When a Ft. Wayne angler caught two odd-looking fish from the Pigeon River in LaGrange County recently, he thought they were snakeheads, an invasive species that biologists fear could wreak havoc on native fish.
But as has happened with other reports of what someone thought were snakeheads, the dark green, slimy, toothy fish that 27-year-old Jeremy Hennen caught were not the exotic predator from Asia. They were run-of-the-mill bowfin – or what some anglers call dogfish.
The mistake is easy to make. Bowfin and snakeheads look alike. Both have round tails and long dorsal fins that stretch along their backs. They each have teeth. Both live in similar habitats and are capable of breathing surface air by using the air bladder as a lung. Each can survive dry periods by burying themselves in mud.
In contrast, bowfin are generally greener and have a short anal fin. The anal fin on a snakehead extends more than half the length of the dorsal fin. The head of a bowfin is more rounded than a snakehead and, unlike a snakehead’s, the bowfin’s upper jaw is longer than its lower jaw.
Bowfin also have a large spot in front of the tail. The bulls-eye snakehead does too, but the giant snakehead and Northern snakehead do not.
Bowfin are native and common in lakes and rivers throughout Indiana. Snakeheads are present in several states, particularly along the East Coast, but have not been found in Indiana. DNR officials hope to keep it that way.
To reduce the risk of snakeheads escaping into the wild, it is illegal for anyone to possess a live snakehead in Indiana, even in an aquarium. Anyone who catches or possesses a snakehead is also obligated to kill it. The DNR will provide euthanizing assistance if needed.
Hennen, who has fished since he was 7 years old, caught the bowfin while fishing for catfish and using hot dogs as bait.
He had never caught a bowfin before and was unsure of what he had. “So I let them go. I didn’t want to kill them,” he said.
“That’s OK,” said Jed Pearson, DNR fisheries biologist. “Bowfin evolved as a natural part of fish communities and don’t pose any ecological danger. But fishermen need to be on the lookout for snakeheads and know what to do if they catch one.”
Hennen forwarded two photos of his fish to Pearson for identification.