Bowfishing is becoming more and more popular amongst preppers and survivalists. Bowfishing combines hunting and fishing, and it’s a skill that can provide good eating if mastered properly. You don’t need expensive gear or complicated fishing gear to become skilled at bowfishing. You need training and a lot of patience for a successful hit.
Evening air hangs heavily as long, dark shadows fall across the river. Mosquitos attack exposed flesh, leaving irritating welts. Sweat trickles off the bowman’s brow, stinging his eyes as he scans the water’s surface. A long, rolling boil suddenly disrupts the river’s gentle current. A hiss—the arrow leaps out to make contact. You reel in your catch with a satisfied smile on your face. Bowfishing works!
Historically, man has used the bow and arrow to obtain fish. As a sport, however, bowfishing is relatively new. It is an exciting adventure that combines the skills of both hunting and fishing. It is also an effective means to put food on the table, whether to supplement a tight grocery budget or provide the mainstay.
Because the target is limited to fish, the hunter can see, non-game or rough fish, such as carp, gar, and buffalo are the most common species taken by bow. These fish characteristically surface and roll, providing a brief but adequate target for the bowman with a sharp eye and quick reflexes.
Almost every state allows rough fish to be taken legally with bow and arrow, and, most require only a valid fishing license. Usually, there are no limits on these fish, and it is not uncommon to take several hundred pounds in a single outing. It should be noted that the taking of bass, crappie, and other game fish with a bow can be illegal in many states. A check with your state game and fish department should be made to verify the kinds of fish you may shoot with bow and arrow.
For most people, the idea of eating rough fish is new. Some mental hang-ups will have to be overcome, and a little taste bud training will be in order. When it comes to various wild foods, many times prejudices and comments of others who have never tried the product dominate one’s attitude toward the food source. It’s possible that you have already eaten gar or carp by way of some commercially produced “fish sticks” and did not know it.
Keeping it fresh
The best eating fish, rough or otherwise, are those that are freshly caught and properly handled after catching. To guarantee good eating fish, keep your catch alive as long as possible, or cleaned and cooled on ice immediately. Fish should always be bled and gutted before icing.
The musty taste occasionally found in carp often originates from certain species of algae that tend to increase during the warm, fertile summer periods. Not all fish of the same species in the same waterway will acquire this taste. Neither will they always acquire it during the summer. You can tell if the fish will have the “off” taste by sniffing the gills. If they have a musty odor, the flesh will have a similar taste. Although the musty taste may be less than desirable, this does not affect the quality of the meat.
Carp is the most popular of the rough fish, and is easily recognized by its two pairs of fleshy whiskers and notched dorsal fins. Since its import from Europe around 1877, the carp has flourished in lakes, farm ponds, rivers and streams in virtually every state. A non-predator, the carp is a bottom feeder, subsisting on insect larvae, plankton, and aquatic plants. On the average, carp weigh between 4 to 8 pounds, but it is not uncommon to take 15- to 30-pounds. Commercial fishermen regularly net weights of 40 to 60 pounds.
The peak season for carp is in the spring when the waters begin to warm, and the spawn begins. Unless you’ve seen the frenzy created by carp during a spawn, it’s hard to believe. Hundreds and thousands of carp literally “belly” their way “fin-to-fin” through the shallows to reach the spawning grounds. Under these conditions, even the poorest archer can bag more than he can carry. Local fishermen should be able to give you a general idea when the fish are spawning on lakes and rivers.
One of the largest and most challenging of the rough fish is the Gar (Lepisosteidae). Gar are easily recognized by the long beak containing many sharp teeth and a slender cylindrical body. Their non-overlapping, tough armor-like scales and hard bony structure of the head and beak make them impervious to would-be predators. They feed largely on other fish, usually stalking their prey and making the capture with a final swift lunge when within striking distance. Their strong jaws and rows of sharp teeth make it impossible for the prey to escape.
Gar range from southern Canada to Central America with five species found in the U.S. Gar prefer warm, sluggish backwaters of lowland rivers and lakes and are often observed sunning themselves quietly beneath the water’s surface. Because gar supplements their oxygen supply by frequently breaking the water surface, they readily present a good target for the bow-fisherman.
Gar are a force to be dealt with, as they are tremendous fighters. Most of the species average 5 to 8 pounds in weight. The Alligator Gar, however, frequently reaches 100 pounds with a length of 10 feet.
Other fish for bowfishing
Other rough fish include Bowfin (Amia calval), Large- and Small-Mouth Buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus, Ictiobus bubalus) and suckers (Catostomide). With the exception of the Bowfin, these fish are much like the carp with regard to feeding characteristics and habitat requirements. The Bowfin is an aggressive predator, feeding largely on small fish and crayfish. Like gar, the Bowfin surfaces periodically to supplement its oxygen supply. The Bowfin averages 5 to 8 pounds.
Tactics for bowfishing
Rough fish may be hunted from boat, shore or by wading quietly through shallow waters. Although they can be hunted year ’round, the best season runs from March to October but will vary with different regions of the country and the species.
During the dog days of summer, carp will be found congregating near cool shady spots, such as under fallen timber, old stumps or overhangs. When the fish are feeding, their rooting will muddy up the water, making it difficult to see. However, they will not be hard to spot as their backs will occasionally break the surface, providing a good target for the alert bowman.
When wading the backwaters, walk slowly, with a minimum amount of splashing. Periodically stop and listen for the sound of splashing. Experienced bow fishermen recommend that you walk against the wind with the wave action coming toward you. The waves reduce the carp’s eye-sight and you can escape detection.
Using a flat-bottomed boat, you can drift along with the current in search of your prey. When the water is clear, you will be able to see a few feet under the water. Often the fish will appear as dark fleeting shadows.
Suggested reading: The Challenges Of Fording When Venturing Into The Wilderness
As previously stated, gar frequently surfaces and “roll.” presenting a target that requires split-second timing. When pursuing gar, many fishermen simply anchor their boats in locations where they have seen the fish moving and wait, or drift slowly with the current, using an electric trolling motor to quietly control direction and speed.
River gar are best found near the mouth of a creek channel, on the bend of the river or in the backwaters of a slough or bayou. Patience is the name of the game. It’s often tempting to let arrows fly at anything that moves, but the successful bowman will wait and watch until a target worthy of the effort presents itself.
Night hunting is also very productive. A good spotlight or Q-Beam will pick up surfacing fish. The shooter must he fast as often the light spooks the fish, and it runs for the cover of darkness. Night shooting is often best done at the base of a slow running spillway where gar and carp congregate in the receding pools.
Where the smaller carp and Buffalo will present an exciting challenge in landing. A gar of any size will put up n fight that very few fishermen experience. It is best to allow the fish ample opportunity to wear itself out before trying to land it. For fish in excess of 20 lbs. a second bowman should shoot it for insurance.
The gar’s armor plate is notorious for cutting line. Many bow fishermen carry a small club or a handgun capable of firing rat shot to kill the gar when he is brought alongside the boat. A solid whack on the head or a brain shot is usually sufficient to finish off one of these monsters. A thrashing gar with razor sharp teeth could be dangerous when handling, especially in a boat.
Equipment for Bowfishing
Compared to other sports bowfishing requires minimal equipment.
Most beginners start with an inexpensive recurve bow, a bow reel, and a solid fiberglass fishing arrow equipped with a sharp barbed point.
The bow should have a minimum pull of 45 pounds to ensure enough force to drive the fishing arrow through the water and penetrate the armor-like scales of the fish.
The recurve bow is the least expensive, and as compared with the compound, is simpler to operate and maintain, and is more tolerant of mud and water that comes with the game. The recurve also allows for faster shooting.
There is a time and place for each recurve and compound. Admittedly the compound costs more and is somewhat sensitive to the rough treatment, but it’s very advantageous when shooting a heavier pull of 50 to 55 pounds.
It is not unusual, especially when shooting at night, to draw and hold for several seconds while following the light beam in search of the fish. Because fish will spook when exposed to the light the bowman must be ready to fire instantly—a task that would be difficult or even impossible for some people when using a recurve with a pull in excess of a 50 or 55 pounds. Bow reels range in style from the open-faced drum type to mounted crank reels.
Related article: How to Build a Survival Bow & Arrows – Beginner’s Guide
A solid fiberglass fishing arrow is more effective than standard arrows. Their heavy weight allows for greater penetration of the water, and breakage is minimal. Rubber fletching is recommended, but not necessary because most shots are under 15 yards. There is a variety of fishing points on the market. If there is one area in which you should not “penny-pinch” it is here.
Buy the best point available, preferably one made of hardened steel, and that has reversible barbs. More than one bow fisherman has had his point broken or bent on the armor of a carp or gar. Reversible barbs, while not essential, make it easier to remove the arrow from a fish once it has been landed.
Support equipment includes such standard archery gear as finger tabs and arm-guards. Polaroid sunglasses often aid the shooter by reducing glare from open water on bright, sunny days. It’s a good idea to carry one or two spare arrows and 5 or 6 extra points. A wild shot into a rocky bottom will damage a point beyond use, while the thrashing of a furious fish can break the heaviest arrow. Many bow fishermen keep a file at hand for sharpening arrow points.
Like every sport, practice makes perfect. Shooting at a target in the water is more difficult than on land. Light is refracted by water in such a way as to make a submerged object appear to be where it isn’t. A fish will actually be closer to you than it appears. To make a hit, you must aim below the image.
When it comes to bowfishing, there is no set formula for determining exactly where to aim. Obviously, if the fish is barely under the surface, you need not allow as much for refraction as for a fish that is deeper. If a fish is directly under you, where you can aim straight down, no refraction allowance is necessary. Instinct shooting will come with time and experience. As one bowman put it, “It only takes two or three near misses of a trophy quality fish to learn how to zero in on the target!” Practice sessions are wise.
A last word
Bowfishing is an exciting, challenging sport that makes conventional fishing seem slow and dull. As a survival tool, the sport can provide an infinite number of pounds of protein that can sustain a family for an indefinite period of time.