Forget the boats – bow fishing on foot is cheap, fun and easier than you think
For the uninitiated, bow fishing may seem like the latest gear-intensive fad. Its popularity has grown in recent years thanks to TV shows, social media and the rise of its most popular target: carp. But at its core, bow fishing is a minimalist activity that has been around for millennia.
“I was a bass fisherman,” says Scott Cobbs, owner of Copperhead’s Outdoors near Huntsville, Alabama. “I had a Ranger bass boat with all the bells and whistles, and I thought, Aw, that’s the thing. Then I started bow fishing. I sold all of that. It really is a game full of adrenaline. Fighting a 50+ pound fish on a boom is hard to describe if you haven’t been there.
To bowfish like Cobbs, you don’t need an expensive bow or a rig adorned with stadium lights, or even a boat. You just need a classic or a compound with a reel, a barbed arrow, a bit of stealth – and put your catch and release principles on the back burner.
▶ After checking your local regulations, you have a few options for finding fish. Beka Garris, a die-hard Ohio bowfisher, recommends referring to your state’s freshwater lists to quickly determine which bodies of water contain carp and other rough fish. “Call your local DNR and ask. Trust me, they want to get rid of these fish,” says Josh Noble, president of RPM Bowfishing. “It’s not like trying to hunt a 400 class bull elk or a 200 class mule deer. They’ll tell you exactly where to go, exactly what time they saw fish, and give you the coordinates.
Noble also recommends calling your state’s bowfishing association for advice, because unlike any other type of fishing, it’s okay to ask people where they’re shooting fish. Look for lakes, reservoirs, dams, rivers and streams with good access. In Alabama, Cobbs says he has the best luck with small feeder streams and shallow sloughs.
“Everyone likes clear water,” says Cobbs. “But in my experience, very clear water has less fish. I prefer to have tinted water, a bit tannic. You can still see, but the fish are comfortable there.
While gar are more often found in running water, carp like to congregate in dirty, muddy areas. You will also often find carp at the entrance to reservoirs where fresh water flows around the structure. Structure is key too, so note the logs, rocks, and roots along the banks.
Noble began shooting carp with a reel and spinning reel at the age of six, working along the Bear River in Utah with his father. He says shore fishing can be just as productive as fishing from a boat – it just requires a little more physical effort.
“You can be a lot stealthier on shore than on a boat,” says Noble. “Shore fishing is a lot like waterfowl hunting in that you can use binoculars and see the ripples or a group of fish in the water. These fish can feel vibrations and they can see you, so once you spot them, walk with super soft feet. You have to sneak to the edge and be stealthy. It’s an absolute kick in the pants how much fun it is.
Keep a low profile and crouch behind cover as you approach. Once in range, Noble will wait behind a bush, then shoot and shoot on the way out. If you are fishing in a transition area, such as a dam or water control structure, simply pull over to the edge and shoot fish as you pass. Keep the sun at your back and wear polarized sunglasses for better visibility. The only extra gear you’ll need is an extra arrow or two and a rope for your fish.
If you want to bowfish from the water (which is even more appealing in the warmer months), you’ll need to be even stealthier.
“Wading is just a game of patience,” says Noble. “Work at a snail’s pace, bump the fish with your feet and pull them as they scare.”
Cobbs, who enjoys bow fishing with his buddies, says talking and even shouting (“Hey, over here!”) doesn’t bother the fish much. What’s important is how you move. “Find water as little as possible,” he says. “Relax and keep waves and splashes to a minimum. If you make a big splash or break a stick that’s submerged, you’ll scare the fish away.
If Cobbs finds a school, he and his buddies will often count together to take their photos simultaneously. They like to target large grass carp, which can often be found fishing in shallow water with their tails pointing above the water. How much pressure you put on an area depends in part on how stealthy you are and what species you’re targeting, though Cobbs says environmental factors – temperature, rain, barometric pressure – seem to affect fish more than human pressure.
“The carp are kind of silly and will come back a few minutes after you shoot,” Garris says, noting that guys are more temperamental. “Grass carp are actually quite territorial – I stood for 45 minutes in a specific area because I was expecting a particular fish that was really big.”
For the seasoned bow fisherman, gluing big fish is what it’s all about. And you can’t practice either.
“You can tell someone how to aim – aim low,” says Cobb. “But you really can’t train. Just go shoot some fish.