It was eight years ago this week, on a warm January day, that I landed the Bowfin in the photo below. I was recently arrived to the North Carolina Piedmont, and if you look closely, you will see that I’m wearing a hat from Lock 3 Bait & Tackle. It’s my favorite tackle shop on the lower Allegheny River, just down the road from where Rachel Carson was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, and a little reminder of how anglers cling to the superstitions of their old haunts. That hat didn’t last much longer after I landed that Bowfin. It wasn’t because I gave up on the Allegheny – I still fish it about once every year – but because this fish marks a break in my life: there is before the Bowfin Era, and after.
Why was this fish so important? It wasn’t the first Bowfin I landed (that had happened late in the previous year), nor was it the largest. This fish weighed 4 ounces short of 12 pounds, and I would land one five years later that was more than a pound heavier. Nor was it the most spectacular in its leaping ability. In terms of acrobatics, I’ve seen Bowfin tailwalk and somersault; as for brute thrust, a Bowfin of 10 pounds dragged a boat with two grown men inside it about a quarter mile across a lake. Granted, my buddy Steve and I are not the most ample representatives of our species, but if you add the weight of the boat, motor and gear, that fish pulled about 400 pounds across a distance of several hundred yards.
There have been stronger, more Olympian Bowfin since that day. And there will be others.
But this fish is special for reasons that have little to do with fishing. I’m sure I had some other opinion of its fight – it nearly dragged me into the water – that day. But our muscle memory fades over time. What has replaced it, since then, is something akin to the awe the Greeks of the ancient world felt when they heard of how Menelaus tricked Proteus, who before being subdued, transformed himself into a lion, a boar, and a snake.
The Bowfin has since become many things since that photo was taken eight years ago. It has attracted more anglers who admire its fight. It has made its way into our supermarkets, where its roe is sold as caviar. It has received some mild press; in 2009, this same photograph was reprinted when I was interviewed for a newspaper article about a Bowfin that was caught in, of all places, the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.
But for me, this fish has become all that and more. In 2008, I started writing a book about the Bowfin. After some detours to write other books, I am back to writing it. I completed one last leg of archival research in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2014. Believe it or not, I had a small grant to fund the expense. Imagine that – someone funded me to continue writing about the fish. In the end, the Bowfin is like Proteus in that it is many things to many people (and a complete mystery to others). If all goes well – although it rarely does with the Bowfin – that fish will have become the complete manuscript of a book by the end of this year.