That is what I thought growing up though I have since heard people say they are quite good eating if you clean them right. Their flesh is jelly-like and I was told very bony but supposedly you can cook them up as fish patties, fry them, throw them in a stew or smoke them. But for me it was always about catching them.
The mudfish (Amia Calva) is also known as the bowfin or dogfish. They are fresh water and range throughout the Mississippi, the Gulf Coast and along the Atlantic Coast rivers and streams as far north as New York.
They look like a throwback to an earlier era and they should, they have been around for 180 million years. They breathe air via their swim bladder and when oxygen content in the water is low they just gulp oxygen directly from the air.
They are easy to recognize, they don’t look like any other fish. They are broad across the head like a catfish but the rest of them is unique. They have a long wavy dorsal fin and a paddle-style tail. Their lower fins are much smaller than the dorsal and their heads are smooth. They range from 2 to 5 pounds on average but often go up to 6 or 8 pounds. Anything larger than that is unusual and described as a “lunker.” The state record is a whopping 19.0 pounds according to Florida Fish and Wildlife.
And while most people don’t fish for them, there is even a Bowfin Anglers Group on line today with fishing tips and recipes.
Mudfish bite lures or baitfish and I have even caught them on worms. Guess they were really hungry that day. One thing for sure, everybody agrees they put up a helluva fight and can be mistaken for big bass before they are landed.
When I was a kid and visiting my grandparents in Gulf Hammock I spent a lot of time fishing. Nobody thought anything about letting a young girl go off on her own in the woods with a pole, some bait and probably a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to stave off starvation before supper.
Most of what I caught were sunfish — bream, bluegills, warmouths, shellcrackers and stumpknockers. Hard to say if it was more fun catching them or calling their names. And if I was lucky I might find a small trout or more often a bass. The big gars that floated like half sunk logs in the crystal clear creeks headed for the Waccasassa River almost never bit anything, but the mudfish, sometimes they did and when they did it was fun.
I remember the first big one I caught. I had walked over across US 19 toward the old then-abandoned hotel back in the woods. A creek wandered by the dirt road leading to the hotel and sometimes the water stretched out into the low lying area into shallow black ponds with deep muck bottoms and cypress knees dotting the edges.
I had caught a pretty good mess of bream and saw something big working the water in one of those ponds. I crept over near the edge (didn’t want to lose my shoes to that sucking mud) and started tossing my worm over near where the water was being worked. I’d drag it slowly back toward me (this is a cane pole not a fancy rod and reel) and it requires a delicate touch to entice a fish in a tight area with overhanging limbs and Spanish moss.
On about my third pass something took hold of the worm. It didn’t run, it didn’t do anything. It was just holding it in its mouth. I knew If I tried to set the hook I would probably just pull it out of the mouth and that fish would be gone so I waited. In just a few seconds the fish turned and started to move away with the bait and I hit it hard as it turned, setting the hook in corner of the mouth.
That mudfish pitched a fit. It swam hard and changed direction and bent my pole nearly in half. I thought the line or pole would break and tried to follow it around the edge of the swampy area to tire it out. It flipped around and ran toward me an away and I started to back up every time it headed toward me. Finally it was close to the edge and I picked the tip of my pole up and prayed the line would hold. It did.
That was a big mudfish, though probably not as big as it seemed to me then. After a good long look I took my old slime covered fish rag out and held it down while I worked the hook out.
Some people kill mudfish, they think they eat too many of the fish we like to catch and eat but I just pushed him back toward the water with my toe until he gave a big flap of his tail and got back in. I saw his dorsal fin cutting the shallow water for a few feet and then he was gone, back into the black water and me gone back toward the sunlit creek with a still-pounding heart for a few more bream.
This piece first appeared on April 24, 2015 in Levy Living, the ezine of the Nature Coast.