Amia calva (Linnaeus, 1766)

member of the Bowfin Family (Amiidae)

Young of the Year: White Bear Lake, Ramsey County, Minnesota 30 June 1988

Male and Female: Baton Rogue, Louisiana 17 January 1992













What's In a Name?
Bowfin: refers to the long, curved fin on its back

Amia (ay´-mee-ah) refers to an ancient Greek name of a fish, most likely the bonito, Sarda sarda
calva (kal´-vah) means "bald or smooth" in Latin, referring to its scaleless head


Where Do They Live?
These secretive fish live in the central and southeastern portions of Minnesota. These areas include the Mississippi River and its tributaries as far north as Grand Rapids, the Otter Tail River of the Red River drainage, and some of the tributaries of the St. Croix River. Bowfins are commonly found in lakes and large, slow river, especially in the backwaters. They prefer clear water with little current and lots of vegetation.

"Cool Fact": Bowfins come to the surface every few minutes to breathe air. They use their swim bladder as if it were a lung. They also use gills to breath in the water.



How Big Do They Get?
How Long Do They Live?
Bowfins are long, large fish. They commonly reach sizes of 600-700 mm (24 to 27.5 in), and occasionally reach 900-1000 mm (35 to 39 in). These giant bowfins can weigh 5 kg (11 lb) or more, but 2-4 kg (4-6 lbs) is more usual. The angling record for this fish in Minnesota is 4.6 kg (10 lbs 15 oz). Two fish of this size have been caught, one in Mary Lake of Douglas County and one in French Lake of Rice County.

It is hard to determine the age of bowfins. We are pretty sure that they live to at least 10 years, but they may live twice that long or more. They have been kept in captivity for 30 years, but captive animals of all kinds often live much longer in captivity, then they do in the wild.

    What Do They Eat?
The ravenous (eats a lot) bowfin will eat just about anything that won't eat it first. They eat fish of all kinds and often feed at night on frogs, snakes, turtles, and the occasional small mammal that travels on water lily pads. They also can fast (not eat) for very long periods of time. One bowfin kept in an aquarium did not eat for almost a whole year!

What Eats Them?
The main predators of bowfins are bigger bowfins. Bowfins grow very fast as much as 200 mm (7.8 in) in their first year. They protect their larvae and lead a rather secretive life. All these characteristics help keep them stay off the menu of most of mother natures' predators. Humans catch bowfins when they angle for other fish, but they usually release their catch because bowfins are not good tasting fish.


How Do They Reproduce?
Bowfins spawn in the spring (May to early June in Minnesota), when the water warms beyond 16° C (61° F). The male constructs a nest in the weeds by nibbling off the stems of the plants and clearing the bottom with his fins. When he is done, there is a bottom of tender roots imbedded in sand or gravel. Once the nest is complete, the female lies in the bottom of it while the male circles her for a short time. The male then lies next to the female, and she lays the eggs while the male fertilizes them. There are usually 2,000- 5,000 eggs in a nest, but they may come from more than one female. A large female may carry 20,000- 65,000 eggs. So, we don't think a female lays all her eggs at once.

After spawning is over, the male stays to protect the eggs (which are really developing embryos). After they hatch and swim away from the roots, the larvae form a tight school in the shape of a ball. The male continues to protect the larvae until they grow to about 100 mm (about 4 in). The ball breaks up then and we believe the young move to deeper water.


Conservation and Management
Bowfins are not considered game fish but they are a very exciting fish to catch. Most often they are caught when people are fishing for other species, such as largemouth bass, pan fish, or northern pike. Most people who have eaten bowfin say it does not taste very good.

Some like it smoked, though. Some fish managers think bowfins are destructive because they eat other game fish. But other fish managers find that they help prevent stunting of sunfish. Bowfins have no special conservation status in Minnesota.




Permission is granted for the non-commercial educational or scientific use of the text and images on this Web document. Please credit the author or authors listed below.

Photographs by Konrad P. Schmidt
Text by Nicole Paulson & Jay T. Hatch in cooperation with
the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' MinnAqua Aquatic Program

This page developed with funds from the
MinnAqua Program
(Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fisheries)
and the
Sport Fish Restoration Program (Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior)

Maintained by Jay T. Hatch
General College and James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul

Last updated 23 October 2002