Practical Bowfishing: Hovey Smith on Bowfishing

Article by William Hovey Smith – April 21, 2009
Edited by Stanley Holtsclaw – April 9, 2017

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Author with his first bowhunted fish. A longnose gar from the Oconee River in Georgia taken with a Bear Kodiak Magnum and Zebco 808 Reel.

– Preface –

My first memory of bowfishing was a photograph of a bronze Amazon Indian standing beside a backwater pool with his bow and five-foot arrows. This image from a dusty National Geographic found in a High School library stuck in my brain as an exciting way to fish, but it was to be years before I emulated the native fisherman.

A few things happened – college, military service, Viet Nam, more college and an exciting profession as an exploration geologist working throughout the U.S. and Alaska. Twelve years in the 49th state spoiled me for hook-and-line fishing. When I returned to Georgia in the 1980s, the brim, catfish and bass so paled in comparison to the thrill of taking salmon, Arctic char and pike that I lost interest in conventional fishing.

Concurrently I had been writing magazine articles about guns and hunting. I remember the excitement I felt when I was paid $25 for my first piece in a 1971 American Rifleman. After a stilt as a newspaper journalist, the Gun Digest, Guns Illustrated, Dixie Gun Works Black Powder Annual, Blackpowder Hunting, Muzzle Blasts and others accepted more of my gun and hunting articles. These efforts resulted in my becoming a Senior Writer for Guns&Gear Magazine.

Although hunting with muzzleloading guns claimed my principal attentions, there remained a desire to bowfish. I had taken deer with my bows, and on a trip to an archery shop got my old Bear Kodiak recurve rigged up for bowfishing. I poked around local rivers and reservoirs, shot at a lot of fish and finally arrowed my first gar from the Oconee River near Milledgeville, Georgia. That was several fish ago.

I liked taking big fish, the aggressive aspects of fish hunting, experimenting with eating the critters I took and the rapid technological advances that were sweeping the bowfishing world. Changing aspects of the sport that interested me included the use of airboats with fan motors, generator-powered light systems, compound bows, Fast-Flight line, no-drag reels, better arrows and new designs of bowfishing points. These changes represented many minds creating innovative solutions to bowfishing’s eternal problem of getting an arrow into a fish and recovering the thrashing prize.

One personal realization was that this sport could be as sophisticated or as simple as desired. A fiberglass bow, a pile of nylon string on the ground and a nail pointed arrow with a cross barb could take a child’s first fish and give him as much a thrill as a person shooting more than a hundred fish a night from a sophisticated bowfishing boat.

Not only could children participate in the excitement of bowfishing, but so could all members of the family as strong-pull bows were not often required and even crossbows might sometimes be used. This sport had the potential of being a family affair that could be done almost anywhere in the U.S. during much of the year.

As a beginner, I saw the need for more published information about current equipment and fishing techniques. The editors of Guns&Gear, Bowhunter, Wheelin’ Sportsman and Georgia Sportsman agreed and purchased bowfishing articles from me. The seeds of an idea were also planted for a modern book on the subject. This book is the fulfillment of the need for a one-volume work containing basic bowfishing information, sections on new equipment and fish recipes.

Many people participated in the book-writing project. These included Jay Langston, my editor at Stoeger who is also an enthusiastic bowfisherman and shared my feelings about the need for a new bowfishing book. Others provided equipment, fishing opportunities and encouragement. These included Chris Cass, Mark Land, Lance Sullentrop, Billy Armentor, (Note. This paragraph will be added to as the book progresses.)

– Introduction –

No sport offers the excitement and drama of bowfishing. What other sport allows the participant to stalk his quarry, shoot hundreds of times, take an unlimited amount of game, enjoy some of the best-eating fish there are and help improve the fishery at the same time? Bowfishing may also be enjoyed by men and women of all ages and physical conditions, as there is sufficient diversity of fish habitat to allow for a variety of fishing techniques that may be as simple or elaborate as desire and personal finances dictate.

Famed archer and bowhunter Fred Bear holDs a carp taken with a recurve bow. The Bear Archery Co. introduced a bowfishing reel in the 1950’s.

Tackling an alligator gar, which may weigh 200 pounds, or even a 40-pound longnose gar or Amur carp is an experience that will not be quickly forgotten. Nor will that first night when a shooter has boated 100 fish and can look back in exhausted pride at the success of his pre-fishing scouting, shooting skill and abilities to keep the boat, light system and bows functioning during a 12-hour tournament. No less a measure of honest pride will be felt by the kid who takes his first fish with his tapped-on reel, string and homemade fish arrow and runs back to the house with his flopping prize.

The thrill of landing a big fish with a bow remains the same regardless of age, and this shared zest for the sport binds bowfishermen together. There are few other sports in which the participants are so unabashedly helpful to each other, so willing to share information and so eager to assist a newcomer.

Modern bowfishing:

Accomplished archers like Fred Bear, who I will always think of as the “Uncle Fred” of the archery world, and Howard Hill publicized bowfishing as a fun activity and useful practice for bowhunting. Bear was diverted enough from his big game hunting to shoot a few Canadian salmon to test his company’s bowfishing reel for a 50s archery promotional film titled Badlands Bucks, Arrow for a Grizzly and Rural Route One. Bear also saltwater bowfished and took a huge leopard ray with his recurve.

Howard Hill, who did the archery shooting for Errol Flynn’s, Robin Hood, did Bear one better and landed a man-eating African crocodile with his bow and steel aircraft cable in his full-length movie Tembo. Hill shot a variety of African game with his bow, and the movie had a better box office draw than Bogart’s African Queen, according to Hill’s nephew Jerry Hill. Hill shot his crock from a tree, and he joined it in the river after his foot became tangled in the cable. He had less trouble taking elephant and lion. Both Hill’s movie and many of Bear’s filmed hunts are still available as videos.

Boys, with homemade reels bowfish off a dock at Lafitte, LA while a soon to be bowfisherman observes their attempt to shoot some fast moving mullet.

From the 1950s through the 1980s bowfishing technology advanced to embrace solid fiberglass arrows, shoot-through reels, crank reels, bow sights and the compound bow. Of all these, solid fiberglass arrows represented the greatest advance as these heavy fletchless shafts had the momentum to enable longer and deeper shots to be taken at bigger fish. Compound bows enabled the bow length to be shortened, and they also allowed the shooter to hold his drawn bow until the fish was in the best position for a shot.

Bowfishing grew in popularity, although different aspects of the sport attracted participants in different parts of the country. In the Southeast, where a greater variety and generally larger fish were available, bowfishing became a Spring and all-Summer activity that was usually done at night with increasingly sophisticated bowfishing boats. In the Midwest the Spring carp spawn became a bowfishing season, which was thought of as a sporting diversion between hunting seasons. In the Northeast and West, the emphasis was not so much on the numbers of fish taken, but who could take the largest carp, paddlefish or pike with his bow and arrow.

Different bows, reels, arrows and boats were developed for each type of fishing activity. It makes a difference in rigging and technique if a fisherman is taking relatively few shots after just one big fish, say an alligator gar or paddlefish, or is shooting for numbers in an all-night tournament. The bowfishing market is now seen as more diverse than the “one size fits all” approach that was formerly taken. The sport is evolving and developing specialized aspects – just like horse racing, harness racing and the steeplechase are three competitive events involving horses.

A family affair:

Family, as a collective noun, applies to two aspects of bowfishing. First, family can be said to apply to the entire population of bowfisherpersons. This sport is still small enough that most enthusiasts in a region know each other, have participated in the same tournaments and recognizes each other’s children, wives and boats. Each time they meet they are eager to share their experiences about big fish that got away, boat breakdowns, new things they have tried and catch up on family happenings.

It is also not unusual in this sport to have father and son shooting teams and often husbands and wives are equally passionate about the sport. One notable example is Bob and Margaret Hice, the accomplished archery and gun hunters who developed the Tree Lounge tree stand. This couple is even more enthusiastic about bowfishing than bowhunting. When asked why Margaret explained, “When hunting you may go all season and only shoot a few times at game. But while bowfishing you shoot until you are too tired to pull the bow any more. I may shoot 100 or 200 times a night at fish instead of once or twice at game.”

Teens and sub teens with their good eyesight and quick reflexes are naturals at the sport. Bows in the 20-pound range are adequate for taking close-in fish. A few wraps of tape to attach a reel and a bowfishing arrow and they are ready to go. The new Mathews Genesis bow with is variable draw length of between 15 and 30 inches, accessory holes for reels and 20-pound pull is ideal for youngsters. This bow is powerful enough to take carp and gar at the 15-yards and under range where most shots are taken.

Bowfishing for the handicapped:

Just as children can use short, low draw weight bows to bowfish, so can the handicapped who must shoot from wheelchairs or other fixed positions. Most shooters who have some upper body mobility can participate. In 2001, the American Bowfishing Association held a tournament at Decatur, Alabama, for handicapped shooters.

Members of the ABA acted as guides and took one person on each boat. Flint Riordan, then Vice President of the American Bowfishing Association, organized the event. Many of the participants were members of the Physically Challenged Bowhunters of America, but had never been bowfishing. Everybody got to shoot some fish and everyone had a great time, Riordan reported. Asked if he felt that his efforts were worthwhile, Riordan replied that this was one of the most satisfying things that he had done in his entire life.

Terrell Mims (standing) and Bruce Franklin bowfishing on the Alabama River. As long as there is sufficient upper body mobility and the use of at least one arm, bowfishing can be done by anyone.

Because the handicapped have some limitations, it is not unusual for a handicapped shooter and an able-bodied boat owner to team up. Two pairs that I have bowfished with are Bruce Franklin-Terrell Mims and Jackie Bolin-John Price teams from central Alabama. Franklin is confined in a wheelchair and Bolin lost one arm slightly above the elbow. Bolin uses a strap to help support the 80-pound draw Horton crossbow and uses shortened fiberglass fish arrows for bolts.

“I could not bowfish, at least not the way I am doing it now, if it weren’t for Mims,” Franklin explained. “He built the fishing deck of his boat so I could roll the chair onto the boat and provided attachment points to secure the wheelchair. Because I am in a chair my range of shots is restricted, but I am still able to have fun and shoot fish.”

Franklin and Mims go bowfishing almost every week during the Spring and early Summer. Among the fish the pair have taken from the Alabama River include some nice sized common carp, Amur carp and longnose gar.

An alternative method for a handicapped person is to bowfish from a dock. Often docks already have lights for night fishing and the only thing needed is to attract some gar or other legally shootable fish. Feeding the fish for a few nights by placing dog food or some other material in a mesh bag or porous bucket will do the trick. The aggressive gar will quickly discover this food source and will provide good shooting opportunities. The feedbag can be moved if it is not in the optimum position for the handicapped archer.

Competitive bowfishing:

Two national organizations, the American Bowfishing Association and World Bowfishing Association, hold sanctioned bowfishing tournaments throughout the country. These culminate in mid-Summer world championships. Recognition is provided for a shooter’s overall performance, the number of fish taken, the number of big fish taken, big fish for each species and tournament victories.

Although tournaments operate under a similar set of rules, these often vary to fit the circumstances and the whims of the organizers. Shooting is usually done for some 12-hour period, most often at night, although there are a few daytime tournaments. Scouting may be done prior to most tournaments, but no fish may be shot while scouting and no fish-taking equipment may be in the contestants’ boats. Fish must be shot with barbed arrows having single points and be of legal species. There is usually a separate class for airboats, which may range further to find the better fishing spots, and propeller-driven craft.

Tournaments may be structured for the heaviest string of five fish, the total number of fish, the largest and smallest fish or some combination of the above. The unusual small fish category is to reward the best shooters who can take pencil-size gar with bowfishing arrows. In a numbers shoot, small fish are actually preferred, because it takes less time to land them and they occupy less room in a boat.

Although cash and equipment prizes are awarded, bowfishing does not have the big pay offs of bass tournaments due to the lower over-all participation in the sport. Winners may make back travel expenses and gas money, but little else.

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