Monday, June 11, 2018

Ambush Predators: Topwater Pike and the Perfect Bowfin

I have a bit of a thing for ambush predator species. There's something about the image of a big predator fish sitting in place in the weeds, fins undulating ever so slightly, eyes scanning it's surroundings for any movement at all, something that makes me shiver with excitement. I've had legitimate panic attacks while approaching and trying to present flies to big ambush predators, had my heart rate increase to a point that gave me a headache, gotten so dizzy I had to sit down. It's the anticipation that kills me, because I know that if I don't blow it I'm going to see something startlingly spectacular. As sedentary and docile as an ambush predator appears as it sits and waits, when prey gets to exactly the right spot it explodes into motion. Leaving no room for error. Inhaling its prey alive. Sending spray to a 10 foot radius. Sometimes leaping completely out of the water. I'm shaking right now just thinking about it. 
It's one of those moments that I live for. 

Yesterday was remarkable. Noah and I went looking for ambush predators and found them. It took time, work, and patience, but nothing worthwhile doesn't. 

I caught some bluegills, Noah caught some bass, we paddled from the cove we started in to an entirely different one, then I found something. I laid a long cast up under a tree handing in the water and two strips in a missile locked onto my popper and went full "kill" mode. It was a pike. Not a big one by any stretch of the imagination. But when a pike of any size hits a topwater lure or fly it does so with evil intent. 

Probably a half an hour later, a pike went ballistic for Noah's buzz toad, going four feet into the air. A subsequent subsurface presentation with the same lure resulted in a solid hookup and another northern boated. 
Photo Courtesy Noah Johnson
With a couple pike caught and a couple others missed or lost, we were already having a damned good day, but we had more on the agenda. We went back to the cove we had started in hoping that the dropping sun would convince the bowfin to come out and hunt it did. I covered a bit of shoreline, standing in my kayak and looking for static or cruising fish. The first one I spotted moved away too quickly for me to get a cast at it. The next one presented a fantastic opportunity. I dropped my clouser ahead of it, made a couple short strips, the fish turned on a dime and inhaled it. I set the hook hard. A short time into the fight I got a good look at the fish and my jaw dropped. 

You see, when I first decided I wanted to catch a bowfin on the fly a couple years ago I had this picture in my head of the perfect one. Size wasn't that important but I wanted it to be big enough to put a serious bend in the 8wt. It would be a very fat, healthy fish. Most strikingly, it had to have bright emerald green fins and a bit of green on the belly, grading into yellow and then the almost olive brown on the back. The eye spot had to be perfect, clear, and highlighted with bright yellow or white. This fish was very nearly their, I mean he was a stud. I got him in the kayak and paddled over to some logs for a quick photo session. The fish was very cooperative. 

After I released the bowfin of my dreams I excitedly got ready to do it all over again, and in the excitement fell off the log ass first into the wonderful grey river mud...  for the rest of the evening I had chalky mud that smelled like death on my arms, shoes, legs, and kayak seat. But it was worth it. 

Before I had even fully gathered myself, Noah got hooked up. It wasn't a bowfin, it was the member of the Esox family that had until that point remained mysteriously absent this day. A very good chain pickerel. 

 I got back into the good piece of shoreline where the bowfin had been hanging around and quickly spotted another one, this one somewhat bigger than the last. I had to get my Clouser literally right on its nose to get it to eat, I mean my fly's tail was tickling that fish's whiskers, but it did take. It took abruptly and violently. I set hard but not hard enough, the hook pulled in seconds. I didn't let it effect my mood, that is bound to happen with these fish. 

We made a full loop of that part of the cove before we saw another bowfin. It was going past me at a fair speed, right towards Noah. He made a short cast that was still way behind the fish and began retrieving to catch up. He told me to say when to drop it. Simultaneously, I said "now" and the bowfin exploded on his toad. 

Spurred on by that fish we continued further down the shoreline to find more. We did, but unfortunately I ran it over with the kayak before I saw it. Time was running out now, the mosquitoes were starting to converge. Noah headed back to the launch, which wasn't far. I wasn't ready yet. I was running out of good weedy shoreline and time when I spotted one. It was static, right until a small pumpkinseed crossed it's nose. It ate it swiftly, leaving a puff of mud behind. When it settled back down I started presenting flies to it. For some reason it just wouldn't take. It moved and resettled twice but wouldn't acknowledge anything. Then, it tucked behind a clump of weeds and I noticed another bigger fish, with it's head sticking out on side of the clump and tail out the other. This one took on the first presentation without hesitation. It then treated me to a spectacular fight, running hard, jumping, and dogging into the weeds. I refused to let it win though, because the first good look at it had proven to me that it was the one, the perfect bowfin, the fish from my daydreams. 

I landed him. He was unbelievable. A big male in full spawning dress. Emerald green is a seemingly unnatural color for a freshwater fish to be, and yet here one was. Fins and stomach greener than any green I had seen on a living creature. It was surreal. 

Fish are amazing. No matter the size, no matter the locale, no matter the method of capture, no matter the edibility. Every species has different challenges. All are fascinating.

And, most importantly, there is not a species on this earth that deserves the designation of "trash". 


  1. Wow - those Bowfin are amazing. Well, that whole evening on the HOH was amazing! But those bowfin with the green splashes and fins - spectacular fish!

    1. Thanks Will.
      My thoughts precisely. I've been obsessed with topwater pike for so long and I'd never caught one, a lot longer than I'd wanted to catch a bowfin. But damn did those things steal the show. Just blew me away.

  2. Congrats. That is a beautiful fish and a species I need to target.

    1. Worth every bit of effort it takes to find and figure them out. You will enjoy them, no doubt.

  3. That was a great day of great fish Rowan. I agree, all fish are fantastic!!!
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