Big Cat: New Virginia Bowfishing Record
It is not as popular as target archery or bowhunting, nor is it widely practiced by rod and reel anglers. But bow fishing is popular all over the United States, including the bay watershed. Records are kept of remarkable catches, and a colossal new blue catfish record has just been approved in Virginia.
William Bates of Maryland was bowfishing on October 1, 2021 in Occoquon Bay, Fairfax County, Virginia when he spotted and darted a blue monster. The fish was 47 inches long, with a circumference of 32 inches. He weighed 62 pounds, 4 ounces. The previous state record was just over 55 pounds. Bates’ fish was just 4 inches from the blue cat’s archery world record of 52 inches. Bates’ record was approved by DWR on January 6, 2022.
Bows have been used as weapons since prehistoric times. Our ancestors used them for attack, defense, hunting and fishing. Bows were the primary long-range weapon until gunpowder was invented. It was the British aristocrats who started using bows in sport. For bow fishing, you only need a bow of 30 pounds of pull or more. You will need a reel to hold your line, and of course an arrow. You can spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to four figures for a setup. You can bowfish from the shore, but having a boat or kayak improves your chances.
Serious freshwater bow anglers come out at night. Catfish are most active at night and will move into shallow water to hunt. Bow anglers navigate the shore and shallows with powerful lights beaming through the water. Some specially rigged boats have a row of lights running up and down each side, as well as forward. Think of stadium lighting packed into a small boat. Some carry gas generators to power the lights!
The fishing is up close and fast. Very fast. Fish are often spotted at the same time they are frightened and swimming. It happens so fast that you barely have time to draw the bow and acquire the target. Bow anglers often keep the bow taut and ready. Aiming is somewhat instinctive due to the split-second timing involved. Shooters must also adapt to refraction. Because of the way light bends on the surface of the water, fish are usually deeper than they appear. It takes practice. Competent bow anglers have excellent archery skills.
Clint Morgenson, regional fisheries officer with the Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), says, “DWR has not conducted formal surveys of bowfishing, but the number of participants in the sport appears to be increasing. . Some converts are bowhunters who took up fishing to improve their archery skills. There are guides who take beginners and can teach the correct techniques, including safety.
Travis Stauch is one of those guides who accompany beginners. Stauch, who operates Ramrod Bowfishing in Northern Virginia, agrees that bow fishing is growing in popularity. “There must be at least three times as many bow fishermen on the Potomac as there were just a few years ago,” he said. “Our beginners are generally successful on their first night. Teaching people to aim low, because of refraction, is the biggest challenge.
In Virginia, regulations allow the taking of common carp, grass carp, snakehead, and arctic gar, day or night. Catfish and bowfish can be caught forward in tidal waters below the fall lines. Creel limits for blue catfish are generous, given its invasive status. There are no limits in Occoquon Bay, where Bates set his record.
Blue catfish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Rio Grande river basins. They were stored in about 20 states. They were intentionally placed in some eastern freshwater river systems for sport. Unknown to furlers, fish have a high tolerance to salinity. They traveled out of some rivers, through salt water, and into adjacent (unstocked) watersheds. In the Chesapeake Bay, blue cats are considered an invasive species. They don’t just dig deep. Blue cats are predators and prowl the water column, eating whatever they catch. They target finfish, including shad. Blue catfish are believed to be one of the barriers to American shad recovery in the James River. Now there is one less invasive species in the bay.