Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bowfin!...and why I'm done fishing for anything else

Charlie and his dad fishin'
I hooked the bluegill through the tail, just how Sam Bennett showed me. It took me a few casts to get it where I wanted it, but the third cast landed exactly where I thought there might be a fish. The sun was setting. Mosquitos buzzed around us. Charlie the six-year-old stood a few feet away, working on getting some more little bluegill. Leo, his dad, stood next to me doing the same. We were standing at the edge of a marshy pond, a pipe behind us spilling water from the bigger lake into this small pool. We saw huge ripples moving around the surface of the water. Something big was in there.

We were camping! We were camping fishing. As I've mentioned before, camping is awesome! I didn't grow up camping, but that's ok... When I was a kid I would have hated it. I spent a few summers at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp near Muskegon, Michigan, which was basically a bunch of music stuff set outside and in cabins and rustic buildings. I loved the music stuff, hated all the rustic-ness. The dirt and bugs. The smell of pine trees. Ok, I didn't hate that, but I certainly didn't like the outdoors.

A year ago we went camping with the Smerglias, which was my very first time camping. I loved it! Fishing was my gateway drug to the hardcore stuff of camping and the outdoors. A couple months back Claire and I camped near the Mississppi- and I caught the biggest fish I've ever caught to date. This time, I was a very experienced camper- with two other campings under my belt, I felt like I could probably live in the wild with nothing but a knife and a fishing rod.

Of course, that's not true. I got about 60 seconds into setting up our tent when Claire had to come help me. I can't identify poison ivy. Ticks still freak me out. When Walter had two ticks on him after five minutes on the campground, there was a little groan inside of me. I forget to drink water and only remember to go fishing.

Camping combines a bunch of things I really like: being outside, grilling, fires, fishing, seeing animals, being dirty... When I was a kid I didn't get too dirty or play outside that much. Now's my time to make up for lost time!

Walter the fishing dog
 The night before, I think it was our second night camping, we were on a mission. Charlie wanted to catch a big catfish. Leo and I were more than willing to oblige, although it was a struggle to keep the kid entertained while our rods stood motionless, connected to our stationary offerings in the water. We had nightcrawlers on the hooks, I tried some topwater lures, but nothing was going for the bait. I reached into my fishing backpack and pulled out a hotdog. I cut off a piece with my fingers and strung it onto a big black hook and cast it out into the water.

The dark was illuminated by our three headlamps and the glow of our little electronic devices. Even the possibility of big fish couldn't keep me entertained all the time; I checked my Twitter while I waited for the big one.

It wasn't too long before there was some action. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a rod wiggle. I looked up, squinting in the dark, and saw it wiggle again. Fish on!

I think it was Leo's rod, if my memory serves me he was the first to hook into a fish. He battled the fish, reeling it in, and soon we saw a little brown fish come out of the water. A bullhead?! With the help of Leo's fishing gloves, I lipped it, and it proceeded to bite down on my thumb like I was caught in a door. Ouch! Good for you, bullhead.

Charlie and I posed for a picture. Not exactly the giant catfish we were hoping for, but at least we were in the ballpark!

late night bullhead!
So they like hotdogs, do they? I suppose it's not that strange... I like hotdogs too. I usually grill mine, but I don't think any fish have little grills down there. Probably hard to light.

We swapped out the bluegills for hotdog on all the rods. The nice thing about the way we hooked the 'gills is they swam away, apparently just fine. Most likely they will become some bass's midnight snack... But at least they have a chance.

After a few minutes, we all zoned out, turning back to our glowing devices. Occasionally I noticed the dark sky filled with glistening little points of light, enjoying how dark it was and how many stars I could see. I think I even saw some satellites or planes flying really high.

And then out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a rod jump. I looked up, but there was no movement. "Did that rod just move?" I asked Leo. We stared at the rod, but it wasn't moving. I stood up slowly, approaching the rod. I looked at the rod tip, and in the dark I could have sworn I saw some movement there. I picked up the rod, and holding it in my hands I was sure there was a fish on. "There's a fish!" I whispered. And then I felt it again. I swiftly yanked up the rod- Jeremy Wade style- and the fight was on. Fish on!

Leo jumped up, Charlie jumped up; I handed the rod to Charlie, hoping he'd have the chance to fight and reel in a big catfish. This fish felt big for sure- if it was a catfish, it was most certainly a biggun. Leo held onto the rod while Charlie tried to make sense of the backwards reel (he was used to the closed-reel type reels that usually come with the crank on the left) while I jumped up and down giggling. Charlie had a big smile on his face. The rod danced around in hands; at one point all three of us were holding the rod, helping to bring in this giant fish.

When we got it close, I looked down into the water, trying to identify it. Oh, channel cat. Awesome! "It's a channel cat!" I said/shouted. We reeled it in more. "No, it's a bass! A weird looking bass" we got it all the way to us, and it hung there attached to our line. "What the heck is that!?"

We were looking at a fish none of us had ever seen. It was smoother and more tapered than a bass, but it had tiny barbels like a catfish, a huge long dorsal fin, and a little spot on its tail.


I quickly dismissed that idea, having studied "River Monsters" like it was my college major, knowing that snakeheads have way more patterning on their scales... And aren't found this far north, at least for now. I thought I knew what it was.

"Bowfin!?" I said, pronouncing it like it rhymed with "poe-fin." I still don't know how to say it. "Dogfish!?"

We giggled and high-fived, I held the fish in my boga-grip knockoff. I'd never seen a fish like this. I felt like we just caught a river monster! After a ton of pictures, we released the monster back into the water. We rebaited the hooks with the little bit of hotdog we had left (I had chummed the water a bit, I wonder if that's what brought in the fish...) and quickly googled dogfish on our devices to find out more about our new quarry. Almost immediately I found the Bowfin Anglers Group, a website dedicated to this awesome fish, and read every line of text I could find. So did Leo.

After a while, we ran out of bait, we were all pretty tired, so we made the hike back to camp. The whole way back we talked about how many dogfish there might be in this lake, and what they eat, and how big they get, and how we could find more, and the teeth they have, and how kind of scary it was, and how awesome it was, and on hotdogs.... We spent the rest of the night telling our wives stories of the monster we just caught and sharing facts we found on the internet.

And now, we were back out on the water. This was our last night camping, our last chance to catch a big fish. Leo had the idea to catch some bluegill and use them as bait. Earlier in the day, we saw a bass steal a 'gill off Leo's hook and devour it in a matter of seconds. It was one of the most awesome things I'd ever seen! I'd only fished with bluegill for flatheads, and wasn't sure we'd really catch anything here with them. Of course, I was dead wrong. Leo was right.

Right around sunset, we caught as many little bluegill as we could, and kept them in our little minnow bucket. We found the most- and the biggest- panfish in a shallow marshy area. The water couldn't have been more than 12 inches deep. In daylight, we could see every detail of the bottom of the pond, at least the area closest to us. Little panfish darted around. We caught a bunch of bluegill- Leo even caught a shiner! At least we think that's what it was.

So here we were, watching huge wakes and ripples move around the shallow water, wondering what those fish could be. We had a hunch, but couldn't be sure until we caught one. Leo guessed whatever they were, they were feeding on the plentiful bluegill in the little marshy area.

It couldn't have been more than a minute or two before something found my little bluegill. I felt a strong hit, just like when I'd been flatheading with Sam. "I got a hit!!" I yelled. I didn't feel any tension on the line. Did I miss it? And then it came back, perhaps circling around for the kill; the fish slammed into my bait like a freight train, I set the hook like I was trying to pull up the bottom of the pond.

Immediately, the fish knew it was hooked. It was not happy. 

The relative silence of the pond was decimated by more splashing than I'd ever seen or heard in my life. An octopus on speed would have made less noise than this. The fish almost pulled the rod right out of my hands. It made runs in all directions at once; there was so much water I'm surprised we didn't get soaked, as we were standing only a few feet away from the beast.

In the twilight, it was impossible to tell what it was. The rod bent over, I worried about it breaking. We were ecstatic! Leo and Charlie watched in eager anticipation, exclaiming, while I'm sure a steady stream of profanity flew out of my mouth. Charlie didn't seem to notice, he was intently watching the thrashing river monster we'd just hooked.

The fight was like no other fish I'd ever hooked into. It was strong. Although the giant drum I caught last time we were camping was huge and gave quite a fight, this fish was different. There was no frantic running around like a scared fish; this was calculated aggression against my hook. This fish wasn't running away, this fish was trying to beat the sh*& out of whatever had grabbed it.

The closer we got it, the more it thrashed. Once it was almost on us, we knew what it was. Another bowfin! Dogfish! Mudfish! Swamp trout! And a big one too. Much bigger than the one caught the night before. Maybe 30 inches long. And heavy.

I grabbed it with my boga-grips, and the three of us stood there admiring the fish, not sure how to proceed. Any movement on our end was met with muscular thrashing from the bowfin. Charlie had some unreasonable desire to put his fingers near its mouth, and each time the fish lashed out, trying to make a meal of Charlie's little fingers. We stared at the prehistoric fish. I was as scared of it as I was in awe of it. Even being gripped by a pair of metal fingers, I was sure the bowfin could kick my butt if it really wanted to.

Usually when I remove hooks from fish, I try not to hurt them. In this case, I tried to prevent my own fingers from getting bit off. I read 'fins can survive for 10-15 minutes out of water, using their primitive air bladder/lung to gulp air. They are extremely hardy fish. This one was clearly un-phased from our epic fight, and was still prepared to deal out retribution for hooking it.

The hook came out easily, and I thanked my lucky stars we landed the fish! Still nervous of the predator I held in my hands, we posed for some pictures. Definitely profile-pic worthy. Absolutely my favorite catch- ever.

What an amazing creature
After a few minutes of admiring our catch, Charlie's fingers wiggling dangerously close to the bowfin's mouth lined with little sharp teeth, we released it. It splashed into the water as if nothing had happened, quickly and powerfully swimming away.

We high-fived, excited by the incredible creature we'd just held, anxious to catch more! Now we knew what those wakes were- bowfin. There were at least four of them, swimming around dining on bluegill. It was amazing. In the dim light, the knowledge of what they were made it even creepier. I questioned the safety of my toes, so close to the water where these toothy animals roamed.

We tried some other spots, but weren't able to catch any more dogfish. I got a little bullhead later on hotdog, but that was the last fish we caught while camping. It paled in comparison to the incredibly powerful snake-like monster.

In fact, pretty much every fish I'd ever caught- ever- paled in comparison to the bowfin. I decided then and there to give up fishing for every other species. No more bass fishing, why bother with panfish (except for bait); trout will never see my flies again.

When I grow up I'm going to be a bowfin angler. I just need to learn how to pronounce "bowfin."

Even the biggest bass I've ever caught pales in comparison to this monster

1 comment:

  1. congrats on such a monster bowfin. im not sure just how common they are around our neck of the woods to chase them almost exclusive? ive never caught one or even seen such a fish in person. kudos CB!


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