Isn’t It Time You Tried Bowfishing?

May 11, 2011
bowfishing fun
At its heart, bowfishing is fun.

Modern bowhunters have turned venal as day traders, if the fascination with slams and draconian quality deer management schemes is any indication. So it has become necessary while selling the idea of bowfishing to appeal to readers’ logic or, perhaps, to some Calvinistic-like principle. There’s the obligatory bit about keeping the shooting eye sharp and string-tugging muscles toned. The author would also be remiss for failing to reveal that carp (the most popular bowfishing target) are a non-native, invasive species, directly competing with desirable game fish, rendering bowfishing a guilt-free enterprise.

All of this is true, but at its heart bowfishing is simply fun. Hoot and holler, smoke a cigar (only to keep mosquitoes away, of course), share the adventure with friends, or, better yet, bring the entire family, tikes included.

Hardy Asian carp manage to live in waters uninhabitable by more discriminating fish, meaning they’re seldom difficult to locate. I’ve shot them from desert lakes to mountain trout streams, though there’s more to bowfishing than carp. Depending on location, targets of opportunity might include native non-game buffalofish, suckers, gars, or ocean sheephead and stingrays. With more imagination bowfishing can assume big-game dimensions, trophies such as paddlefish (Midwest), alligator gar (South), shark (Louisiana), or alligators (Florida), which all provide unique challenges and bragging-size prizes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bowfishing can literally turn into year-round sport, but the best time for easy, nonstop shooting is normally during the spring carp spawn. From April through June, depending on latitude and altitude, carp invade the shallows of river riffles and side channels, lake and reservoir bays, even municipal pond storm drains and feeds. They splash and wallow in shin-deep water, sometimes flopping onto shore during their heedless frolicking. Carp are easily approached while spawning and often present “flock-shooting” ease. Summer bowfishermen are rewarded by patiently stalking or poling shallows or shelves for feeders.

Consult area conservation officers for hotspot tips and rules of engagement in your state.

At its most basic, bowfishing involves donning waders or old duds and jumping right in—an approach especially welcomed during hot summer months. Shooting from a boat is fun and sometimes more profitable, but not absolutely necessary in most waters.

You’ll need some basic gear, first a bow that you won’t mind getting wet and muddy. The inherent resistance of water and the heavy scales and bone of “trash fish” calls for heavy fish arrows, normally something weighing 1,500-plus grains. This, in turn, calls for an arrow rest designed to accommodate that extra weight, plus barbed points to keep fish from sliding off an arrow after a hit. The arrow is attached to stout cord, stored and paid out smoothly from a bowfishing reel, that also allows retrieving your arrow (and fish) after the shot. Bowfishing accessories come in various styles, price points, and function.

Any old bow serves as a bowfishing platform, but specially designed bowfishing bows often prove more viable. These are compounds with non-corrosive hardware and specialty, smooth-drawing cams, or metal-handled recurves with necessary accessory taps. Compound designs allow more deliberate aiming, and more power for shooting into deeper water or at the biggest targets (most notably from boats). Recurve designs are best for shooting in shallow water or where a quick-draw is needed for moving targets, like when wading for spawning carp.

While bowfishing arrows are pretty standard—heavy solid fiberglass, fancy models with carbon or aluminum sheaths—points come in more variety. This is a matter of price verses ease of use and durability. For casual shooting, especially in soft-mud bottoms, budget-priced points work fine, but removing fish from arrows is normally more time-consuming. More expensive tips are typically more durable—important when shooting near rock or stumps—and include designs that make removing fish fast and trouble-free. All fish arrows should be equipped with an AMS Safety Slide that keeps the retrieval line safe from tangles and potentially dangerous bounce-backs.

Reels are the biggest variable in price and function. The inexpensive drum reel stores hand-wound line on an open, large-diameter spool, which attaches to the bow via stabilizer mount or tape-on feet. They get the job done in shallow waters where ranges are intimate, but involve slower retrieval and added bulk or weight. Mid-priced, stabilizer-mounted, close-faced spinning reels offer extra-fast arrow retrieval after misses, drags to help fight bigger fish, and compactness. Just remember to push the “cast” button before every shot or risk losing arrows to break-offs or, worse, a dangerous arrow bounce-back. Finally, the AMS Retriever Reel includes trigger-activated rollers that stack line neatly inside a side-mounted bottle during retrieval, offering zero friction during the shot with no release buttons to push before shooting.

The last bits of useful advice is to invest in quality polarized sunglasses, which help penetrate surface glare and allow you to better spot submerged targets. Remember to aim low when targets fin into view. Aiming low assures compensation for image refraction though the water. (Image refraction is akin to light bending as it passes through a prism.) Objects always appear higher than they actually are, depending on water depth and shot angle. There’s no set formula to offer. Experience is the best teacher, though a couple companies have recently introduced special bowfishing sights to tackle this phenomenon.

While big-game bowhunting proves ultimately rewarding, the process itself often involves tedium or drudgery. Not so with bowfishing. From the moment you wade into cooling waters to the moment when you finally connect on your first fish, bowfishing is all about start-to-finish enjoyment.