Matt Dickerson: A first run-in with a Vermont bowfin

Recently, I was reminded (yet again) of what amazing, abundant, and diverse fishing opportunities are available to anglers in Vermont. Within a short drive of Addison County one can find brook, brown, and rainbow trout in dozens of rivers and streams, and several mountain ponds. There are salmon and lake trout in Champlain and some inland lakes. Pike and smallmouth thrive in the bigger rivers and many ponds. You can also find muskies, walleye, perch, largemouth bass, fallfish and bullhead.
And these are just the better-known game fish and food fish. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife website claims there are more than 90 species of fish in the state. Some of these can get big. Some are strangely prehistoric. Some are both, like the endangered and protected lake sturgeon. Burbot, carp, and longnose gar also come to mind.
And bowfin, a species I had heard about for a few years, but to which I was only recently personally introduced.
About 15 years ago, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, both of whom were born in Vermont, moved back here after years of living out of state and even out of the country. They settled initially in South Burlington, but eventually grew tired of big-city life. So after a few years they moved half an hour north to Georgia, to a small house right on Arrowhead Mountain Lake, the last impoundment of the Lamoille River before it flows into Champlain.
For my father-in-law, it fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a house on the water. They can sit on their back porch and watch ducks, geese, blue heron and otters. A pair of osprey nested within earshot of their house on the hill behind them overlooking the lake.
Two species of turtles crawl up out of the lake onto their lawn to lay eggs every June. The first year, before my father-in-law fenced it in, the soft soil of his garden was a favorite place for the turtles to dig their nests — and for the next several days a favorite place for local wildlife to come digging up those turtle eggs.
My wife and I enjoy visiting her parents in their house on the lake. We sit on their back porch and eat lunch with them and watch the wildlife and listen to the osprey calling out from above. And when I have time, I go fishing.
Indeed, as soon as I heard where my in-laws were moving, my angler’s mind foresaw the potential opportunities to cast in some new water, a type of water I don’t often get out on. So when we visit them, we will occasionally throw our canoe atop our roof and take a paddle around their end of the lake. We bring the camera and watch for wildlife. I also bring my fly rod.
On our most recent trip, an early June adventure, we paddled over to the opposite shore, and then worked our way up to the head of the lake, under the railroad trestle, and a couple hundred yards up the Lamoille River — as far upstream as we could get in a canoe before we were blocked by the shallows and swift water of a small rips. I tied on a large black wooly bugger and began to cast behind rocks, into the seams in the current, and in deep pockets.
At first I caught nothing. But then I noticed some fish rising 50 yards downstream where the water dropped off into the unfathomed depths. We drifted back down the current to this deeper water and I cast to the rises.
A big fish hit my fly hard. I fought it. It fought back, not leaping like a rainbow or smallmouth might do, but fighting down and deep. Suddenly it bent my rod over double, plunged under the front of the canoe, and with my line underneath me leapt out of the water on the other side and tossed my hook. It was at least a 20-inch fish that was no longer attached to my rod.
I took some more casts. Caught and released a small bass or two. Then another big fish hit hard. This one broke off my line in a matter of seconds — snapping a leader that had a breaking strength of more than five pounds, unless it had been nicked by rocks and weakened. I never saw the fish. Wondered what it was.
I tied on another bugger. We paddled back down the river, below the railroad trestle. A splash near a boulder on an island got my attention. We paddled over. I watched as a medium-size bass hit the surface again. I cast and stripped in my fly. No take. I cast again, and this time I let my heavy fly sink down out of sight into the depths. The moment I started to strip it in, something big hammered it.
It was several minutes before I was able to fight the fish closely to the boat to get a look, and caught sight of a strange prehistoric tail — almost like that of an eel — and bright almost fluorescent green fins. I’d never seen anything like it. And it was several more minutes before I was able to get another look at it, finally pulling a six-pound fish well over two feet long up to the side of the canoe so that I could release it in the water, while my wife took a few photos. 
Though I had a reasonable idea I had landed my first bowfin, it wasn’t until I went home and compared the photos with some bowfin photos on the Internet that I confirmed my catch. And began planning when I could get out on the lake again, now that I know what is in it.

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