Wintertime Bowfishing for Suckers and Carp

Join some hardy Minnesota bowhunters on their frosty and successful quest for rough fish on the Mississippi.
Wintertime Bowfishing for Suckers and Carp
bow fishing carp
Eric watches Brad getting set to whack one.

Among the more popular wintertime activities here in Minnesota is fishing. Of course, in our frosty February conditions it's done through holes in the ice, and usually from within small shelters called fish houses.

Now call me weird, but I've always thought of fishing as something best done OUTDOORS. And as much as I love to fish, one thing that’s always bugged me about it is that it’s all up to the fish. If they don’t feel like biting, you lose.

That's contradictory to the theme of most of my Mike vs. Nature endeavors, which tend to emphasize ATTACK! And all of that is why I've come to love wintertime bowfishing so much.

Yeah I know—now you DO think I'm weird. Well come along with me and the boys and see how much fun it really is.

It's late afternoon around Valentine's Day, on the banks of the Mississippi, not too far upriver from the snow-collapsed Metrodome. (After the big bridge fell into this river a few years ago, and now the Dome, I have started calling Minneapolis Maxicollapsolis.)

Anyway, at just south of freezing, it's like springtime in the Bahamas compared to what we've been through. Big snowflakes float sporadically down as my friend Eric Soderberg, my son Brad, and I shove Eric’s big johnboat off the trailer and across the ice shelf between the landing and open water.

By the time we're ready and rigged and bundled up and hunting fish it is getting dark, but Eric's big high-pressure sodium lamps light up the night. The strategy is to work the shorelines in water that is about the maximum depth for us to see—maybe 5 feet. From the bow's shooting platform, we peer into murky water and are seeing fish immediately. There are pike and walleyes, catfish and rafts of the big smallmouth bass this stretch is famous for. Then we spot fat fish with lips, and arrows are flying.

bow fishing sucker
Brad and dad with a good eatin’ size sucker.

"Nice shot Brad!" Eric yells as my boy sticks the first fish, a good eating-size sucker (now you really think I'm weird but trust me, they are great—more on that later.)

Meanwhile I've missed a half dozen shots before I connect on a nice carp (OK they're all nice) and Eric, though playing courteous host and not shooting much, is whacking more than us.

It was really a fun outing, with the mild temps, the light snowflakes falling, the peacful night and the wonderous aquatic world passing by below us. We spotted a few really nice northern pike, and a walleye two feet long. In Minnesota, only rough fish and bullheads can be arrowed. We’re hoping catfish will be allowed soon.

Poised with bows ready, we peered eagerly into the water like passing raptors and shot and shot and shot. I missed so many it was a thrill each time I nailed one, reeled it in, and ceremoniously dispatched it to the barrel. After a few hours of near-constant shooting we were getting tired, and with the boat landing closing soon, we had to bail. We hit the shore with our barrel half full of fish, probably 40-some. Most were suckers with a few carp mixed in, including a big mirror carp, a real beauty that Brad shish-kebabbed. Brad also stuck our only buffalo, a fine specimen.

Getting the boat out was the biggest adventure of the day. With the ice shelf preventing normal loading, we had to yank the boat out with a big tow strap, haul it onto a snowbank so it was higher than the trailer, then winch it on. We pulled a few fish out of the barrel for pictures and I picked out some of the tastier-looking individuals for canning and pickling when I got home. We were tired and chilly and slimy but happy and made plans already to do it again soon!

bow fishing
Three tired, slimy and chilly but happy bowfishermen with part of our catch, relaxing in a nice snowbank.

Note: Bowfishing season in Minnesota runs from May 1 through the end of February.

Check out this pickling recipe online. It's not quite how I do it, but it's close enough. << Pickling Recipe >>


mirror carp
Brad nailed this big and "beautiful" mirror carp.

Winter Bowfishing Tips

Besides the bulky clothes and boat-launching ordeal, there isn't much difference in bowfishing winter versus summer. We did use some antifreeze on our line and equipment. Probably the biggest challenge is finding open water of the right depth and holding rough fish. In our neck of the woods, that's pretty much restricted to the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.

Our bow rigs ranged from my 60-pound Predator recurve to Eric's special Oneida bowfishing bow to Brad's favorite deer hunting Bowtech switched out for this gig. Brad and I used AMS retrievers while Eric prefers a Muzzy spinning reel and rest and accessories of his own design (for info on that, go to We all used Muzzy fish arrows and points.

My shooting was rusty and saved a lot of fish but I got back into the hang of it by constantly making myself shoot lower than it seemed I should.

Common wisdom is that fish from colder water are tastier. I am in the process of canning and pickling some of the smaller suckers we got. (Bigger, older fish have higher levels of mercury contamination and considering everything that’s upstream from our bowfishing spot, including a nuclear power plant, I decided to stick with the younger fish.) There are plenty of canning and pickling recipes online. I'll let you know how mine turned out.


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