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Communications August 7, 2019

The Pleasant Surprise of a Bowfin

By Jason Naivar, Program Coordinator

As a freshwater naturalist, I always look forward to the annual fish survey at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center. It’s the one time a year when Jones Park visitors can glimpse the diverse life hidden beneath the murky surface of Jones Park’s largest waterway.

As you can imagine, catching fish is no easy task, especially on such a large scale. That’s why our staff joins forces with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Inland Fisheries Department for an annual electrofishing expedition on Spring Creek. This sampling method involves equipping a boat with special poles that send an electric current into the water. When the stunned fish float to the surface, experts place the fish in holding tanks and bring them ashore for visitors to observe. If done correctly, electrofishing does not harm the fish, which can recover from the shock in as little as two minutes.

Most of the time, we catch common sunfish, catfish, and gar, but sometimes these surveys reveal rarely documented species. One of these exciting finds is the elusive bowfin, (Amia Calva) a living fossil and a powerful predator. Often misidentified as the invasive northern snakehead, these prehistoric fish are native to the freshwaters of the eastern United States and the Gulf Coast region. They prefer to live in slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water with dense vegetation.

Much like their cousin, the gar, bowfin can gulp air at the surface, store it in their swim bladders, and use the gas to breathe in low oxygen environments. A specimen found at Jones Park in June appeared to be a juvenile measuring 11 inches long. Judging by his injured tail, he recently had a close encounter with a larger predator. Although not a gamefish, the bowfin is a renowned fighter and will challenge anyone fishing with light tackle.  Bowfins can grow to be 43 inches long and weigh 21.5 pounds, but the Texas record is 36.5 inches and 17.65 pounds.

In the past four years, bowfin have been documented only four times in Harris County, according to iNaturalist, and are rarely caught on video. One reason bowfin are so uncommon in Harris County is because the creeks and bayous often flood, creating currents too strong for them. However, a few protected areas, like the inlet to the Kenswick drainage channel on Spring Creek, can create an ideal environment for bowfin to feed and reproduce. In fact, the bowfin in the picture was collected, documented, and released in that inlet.

Although annual surveys are useful for measuring the health of a body of water, they are also useful educational tools for the public. For the past 13 years, the staff has conducted annual surveys as part of Jones Park’s Fish of Spring Creek program. The event gives visitors a chance to inspect different varieties of fish up close and learn about their characteristics. Stay tuned to participate in next year’s program.

Anyone interested in learning more about the fish of Spring Creek can attend Take Me Fishing in partnership with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and Fishing’s Future programs, on Saturday, Nov. 23, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Anyone 8 or older is invited to attend. Staff and volunteers will spend the day sharing the joys of family fishing with park patrons. Registration is required at www.fishingsfuture.org.

(Jones Park’s fishing programs are supported by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. By training staff, promoting courses online, and donating literature for our fishing and hunting programs, TPWD is an essential part of Jones Park’s outdoor programming.)