Bowfishing in the Shadows of Downtown Pittsburgh
March 13, 2019
Some of the East Coast's best bowfishing is located in western Pennsylvania.
It was a hot summer day in western Pennsylvania, with bright sunshine and a high temperature of 87 degrees. As afternoon turned to evening and the sun crept ever closer to the western horizon, the shadows in downtown Pittsburgh lengthened, offering some welcome relief from the heat.
It was certainly a beautiful night for baseball, and as my two sons and I walked out of our hotel adjacent to Point State Park and made our way down Fort Duquesne Boulevard toward the Roberto Clemente Bridge, we joined a throng of Pirates fans making their way to PNC Park for a game against the Washington Nationals.
The only thing was, we weren’t heading to the game.
As the crowd turned left onto the bridge, across the Allegheny River and into the stadium, we continued several blocks farther east to a dock behind the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where we met guide Jordon Miller of Nocturnal Addiction Bowfishing.
As it turns out, Pittsburgh — a city with a blue-collar identity forged in steel mill blast furnaces and well known for its undying allegiance to its professional sports teams — is also home to some of the East Coast’s best bowfishing.
“The bowfishing here in western Pennsylvania is amazing,” Miller said. “I guarantee you will see fish. You can have good nights — and then you can have insane nights.”
So, with that introduction, the only question was: Would our night be good — or would it be insane?
A Resilient Resource
In some ways, the quality of the fishery on Pittsburgh’s famous Three Rivers — the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela — is surprising given the city’s heavily industrial history. During the Industrial Revolution, Pittsburgh became known as the “Smoke City” for its constant smog and foul air. Its rivers were notoriously choked with sewage, coal dust and various other industrial wastes that made them unsafe for swimming, fishing or any other type of recreation. In fact, long-time residents still recall the days when the rivers flowed with factory runoff of various colors, sometimes in concentrations high enough that the water’s surface could catch fire.
By the mid-1900s, however, Pittsburgh was well on its way to urban revitalization, and the passing of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 greatly aided efforts to curb pollution in the Three Rivers, as it did for countless waterways across the nation.
Highlighting just how far the Three Rivers fishery has come, Pittsburgh hosted the Bassmaster Classic in 2005, drawing the world’s top professional bass anglers and tens of thousands of fans to the water’s edge — all while shining light on the rivers’ resurgence from ecological disaster.
For local anglers such as Miller, a western Pennsylvania native who started out bowfishing as a teenager by wading local streams and shooting carp with a recurve, the Three Rivers area provides a bounty unimaginable 50 years ago. After years of bowfishing the rivers on his own, Miller started offering guided trips in 2016 and has seen his business steadily increase as word of the fishery’s quality continues to spread.
“It’s pretty crazy, because every year I’m getting more and more interest,” said Miller, 29, who holds the Bowfishing Association of America’s Pennsylvania records for common carp (49.7 pounds) and smallmouth buffalo (25.2 pounds), a type of sucker. “I feel we get more carp and suckers in larger schools [here] than you do elsewhere.”
No Experience Necessary
There are many reasons to love bowfishing, starting with the fact that it’s a perfect gateway for introducing new people to archery and bowhunting. The old hiring phrase, no experience necessary, is truly applicable here — especially when working with an outfitter such as Miller, who provides clients with all necessary bowfishing gear and hands-on instruction.
Nocturnal Addiction Bowfishing operates two, 20-foot boats that have been customized for pursuing fish with archery tackle. At the front of each boat is a large, raised shooting platform that gives archers a bird’s-eye view of the water below. The platform is ringed with high-powered spotlights that illuminate the dark water and make fish easily visible. In the rear of each boat is a large, elevated platform that holds a generator — necessary for producing the kind of electrical power required to operate the lights and trolling motor throughout the all-night bowfishing excursions.
In Pennsylvania, only carp, suckers and catfish are legal bowfishing quarry, with a daily limit of 50 fish per angler. On a typical night, Miller said clients will have multiple opportunities at fish in the eight- to 10-pound range, with sightings of bigger carp weighing 20 pounds — or even more — not uncommon. Due to the difficulty of actually hitting these moving targets, however, Miller has never had a client reach the 50-fish limit in a single night — despite ample shooting opportunities. You see, light is bent by water in a process known as refraction, the end result being an optical illusion in which the fish you see underwater aren’t where they appear to be. To compensate, Miller advises clients to aim roughly a foot below where the fish is seen, a tactic that takes some getting used to, particularly for experienced archers.
“People who’ve never shot a bow before tend to pick up on it a little faster, because when I tell them to aim a foot under a fish, they’re listening,” Miller said. “When I get a really experienced 3-D shooter out there and say aim a foot under the fish, they’re going to want to aim right at the fish.
“I’ve also seen many instances where a big-time bowhunter brings his girlfriend out on the boat, and the girlfriend just smokes him!”
I’m not sure whether Miller was just trying to make the boys and I feel better or was telling the truth, but we certainly struggled out of the gate. It’s probably fair to chalk up the trials of Toby, 14, and Timothy, 12, to inexperience. As for me, however, well ... I was just plain stinking up the boat with my poor shooting!
That said, another beautiful thing about bowfishing is that it’s still a ton of fun even when you miss. Unlike a big-game bowhunt for deer or elk, as much of the enjoyment of a bowfishing outing is derived from the quantity of the shots you take as it is the quality of those shots. And as we quickly discovered, when you’re in a target-rich environment, there’s never much waiting between the last miss and the next opportunity.
Fast & Furious
As with most bowfishing, the best action on the Three Rivers is found after dark, when boat traffic is minimal and target fish cruise the shallows along the shoreline. The fact that the fishing generally improves as the night goes on is great news for Miller’s clients, who can work out the shooting “kinks” shortly after sunset and settle into a groove by prime time.
Shortly after making introductions, getting the boys set up with bows and giving a quick lesson in how to correctly aim, shoot and operate the bow-mounted reels to retrieve fish — or get the arrow back for the next shot — Miller guided the boat downstream, past the downtown skyscrapers and bright stadium lights of PNC Park, to his first hotspot. Cruising slowly along the shoreline shallows, it wasn’t long before our eyes adjusted to the process of spotting fish moving through the glow of the lights alongside the boat. We were soon sending a barrage of arrows into the water just as quickly as we could shoot, reel and shoot again.
Despite our lack of accuracy, it was easy to understand why so many avid bowfishermen describe the sport as addicting. Bowfishing is a game that will completely consume your attention as you constantly scan the water for fish. The three of us jockeyed for prime position on the shooting platform — one front and center, the others on the left and right — as we stood at the ready and shouted in excitement, “There’s a big one out front!” “Fish on the right!” “Look behind you!”
As the evening progressed, we gradually found our shooting rhythm, and success soon followed. It was Toby who scored first, then Timmy, and, finally, dear, old Dad, who brought a fish into the boat. Smiles and high fives were as plentiful as the fish, and as late evening turned into the dead of night, I felt a great sense of satisfaction at seeing my boys completely entranced by the adventure — and leaving their cell phones in their pockets!
When bowfishing with Nocturnal Addiction, the highlight is going into several of the many riverside “tunnels” Miller has discovered over the years. Many of these old structures — drainage outlets or areas where streams were diverted away from development — are barely big enough to fit the boat into, yet they hold large numbers of fish that swim ahead of the boat into extremely clear, shallow areas. This creates a bowfishing environment similar to what you’d find in one of those Old West shooting arcades. Although the frenzy doesn’t last long — eventually the fish that are pushed up the tunnel ahead of the boat will swim under it and escape out to open water — it’s fast and furious, and undoubtedly some of the most action-packed archery action you’ll find anywhere.
On one recent trip “we went into those tunnels and saw thousands of fish,” Miller said. “It was actually hard to miss fish, that’s how many there were.” We didn’t experience quite those numbers on our outing, but the number of fish we saw — and missed repeatedly — inside those tunnels was truly impressive.
In spite of ourselves, we did manage to bring a good number of fish to the boat by the end of the night, and we definitely saw and experienced the Steel City in a unique way. It was hard to believe how quickly the hours passed, as it was well past 2 a.m. before Miller dropped us off along the downtown shoreline, where we climbed over a concrete barrier, crossed a highway off-ramp and walked a short distance back to our hotel.
“Did you guys have fun?” I asked.
“Oh yeah!” Toby said. “It was a lot of fun. I didn’t get bored at all.”
“It was awesome!” Timmy added. “We should do it again.”
Maybe, by Miller’s high bowfishing standards, it wasn’t an insane night. But it was good night. A very good night, indeed.