A Family Totemic Experience
Rivedave's Journal
This is an adaptation of an article first published in the Durham Herald Sun on 9/22/95.

          A recent hot summer morning found me making my weekly rounds of the river front at West Point on the Eno Park with my cast net. I was hoping that early summer rains and resulting high waters had brought up some interesting fish from downstream. With the milldam at West Point providing a formidable obstacle for upstream movement of aquatic wildlife, interesting species often congregate below the dam. My first cast into the tailrace by the mill brought immediate results. A fish that I had long suspected to be a member of the Eno critter community was finally wriggling in my net -- the bowfin.
          It was a juvenile fish about eight inches long. At first its shape and appearance suggested a catfish, but the colorful turquoise-blue rays on its head quickly caught my attention as something unusual. I carefully transferred the fish into a white plastic pan of water where I could examine it more carefully -- thus revealing the two breathing tubes on the snout of the fish that are unique to the ancient bowfin. I had often inquired of local fishermen if the bowfin had ever been caught in the Eno River and the answer was always no. I had heard stories of it being downstream in Falls Lake, but never upstream in the river. This might be a first.

          There is more to the bowfin than just its unique appearance on the Eno. It is the only living member of a family of fish that thrived more than 100 million years ago in Jurassic times. Fossil records from Eurasia, Africa and South America reveal both marine and freshwater-related species. Short breathing tubes on the fish's snout and a lung-like air bladder on our Eno bowfin point to a very primitive animal. A long single dorsal fin that runs down the back of this rounded fish gives it an eel-like appearance. A large colorful spot at the base of the caudal fin gave my juvenile fish an exotic ornament that stood out boldly when I finally dropped it into the fish tank for a temporary stay in my office in the basement of the McCown-Mangum house. Another interesting aspect of this fish's natural history is that the male alone protects the incubating eggs and then the young fry for several weeks after they hatch.

          In North Carolina, the bowfin is more commonly found in the rivers of the coastal plain east of the Eno River, so it is a treat to have it in our area as well. I have also heard reports of its presence in the lower New Hope Creek in southern Durham. I have caught them in small streams in eastern Wake County on several occasions. The bowfin’s full range extends from the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Canada to the rivers of Florida that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. It sometimes goes by the name grinnel.

          My father, Harry Owen, grew up in Central Florida and knew the bowfin as the “mudfish.”  As a boy, living in the small farming community of Knights just north of Plant City, his grandfather Miller encouraged him to fish in a drainage ditch along a sandy road not far from his home.  His first catch was a bowfin. The excitement of this childhood discovery became the open door to the natural world for my father, who became an avid fisherman as an adult.

          My father then taught me how to fish as a child further north on Florida’s Lake Lochloosa where my Great Aunt Maude had a waterfront home, and then on Brainard and Marydell Lakes in Durham County.  I later returned the favor and took my father fishing on the Sea of Galilee and the Amazon River.  Perhaps, then, this ancient Jurassic fish holds the special place of family totemic animal, inspiring generations of nature lovers ...

          The netting of the bowfin on the Eno brings our Eno river fish list to a total of sixty recorded species. This is a wonderful diversity for a river just forty miles long. Besides the common sunfish, bass, crappie and catfish that are most often pulled from the river, an almost bewildering variety of daters, shiners, chubs and suckers swim the shallow riffles of this Piedmont riparian habitat. Most of us live our urban lives, totally unaware of these beautiful and sensitive creatures that live their quiet lives right in our backyards. It is my hope that by knowing about the Jurassic bowfin, we will respect its aged existence that has far predated our century-old tobacco town. Let's continue to protect its watery habitat and home.

photo from: Bowfin from