Big-game fishing

The algae-rich drainage was the haunt of scaly creatures of epic proportion. On occasion, following a stiff downpour, they’d congregate at Mitchell’s culvert, where they’d feed ravenously as swirling currents pulled morsels of food into their ambush zone.

Crouched barefoot on a wet, sandy berm, I’d wait motionless for a faint shadow of a big carp to swim to within spitting distance for a shot. Even with antiquated and crude gear, stalking underwater creatures was, for me, inexplicably addictive. Since I began bowfishing as a kid 30 years ago, the equipment has evolved, but the fundamentals of the sport remain for the most part unchanged.

Here’s what you need to know to get started.


Freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds, and saltwater bays, beaches, and estuaries all hold quarry you can bowfish for. Top targets are the common carp, gar, stingrays, and skates-plus, most recently, Asian carp. Common freshwater carp and gar are found on shallow flats, in thick weed beds, and in emergent aquatic weed fields, like bulrushes, cattails, and switchgrass.

The backs of coves usually hold both carp and gar. Gar can tolerate less-than-optimal water conditions and therefore can be found in places that most gamefish avoid.

Rays and skates are premier saltwater bowfishing targets. Both are found in shallow bays and on large, expansive flats. Sparse weeds interspersed with sand patches or hard bottom is prime habitat for both species.

The Illinois River’s Asian carp provide a unique, flying target.


The toughest part of bowfishing is actually hitting a fish, typically made difficult by a phenomenon called “refraction,” which causes light to bend as it hits the water. The amount of refraction depends on several factors: the distance to the fish, how deep the fish is, and your height.

Refraction distorts your perception of where the fish is. A fish you see under the surface is actually deeper than where you perceive it to be. To compensate for refraction, simply aim low, then aim even lower.


* RECURVES: These are lightweight, easy to handle, mechanically straightforward, and capable of delivering quick snap shots. And they’re inexpensive–perfect for beginners. The major disadvantage is that they aren’t as fast as compounds.

* COMPOUNDS: A compound’s speed allows for shots on deep fish. Such fast bows also shoot flatter, minimizing the need for yardage estimation. Hunting compounds are heavy, however, and slower on the draw than recurves.


The hardest working component of a bowfishing rig is the retriever or reel. These manage line and put fish in the boat.

* SPINCASTING REELS: Reel seats that screw into the stabilizer mount are available from several manufacturers. These allow you to convert a spin-cast reel into a bowfishing reel. Several manufacturers make spincasting reels designed specifically for bowfishing applications.

* HAND-WRAP REELS: These molded-plastic rings are technically not reels. Hand wraps mount on a bow and are wound with the line. When you shoot, line pays off the spool. With each shot, however, the line must be respooled by hand for the next shot. Hand wraps are inexpensive but become a chore to use when you need to make multiple shots or when fish are plentiful.

BOWFISHING RETRIEVERS: These are the most efficient Line-management tool and are specifically designed for the heavy demands of bowfishermen. A standard-size bottle, or line container, stores 20 to 25 yards of Dacron braid (200-pound) and Spectra line (650-pound) tangle-free. Large bottles hold 40 to 50 yards.


As you can imagine, bowfishing arrows absorb plenty of abuse. Two types are available: carbon and fiberglass. The best bowfishing arrows are heavy, tipping the scales between 1,200 to 1,400 grains. For this reason, solid fiberglass shafts are best, as they are heavy, durable, and nearly indestructible.


Bowfishing points are as varied as the imagination. Basic carp points–simple, stainless-steel points with a wire barb–work for the majority of applications and are great for beginners. As your confidence and knowledge grow, you can experiment with other point styles.


By far the most important bowfishing accessory is the safety slide. In years past, archers have attached their fishing line or string directly to the arrow shaft through a hole near the nook.

A tangle could cause the arrow to snap back during flight and impact the shooter, causing serious injury. A safety slide slips on the shaft, keeping the line in front of the bow’s riser, to minimize the chance of the line getting tangled.


Chumming with corn, where legal, is an excellent carp tactic. A loaf of bread anchored in a minnow trap is similarly effective.

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