March 15, 2021
This story was originally titled “The Forgotten Ones: These giant, native fish need some love and attention.” It appeared in the Feb-Mar 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman.
In recent years, many thousands of fly fishers have set out across the planet traveling to faraway destinations to target exotic freshwater fish like arapaima, wolf fish, payara, taimen, peacock bass, black bass, and many others. For most of us, these fish are only dreams—amazing to read about but not actually feasible or possible. But don’t be discouraged. There are many opportunities for fly fishers in the U.S. to chase exotics in or near our own backyards.
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 restricted travel for everyone, making it an opportune time to highlight the ancient megafish of North America. They need a spotlight, and our respect for these gamefish is long overdue. Bowfins, paddlefish, gar, and sturgeons are all aquatic dinosaurs—megafish that have gone mostly overlooked or ignored by fly fishers. I call them “the forgotten ones.” Their aggressive eats and acrobatic leaps can beat or at least equal any gamefish on the planet, and they can change the way you look at your home waters.
Bowfin (Amia calva)
Bowfins are ancient fish dating back to the Jurassic and Eocene eras. They are considered primitive fish as they still have many characteristics of their ancestors. They are native to North America and are found from the Upper Midwest, throughout the Northeast, and along the East Coast down to the Gulf of Mexico. Their wide range makes them widely available to many fly fishers. They prefer lowland rivers, lakes, swamps, vegetated sloughs, and bodies of water with lots of downed timber. They prefer shallow water, as they are ambush feeders. This makes them great targets for fly fishers, as much of the time you can sight-fish for them. Their diet consists of crayfish, amphibians, small mammals, minnows, and other fish species.
Like tarpon, arapaima, and some other fish, bowfins can breathe both air and water, which allows them to survive in stagnant, less oxygenated water and in warm water. They are spring spawners and create nests in shallow water. During their spawn, male bowfins change colors to a brilliant neon green, the color of antifreeze. In their spawning colors, bowfins rival the beauty of brook trout, cutthroat trout, dorado, or bluegill. When hooked, bowfins are incredibly strong, and they make wild, acrobatic jumps. These visual experiences are what fly fishers find so stimulating. Like a trout rising to a dry fly, tuna crashing a bait ball, tarpon jumping and cartwheeling after the hook set, the aggressive displays from these peacock-colored bowfins are what bring us back time after time. They are very aggressive at times, but can also be spooky and require finesse and skill to deliver the fly in and around obstacles.
I use 7- to 9-weight rods and floating or intermediate lines for bowfins. The leader is a standard 9-foot bass leader tapering down to 20-pound test. I have used as heavy as 30-pound test if the bowfins aren’t being spooky. They do have sharp teeth, but I’ve had only a few cut me off. It does happen, so using wire or even 40-pound-test fluorocarbon is a good choice if you can get away with it. Use a large net cradle for landing these fish. A good pair of heavy-duty long-nose pliers is also a good choice to stay away from their sharp teeth.
American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
Paddlefish are considered primitive fish, as they haven’t evolved much since the early Cretaceous Period. Also called the Mississippi paddlefish, spoon-billed cat, or spoonbill, paddlefish are native to the entire Mississippi River basin, which spans 1,245 million square miles in 31 states. Paddlefish can live 50 years, grow up to 7 feet long, and weigh more than 400 pounds. Unfortunately, populations have declined dramatically throughout their range due to overfishing, pollution, and developments such as dams that block spawning migrations.
You may be saying to yourself right now, “paddlefish aren’t predators, they’re filter feeders.” I agree that most of the time, they are filter feeders. However, in the past few years, I have seen paddlefish eat streamer flies consistently at certain times of the year, consistently enough that in some places where I fish for striped bass, I expect to also catch or at least hook a paddlefish every day. It&rsquo's happened way too many times in my boat to be accidental. Are they actually feeding on baitfish to compensate as a dietary requirement, or is it a territorial/aggressive response like when a steelhead takes a fly on its spawning migration? It’s a good question, and to be perfectly honest, I have no idea.
I have researched paddlefish to see if there is any documentation of them preying on baitfish. I’ve even asked a biologist who studies them, and from what I’ve seen, read, and been told, they do at times eat small fish. There have been other documented cases of filter feeders that at times eat larger items. For example, whale sharks have been observed feeding on skipjack tuna. For whale sharks, it happens mostly during times of spawn or pre-spawn, and it’s been hypothesized that the extra protein helps get them through the rigors of spawning.
When I have encountered these fish, I’ve found them in 4 to 6 feet of water on gravel bars while fishing for migratory striped bass in the spring. Paddlefish are bycatch. Due to turbid water, I’ve never been able to sight-fish to them, so for those of you who are skeptical and think we are snagging them, I can assure you we are not. We’re not even trying to catch paddlefish. It just happens.
My strategy for stripers and hybrids is normally to position the boat 50 feet from a gravel bar, and then swing the fly off the gravel bar and into deeper water drop-offs just behind the gravel bar. When paddlefish are around, we sometimes get a bite before the fly even drops off the bar. These are areas where the paddlefish seem to concentrate before they broadcast spawn over the gravel bars. I believe the flies pass by the fish and they either see them as threats to their area, or as easy meals that come into their field of awareness.
I can’t see what is happening, as the water only has about 2 feet of visibility. But I can say that the consistency of these spots is very predictable. Most of the time the fly is in the mouth or around it, however we have had the flies on the cheeks and around the head area, making me think it is a territorial response as opposed to a feeding response. Whatever it is, they do respond to flies, and the fight that ensues is electric. When they feel the hook, they leave the shallows for deeper water, and when they hit deeper water they jump like a sailfish or tarpon. It is an amazing thing to see these dinosaurs in their natural environment breaching during the fight, and then running downriver. I use 9- to 11-weight rods with intermediate, sinking-tip, or full-sinking lines based on current flows. I’ve had several paddlefish eat Game Changers in the 5-inch range. Other productive flies include Deceivers, Clousers, and other shad-style baitfish imitations. For the leader, I use a straight 5-foot piece of 20- or 30-pound-test fluorocarbon directly to the fly. To land one, you’ll need a little luck, a tail rope, or a large cradle.
Gar (family Lepisosteidae)
Gars have been on this continent since at least the late Jurassic period. There are several species of gars in North America including longnose, shortnose, Florida, spotted, and alligator gars. Gars in general grow large, and alligator gars grow to lengths of 7 feet and weigh over 100 pounds. They are widely distributed, which makes them available to many fly fishers. Gars prefer slow-moving brackish to freshwater lakes, swamps, sloughs, rivers, marshes, and tidal areas. They prefer shallow weedy areas, which also makes them a perfect target species for fly fishers, as sight fishing is common, and often required.
Gars are predators that feed on smaller fish and invertebrates such as crabs and crayfish. They use their long mouths and sharp teeth to slash and T-bone their prey. Gars are spring spawners and gather in groups in shallow water during this time of year. I have had some incredible, exciting days sight-fishing to them.
Because of the shape and size of their tough, bony mouths, they are hard to keep hooked after they ambush your fly. I use two smaller hooks on my gar flies, and use curly/kinky fibers in the fly to help grip the fish’s teeth like Velcro. The fibers tangle in the gar’s teeth, and can hold the fish even if the hooks don’t find a home.
The hook-up-to-landing ratio is dismal, but gars are very aggressive, and the sheer numbers of opportunities make up for the lost fish. Gars are fantastic fighters, with many aerial exhibitions, greyhounding leaps, and head-shaking rolls. I have had some of my most memorable days fishing for these fish, and some of the jumps are just spectacular.
I like to use suspending-type flies like Feather or Hybrid Game Changers with double hooks. Dahlberg Divers and Double Deceivers and even rope flies are good choices. Rope flies are merely splayed sections of nylon rope lashed to a hook shank. The hook is completely optional. Rods from 8- to 10-weight are good choices with floating lines and standard 9-foot leaders tapered down to 20- or 30-pound test with a wire tippet to protect against cutoffs from the sharp teeth.
Sturgeon (family Acipenseridae)
Sturgeons are ancient fish dating back to the Late Cretaceous Period. There are 27 species globally. Most of them live a very long time, and some get up to 12 or even 15 feet long. They are among the largest fishes in the world.
Sturgeons are anadromous, meaning they migrate long distances up rivers from lakes or the ocean to spawn. They spend most of their lives in river deltas, estuaries, or even near coastal areas and feed on small fish, crustaceans, invertebrates, and shellfish. They are mostly bottom feeders and use their suction-style mouths to pick food off the bottom. Sturgeons do well in many turbid rivers, and their small eyes indicate that they hunt using mostly their other senses.
In North America, their native range is the Atlantic Coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland, and also throughout the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers. They are also in many major West Coast river systems in California, Oregon, Washington, B.C., and Idaho.
Although I have never personally caught a sturgeon on fly, I do know a few people who have had success, and it’s definitely on my list. The best chance to target sturgeons is when they are in shallow water and you can see the fish and place the fly close to their mouths. Carp fly fishers walking Great Lakes flats have successfully landed these fish on bottom-bouncing flies such as a crayfish. On the West Coast they are an incidental bycatch while fishing for striped bass in rivers systems like the Sacramento River Delta.
Of course, I’ve questioned everyone I know who has caught a sturgeon on fly, trying to glean some new information. I’ve been told they are on par with tarpon, with long, powerful runs and spectacular leaps. In a river, you also have the force of the current to deal with as well as in-river obstacles.
I look forward to the opportunity to target these fish on the fly, and plans are in place to make it happen. It’s definitely a bucketlist fish, and one that should be on every big game angler’s radar. Is it crazy to think you can catch these on fly tackle? Well, yes, but it’s not crazier than going to the Indian Ocean to catch milkfish (also filter feeders) or to Guyana to catch arapaima. There are challenges right here at home to figure out.
Not all sturgeons are giants, and as I mentioned previously carp fly fishers catch 40- to 50-pound sturgeons on 8-weight rods. For truly large fish, you’d need a 12-weight to put maximum pressure on the fish and gain control as quickly as possible.
Sturgeons have a reputation for preferring deep water, but leave your super-fast-sinking lines at home. Your best chance at a sturgeon is to come upon one in shallow water, so floating lines or intermediate lines will help you precisely place the fly where a sturgeon can find it. I’m fairly certain they won’t chase your fly. These fish have rubbery lips—the type that usually hold a hook well—and they don’t have teeth, so a 9-foot leader tapering down to 20- or 30-pound test should get the job done.
Unfortunately, all these nearly forgotten fish are facing an uphill battle as their habitat is being depleted in the name of progress. Dams and diversions have damaged many of their natal spawning areas. Many of them are extinct in parts of their native ranges because they are cut off by dams. Due to their large size, they are subject to overharvest by both legal means and by poaching. In many states it’s legal to snag paddlefish, and it’s both popular and legal to bowfish for gar. Clearly these fish aren’t being released to fight another day, and there is no Gar Unlimited to fight for more stringent regulations on these native fish. This is where we can help make better legislation to lower creel limits or plain killing of these fish just for the sport of killing.
In some states there is already a push to better protect these fish and their habitat, and more concern and more involvement by fly fishers can only help. A prime example is in my home state of Virginia, where there is an ongoing program to restore James River sturgeons to their historic prolific numbers. The studies are promising, as they are seeing good numbers coming back. Only time will tell if it will succeed, but it is a great start and it can only benefit the entire fishery.
I once heard it’s hard to love something if you don’t know about it. If it’s gone before you experience it yourself, that’s an even worse travesty. This is why I decided to write about the forgotten ones. I feel very strongly about these fish, as I have had many opportunities to interact with them over my life, and I hope for others to have the same chances.
I am also in the process of making a short film that will also demonstrate how exciting these fish can be, and how beautiful and fragile their ecosystems are. For example, the tidal marshes here in my home state of Virginia are among the most beautiful places in the world, and this is where bowfins and gars have hunted since the dinosaurs roamed the planet. Even in the middle of a pandemic, these areas make you feel you are in the middle of a remote, exotic jungle, or in a marsh in some faraway land. But in reality you are only a stone’s throw from the biggest population centers on the East Coast, and these fish are there, surviving, and waiting for you.
*Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s the author of the new book Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020).