April 22, 2014
My favorite place to bowfish right now is in Washington on the Snake River just below Chief Joseph State Park, just west of Lewiston, Idaho. When I lived in New Mexico my favorite place to bowfish was Caballo Lake near Truth or Consequences, N.M. I've had plenty of fun skewering literally tons of carp (and buffalo fish in New Mexico) from these places. Of course, this has everything to do with ready accessibility and intimate familiarity.
But let's say you have some vacation time at your disposal and a few bucks set aside to cover travel costs, lodging and maybe even a guide. When compared to big-game hunting, bowfishing guides are dirt cheap, even for glamour species such as sharks and alligator gar.
Where would I go then? Well, that's an entirely different matter. That's like comparing backyard whitetail hunting to a long-awaited whitetail foray to Iowa or Kansas — unless, of course, you live in these places, then you probably dream of bowhunting elk out West.
My point is that while you may have pretty good bowfishing right in your own backyard, the sport also offers a cornucopia of opportunities and unique targets. Any Top 10 hotspot list will invariably point to bigger fish, though added variety and unfathomable target numbers are also high on many bowfishermen's list.
So with those criteria in mind, and the input of bowfishing guru Mark Land from Muzzy Products, here's our list of the best bowfishing destinations.
6. Lake Michigan
If you've ever looked at a picture of a 45-plus pound common carp in awe, then odds are it came out of Lake Michigan. All the Great Lakes (and St. Lawrence River) offer excellent bowfishing opportunities, but Lake Michigan consistently produces the biggest carp of them all.
The Saginaw Bay area (that piece of water between the fingers and thumb of the Michigan mitten) are one of the best areas in that region, as large areas of water shelve off into wadeable shallows which include gin-clear waters. It's possible to walk for miles here and never encounter water more than knee deep. Farther south, the Gary, Indiana, area also produces some big common carp.
8. Florida's St. Johns River
Florida's inland freshwaters are often neglected as bowfishing destinations because of the state's rich saltwater opportunities. But Florida freshwaters actually offer more variety and opportunities (due mostly to the fact the vast majority of saltwater game species are off limits to barbed arrows).
Florida's St. Johns River (actually a series of lakes and sloughs more or less between Orlando and Jacksonville) is a place where you can shoot trophy grass and common carp, longnose gars, freshwater drum, great-tasting tilapia and catfish, all in crystal-clear waters teaming with shot opportunities. Public camping is available on regional National Forests.
Guide Contact: Native Sons Hunting
9. Kentucky's Land Between The Lakes
Kentucky and Barkley Lakes surround Land Between the Lakes in far southwestern Kentucky and are a treasure-trove of bowfishing possibilities. In other words, a literal sportsman's paradise. These ultra-fertile waters harbor buffalo fish, bighead, silver, grass and common carp, spotted and longnose gars in good numbers and frequently of trophy proportions.
Shooting delicious catfish is also legal in Kentucky. Kentucky is one of the few states where you can legally shoot paddlefish with a bow (up to two fish per day); a true glamour fish in direct regards to bowfishing trophies, and they make fine eating.
Plenty of camping is available on surrounding public lands.
Guide Contact: Nativ Bowfishing
3. Mississippi River
Whether you view the Mississippi as Old Man River or Great River (as Native Americans once did) there's no disputing this is the United State's largest moving body of water. With this much water it should come as no surprise the Mississippi is chock-full of bowfishing targets.
Common carp are most common any length of this river, with silver (flying) carp beginning to make appearances in stretches between the Illinois (St. Louis, Mo.) and Ohio (Cairo, Ky.) rivers. Bighead and common carp are also common, along with longnose and spotted gar and buffalo. The best bowfishing is normally found in slower sloughs and oxbows out of the way of persistent barge traffic and out of heavier flows.
1. Louisiana Gulf Coast
Unlike most saltwater destinations where nearly all game fish of note are off limits to bowfishermen, The Bayou State allows bowfishermen to shoot pretty much whatever they wish — granted they conduct business within established size and creel limits.
The bag can legally include sharks and redfish. Huge gator gars are also often taken in brackish and salt waters near where fresh and salt waters merge. This is bowfishing paradise with sheephead, rays, black drum weighing up to 40 or 50 pounds, flounder, catfish and super-abundant mullet also become part of the bag while pursuing Jaws or your own blackened redfish raw materials.
Guide Contact: Louisiana Bowfishing
, Blake & Neil Mitchell
4. Florida Gulf Coast
Stingrays — the flat, slimy kind that slither along ocean floors — are common along any American coastline, but nowhere are they more abundant than in the warm coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Florida's northwestern coast. Rays measuring from plate-size to garbage-can-lid dimensions make inviting bowfishing targets, the biggest weighing around 100 pounds.
They're often challenging to spot and seldom hold still. Their soft makeup makes them vulnerable to standard carp-shooting equipment. Bat rays, mullet, flounder, sheephead, spadefish and black drum are also commonly found in the same waters for added variety.
Guide Contact: Deston Bow Fishing
, Chris Kirby
10. California's Southern Coast
First and foremost, this is where you go if bagging a shark with your bow is No. 1 on your bowfishing wish list. Makos can be legally taken here (whites are protected) and several outfitters/captains have made an art form of tagging these creatures of lore. Standard procedure involves chumming until sharks appear, then taking a shot with a bowfishing arrow rigged into a big game fishing rod and reel. Then the fight is on!
Bring a stout compound and consult your outfitter regarding special gear. This is big game bowfishing at its best. Worthwhile quarry such as big rays and skates can also be part of the bag.
Guide Contact: Breakaway Fishing Charters
, Captain Matt Potter
7. Alabama's Tennessee River
The Tennessee River is a huge piece of water essentially slicing off a large wedge of northern Alabama. It's made of a long series of lock and dams permitting large-scale barge traffic. Wheeler and Guntersville Lakes offer the best chance at trophy fish, some of the bowfishing record book's biggest species originated here. Possibilities vary widely, including common, bighead and grass carp, buffalo, spotted and longnose gars, suckers and freshwater drum.
During a recent Muzzy Classic
bowfishing tournament a bighead carp was taken weighing 92 pounds. The world's record grass carp was taken here, a fish also weighing around 92 pounds. Muzzy's Mark Land also took the world's record freshwater drum here (27-pounds, 11-ounces).
Guide Contact: Tennessee River Bowfishing Guide Service
, Kenny & Lacy Chumley
2. South Texas
You can shoot plenty of carp, freshwater drum, spotted gar, tilapia and such in most South Texas waters, but serious bowfishermen (and head hunters) normally arrive here with a single target in mind — alligator gar. Besides maybe Northwest sturgeon, gator gars are the biggest freshwater fish we have, some recorded to as heavy as 300-plus pounds.
In reality, a 150- to 200-pound specimen will get your pulse rate revved up and give you a major tussle. They're big and mean and full of fight. Places like the Trinity River, Choke Canyon, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn reservoirs always seem to enter the conversation when trophy gator gars are spoken of. These places produce big gar and lots of them.
Guide Contact: Bowfish Texas Adventures
, Shawn Benline
5. Ohio River
There are many reasons to travel to the Ohio River, which acts as the border between eastern Illinois and far-western Kentucky, but the biggest draw today are silver or 'flying ' carp. I say the only thing funner than shooting carp in the water is shooting them out of the air.
These silver or flying carp, when disturbed by a boat propeller or wake, become startled and leap high into the air (people have been seriously injured by these flying fish). While a constant diet of from-the-hip aerial snap shooting won't exactly hone your target shooting style, I can't think of anything more fun. A smooth-drawing recurve is sufficient to me, but many people shoot them with compounds. Silvers weighing between 20 or 30 pounds are common in this region.