Practical Bowfishing: Bowfishing Techniques – Part 1

Article by William Hovey Smith – July 28, 2009
Edited by Stanley Holtsclaw – April 9, 2017


This post is sponsored and/or contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, we may receive a small commission from your purchase – click to view our Affiliate Disclosure.


Telling people how to shoot fish with a bow is easy. It is the doing of it that is the hard part. The quickest path to success is to begin with good equipment that has been properly set up for the sport. Many tyros want to use their hunting bows, but change their carefully tuned deer slayers as little as possible. A better approach is to use an older bow or buy a new one and rig it exclusively for bowfishing.

There is a necessary learning curve while eye, brain, hand, bow and arrow learn how to bowfish. A hundred or more shots may be taken before that first fish is brought to shore. This will take a lot of shooting, and there is no need to wear oneself out using an overly-strong bow.

Sight in the bow using a single pin set at about seven yards. Learn to use hold-over and hold-under for longer and shorter distances. This will enable the occasional fish that broaches the surface to be taken reliably. The tough part is learning how much to hold under the fish in order to hit underwater targets. An approximate rule is to hold three inches under the fish for each foot of water depth. This works for shots that are at about 45 degrees. More hold-under will be needed for shallower-angle shots and less for steeper angles.

Good shooting techniques like releasing the arrow smoothly and following through tend to be forgotten in the rapid shoot-shoot-shoot pace of bowfishing. Pull the bow, wait until the fish is in an optimum position for a shot, adjust your sight picture for water depth and release the arrow smoothly. Following these fundamental steps will get those first confidence-building fish in the boat faster than flinging lots of arrows into the water without paying much attention to shooting form. As in all other shooting sports, the body and the brain will learn how to do make good, well-released shots faster and faster, but it will take shooting at a lot of fish for this information to be hard-wired into the brain and nerves.

“Trash fishing” permits a lot of useful practice on underwater targets while simultaneously helping to clean up the environment. Old aluminum cans, plastic bottles and jugs are ideal targets. Shooting “trash” will be just as effective in helping to develop good shooting techniques as real targets. Even when the fish are not cooperating, there is, unfortunately, almost always some “trash” to shoot.

The easiest bowfishing shots are when the fish is facing or headed directly away from the shooter or is directly beneath him. On approaching or going away shots, the length of the fish helps compensate for the amount of hold-under, and the closer the fish is to being straight down, the less hold under is needed. When shooting down at a 90-degree angle, aim directly at the target. If the release is good and the bow is properly sighted in, this will result in a solid hit.

If there is such a thing as “Buck Fever,” there is certainly “Fish Fever” that increases in intensity with the size of the fish. It is entirely possible to fail to make a shot at a fish that appears to be the size of a bathtub because the fingers can’t work to knock an arrow, keep it on the rest or fully draw the bow. By the time the body and brain gets their act together, the fish has sunk out of sight. Being exposed to this kind of exciting action is one of the chief appeals of the sport. Ultimately, taking big fish will become a more accustomed activity, but there will always be a thrill when a “big one” comes close.

– Solo Bowfishing –

Perhaps taking inspiration from a bowfishing article in a magazine or a T.V. show, many bowfishermen got started on their own. Some made their own gear by gluing and screwing various attachments onto their bows until they came up with something usable. The more fortunate were able to go to an archery shop and get outfitted with a complete set of gear.

Nowadays a workable bowfishing package can be purchased from companies like Bear, Bohning and Muzzy. Muzzy sells reels, arrows, lines and points for shooting everything from carp to alligators. While alligators are not suitable targets for one-man bowfishing, carp and gar are ideal. With a bow-mounted reel and a few arrows any would-be bowfisherperson is ready to get started.

One thing that will be instantly seen is that the heavy bowfishing arrows needed to penetrate water don’t shoot to the same point of aim as aluminum or graphite shafts. Not only that, but fish arrows have trajectories like falling pine trees.

Before even putting equipment on the bow, the first thing to do is to reduce the poundage on a compound bow to something that can be easily drawn – typically 30-40 pounds. Once the bow is rigged and a line attached to the arrow, cardboard boxes make an easy back-yard target. It is important that the line be attached to the arrow since it is needed for stabilization. Not only will the drag of the line affect the arrow’s flight, but arrows without lines may even slap the target sideways. The line keeps these heavy-shafted arrows flying point forward.

After having shot a few dozen times it is time to decide on how to set the sights. Do you want to aim at the fish and let the sights compensate for water refraction? This method is valid for only one range, shot angle and water depth.  A better method is to set your pin to be dead on at seven yards and hold up or down to compensate for different ranges and water depths. Sights help make sure that the arrow will fly in line with the target. Trial and error will be the best teacher on how much to compensate for the fish’s position at various ranges. A lot of fish will be missed. Don’t feel bad. Everyone misses a lot of fish.

Instinctive shooters can do very well at bowfishing. They are fast on target, and the lightweight recurve bows used by many instinctive shooters are not as tiring to hold as the heavier compound bows. The problem with the instinctive method is that it takes a lot of shooting to keep one’s eye tuned to the varying challenges of bowfishing.

Releases for bows with low draw weights are not necessary and slow down shooting, but they may be used. Shooting with fingers is faster on moving targets and fingers provide one less piece of equipment to be lost, dropped or broken. For beginning shooters a shooting glove is usually the easiest to master, followed by a shooting tab and finally a mechanical releases. Finger Guards or No Gloves, which are moldable plastic and attach on the bowstring above and below the knock, help index the arrow at the knock point and provide a smooth, uniform release. These attachments are very popular among bowfishermen. A precise release can be obtained by pulling a compound with three fingers, using two to hold the string and releasing with two fingers rather than three.

Now that a basic set of equipment has been assembled and some practice shots taken it is time to take to the water.

– Stalking Fish –

No creature has fish stalking down to the same degree of perfection as the great blue heron. These stately birds wade slowly through the shallows or position themselves on a log or mud bank waiting for their next meal. They know their range, and their lightning-fast beaks seldom come up empty. Places where herons fish are also good spots to explore for bowfishing. At the least, there will be minnows that provide food for gar, and the presence of herons also mark shallows where carp may also be found.

Like the heron, anyone seeking to take fish with a bow has to quietly approach the fish, be well camouflaged and have a feel of how close to approach the fish before firing an arrow. One person can be more stealthy that two. If two people want to work a creek, it is better for one to hunt upstream and the other downstream to lesson the odds of spooking fish.

To shoot fish the hunter must be able to see fish, and polarizing glasses are a great help. If nothing better is available, a pair of clip-ons over regular glasses is a considerable aid in seeing, and shooting, fish.

Walk slowly. Carefully examine areas near brush piles, calm pools on the downstream side of ripples and log jams and look for elongate shadows in the water silhouetted against the bottom. The clearer the water and the sandier the bottom, the easier it will be to see the fish.

In hot weather gar will periodically break on the surface, take a gulp of air and return to the depths. Once gar find a comfortable place to surface or feed they will often rise at very near the same spot time after time. Get as close as possible, and when the water starts to ripple draw the bow and prepare to shoot as soon as the fish is in a good position.

Another technique is to wade to the edge of a shallow bar and watch for gar to come up to feeding positions. These fish may not surface, but will work back and forth in the shallows looking for minnows. Rocks overlooking shallows also provide good ambush areas that provide a good look at the fish and a desirable down-angle shot.

Carp and gar will often be spotted lying close to the bank or in quiet shallows adjacent to swift-running segments of rivers and larger creeks. Carp are most active during breeding season when they noisily work their way along steep banks. If a carp is spotted next to a bank try to get ahead of it. Once it starts working along a bank it will often continue along the bank in the same direction.  When carp are breeding or feeding in shallow water, a bit of fin will often break the surface and reveal the location of the fish.

Fish stalking requires a smaller investment in equipment than any other type of bowfishing. A bow, reel, arrows, polarizing sunglasses, some worn-out camo clothes, a fish stringer tied to a belt, tennis shoes and a cooler with ice somewhere on shore are often all that is needed. Solo stalking is also ideal for first bowfishing excursions. The first-time bowfisherman will miss a lot of easy shots, and there will be no witnesses to these sometimes-embarrassing moments while the equipment and fishing techniques are being mastered.

Pick a time in April or early May when the water is clear, there is little wind and go looking for carp. If you see fins splashing along the bank or big fish jumping out of the water near the mudflats, it is likely that you have found them. If you can get close to areas where there is a lot of activity, you will have ample opportunities to take some fish.

– Boat Fishing –

Fishing alone with a bow in a boat is the most challenging, and rewarding, method of bowfishing. The trick is to get the boat near enough to the fish for a reasonable shot without alerting the fish. This task will be easier if the fish are preoccupied, as when breeding or feeding, but it is also possible to get close to the fish by positioning the boat so that the wind and/or currents drifts the boat over the fish.

My favorite area to solo bowfish with a boat is over mud flats where rivers discharge into lakes. A motor is often needed to get from the nearest launch area to the flats, but once nearby the wind, current and paddle does the work of moving the boat. This technique works well for carp, although gar will also be seen in the deeper channels and along drop offs.

Desirable boats for solo bowfishing are wide-bottomed craft that are stable enough for a shooter to stand and shoot. The best that I have found is a fiberglass boat of the Gheenoe-type that has “flotation belts” on each side to stabilize the boat. Gheenoes are also light and easy to paddle. Another very stable boat is the Otter Outdoors Stealth duck boat that achieves stability by using molded plastic pontoon floats on either side of its deck.

When approaching a fish in a boat the sequence of events is as follows: quietly position the boat near the fish, put down the paddle, pick up the bow, rise, take a shooting position and try for the fish. This sequence sounds simple, but any bowfisherman is quite fortunate if the fish is still there by the time all these motions are concluded. If a shot is offered it will likely be at another fish that was also feeding nearby. If disturbed while using a favorite feeding area, the fish will likely return. Often the best method for wary fish is to stay where they are feeding for up to a half-hour to allow the fish to work back into the area.

One advantage of bowfishing from a boat is that you can take all your tools with you. If you lose your fish arrow, you can have another in the boat as well as aids like a net and gaff that are inconvenient to carry when stalking fish on foot.  I often bring lunch and fish all day. This allows me not only to move easily from place to place on a lake, but also to make several passes over likely areas.

When the weight of a fish exceeds 30 pounds it becomes increasingly difficult for one person to boat it. One hand is needed to pull in the line, another to grab the arrow and a third to gaff the fish and hoist it aboard. If a solo fisherman arrows a really big fish the only option is to allow the fish to exhaust itself, tie the fish off to the boat and put more arrows into the thrashing fish until it dies. There is more than a reasonable possibility of going overboard trying to boat a large hard-fighting fish too soon.

UP NEXT: Practical Bowfishing: Bowfishing Techniques – Part 2

Don’t forget to check our sister site, BowList.net, for more Bowfishing related links.