It’s been a cold spring in Erie, Pennsylvania. Snow continued to fall through April, pushing the season total to a stupefying 198.5 inches.
Then May hit. The thermometer rose above 70. I put my long underwear away.
Today, a thunderstorm looms, but I can’t resist the siren call of Presque Isle Bay. I don my neoprene armor and sally forth in search of the mythic bowfin, that dragon-toothed, prehistoric predator. I check some likely spots, but find them finless. Is the water too cold? Or are they simply eluding me? The bowfin is not abundant in the bay.
I give up and decide to settle for bass. Grab a baitcaster and a pocketful of spinners and head for a swampy, remote corner of Presque Isle. 20 minutes overland, 15 through mucky water, and I’m there. So are the bass. I bring nearly 50 to hand (lotta dinks), plus a couple bonus pike.
Then, when I least expect it—fishing a little spinner, down to 2/3 of a treble hook, its bucktail stripped bare—the dragon strikes. Bowfin! Line peels off as she makes for a brush pile. I clamp down and turn her. She goes for the lily pads. The reeds. Back to the pads again. She’s entangled. I keep the pressure on and shake her loose. She bolts and I see that only one tiny barb has lodged in the corner of her mouth, barely piercing the upper lip.
I have no net. There is no bank. Only miles of watery reeds. I’ll never land her. As I prepare to shrug it off, something miraculous happens. The storm blows over, a ray of sunlight descends, and the bowfin stays hooked. After numerous attempts, and lots of flashing teeth, I’m able to get a few fingers behind her gill plate and up under her chin.
Finally subdued, I lift the beast into my arms and look for somewhere, anywhere, to get a picture. The best I can do is a vacant goose’s nest. Holding the fish with one hand, I set the camera up with the other.
The bowfin is surprisingly docile, until I hit the timer. Somehow she knows she can sour my victory by evading the snapshot. She thrashes, slips my grip, and crashes into the water. There’s a narrow gap in the reeds and she’s eyeing it. I set up in her path like a catcher facing a runner at home plate. She charges. I go down in the mud and make a grab.
As we’re wrestling—this angry creature and me—I have a thought: I’m not a particularly young man. At what point does this sort of thing become undignified? Conclusion: dignity is overrated. I scoop the fish up, fling her atop the nest, and pin her there while I reset the camera.
Photo taken, I return her to the water and step aside. She swims out slowly, with a nonchalant air, as if the whole ordeal was just another Wednesday in the swamp.
Ten minutes later, as I’m fishing, she surfaces for air not five feet away from me. Our eyes meet. I like to believe her look is not unfriendly, but she's probably thinking of biting a hole in my waders.