bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius). The area north of Ft. Lauderdale has an established snakehead population in the many canals and lakes. They were introduced illegally from Southeast Asia some 10 years ago.
One way to distinguish between a snakehead and a bowfin is that while both have a large “bull’s-eye” on their tail fins, a bowfin has individual anal fins while a snakehead has one continuous bottom fin stretching all the way to the tail fin. Another thing the two fish have in common is that, like snakeheads, bowfins are almost a “smart” fish. They guard their balls of fry when born and protect the young with a vicious tenacity.
Bowfins are highly curious and relatively unafraid of anglers in their boats. Often swimming right up to the boat, sometimes flaring their large gills at you. They often will go around and reappear from a totally new angle, un-spooked. If you’re ready, and make your arm movements slow enough, so as not to spook them, they are often very catchable.
For gear, I use a stiff fly rod in order set the hook home well in the bowfin’s rather hard mouth. My choice is the Sage Salt HD series; sizes 6 through 8 are much needed. The reel is not as important as the rod, and a very good hook set. But I employed the Tibor Signature Series 5/6 or 7/8 with RIO 20-pound backing, and RIO floating line.
The number of good bowfins I have lost when the hook wasn’t buried well enough from a couple of good strip strikes makes me wonder how big the ones I lost were. Tippet strength should be around 12 to 20 pounds, depending on what you’re comfortable with. As soon as the fish are hooked, they run for the weeds, so if the hookset was done well enough, you have a good chance of them staying on. No matter how well you do it, you’re going to lose some. The fly often just pops out when, once they are tangled deep in the weeds, the pressure you apply is misdirected.
Most of Drew’s clients are serious fishermen/women, and Drew adapts to the type of fish you wish to target and the method of fishing you prefer. Just communicate your goals for fishing with him well in advance.
Drew supplies any special flies needed, including his killer “Bow Regard” fly, designed to mimic one of the bowfin’s favorite foods, a small crawdad. If needed, he’ll supply fishing gear too, whether you want to fly-fish, spin-fish, or bait-fish. He’ll stock the Yeti cooler with water and snacks, but bring what you need for a lunch, as it’s often a long day out on the water. You will need to buy a license in advance from Vermont Fish & Wildlife. You can buy one that is just for a few days, or a year. Once you’ve done that, who knows—you might catch a trophy-size fish, and you can submit it to the Master Angler program for a certificate.
I stay in Burlington, a nice waterfront college town, with plenty of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shopping. There are several hotels to choose from, depending on your budget preference. You can hire a car or taxi from the airport, and Drew will pick you up from your hotel. Several daily flights go in and out of Burlington to and from various airports. I generally use La Guardia, New York.
Postscript: In case you are new to The Angling Report, subscriber and frequent contributor Richard Hart is an almost full-time fly fisherman who loves to explore the ragged edges of the fly fishing world, both geographically speaking and in regard to species. His notable reports over the years include a fascinating report about a wilderness trip to Guyana that involved sleeping in a hammock and trying to keep up with a Vietnam War veteran who appeared to have given up even trying to come down from the adrenalin high associated with combat. Richard has also reported more than once on snakehead fishing in Southeast Asia, among other places. In the course of his travels, Richard has caught 110 fish on the fly that have qualified as world records according to the International Game Fish Association. Some of these records were for tippet class achievements, to be sure, but several were for the largest of a species caught while fly fishing. We value Richard Hart a lot for the reports he sends us, and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
Curious what bowfin are all about? Check out this video from Winged Reel about fly-fishing for bowfin.