I’ve always been a big fan of fusion. The idea of combining two or more things to create something new is a testament to the creativity of the human mind. Just look at steel, nuclear energy, Neapolitan ice cream, or walleye and cucumber sushi. There’s a certain beauty and satisfaction in synergy and it’s always made me wonder why bowfishing isn’t more popular.
In many places, bowfishing is labeled as “redneck” entertainment where kill-crazy hunters stick fish full of arrows. The reality is that bowfishing is a legitimate angling method that fuses together all the heart-pounding excitement of stalking and shooting with all the skill and satisfaction found in catching a big one. A traditional and ancient form of angling, bowfishing is a severely underappreciated sport that few people practice—mostly because they don’t know where to get started.
One of the reasons bowfishing hasn’t reached the same levels of popularity as bass fishing or fly fishing is that it’s mostly used to target “trash fish.” In most states, it’s illegal to bowfish for sought-after game fish like bass, trout, and even panfish. Archery anglers are usually forced to settle for less desirable species like carp, gar, paddlefish, and drum. However, just because those fish aren’t at the top of the table-fare list doesn’t mean that they can’t be turned into some damn fine meals.
“One of the bigger things that stops people from getting into bowfishing is the fish,” Mike Boeke, owner and head guide of Frontier Bowfishing in Denver, Colorado, said. “Carp, gar, and other rough fish aren’t usually the first thing on the menu for most of us, but if you know how to cook them, they’re absolutely delicious, especially if they’re smoked. Be creative with trash fish—make spring rolls, party dips, look up recipes, and enjoy them.”
Even if you’re not too keen on trying your hand at cooking some of those less-desirable species, it doesn’t mean that your bowfishing targets have to go to waste.
“I give away a lot of fish to chicken farmers and I even make donations to churches and other non-profits,” Boeke said. “They make great fertilizer for gardens and great animal feed. Whatever you do with them though, just don’t leave them on the bank or at the boat ramp to rot. One of the biggest reasons we don’t have more bow fishermen out there is that the DNR shuts down the sport from too many guys dropping their fish on shore. Represent yourself well and be responsible. If you’re getting started in bowfishing, show it in a great light because it is a great sport and a great way to control invasive species and it’s growing every day.”
Rough fish aren’t the only targets for bow anglers. In many states, species like catfish, salmon, and even northern pike are legal bowfishing quarries, which brings up one of the best things about bowfishing: it can be done almost anywhere, and you never know what’s on the target list in any given spot. This adds a certain amount of mystique to the sport not found in any other style of angling.
You can bowfish in rivers, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs all around the country and the best locations are generally shallow bays and estuaries where the fish have cover in which to hunt and feed.
“When you first start out, the best spots are shallow coves or beaches. Most of these fish you’re going to be targeting are within three or four feet of water anyway, so they aren’t too hard to wade or get into with a small boat,” Boeke said. “If you’re having trouble, start knocking on some doors. Find some private lakes where the fish might be a problem. Fish like carp are all over the place and they’re invasive and can be an issue anywhere you want to go and find a way to enjoy the sport.”
Unlike the bows and arrows you would use for deer or elk hunting, which can be intricate and complicated, bow-fishing equipment can and should be simple. You don’t want a high-tech compound bow with a heavy draw weight and light carbon arrows. Instead, you’ll want an inexpensive and simple bow with a light draw weight that you don’t mind being a little rough with.
“You need to have a bow that you can tune down,” Boeke explained. “You can’t take your backcountry hunting bow with a 65-pound draw weight and shoot it at fish. You can’t use an arrow release, so you’ll want to use finger savers. You have to turn that bow down to 30 to 35 pounds because light arrows off a heavy bow will explode when they hit the water. With way too much power behind them, those arrows will come out like wet noodles.”
While there are a lot of great fishing bow options out there, you can also make a fishing bow yourself. Simply take an inexpensive recurve bow and fix an empty soda bottle to the stabilizer. Wrap about 30 feet of bowfishing line around the center of the bottle and attach it to the back of your arrow with a strong knot and you’ll be ready to go. You can also zip-tie an inexpensive spin-casting reel strung with 30- to 50-pound monofilament fishing line to the stabilizer as well, which will prevent a lot of tangles. Be sure to push the button to release the line before each shot, preventing the arrow from flying back at you after the shot.
You can purchase bowfishing arrows and lines online or at your local sporting goods store. You can also make your own using any light carbon or wooden hunting arrow. Simply remove the fletching and install a small screw or cut a small notch in the arrow close to the nock where you can attach the line. Bowfishing lines should be made of thicker material that is closer to kite string than fishing line.
“If you’re handlining them, you’re not going to want to use anything thin like a braided fishing line or even monofilament,” Boeke said. “If the line gets wrapped around your finger when you’re shooting or when you tie into a big fish, a thin line can cut it right off. I’ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty, so it’s usually best to go with an actual bowfishing line or something similar to save your digits. It’s the same with arrowheads. You can make them out of old field tips but they can be hard to get right. It’s usually best to buy the specially designed fishing tips just to be sure they stick.”
While you can wade, you’re probably going to want a boat. Boats allow you to sneak in on fish, especially at night when most bowfishing is done. You won’t disturb the water and you can cover a lot more of it, helping you find fish much more efficiently than on foot. You can also hunt fish from a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, but these are often too unstable and ride too low in the water to be very efficient. Your best bet is the classic Jon boat.
“I like a flat-bottomed, 16-, 18-, or 20-foot Jon boat that’s as wide as possible so you can put a shooting deck on it,” Boeke said. “You can put an engine on them to quickly get out to fishing spots. They can go into really shallow water and give you a lot of room for friends and equipment. Build a deck on the front out of wood or aluminum or just get a Yeti cooler to stand on. This puts you above the fish and gives you a great perspective to shoot from. You’ll want a push-pole, a small trolling motor, or both to make sure you have a sneaky approach. You’re going to be popping that thing out of the water all the time so you need a motor that can track through the weeds.”
Lights are critical for bowfishing because much of the hunting is done at night. While large, battery-powered spotlights designed for bowfishing are incredibly effective, smaller LED bar lights and even bright holiday lights strung along the side of the boat can also be efficient.
“You can use any kind of lights you want,” Boeke said. “Back in the day, guys would fasten old street lights along the side of their boats—and it worked—but now you can run lightbars around your boat and can run them on your car battery all night. We use a generator and have a whole deck of lights everywhere. If you want to get into it you want to use warm yellow light. It generally has a better chance of piercing through murky water than a bright led because they reflect a lot more light than is absorbed by the water.”
The old saying in bowfishing is to aim low and then aim lower. Water refracts light at a different angle in water than it does on dry land, so fish always appear shallower than they actually are. Distance from the fish and the depth that it’s swimming will determine how low you should aim but a good starting point is to aim directly at the fish and then drop 6 to 10 inches directly below it before releasing the arrow. It takes a lot of experience to know exactly where to take your shot at a cruising fish, so practice is essential for success.
“Keep it simple and don’t overcomplicate things. Get above it, aim low, and just shoot it,” Boeke told MeatEater. “The arrows don’t have fletching, so try to pole within three to 10 feet of the fish. You get the same amount of rush you get shooting an elk trying to get that close. It should be called ‘bowfish hunting’ not bowfishing because it activates more of those senses that you attribute to hunting than you do to fishing. It puts a sort of early activation on your hunting instincts. People on my boat get tuned up. They start looking at the weeds moving and they start stalking their prey. It’s sort of like casting to a rising trout—you know he’s in there and now you just have to get close enough.”
Though it’s an underutilized and underappreciated sport in much of the country, bowfishing’s popularity is definitely on the rise with more hunters and anglers realizing the potential of the sport. Not only does it keep your skills sharp for the upcoming bow season but it can also be a great way to introduce young hunters and anglers to the trials and tribulations of the outdoor world.
“Bowfishing is great for this generation of 12- to 14-year-olds because it gets them out there,” Boeke said. “I have a lot of dads taking their video-game-playing kids out on the water because it’s a great way to teach them how to shoot and hunt and how to manage their disappointment. Kids rise to the challenge of bowfishing, and they start activating their natural hunting instincts. It’s the perfect thing to help them deal with the delayed gratification of hunting and fishing and helps get them interested in the outdoors.”
For me, bowfishing has always been a fantastic sport because it helped me scratch the hunting itch in the offseason while still enjoying the feeling of fighting a big fish on a cool summer night. It’s the perfect blend of the two sports and even has me thinking about other ways I could perhaps fuse together my two favorite activities. Fly casting for elk hasn’t really taken off but, thanks to bowfishing, I can dare to dream.