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It’s late February, a time for the Bowfin angler to remember the taste of defeat.Winter lulls the senses, and our memories of last year’s battles with fish dissipate – mercifully – with the cold. Yes, we recall the one that got away. It grows larger with each telling. But we forget how we lost it, and that defeat is often an angler’s fault.

Late winter Bowfin are experts in reminding us of our errors.

I will dedicate this blog post to a typical late winter event: the loss of a large fish from the end of the line. First, a few points about how to set a hook in a Bowfin’s bony mouth.

The Bowfin is notoriously aggressive when biting prey. Evolutionary adaptations have fitted its bony skull with an armored mouth. Its unique gular plate protects its lower mandible from scraping against rocks as it chases crayfish in the rip-rap, and its conical teeth enforce a crushing, as opposed to tearing, effect. The fish’s gullet is equipped with a distinct musculature that reinforces the biting motion and also receives the prey that has been ground up in the cavernous interior of its hard mouth. In sum, a Bowfin strikes hard and fast, but its mouth is well defended against puncture wounds. More often than not, it is the lure that is pierced, the hook straightened, the split ring bent.

Assuming the lure was modified with strong hooks and terminal tackle to resist this onslaught, the angler has one advantage: the fishing line. A braided line is preferred. Why? Because it does not stretch at the moment the hook is set. Monofilament stretches, and therefore does not transfer power to the lure as well. Remember this when watching the video below.

I will set the scene. Water temperatures are in the high 40’s, and the current is strong, delivering oxygen and food. The fish are beginning to move, and some will strike a slow moving lure. On this day, I am targeting a current line below a waterfall. The water at the current seam is 5-6 feet deep. I cast the lure – a weighted in-line spinner – into the current and let it drift as it falls. This means I am casting the lure ahead of where I where I want it to emerge from the current. Think of it as drawing an invisible, diagonal line from the point where the lure hits the water to the point where I begin to retrieve it.

As I feel the lure drop more quickly, I know it is leaving the main channel. I twitch it and begin a slow retrieve. This is designed to imitate a crayfish that has been washed over the dam. I retrieve 3 feet of line, pause, then repeat.

The Bowfin is low in the water column, and it strikes. I set the hook. The line is 14 lb test, monofilament, so I really send it home with a strong upward stroke of the forearms.

The video begins at a point when I have had the Bowfin hooked for about 30 seconds. I have called over a friend to capture video, and another to help land the fish with a net. Note that I have also gloved my left hand during the fight. I do this to quickly grab the fish by its gular plate and immobilize it in the net. This prevents thrashing and damage to the fish and the net.

The final seconds are critical. If you watch my left hand throughout the footage, you can see I am adjusting drag on the reel as the fight proceeds. But I am distracted by giving instructions to the net holder. This pause in concentration was a mistake. When a fish approaches a bank, it panics. It sees light. The water is warmer, and may have less oxygen. It is tired, confused. It may feel the bottom, too. Note that the Bowfin makes two runs as I bring it near. Notice also that the reel does not release line – the drag is too tight. Why didn’t I notice? Because monofilament stretches.

It is absolutely critical, at this stage of the fight, to let a Bowfin take line. Why? Because they are strong swimmers, and you should never think they are too tired to summon one last run. They always do.

In the final seconds of a fight that lasted well over 2 minutes, the Bowfin makes one last run. As it turns, the fish finds the right angle by which to unhook itself. At that point, the reel should have been adjusted to the new pressure. It was not, and the Bowfin escaped.

Now, I would have released the fish anyhow, and above the dam, too, so it could reach its spawning grounds. Losing this first hooked Bowfin of the year was however a blessing in disguise: it reminded me of all the little motions involved in playing and landing a large Bowfin, and how one lapse in concentration will ruin an outing, or make a Bowfin’s day.

Video and Text by Henry Veggian ©2016