Father's Day Bare-Knuckle Dogfish Fight

The misunderstood and often maligned bowfin (Amia calva) is known by a host of names, including beaver fish, cabbage pike, choupique, cypress trout, grinnel, griddle, and swamp lawyer. Which might make you think of Jack Nicholson's role as ACLU lawyer George Hanson in the movie Easy Rider.

Not to be confused with burbot, aka eelpout aka lawyer fish, is an entirely different species.

But to most anglers, bowfin = dogfish. Story goes they earned this nickname thanks to a bottom row of razor-sharp sharp canines that rival the dentistry of anything in freshwater, esox included.

Didn't bother us one bit as kids. We were infatuated with dangerous stuff: Making homemade nunchucks and throwing stars; primitive gunpowder bombs; insanely-built BMX and skateboard ramps; shooting rats at the dump. Toothy critters like dogfish, muskies and longnose gar were right in our wheelhouse.

From about third grade up to the time of Driver's Ed., we spent every spare minute in the early summer wade-fishing expansive bulrush stands for bass. Armed with spinnerbaits and weedless spoons, what I remember from those frigid mornings in cut-off jeans and Chuck Taylor All-Stars was the magic of hooking the near-mythic.

Serious goosebumps, not from the chill, but from spying a muskie or dogfish in the shallows, fish so regal and sure of their place in the universe that our skinny legs and flailing baits didn't mean diddly-squat. I think there were times I literally pissed myself.

Fifty-inch ‘skis lumbering through pencil reeds like submarines. The undulating dorsal fin of dogfish, serpentine, like something from Jacques Cousteau. Their timeless, beady eyes staring at a white and chartreuse spinner bait dangled in front of it, or bounced off the fish's bony skull to the point the fish actually raised a middle finger.

And that enigmatic cobra-like spot near the tail. Their rising to the water's surface and gulping air, and then slithering back into the bulrushes a million years.

"Dude, those fish are weird. Like something from Africa or a long time ago."

Little did we know how right we were. Dogfish are literally prehistoric. Biologists trace dogfish back to the time of the dinosaurs, over 100 million years.

In terms of fish physiology, they are near perfect machines. Built for survival, dogfish not only derive oxygen from water via gills, but also possess a secondary air-breathing organ (ABO) generically referred to as a ‘lung,' a highly-specialized swim bladder adapted to remove oxygen from air gulped at the water's surface.

As such, they can live in waters that would prove fatal for most fish. Like hypoxic or weed-choked areas where there's barely room to drop a bait.

But find dogfish and you could be in for one hell of a fight. During the bowfin's pre- to post-spawn stages, there's a good chance you'll find them where you fish bass … even walleyes.

That was the case this past weekend in northern Minnesota. A couple of us on our annual friends and family Father's Day trip re-discovered the power and magic of bowfin while rip-jigging walleyes over submerged weed flats with 1/8-inch hair jigs tipped with shiners.

We found a place where a stand of bulrushes extended into a point into five feet of water and then transitioned into a large flat of mixed cabbage and coontail with an adjacent 22-foot break. We fished the night shift on Friday, June 13th, under the "Honey Moon" and Saturday morning and afternoon, crushing walleyes on the flat, including one 26-incher.

Yet, the highlight of the day was a fish I hadn't caught since my youth—a male dogfish in full spawn coloring, enigmatic cobra spot and all—a mixture of greenish-tinged fins and mottled blue body hues, like a cross between a clear-phase muskie, peacock bass, redfish and the cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?".

A fluke?

Storms moved in on Saturday night and Sunday morning was tough fishing. We fell into the trap of fishing Saturday's memory, boating only four walleyes, half a dozen nice bass and several pike.

But, the Army of dads kept working trolling paths back and forth, our Humminbird displays marked up like a monkey's Etch-A-Sketch. Our fingers were crossed for someone to nail a PB—a 30-plus-inch walleye. We'd seen some pretty big marks on our electronics. We knew there were still big fish up on top of the flat.

Then it happened. "Fishbreath" Carl set the hook and the rod doubled over and then the head thumps of a large walleye. Like Carl says in the video, the fish "dug in."

I thought, "What are the odds of another big dogfish?" Like Carl, I was fairly certain the day before that I had hooked into a big walleye; fought just like it.

Sure, big walleyes are great, but everything said and done, Carl and I were ecstatic with two days of bare-knuckle dogfish fights amidst plenty of ‘eyes, as well as time spent with family and friends.

It's a Father's Day fishing trip we're won't soon forget—a stroll down memory lane, goosebumps and all.

Check out these cool tips, including an interactive map where you can identify key dogfish waters near you.


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