April 29, 2021
For many bowhunters, the months between spring gobbler season and big-game hunting in the fall can seem painfully long, with only practice and dreams of big bulls and bucks to carry them through. For those who aspire to try something new, however, spring and summer offer an amazing array of bowfishing opportunities, with unique experiences available from coast to coast.
Whether you’re looking for a new twist on pursuing carp or want to battle fish measured in pounds rather than inches, here are seven must-try bowfishing experiences to add to your to-do list:
1) Texas Alligator Gar
Think of bowfishing, and few locations stand out like Texas, a state well known for its behemoth alligator gar.
“Alligator gar is kind of the pinnacle of bowfishing, the trophy,” says Big Fish Bowfishing Texas owner Mark Malfa, who has been guiding bowhunters for the toothy critters for more than four decades.
Angler Marty McClellan set the state’s alligator gar bowfishing record in 2001 with an 8-foot, 290-pound fish harvested on the Trinity River, and just four years ago, a 197-pounder was taken from the Brazos River. Malfa says the biggest specimen one of his clients has taken with a bow measured 8 feet, 6 inches long and weighed 228 pounds.
Renowned for its trophy-sized fish, the Trinity River today is still a popular destination for gar, but anglers who hope to land a monster must first draw a permit that allows them to keep one fish over 48 inches. In addition to the Trinity, gar can be found in numerous other waters throughout the state, including most river systems flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Want to target something other than gar? Texas also offers opportunities to tackle freshwater and saltwater species such as buffalo, tilapia, carp, mullet and rays. It’s the dinosaur-age relics, however, that are by far the biggest draw. “I have people come from all over the world specifically for gar,” Malfa says.
Contact: bigfishbowfishingtexas.com; 512-431-9037
2) Illinois Asian Carp
While thoughts of bowfishing usually conjure visions of stalking fish swimming in the water, the Illinois River offers the unique opportunity to shoot at high-flying Asian carp until it literally feels like your arm might fall off.
“If you go out for four hours, you are pretty much shooting the entire time,” says Nathan Wallick of Peoria Carp Hunters out of Peoria, Ill. “We’ll hit thicker pockets than others, but they’ll be jumping consistently.”
Archers who target these jumping fish should make sure to have their bows set at a lighter draw weight, since shooting opportunities are bountiful. But, whether you’re a newbie or a bowfishing veteran, don’t get discouraged if you aren’t connecting, at least right out of the gate.
“Don’t even think about aiming; don’t think about leading,” Wallick says. “Just make sure you are hitting your same anchor point every time unless you are snap shooting. The hand-eye coordination (and) everything starts coming together (eventually). The more people shoot, the better they get. It gets to the point where after about 45 minutes of straight-up missing, guys start knocking them down.”
Anglers who hit the Illinois River for Asian carp can expect fish in the 2-7-pound range, with an occasional 10-pounder mixed in.
If you’re thinking of a do-it-yourself excursion, Wallick notes having the proper boat and motor are key to triggering the fish to jump.
“They’re finicky about the sound that they like,” he says. “You’ll have one boat go through and nothing’s jumping, then all of a sudden here comes an aluminum boat with the right motor and the right sound and they just start exploding all over the place.
“Not all boats and motors do it. Any aluminum boat with a two-stroke will work.”
Contact: peoriacarphunters.com; 309-573-3798
3) Virginia Rays
It rarely shows up on bowfishing destination lists, but Virginia’s Chincoteague Island offers the opportunity to target a saltwater species that puts up an awesome fight and is quite tasty too. Every summer, cownose, southern and butterfly rays move into the bays and inlets off the island, offering opportunities for bowhunters to pursue these powerful fish.
“It takes a really nice day, no wind at all, to be able to see bottom,” says Chincoteague Island Adventures’ Randy Birch, who has been taking bowhunters for rays for nearly three decades. “You have to be able to see the bottom well.
“I’ll run the engine really slow — we use a 24-foot Carolina Skiff — and the hunters stand up on the bow, only a couple feet off the water. An average shot is probably only about 10-18 feet in front of the boat.”
Birch says 15-20-pounders are common, but specimens over 50 pounds are possible; his personal best is a 132-pounder boated a few years ago.
As far as gear, traditional bowfishing rigs work well, but heavier line is a must. Birch suggests something that’s between 100 and 200 pounds breaking strength.
“The rays will circle the boat sometimes when they are stuck, and you never know which way they will go, but most of the time they head for deep water,” he says.
If you land a ray or two, not only have you harvested a unique trophy, but you also have an awesome meal. While the fish themselves may not look too appetizing, their “wings” make excellent table fare. “They’re easy to filet too,” Birch adds.
Contact: chincoteagueislandadventures.com; 757-894-2520
4) Louisiana Mixed Bag
Chris James of Duluth, Minn., has bowfished across the country over the past 15 years, but he says there’s one destination that stands out above all others, and that’s southern Louisiana due to the variety of species you can target.
“You can go to the Mississippi River and you can shoot bigheads, you can shoot silvers, you can shoot giant catfish,” says James, who is vice president of sales at FeraDyne Outdoors and also worked for years with the Muzzy Classic bowfishing tournament. “Alligator gar, big grass carp, big buffalo, common carp are there. You can shoot just about everything there.”
Without a doubt, one of the prized bowfishing opportunities is working the marshes, bays and backwater areas along the coast for redfish, which are fair game as long as size and harvest limits are followed. Other targeted species include black drum, sheepshead, flounder and more.
“If you’re talking about diversity, you have to be close to that brackish water and the coast,” James says.
Sportsmen who live in the Pelican State already know about the awesome bowfishing opportunities there. If you’re from outside the area, however, and want to learn more, a great starting place is New Orleans’ official tourism website, neworleans.com.
5) Florida Alligator
If you absolutely love bowfishing, a Florida gator hunt is a must. Simply put, there’s something exhilarating about getting up close and personal — often in the dead of night — with these intimidating reptiles that can grow to lengths surpassing 12 feet and weights of more than 500 pounds.
Bowhunters who have the equipment, boat and time to go at it alone can enter the drawing for a permit for the state’s open season. Florida allows gator hunting on publicly accessible waterways in 65 of 67 counties, with an alligator trapping license/hunting permit costing $272 for residents and $1,022 for non-residents. If you plan to apply, the application period begins in mid-May, with gator season running Aug. 15-Nov. 1 each year.
The other option is to look at a private-land hunt with a guide, many of which offer excursions year-round as part of gator-management permit programs. Ed McCormick of Florida Bowfishing Charters says he feels using a crossbow is the most efficient way to bowhunt for gators, but any bow with a draw weight of 55 pounds or more will work.
“I’ve had guys who got so excited because of the stalk that they couldn’t even draw their bow back,” says McCormick, who has been pursuing gators for 14 years. “There’s a lot of benefits to just being able to rest a crossbow with a laser on top of a tripod while sitting on a bass chair in the front of the boat and making a precision shot…as opposed to having to put the shot together like you normally would in a treestand.”
No matter whether you use a horizontal or vertical bow, the key to success is having and practicing with the proper gear, including arrows/bolts and broadheads designed to work in tandem to penetrate a gator’s thick skin. McCormick opts for heavy aluminum or Muzzy Gator Getter arrows, Muzzy gator heads and AMS reels with 400-pound line.
“The biggest thing I tell clients is to practice with the bowfishing arrow at night in their yard with someone holding the flashlight on a target that would simulate the gator’s neck…,” he says. “When you’re out hunting, you’re already looking at something that’s black in color in backwater at night, so a lot of times the first thing you see is just the reflection of the eyes until he’s well within that range where you are going to shoot him.
“Sometimes the only thing you can see is his neck and snout and now you have to make a precision shot because that’s the softest spot to put the bowfishing point into.”
Contact: floridabowfishing.com; 407-748-3984
6) Wisconsin Buffalo
Sometimes, bowfishing opportunities can be beyond exceptional, but only for a relatively small window of time. Such is the case with the buffalo spawn on the lower Wisconsin River in Wisconsin. In April and May, the fish move into the shallows to spawn, providing amazing opportunities at some truly impressive specimens.
“It’s a short window — a couple weeks, 10 days, maybe — for the big run,” says FeraDyne's James. “It kind of happens slow; it peaks and then it tapers off. When that spawn happens, it’s some of the best fishing you’ll ever have.”
Targeting the fish involves working the bays, weed beds and shorelines looking for shooting opportunities.
“They’ll go into the backwater where it’s really murky and you can’t see them,” James says, “but if you fish out on the open of the bay on the sand flats you can see them cruising in and out. That’s the best way to do it.”
The reward for your efforts? The opportunity to consistently take aim at hefty-sized fish.
“You get tired of shooting 30-pound buffalo,” James says, “so you look for a 40- or 50-pound buffalo to shoot.”
7) California Mako Shark
Southern California may not have a plethora of bowfishing options compared to other areas of the country, but what it lacks in opportunity it makes up in size — namely, the chance to target giant mako sharks off the coast.
“I’m pretty sure it’s your best opportunity at the biggest fish, period, with the bow,” said Matt Potter, owner of Breakaway Sportfishing Charters out of Huntington Beach, Calif. “The biggest one we’ve shot so far is 800 pounds.”
When it comes to going after makos, it’s a bowfishing experience unlike any other. Your quarry must first be drawn in by baiting or chumming, and the arrow you let fly is hooked up to a big-game saltwater rod and reel, essential gear for battling a fish that will likely weigh between 400 and 600 pounds.
“You can shoot them with 40 pounds (of draw weight) no problem,” Potter says. “The more, to some extent, the better, but you have to be at draw a lot longer than most bowfishing applications, because you’re waiting and waiting for them to get right at your feet. They have to be like a yard away before you can shoot them.”
Potter, who fishes anywhere from 25-60 miles off the coast, says mid-May through mid-August is the period he likes to target makos, but he only offers a dozen trips in all during the three-month window. So, booking early is essential. If you have the wherewithal, however, it’s a bowfishing experience unlike any other!
Contact: breakawayfishingcharters.com; 714-893-7743
Muzzy Bowfishing LV-X Bowfishing Kit: Designed to get you on the water ASAP, this bowfishing package features Muzzy’s LV-X bow with XD Pro-Pushbutton Reel spooled with 150 feet of 150-pound line, as well as a Muzzy Mantis II arrow rest and arrows with bowfishing points. The bow weighs 4 pounds, with an adjustable draw weight of 25-50 pounds and adjustable draw length of 26-29 inches. It’s available in right- and left-handed models and can be set at either zero or 60-percent letoff. $629.99 | feradyne.com/muzzy-bowfishing
MegaMouth Bowfishing Reels: These heavy-duty reels offer a number of high-performance features including durable stainless steel and brass gears, a 4:1 gear ratio that allows you to retrieve 28 inches of line per handle revolution and a “Quick Adjust” drag for setting the line to battle any fish. Buttonless and free-spooling, they’re ready to shoot at any time. Simply pull the T-bar handle after the shot to engage the retrieve and start the fight. $299.99 | megamouthbowfishing.com
FinFinder Kraken 3 Barb Bowfishing Point: Crafted from high-grade stainless steel, FinFinder’s Kraken 3 Barb provides nearly 4 inches of holding power. Plus, the ferrule-break design allows for easy, quick and mess-free fish removal. A pair of quality rubber O-rings keep the threaded portions of the point secure, which means there’s no annoying rattle or constant tightening of the ferrule or tip. Designed for use on soft-bodied fish and species sporting larger scales and thicker bodies, this point will put more poundage in the boat. $15.99 per head | fin-finder.com
Cajun Bowfishing Sucker Punch Jr: Most bowfishing takes place in warm weather and offers plenty of shooting opportunities, making it an ideal pursuit for kids. A great starter bow is Cajun’s Sucker Punch Jr., which offers an adjustable draw weight of 5-29 pounds and draw length of 12-27 inches. Available in right-handed models only, the bow comes in Shadow Black or a stylish Patriot finish. $299 | cajunbowfishing.com