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Bowfin vs Snakehead: How to ID, Hook, and Land Both Overlooked Species

The Bowfin vs. Snakehead question isn’t so much about which is better as it is about which is which. These long, snake-like fish can easily be mistaken for one another. And that’s a problem, because while snakeheads are an invasive species that are often purposefully removed, bowfins are native fish that need some level of protection.

The good news for anglers is that while overlooked and often underestimated, both are hard-fighting fish worth catching. That is, as long as you know how to tell them apart. Here is a comparison between Bowfin and Snakehead including how to identify and catch them.

Bowfish vs. Snakehead: Distribution and Reputation

No matter where you live, if you enjoy fishing—and maybe you don’t—you’ve heard of snakeheads. Over twenty years ago, this invasive species caused a media storm when it was discovered in a Maryland pond. It was feared that these predators, native to Asia, would dominate any body of water they inhabited, destroying all native species and permanently altering the ecosystem. More than two decades later, that has not happened. In fact, the cult of anglers who love to catch snakehead fish is gradually growing.

Two snakehead species live in the United States: the northern snakehead, found from Virginia to southern New York, and the bullseye snakehead, which lives in southern Florida. While neither species has decimated the scene as predicted, they have caused potentially harmful confusion because they thrive in waters where native bowfins live. Although largely overlooked as a rod-and-reel destination, the increased interest in snakeheads has led to more and more bowfinfish being caught. The problem is that they look a lot like snakeheads and thanks to the media campaign in the early 2000s, snakeheads are still killing many people even though most states have relaxed edicts that no one can be brought back into the water alive.

Bowfins are living dinosaurs. They have remained relatively unchanged since the Triassic almost 250 million years ago. They were here, along with species like the gars, long before any of the other wild fish we target today existed. That alone should be enough, in my opinion at least, to earn respect for bowfins, but for the most part they are considered garbage fish. They are native and distributed throughout the eastern half of the county and southeastern Canada, from Quebec west to Minnesota and from the Carolinas west to Texas.

Bowfin vs. Snakehead: Physical Differences

Photo of Bowfin vs. Snakehead
Distributed by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, this poster shows many of the key physical differences between the species. Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission

It’s easy to see why people confused these fish. Both have a long, almost snake-like body, a fairly flat head, and a rounded tail. The most striking – and perhaps most confusing – similarity between bowed fins and snakehead fins is the dorsal fin. Both have long dorsal muscles that start in the middle of their back and extend to the base of their tail. However, there are some key physical differences that you can use to quickly tell them apart.


Bowfins range in color from gray to silver and brown to olive, depending on the quality of the water they live in and the time of year. During spring spawning, a male’s fins may turn bright green. The color can be as intense as if someone put a highlighter on the fins. Males also have an eyespot on their tail, which features a bright orange ring during mating season. Aside from the faint green fins and tail spots, bowed fins can show a faint pattern of squiggly lines on their flanks, although they often have no pattern at all on the body.

Photo for Bowfin vs. Snakehead
Left: The tail patch seen on many male dwarf fins. Right: The bright green pectoral fins of a spawning pygmy finfish. Joe Cermele

A bowfin’s head is rounded and blunt, with no scales on top. One of the best ways to identify a pygmy snake is its anal fin, which is very different from that of a snakehead. Bowfins have a short anal fin that is positioned near the center of the abdomen and does not reach far at all, creating a much greater distance between the anal fin and the tail compared to snakehead snakes.


While bowed fins show little or no pattern on the body, snakeheads display vivid python-like rings and stripes on their flanks year-round, even during summer spawning season when the fish’s color tends to darken. If the fish you see appears almost black in the water, it is a snakehead, although the color can range from deep brown to bright copper.

Photo of the body pattern
Snakeheads exhibit a lively pattern on their flanks, while those of a dwarf snakehead are typically muted. Joe Cermele

A snakehead’s head is flatter than that of a dwarf snakehead, and the lower jaw reaches further. Snakehead snakes also have scales that reach the tip of their noses. Again, the anal fin is a key identifier. A snakehead’s anal fin is much longer than a bowfin’s: it resembles the fish’s dorsal fin, running from mid-belly to the base of the tail, without the gap between the anal fin and the tail seen on a bowfin.

See also: Monofilament vs Fluorocarbon: Which Should You Use When?

Bowfin vs. Snakehead: Behavioral Differences

Snakehead and dwarf snakefish are predators that hunt live prey. Both species thrive in shallow, weed-infested, swampy waters as they rely on vegetation for cover to hunt and spawn. But even here there are important differences.


Compared to snakeheads, bow fins spend much more time feeding. Although they will attack small fish, crabs or frogs on the surface, they have powerful noses and, like a catfish, will happily eat dead or decaying food off the bottom. In fact, there’s no easier way to catch a bowfin than to fire a piece of shad, shrimp, or bluegill under a bobber and wait.

Bowfins tend to stay put waiting for a meal to be served and I’ve found that success with bowfins on lures often depends on getting the offering right in their face when not by practically knocking the bait off their snouts.


Photo of snake head with bait
Snakeheads are aggressive hunters and are therefore more apt to take down a fast-moving lure. Joe Cermele

Snakeheads are migratory predators that tend to cover large areas of water when hunting. While they’ll occasionally snap up deadbait, you’ll have more success with them when presenting a moving target like a surface frog, buzzbait, chatterbait, or fluke. Snakeheads will capture a moving target from afar and pursue the bait before reaching for the kill.

Bowfin vs. Snakeheads: How to Catch and Land Both Types

A final common feature of these species is, of course, their toughness. Both have incredibly powerful jaws that are rock hard, requiring a powerful, well-timed set to snag a hook. This is the main reason why most anglers who target them rely on heavy duty rods and at least 40lb braided line.

If you Do When setting the hook, you must maintain pressure and engage the fish quickly, because even a moment of slack can cause the hook to fall right out. While snakehead snakes are arguably still the more glamorous of the two species, the reality is that bowed fins are a bit meaner and stronger. It’s the shot of a snake head resembling that of a musk that is so addictive. When you hook, snakes go ballistic, but after that initial burst of energy they usually end up straight in the web. Stick a bowfin on the other hand, and this fish will fight you to the bitter end, doing everything in its power to pry you off or wrap you around the nearest tree stump or lily pad. Landing one of the two fish is an achievement worth sending some pics to your friends.

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