A growing number of bow hunters are taking up this action-packed sport to keep
their bow shooting skills honed year-round
As far as most bow hunters are concerned, bow season is over until next year. Bows used for hunting and weekly practice have now been relegated to the closet to wait for another season. But a growing number of bow hunters are discovering bowfishing, an exciting sport that enables bowhunters to keep their shooting skills sharp year-round.
Bowfishing is especially attractive when one looks at the minimal expense required to enjoy the sport. Bowhunters already have the most expensive piece of equipment, the bow. Bowfishermen who stalk lake shores and riverbanks during daylight hours can start enjoying bowfishing by purchasing nothing more than a starter bowfishing kit. The starter kit consists of a fishing arrow, bow reel and line that can be purchased for under $30.
Bowhunters who get bitten by the bowfishing bug usually progress to hunting fish at night from a lighted boat. This is the most exciting and productive way to enjoy this rapidly-growing sport.
Species to Target
Most states restrict the taking of fish with a bow and arrow to non-game species or trash fish. Although regulations vary from state to state, trash fish usually include carp, gar, sucker and catfish. Because they are consistently found in shallow water, gar and carp comprise most of a bowfisherman’s bag.
The European common carp, introduced in this country in the1880s, is the most common carp. They thrive in a variety of water environments and are very tolerant to warm, muddy water conditions. Carp are now one of the most widely-distributed species in the country. Carp are easily identifiable by their heavy body and barbells on both sides of the upper jaw. Color varies from a brassy green to a golden brown with a yellow-white belly.
Other species of carp of interest to bowhunters are the grass carp or white amur, Asian carp, bighead carp and the silver carp. Many biologists are concerned these exotics may have an adverse affect on sport fisheries in the future.
Of these carp, the grass carp is of special interest to bowfishermen. Grass carp are longer and more slender than the common carp and have no barbell on the corners of their mouths. They were introduced in this country in the early 1960s to help control duckweed, green algae and other aquatic plants.
Where legal, grass carp offer the bowfisherman quite a target as 30 to 40-pound fish are common and fish weighing 50 to 60 pounds are frequently taken. Grass carp can be more easily hunted during daylight. Private pond owners often want them removed when they become very large because the amount of vegetation they consume declines. One of the best places to hunt large grass carp is around automatic fish feeders in private ponds. The grass carp is also considered excellent tablefare.
Gars are another favorite target species of bowfisherman. Four species of gar, the long nose, short nose, spotted and alligator gar, are the most common gars bowfishermen will encounter. While the long nose, short nose and spotted gar account for the most gars arrowed, the alligator gar is the prized trophy of the bowfisherman.
Alligator gars are the largest of the gar. It is not uncommon for them to reach six to eight feet in length. The alligator gar tends to stay in deeper, more open water than the other gars. They can be spotted lying near the surface waiting for prey.
David Coggins is an accomplished bowhunter and bowfishing guide who began hunting deer with a bow as a teenager. He took up bowfishing to improve his deer stalking and shooting skill.
"I just got tired of shooting targets during the off season and started bowfishing. I started off stalking the banks of small creeks shooting gar and carp. I taped a bow reel on my deer-hunting bow, bought a fishing arrow and some line, and started hunting gar," Coggins explained.
Coggins has used both recurve and compound bows, but prefers the recurve because it is lighter and more conducive to the fast instinctive shooting he does. While some bowfishermen use bow sights, Coggins can get on a fish faster shooting instinctively.
"Beginners should start off using the bow they are familiar with in the 40 to 60 lb. draw weight range. You’ll need to attach a reel to your bow. I use an AMS retriever reel or ‘bottle reel’ loaded with 200 lb. test braided nylon bowfishing line. I also use a Zebco 888 bowfishing reel on one of my bows. Most state laws require you use a solid arrow made of aluminum or fiberglass. I don’t use fletching on my arrows; you don’t need it with a heavy arrow at short range," Coggins said.
Coggins recommended wearing camouflage clothing when stalking stream banks and lakeshores.
"Bowfishing along stream banks and lakeshores is similar to hunting squirrels; you are just watching the water rather than the tree. I wear camo clothing and slow stalk the banks. When I find a likely-looking shallow pool, I take a stand behind a tree at the waters edge and wait. I’ve bagged some big gar and carp this way," Coggins stated.
While bowfishermen can bag fish by stalking, more action can be had fishing from a shallow draft boat. Coggins said most any small watercraft can be used.
"I’ve fished from most every kind of boat, including canoes, bass boats and custom-made bowfishing boats. A wide, flat-bottom boat powered by an electric trolling motor or air drive unit is best for bowfishing because it allows one to get into the shallow, grassy flats where gar and carp hangout," Coggins said. "Since most bowfishing occurs at night because the fish are not as wary, a light source will be needed. Anything from a coon hunter’s headlamp to a boat lighting system powered by a gasoline generator will work for night time bowfishing.
Coggins bowfishes from a 17-foot-long, 6-foot-wide Carolina Skiff customized for bowfishing.
"I began construction using a basic boat hull powered by a 90 hp outboard. I added an elevated-shooting platform and installed two pedestal seats to shoot from, nine floodlights powered by a gasoline generator and a 14 hp air drive unit. This unit generates enough air propulsion to move the boat slowly across shallow flats," Coggins said.
Bowfishing Tips and Techniques
Coggins explained the best time to bowfish is early spring until late fall because the fish will be in shallow water during this time. He recommended practicing underwater shots on a submerged archery target to get familiar with the aiming problems caused by light refraction.
"Light refraction can be the most challenging obstacle to beginners ," Coggins said. "Get a good pair of wrap-around, polarized sunglasses and practice shooting at an anchored block of foam. Start out with the block one-foot deep. At one foot, you will need to aim three inches below the target. When you get proficient at one foot, move the block to two-feet deep. You will need to aim six inches under the target at two feet. It’s frustrating at first, but most beginners adjust quickly.
According to Coggins, the best place to look for gar is where the weed line and shallow, open water meet.
"Gar will lie just under the surface waiting on bait fish to swim to them. Look closely, as a lot of gar are mistaken for submerged debris. They also like to lie behind a log or brush pile on the down-current side in a stream," Coggins explained.
Coggins said to look for carp and gar anywhere in shallow water. One day you may do better fishing from a boat, the next day you may do better wading a hard-bottom stream. I’ve had gar swim between my legs while wading.
Carp may be in the grass or out on the bare bottom mudflats in a lake. Also, look closely in any shaded area like under docks and where trees cast a shadow," Coggins recommended.
"Shot placement is not as critical in bowfishing as it is in deer hunting. With modern bowfishing arrows, a solid hit will penetrate and usually hold the fish until you can retrieve it. I use a steady retrieve and try to avoid snags. Arrowed fish are just like hooked ones; they’ll try and wrap the line around a snag if they can.".
If you are growing tired of shooting at targets, consider paying a visit to the local archery shop. They will have all you need to get started, from a complete bowfishing kit to instructional videos. But be warned, this is an addictive sport and many bowfishermen have as much money invested in their custom bowfishing rigs as their bass fishing buddies do in their bass boats.
Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home.