I like to think of myself as a responsible fisherman. Part of that responsibility is being able to identify the different fish I catch. Is it a male or a female? What species is it? Is it a native or invasive fish species?
This is very important information to have on hand so you can decide whether you should keep a fish, throw it back, or kill it on site.
So how do you tell the difference between a Bowfin vs Snakehead?
This is important to know because while Bowfin are a native fish species, Snakehead are an invasive species and should be killed on site.
You don’t want to be accidentally releasing a Snakehead back into the water and contributing to the death of native fish. Well at least not if you’re a responsible fisher!
Luckily there are a few distinguishing features between these two fish, so let’s take a look at what they are so that you can properly identify your catch and take the right action.
Comparing Snakehead vs Bowfin Features
The Bowfin famously has a large mouth that is packed full of sharp teeth.
Check out the skull of a Bowfin to see what I mean!
So if you land a fish doing its best Jaws impersonation, this is one clue that you might a have a Bowfin on your hand.
Bowfin teeth are no joke!
On the other hand, a Snakehead has a much smaller set of teeth more typical of what you will find in any fish’s mouth.
Here is a Snakehead skull for comparison.
Don’t get me wrong, I still wouldn’t want to be bitten by one but it isn’t the stuff of nightmares that Bowfin teeth are!
Both Bowfin and Snakeheads have a long dorsal fin running along the top of their bodies. This is what leads to confusion between the two species.
You can’t tell if your fish is a Bowfin or a Snakehead just by looking at the dorsal fin. You need to look at the rest of the fish.
Pelvic & Anal Fins
Here is where you should be paying attention to see the difference between a snakehead and bowfin.
(Just a quick note on terminology here first so you know what I’m talking about when referring to the different fins on the fish.)
- Pelvic fins are found on the bottom of the fish in the front half of the body.
- Anal fins are found on the bottom of the fish in the back half of the body.
- Pectoral fins are found on the side of the fish, like little wings
If you look at the pelvic fins of Bowfish they are located a long way back from the pectoral fins, sometimes almost halfway down the belly of the fish. Whereas if you look for the pelvic fins of Snakehead they sit right up under the pectoral fins closer to the head.
But even more distinguishing is the difference in Anal fins between the two fish
This is what I use to tell the difference between a Bowfin vs Snakehead.
A Bowfin has a short anal fin, typically about ¼ of the size of the dorsal fin on top of the fish. But a Snakehead has a long anal fin, closer to 2/3 of the size of the dorsal fin on top of the fish.
So if you see a long anal fin you’ve got yourself a Snakehead. And if you see a short anal fin it’s most likely a Bowfin that you’ve landed.
Another way to tell the difference between a Snakehead and Bowfin is to look at the scales on the head.
Bowfin bodies are scaled but noticeably the head is not. They have a large head without scales.
On a Snakehead both the body and head are covered in scales.
This is another easy way to tell these two fish apart.
Bowfin vs Snakehead: 3 Big Differences You Can Use To Tell Them Apart
Really there are just three things you should be looking for to know if you have caught a Bowfin or Snakehead. There are lots of other minor differences between these fish, but let’s be honest in the heat of the moment you aren’t going to be pulling out a microscope to get into the nitty gritty details.
Here is how you tell these fish apart:
- Bowfin have a mouth feel of teeth that will scare the life out of you whereas Snakehead have more typical, smaller fish teeth
- Snakehead have a long anal fin that runs about 2/3 the length of its dorsal fin, but Bowfin have a small anal fin that is only about ¼ the length of its dorsal fin.
- Bowfin have scales on their body and no scales on their head, however Snakehead have scales on both their head and body
Pop Quiz: Is this fish a Bowfin or Snakehead?
OK let’s see if you actually remembered any of what you just read.
I’m going to show you two pictures and you need to guess which one is a Bowfin and which is a Snakehead.
Don’t read any further until you’ve had a go at identifying which fish is which.
Scroll back up if you need to and re-read the main features.
OK. Good to go?
Notice that Mystery Fish #1 has a smooth head with no scales on it. It has a pelvic fin halfway down its body, and an anal fin that is very short.
Whereas Mystery Fish #2 has scales that continue from the body onto the head. It has a pelvic fin that is right up under the pectoral fins and a very long anal fin that is almost half the length of the fish.
So that means that the Mystery Fish #1 is a Bowfin and Mystery Fish #2 is a Snakehead!
Did you get it right?
The Last Cast
As you can see although these fish are often mistaken, with a little bit of training and know how it becomes immediately obvious how to tell if you’ve caught a Bowfin vs Snakehead.
If you’ve got a Bowfin you’re in luck! This is a native fish that you can catch, cook or release. Do with it as you please.
If you’ve caught a Snakehead then please do not release this after you’ve caught it. Snakehead are an invasive species that need to be removed from our waterways. Confirm with your local authorities, but in most locations you are requested to kill Snakehead on site.
You should now be an expert on the characteristics of Bowfin vs Snakehead and be well placed to know what you’ve caught on your next fishing trip.
How did you go on our quiz?
Have you got any advice on how you tell the difference between these two fish?
Then drop us a line below!