As so often happens in bowhunting, the prey seems to materialize out of nowhere.
One second there’s nothing. The next, there’s a dark figure in the shadows.
It’s not a monster, but it’s a shooter for sure.
I pivot, draw and aim.
And then I cringe and let down.
It’s just a largemouth bass — a big one that would have a conventional fisherman drooling. But to me, it’s just a 7-pound disappointment.
The trolling motor goes back on high and soon I find what I’m looking for — a carp. Moments later, the 4-pounder is flopping in the boat on the end of my fiberglass fish arrow and I’m smiling again.
Backyard practice and 3-D shooting are great ways to maintain your form and keep your shooting muscles in shape during the long summer months leading up to fall.
But when it comes to pure, adrenaline-filled action, it’s tough to top bowfishing. This sport is fun, social, affordable, challenging and exciting. Ask any avid bowfisherman and he’ll tell you it’s downright addictive.
Choosing a Bow
Just like in bowhunting, the proper gear depends on the quarry.
Giant targets such as big coastal rays or monster alligator gar require specialty equipment and approaches, but a basic bowfishing setup will be appropriate for the most popular targets such as carp and gar.
Many bowfishers use recurve bows, which are well suited for the instinctive snap shooting required in most bowfishing scenarios. Recurves are popular because they are simple, effective and affordable.
“They are also lightweight,” says AMS Bowfishing President Jeff Braun. “And when you are holding a bow all day or all night, that can be important.”
It’s possible to put together a solid recurve bowfishing kit, including a reel, line and a couple of arrows, for about $200. And it can be even less expensive. Many bowhunters have an old recurve or two lying around. Even if those bows will never see a deer stand again, they can be great for bowfishing. If you have an old recurve lying around, companies such as Bohning Archery offer basic bowfishing kits that include everything you need to get started for as little as $30.
But before you outfit an old recurve for bowfishing, consider the bow’s monetary or sentimental value. Bowfishing is tough on gear, and even one season can wreak havoc on a classic recurve.
Some shooters favor conventional compound bows, and there are a growing number of manufacturers making bowfishing-specific compounds with constant draw weights for snap shooting. An advantage of compounds is they are drilled and tapped for accessories. Also, most bowfishers will be familiar with the feel of compounds because they use them for hunting. Quality compounds optimized for bowfishing from makers such as AMS, Innerloc Broadheads and even larger bow makers such as PSE can be had starting around $200.
A modest draw weight will work fine. Most fish won’t be more than a couple feet deep, and even a 25-35-pound bow will be able to punch a heavy bowfishing arrow to that depth. Bows with even lighter draws can reach fish near the surface, so even kids can get involved.
“It’s a great sport for kids,” says Braun, whose daughter Sierra bagged her first carp at 6 with an AMS Mini-Hawk bow. “As soon as they can draw a bow, they can be out there shooting at fish.”
A bow in the 40-50-pound range offers all the performance an adult bowfisher needs without wearing out a shooter who can take 200 or more shots in a day on the water.
Tuning a bow is critical.
“That’s probably the most overlooked thing among people just starting in bowfishing,” says Mark Land, Muzzy’s bowfishing technical advisor. “Unless the fish is right below the surface, if your arrow doesn’t enter the water perfectly straight, you’ll never hit the fish.”
Land recommends tuning a bow by shooting a bare shaft into a target.
When it comes to reels, a bowfisher has three choices.
The most basic reel is a hand wrap type. Such reels are functional, durable and very inexpensive, costing less than $20. But, because a shooter must manually wind the line onto the spool after each shot, they are not ideal in situations when lots of shots will be available.
Another option is to use a heavy-duty spincast fishing reel affixed to a special reel seat that screws into a bow’s stabilizer bushing. A spincast reel allows for quick arrow retrieval, and the reel’s drag can help with fighting fish.
A heavy-duty fishing reel can work fine, especially if it gets just moderate use. Another choice is a reel with internal gears beefed up to handle the rigors of bowfishing, such as Muzzy’s Xtreme Duty Bowfishing Reel.
Popular line choices include 200-pound Brownell Fast Flight or 150-pound BCY Spectra braid.
AMS Bowfishing’s Retriever reels are another option. The reels, which attach to the sight holes on a bow’s riser, use a unique system to stack heavy line inside an enclosed pod. Advantages include relatively quick line retrieval, drag-free shooting and the ability to use heavier lines. But the reels aren’t designed for reeling in larger fish, so you’ll end up pulling those in by hand. Retriever reels can also be outfitted with detachable float rigs for tackling big game such as sharks, rays, gator gar and alligators.
The cost for a retriever reel and a solid spincast reel, line and reel seat are comparable — both around $80.
Bowfishing arrows take a beating, so they must be durable. Most are fiberglass, but carbon arrows are also available, as are fiberglass/carbon hybrids such as Cajun Archery’s Yellow Jacket. Prices generally run $10-$30. They are heavy, usually weighing in at 1,200-1,400 grains, and come with a variety of options, such as the glow-in-the-dark Glow Max shaft from Innerloc Broadheads.
Fletching is unnecessary. Both the arrows’ heavy weight and trailing line help
them fly straight.
Many different bowfishing points are available. A basic carp point will work for most bowfishing needs. Some bowfishers like tips with larger barbs for additional holding power, such as the Muzzy Stingray, Cajun Archery Sting-A-Ree or Bohning RuffNeck. Other good options include the expandable Grapple Point line from Innerloc and Steel Force’s fixed Carp and Gator heads.
Until recently, most bowfishers simply threaded their arrows directly to the string through a hole near the nock. But safety slides are now the norm. By keeping the line in front of the riser, the slides eliminate the chance of the arrow string becoming entangled with the bowstring or cables, which can cause dangerous arrow snap back.
Bowfishers also have several options for rests, which generally cost $10-$20. Roller rests such as the AMS Wave Rest and Cajun Roller Rest are popular and effective. Muzzy’s Fish Hook has a devoted following, while other shooters even use capture rests, such as Trophy Ridge’s bowfishing Whisker Biscuit. The key is to use a rest that is tunable and strong enough to hold a heavy bowfishing arrow.
Shooting off the shelf is an option, though it can add to tuning difficulties.
Few bowfishers use releases. This is a finger-shooting game. Some veterans have fingers toughened by so many years of shooting they can shoot bare, though most will want some protection. Tabs, three-finger shooting gloves or even full leather gloves are another choice, though they can get in the way and will quickly get mucked up from water and fish slime. A simple and effective alternative is to use rubber protectors on the string, such as Finger Slicks or No-Glovs.
Finally, polarized sunglasses to cut surface glare are critical for daytime bowfishing.
Bowfishing targets range from small suckers to giant alligator gar. And we’ve all seen the videos of archers shooting at flying Asian carp, an invasive species that is drawing growing interest among bowfishers.
The most sought-after species is the common carp, undoubtedly due to the fact that it can be found in abundance just about everywhere. Carp are an invasive species imported as a food fish from Europe in the 1800s. They have since become so abundant that fisheries managers are usually eager to have bowfishers shoot them, especially since they receive virtually no catch-and-keep pressure from traditional anglers.
During the spring, before and during the spawn, carp often can be found hanging around shoreline brush. When carp form huge pods to spawn, the biggest challenge can be picking out a single target among thousands.
Outside spawning season, carp are not as visible during daylight hours, but can sometimes be found “mudding” around the shallows for food. Bowfishing for rooting carp can be extremely challenging because the fish are so spooky, even in areas where bowfishing pressure is light.
By far the best time to hunt carp, as well as other targets such as gar, buffalo and grass carp, is after dark.
“Nightime is 100 times better,” Land says bluntly.
That’s why the most serious bowfishers invest in special boats that feature raised shooting platforms and banks of powerful halogen lights powered by an on-board generator. However, there are ways to get into night bowfishing without spending a lot of money.
Land recommends using a bow-mounted light such as the Archery Affliction Stabalight or the Hawglite Marauder to illuminate the target. A powerful headlamp is another option, though it can take some practice to keep the light pointed at the fish while drawing.
For saltwater bowfishers, primary targets are skates and rays, which can often be spotted “flying” near the surface.
Keep in mind that legal species for bowfishing can vary from state to state, so always consult your fishing regulations, as well as hunting regulations for rules on bow shooting.
Also, make sure to obtain the required licenses.
The Hard Part
The old saying that if it were easy, everybody would be doing it, certainly applies to bowfishing.
Getting outfitted is easy, and so is finding fish. It’s the hitting part that can be tricky, and not just because you’ll be shooting instinctively.
The culprit is refraction. Because of the way light rays are bent under water, the fish you’re shooting at isn’t where it appears to be. If you aim at the fish, you will miss. You must shoot low.
The question is, how low?
Refraction depends on several factors, including the distance to the fish, its depth and even your height. Two of those elements are constantly changing.
“Every shot can be different,” Braun says.
Land has a tip for newcomers he takes. “What I normally tell people is to aim as low as they think they need to,” he says, “and then aim a foot lower.”
The key is practice, and not just at fish. Shooting at items on the bottom can help. Braun suggests suspending a milk jug under water. A number of submersible bowfishing targets also are available, such as Innerloc’s 3-D Gar Target by Rinehart.
Connecting with an experienced bowfisherman can significantly shorten the shooting-technique learning curve.
Videos and books can also provide loads of helpful information, not only on shooting but gear.
After The Shots
In a good night on a productive lake or river, an experienced bowfishing tandem can load a boat with several hundred pounds of fish. Even a novice can fill a tub on a good outing.
Some bowfishing targets make excellent, if non-traditional, table fare. Those include saltwater targets such as rays and sharks, catfish (where legal) and freshwater gar.
“The backstraps on a gar are excellent,” Land said. “They are hard to get to, but they’re worth the effort.”
Even though they were imported to the U.S. as a food fish, carp are not known as great table fare, in part because they are extremely bony. Smoking and pressure cooking can help with the bones, but many bowfishers simply prefer not to eat carp.
Proper disposal of carp is a critical element of bowfishing. Pitching fish on a bank, back into the lake or into a trash can or dumpster at the boat ramp is not an option.
Fortunately, there are better choices.
Some bowfishers have found people who will take carp for food. Organizers of
some tournaments often make arrangements with rendering companies who use the fish for pet food or fertilizer.
Land has found an option that pays off come hunting season.
“We put them in our dove fields and food plots,” he said. “There’s no better fertilizer.”