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Bowfins are large fish that are so distinct in appearance, they are unlikely to be confused with other fish species. Their backs are a dark olive green to brown color, which changes to pale yellow on the belly. Bowfins have a massive round head with heavy plates on the cheeks, and a large mouth loaded with pointed teeth. Their tails are rounded and have an oval black spot at the base. Bowfin have a long, wavy dorsal fin, and all the fins are often bright green with some orange highlights on the males.
Bowfin have a limited range in New York State, living only in Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and a few other large water bodies in Central New York including Oneida Lake. They prefer shallow, weedy habitats in clear lakes and sluggish rivers, and can live in water with low oxygen levels. The presence of a modified, lung-like swim bladder enables bowfin to gulp air at the water's surface when oxygen levels in the water are too low. Bowfin feed heavily on fish and crayfish, and often prevent panfish overpopulation. They are also known to eat leeches, insects, and frogs.
Bowfin spawning occurs in shallow weedy areas during May and June. Adult males build nests by biting and tearing out leaves and stems of rooted vegetation until they have created a large circular depression. Females then enter the nests after dark and deposit between 2,000 and 5,000 eggs. In 8-10 days the eggs hatch, and the young attach themselves to vegetation with an adhesive tip on their snouts. Male bowfin stay and guard the eggs and young for up to several weeks, and viciously attack any intruders. Bowfin are the only species of primitive fish in the Northeast to exhibit parental care.
The bowfin is one of New York's living dinosaurs, as it has been here for the last 60 million years. While they exist in Oneida Lake, they are one of the less common fish species and most people never see one. Bowfin put up a good fight when hooked, and yet, few anglers decide to fish for them.
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