Freshwater Fish - Species

Bowfin - Click to enlarge photo

Species Specific Regulations


Freshwater Fishing License required.

Complete fishing regulations

Guide to Freshwater Fishes

Guide to Freshwater Fishes
(Adobe PDF - 3MB)

Bowfin (Amia calva) - Native

Description: (Anatomy of a Fish)

The bowfin is a stout fish, olive in color with darker mottling along the sides.  A large, black oval spot with a yellow to orange outline is present on the body at the upper corner of the base of the caudal fin.  The caudal fin is rounded.  The dorsal fin is long and extends for more than half of the length of the body.  Breeding male bowfin have bright green fins and the orange outline around the black spot at the base of the caudal fin is intensified. 

Range:   Bowfin are primarily found in the Coastal Plain with a few records in the Piedmont. 

Average Length:  1 ½-2 feet

Average Size:  2 pounds

South Carolina State Record: 21 pounds 8 ouncs(1957); 15 pounds 7 ounces (Bowfishing)

Life Expectancy: Approximately 10 years

Preferred Habitat

Sluggish coastal rivers, backwaters, swamps, creeks, ditches and borrow pits.  It can also be found in clear water but usually concealed in and near vegetation, logs, branches and other shelter. 

Food Habits

  • Fish, crayfish, and all other living aquatic animals. 


  • Bowfin spawn from March to early June.  Males construct nests in shallow water by fanning their fins.  They will use their mouths to bite and clear any debris or vegetation. 
  • Females can deposit up to 55,000 sticky eggs, usually at night.  The male will protect the nest during incubation of the eggs and after they have hatched. 
  • Once the young hatch, they stay in compact groups and continue to be guarded by the males for some time. 


The bowfin is the only remaining member of an ancient group of fish which lived over 180 million years ago.  The bowfin has several features similar to a gar.  The head is covered with bony plate-like armor and much of the skeleton consists of cartilage.  Bowfin can survive in poor water quality with low oxygen levels by breathing air directly into its swim bladder that will function similar to a lung.  Anglers enjoy the strength and endurance of the bowfin, but not the taste. 

Commonly Mistaken Species

Some species of fish that are commonly mistaken for this species are northern snakehead (which is a non-native not currently found in South Carolina).     

The northern snakehead has a long anal fin (short in the bowfin) and pelvic fins which are positioned directly below the pectoral fins.  If caught, snakeheads should be placed in a cooler and immediately reported to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at 803-734-3891.  Snakeheads should not be released back into the environment. 

Do you know the difference (PDF) (file size 3mb)

Literature Cited

Rohde, Fred C, Arndt, Rudolf G., Foltz, Jeffery W., Quattro, Joseph M. 2009. Freshwater Fishes of South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina.

Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. 2009. South Carolina Guide to Freshwater Fishes.

Fish Illustration by Duane Raver.