6 tips for getting started
If you are an avid bow hunter, the spring and summer months can be excruciating. Throwing carbon on foam in preparation for a season that is months away can get downright boring. Fishing helps eliminate the outer itch, but nothing compares to archery.
That was my attitude until about four years ago. It was then, during a particularly calm summer, that I decided to teach myself to bow fish. It quickly became my passion and now the summers don’t last long enough. The rivers and streams became my home away from home, and somehow I became known locally as “That Bowfishing Girl”.
I encountered countless surprises along the way, many of which I was unprepared for, which I wish I had known about in advance. It’s time to learn from my mistakes.
1. You don’t need expensive equipment
Most people are under the impression that bow fishing must be an expensive sport. The thing is, it’s not necessary. My first setup only cost me about $30. Most were old gear my dad had dragged around the garage. I started bowfishing with a Browning youth model compound and a 1970’s Bear metal archery hand reel. I shot as accurately and killed as many fish with this bow as I do now with my upgrade. You can easily set up a decent bowfishing setup for around $120. Craigslist and eBay are a great source for used bows, as are pawnshops and garage sales. I picked up several additional bows for $25 each on Craigslist. Just keep in mind that you want the draw weight to be between 25 and 50 pounds.
Depending on the type of reel you want to buy, the price will vary. You can get a basic hand reel for $10, and the simplicity of these is excellent. If you’re looking for an AMS reel or a Muzzy spinner, you can get either with a line for less than $60. Fiberglass bowfishing arrows can cost between $10 and $20 each, depending on the brand. Arrows and tips are one thing I don’t buy cheap, as they are the key to getting your fish all the way. When in doubt, opt for a grappling hook.
2. Eat what you shoot
Contrary to popular belief, many fish targeted with a bow are safe to eat. Despite their somewhat hideous appearance, long-nosed gar have good taste, especially their deer-like dorsal shoulder straps. They are easily my favorite for cleaning and cooking. You should exercise caution when cleaning female gar, as the eggs are poisonous to all mammals. Take care to rinse the meat well. Gar skulls also make a killer European mount.
The idea of cleaning and cooking the carp might not sound appealing, but I enjoy the smoked carp which tastes a bit like beef jerky. Simple carp patties, made with minced carp, chopped onion, celery, lemon juice, egg, mayonnaise and seasonings are also good. Suckers are also flavorful and produce a flaky white meat with very little of the fishy flavor that is so often associated with freshwater fish.
3. Failure is Necessary
Be prepared to miss – a lot. Because I share a lot of my bow fishing adventures on social media, a lot of people get the wrong impression that I’m not missing out. Well, I most certainly do.
Aiming is the most difficult aspect of the sport. The refraction of light on water makes judging depth for precise aiming points a bit tricky. A good pair of polarized sunglasses helps with daytime bow fishing. A solid rule of thumb for beginners is to aim low. When I first started bowfishing, I practiced on water bottles and soda cans in the backyard. Even practicing on small targets on land can greatly improve your shooting, and when teaching others to bowfish I have found it to be great practice.
Just like bowhunting, you want to make sure you’re consistent. While proper form and tracking aren’t as important, being consistent with anchor point and release makes a big difference.
4. Know the rules
It is extremely important to check local regulations regarding bow fishing. I grew up in New Jersey, where it is legal to use a fishing license or a small game hunting license to fish with a bow. Here in Ohio, a fishing license is the only legal way to bowfish.
Legal harvestable species also vary. Generally, invasive species top the list. But in some areas, catfish, rockfish, stingray, and tilapia are also legal. Some states list public areas where bow fishing is not permitted, while fishing with a rod and reel is not a problem. Know your laws, get the legal license and be respectful of those around you.
5. Rig for the night
I’ve always preferred bow fishing in the daytime – I love being out on the water in the summer heat and sunbathing is an added bonus. However, bow fishing after dark can be more popular. The game plan after dusk is a bit different.
Shooting from a boat creates options when it comes to mountable lights that can be secured away from the action. If you’re wading in shallow water, however, you’ll need to plan ahead by bringing a friend to act as a spotter, setting up a light on your bow, or carrying a headlamp. No matter what you choose, know that a bright light with a wide beam makes it easier to spot fish.
Finally, don’t forget insect repellent or a Thermacell. Because the lights attract gnats and mosquitoes, I always wear a bandana or chamois too.
6. Find a hot spot
I don’t have a boat, so I wade along rivers and streams. I quickly became familiar with the types of water suitable for bow fishing, as well as the species that inhabited the water. It is quite easy to find good areas for bow fishing once you know what types of fish are in your area. Dams and overflows are great places to find fish, especially during spawning.
However, shallow pools with muddy bottoms are usually home to common carp. The freshwater drum tends to stay in deeper pools in rocky areas. Buffalo prefer moving water, and dozens of them can be found in rapids in the middle of rivers, which sometimes makes it easy to skewer two at once.
There are days when I just jump out of my truck and shoot as many fish as I can into a pond, and there are days when I walk a mile or two to find a five-foot guy or a monster carp. Just like hunting, sometimes you have to do some legwork to find fish.