Choupique is creature from Black Lagoon

Follow this plan to put plenty of Cocodrie trout in your box this month.

The choupique really is “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The monster featured in the 1954 movie classic by the same name looks like the kid next door compared to this fish. Both creatures thrive in the often near oxygenless and heavily vegetated waters of blackwater swamps. But after that, the resemblance ends.Our protagonist, called Amia calva by scientists, is tough and mean. It received a double helping of teeth when Mother Nature passed them out. And it carries them in vice grip-like jaws that it uses without reservation on unsuspecting bass fishermen’s crankbaits in its unceasing quest for food.

Properly called bowfin, the fish carries more aliases than John Dillinger, including mudfish, dogfish, grinnel, grindel, jack, jackfish, cypress trout, cotton fish and in South Louisiana, choupique (pronounced shoe-pick). Antediluvian in appearance, the species is indeed primitive and all the other members of its family, Amiidae, are long extinct.

One of its primitive features is a large and highly vascularized lung that allows it to “breath” by gulping air from the water’s surface when it becomes stagnant and oxygenless. Bowfin have been known to live 21 days buried in the mud of a drained pond.

Bowfin have a large range in North America, being found as far north as Quebec and Ontario in southern Canada and southward through the states of the Mississippi River drainage, as well as all the other rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean south of New Jersey.

But it is in Louisiana that they reach their peak of abundance and greatest size. The official record of 20.50 pounds, taken from Toledo Bend Reservoir in 1976, is fully 2 pounds larger than the largest bowfin taken in any other state.

Its large size, willingness to bite a hook and game fighting qualities questionably make it a better candidate for Louisiana’s official state fish than crappie, the current holder of the title. Compared to the battling bowfin, catching crappie is much like reeling in compliant fillets.

Every bowfin in Louisiana starts its life by being spawned in the coldwater months of January, February or March. With romance on its mind, an amorous male bowfin prepares a nest of sorts by biting off and removing aquatic plants from the chosen spot and fanning out a slight depression in the mud.

Male bowfin can be identified by the large black spot near the base of their tailfins. A ready-to-spawn male’s spot will develop a bright orange halo around it. In the peak of spawning condition, his fins will become a beautiful bright green color.

Females retain their year-round normally drab, feldgrau body color, but spawning females’ bodies will become noticeably distended with eggs. Occasional females will have a black spot similar to males, but it will be drabber and without the orange halo.

Bowfin can only be described as promiscuous. Females typically do not lay all their eggs in one male’s nest, but spread the risk of nest failure by depositing eggs in several males’ nests. And a male usually has the eggs of several females in his nest.

Males aggressively guard their nests, and have been reported to actually jump out of the water toward intruders that they see as threats. After the young bowfin leave the nest, they swim in a swarming school, still guarded by the male.

At about 4 inches long, the young fish leave the swarm and begin their lives as solitary predators. In 3 to 5 years, males reach sexual maturity, which is about 18 inches for males and 24 inches for females.

The predatory nature of the fish causes some anglers to question whether bowfin are a threat to fish populations.

Approximately 10 years ago, biologists in North Carolina conducted a four-year study in two coastal rivers to determine just what bowfin eat. They used electrofishing (shocking) equipment to collect 367 bowfin, ranging in size from 12 to 32 inches long. Their stomach contents were counted, weighed and identified.

The food items fell into four categories: crawfish, fish, grass shrimp and insects, mainly dragonflies. Crawfish were very important in their diets, found in 79 percent of the bowfin stomachs from the Black River and 71 percent of the bowfin from the Lumber River. Fish remains were found in 21 percent of stomachs containing food from the Black River and 47 percent of those from the Lumber River.

By count, in the Black River, crawfish made up 65 percent, insects 14 percent, grass shrimp 10 percent and fish 8 percent of all food items. Because of their larger average size, fish food items made up 47 percent of the weight of food consumed. Fish food items by number were broken into sunfishes (45 percent), catfishes (14 percent), other fish, primarily eels, other bowfin and a small bottom fish called pirate perch (27 percent) and unidentifiable fish (14 percent). Sunfishes as a group include several species of fish usually collectively referred to as “bream” by fishermen.

In the Lumber River, bowfin diets, by count, were 63 percent crawfish and 23 percent fish, with the remainder being insects and grass shrimp. By weight, fish were more important in the diet of Lumber River bowfin, accounting for 73 percent of their diet. Fish food items here were broken into sunfishes (40 percent), catfishes (12 percent), other fish, mostly eel and small suckers (11 percent) and unidentifiable fish (37 percent).

Research done on bowfins in southwestern Louisiana in 1967 indicated a fairly similar diet, comprised heavily of crawfish, grass shrimp and crabs.

Bowfin are difficult to clean and typically receive negative culinary reviews. The skin clings tenaciously to the flesh and scaling them is even more difficult. Each tiny scale seems to be 90 percent embedded in the skin.

The flesh, while pleasant enough tasting, has an objectionable “cottony” mouthfeel, hence the name cottonfish. In Louisiana, bowfin are most often prepared by being boiled, after which the flesh is removed from the bone and combined with potatoes and seasoning and spices. This mixture is rolled into balls or patties then fried.

A modest commercial fishery for bowfin exists in Louisiana, almost totally for the use of their dark gray eggs in making a caviar product. The size and color of bowfin eggs are very similar to those of beluga sturgeon, and some caviar experts have described its taste, likened to a faintly briny ocean breeze, as superior to that of beluga sturgeon caviar.

Jerald Horst is an author of the Angler’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, a 444-page, color-illustrated book on fishes written for saltwater fishermen. The book is available in better bookstores or can be ordered by calling

About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.

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