CHARACTERISTICS: The bowfin is a long, cylindrical fish with a prominent backbone that flexes upward into a rounded tail. It is the only freshwater fish in Alabama with a bony gular plate between its lower jaws on the underside of the head. The dorsal fin has 46 to 50 soft rays; it extends more than half the length of its back and is longer than that of any other fish species in Alabama except the American eel. The body is covered with cycloid scales, with 64 to 70 along the lateral line; the head is scaleless. Body color is mottled olive green to light brown on the back, grading to light green to cream on the venter. A prominent black spot--which is surrounded by a yellow or orange ring and located near the base of the caudal fin on young bowfins and adult males--is an excellent example of deceptive coloration. Resembling another eye, this physical feature sometimes confuses potential predators, causing them to strike at the tail rather than the head and thus allowing the bowfin to escape. The adult bowfin’s large mouth possesses many sharp, canine teeth. Anglers have learned to be careful while handling these fish, which are slippery, strong and capable of delivering a powerful bite.

ADULT SIZE: 15 to 24 in (380 to 610 mm).

STATE RECORD: a list of the State Record Freshwater Fish.

DISTRIBUTION: Knowledge of bowfin distribution in Alabama has increased substantially over the past 10 years. Burgess and Gilbert (1978) report fewer than 20 localities in Alabama. Boschung (1992) supplies records of four samples that were collected by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the Tennessee drainage in 1936 and 1937 and were housed at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Page and Burr (1991) exclude the entire eastern Mobile basin from their report on freshwater fishes of the United States. The collection records show the species at 174 stations, 60 percent of which have been collected since 1985. The Mobile Delta appears to be the bowfin’s stronghold. On several occasions, we observed more than 100 bowfin in less than an hour of electrofishing. The absence of bowfin records from the Blackwater, Escatawpa, and Yellow rivers is probably due to insufficient sampling.

HABITAT AND BIOLOGY: Bowfin prefer quiet, clear, backwater areas, lingering along the margins of aquatic vegetation, in undercut banks, and around branches and other submerged structures. Pflieger (1975) reports spawning in April and May in Missouri. On 8 April 1993, in Hatchechubbee Creek in Russell County, we collected the most beautiful male bowfin we have ever observed. The above photograph shows the intense emerald green characteristic of male bowfin in high spawning condition. R. D. Suttkus collected a bright green male bowfin running milt in 58ºF (14ºC) water at Tait’s Bar on the Alabama River, Wilcox County, on 28 February 1990. Small bowfin typically form dense schools and remain in or near aquatic vegetation until they reach 4 to 5 inches (102 to 127 mm) total length, when they become more solitary in lifestyle. We observed a large school of fry less than an inch long in backwater areas of the Black Warrior River system in April. The air bladder in this species functions as a lung does, extracting oxygen from air that is gulped at the water surface. Neill (1950) notes that bowfin estivate under certain conditions. Carlander (1969) reports a life span of 30 or more years.

ORIGINAL DESCRIPTION: Linnaeus described the bowfin in 1766.

Amia means in Greek, an unidentified fish, possibly a bonito.

Calva means smooth.

The copyrighted information above is from Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin.