Practical Bowfishing: Bowfishing Techniques – Part 2

Article by William Hovey Smith – August 2, 2009
Edited by Stanley Holtsclaw – April 9, 2017


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– Safety –

Bowfishing alone in a boat has an added element of risk. There is always the danger of pitching out of the boat if it hits an unseen snag or rock. If the boat is in water that is only inches deep this is no problem, but in deep water the boat will often drift away and be difficult to reenter without capsizing the boat. Always wear a flotation vest when going to and from your fishing area and when bowfishing in waters that are more than a few feet deep.

Many lakes with good bowfishing are noted for standing timber. This also means that there will often be floating logs and branches. If hit at almost any speed these can hole or flip a boat. Be very cautious about boating under conditions of limited visibility.

Some big shallow lakes like Okeechobee in Florida and Pontchartrain in Louisiana may look glass smooth in the morning, but are extremely dangerous for small boats. A thunderstorm over the lake can result in strong winds and high waves that can easily swamp small craft. Be extremely careful in these waters and leave in enough time to return to shore before a storm starts. After the wind picks up and the rain starts, it is too late.

Drinking and bowfishing just don’t mix. A cold beer tastes awfully good when back on shore, but there is no place for alcohol on a bowfishing boat. The risks are too great for going overboard or falling on a sharp arrow. The bowfisherman needs to be fully observant, see potentially dangerous situations before they occur and be able to react quickly should something go wrong.

– Fishing Dogs –

Nothing more is needed to provoke a dog’s interest in bowfishing than to take him to the mudflats in the spring when the carp are jumping. After your dog has seen you shoot a few fish it will easily get the idea that this is what you are after, and he will try to help or get one for himself. Sometimes he will stick his head under water to get a better look.

The best way to use a dog is to put the dog out on land and let him go 30 or 40-yards up the bank and slowly walk in the water back to you. Any fish that he disturbs will likely swim parallel to the bank and give you a shot. If you fish with a dog use only dull fish points to keep the arrow from being thrust into the dog by a thrashing fish. The same can be done on a mud flat. The dog slowly hunts at the upper end of the flats and works the fish towards the boat. There will be shooting opportunities as the fish move into the slightly deeper channels draining the flats.

As with bird hunting, the more dogs are exposed to fishing opportunities the more quickly they learn. The best teaching technique is to take them back to the same areas. Just as bird dogs learn a covey of quail’s favorite spots, fishing dogs learn where the fish are and how to hunt them. Dogs have difficulty retrieving fish. The heavy slick scales and the large diameter of most carp do not allow them to get a good hold. They can catch small gar, but that is about the limit.

Water moccasins are also active in the spring and summer and offer a danger to dogs. Snakes prefer brushy areas near banks and reedy shores. Avoid putting a dog out in these areas and do not let him go sniffing through thick brush and reeds near the water.

– Me and Joe Bowfishing –

Having a partner in a boat greatly increases the chances of taking fish, even if only one person shoots at a time while the other rows, poles or operates the trolling motor. A two-man boat needs to be stable enough for the shooter to stand up and turn around if necessary to shoot at a fish. One rule for two men in a small boat is that only one person moves at the time. I have been pitched out of small boats several times by over-zealous partners who moved the boat unexpectedly.

It is not necessary, and is sometimes harmful, to have the boat in continuous motion. If in a good “gar hole” it is best to let the boat be as still as possible to provide the shooter with a more stable platform from which to shoot. I often use wind, currents or tides to drift me over favorable areas and motor back to the starting place for a second pass. If I have spotted and perhaps shot fish over a particularly favorable point, stream outlet or structure, I will often pick up another fish or two when I come back by the area on my return trip.

One advantage in having two people in a boat is that one can help land a big fish. It is very difficult for the bowfisherman who is holding his bow and fighting the fish with the bowline to simultaneously gaff a fish. It is counter-intuitive, but best in small boats to have the person handling the net or gaff be on his knees and the person fighting the fish to sit down to keep one or both from falling out of the boat. With two sharp objects in motion, the points on the arrow and the gaff, the fish retrieval operation needs to be conducted from as stable a position as possible.

Big carp will often need two arrows because the weight and power of the fish will cause it to come off the arrow as the fish is pulled towards the boat. Big alligator gar will also need multiple arrows to bring them in. Keeping in mind the rule that only one person stands in the boat at the time, the former paddler, now the shooter, rises to make these safety shots while his partner sits.

Shooting from small boats with a partner requires close cooperation and a feel for what the partner is going to do because there is not much time to formulate a plan when a fish is being fought. Discuss some of the possible scenarios before going out and talk to each other while landing a fish to insure that everyone knows what to expect.

Can two men in a small boat actually be competitive in a tournament in which airboats, fanboats and other big rigs are used? The answer to this question is a qualified “Yes,” depending on tournament rules. If there is a big fish pot or if the tournament is the heaviest string of five or six fish, two men in a small boat can win such events. Big fish, particularly big carp and gar, are very selective about their habitats. Poking quietly through weed beds will often reveal fish that have sunk out of sight or have moved out of range when approached by larger boats. Small boats can also get into areas where larger boats cannot go because of brush or obstacle-constricted water passages.

– Tournament Bowfishing –

Even if a person is not a good enough shot to be a competitive shooter, tournament events are excellent learning opportunities. Nowhere else will the bowfishing enthusiast be exposed to such a variety of fishing gear, boats and auxiliary equipment in an environment where new bows can be shot, new fish can be taken and even a new thing or two learned about cooking and eating the catch.

Almost every state has a weekly bowfishing event that is typically sponsored by a local marina, archery shop or state association. This is like league bowling in that the venue is usually the same, one or a small number of nearby lakes, and the event is held at the same time each month. Many individual shooters attend these events and some combine resources to put together a better boat than they could afford individually. After shooting together for a year, and assembling a basic boat, shooting deck and light assembly, they often feel they are ready to participate in a state or regional tournament.

Often the greatest advantage that one shooting team can have over another is knowing the water. Fancy gear cannot overcome on-site knowledge about the fish and where to find them. It is not unusual for bowfishing crews to begin scouting three days before a tournament to locate those magic locations where 100 or more fish may be counted in an hour. Initial scouting is often done during the day to locate waterways and passages, but the real test of an area is done at night when the fish are most active. Under most tournament rules, no fishing may be done while scouting and no bowfishing gear or nets may be in the boats.

While air boats can skim over damp grass or mud flats, prop boats and prop-fan boats must be considerably more conscious of the effects of tides and wind which can “stack-up” water in shallows one night and leave the same area hazardously dry the next. It is not uncommon to have to get out of the boat and pull, push and pole it until enough water is found to run it again.

Pre-tournament scouting is also boat and equipment testing time. Any faults found in the control, lighting or propulsion systems can be identified and corrected prior to the all-night fishing that climaxes the event. Because bowfishing boats are run hard, frequently grounded in shallow waters, have separate generator-powdered light systems, dual controls, propulsion motors, fan motors and trolling motors, there is a lot than can go wrong. When a little salt-water corrosion is added to the mix, it is not uncommon for one or more problems to surface with the engines or electrical systems on each trip.

Hopefully, the boat itself and the shooting deck is structurally solid enough not to need any attention, but a tube of quick-set epoxy marine cement and assorted nuts, bolts and screws are often needed for last-second fixes before a tournament.

Either from pre-registration, registration at the event or a random drawing, the boat’s order of departure is determined. Prior to “blast off” about an hour before sunset, the boats are lined up at the dock. Everything put on board and maps or anything else that is needed for the night’s fishing is gathered for the trip. The strategy for the night’s work has already been worked out, the running times measured and everyone is eager, after spending days looking at fish, to get down to business. Most crews will start fishing at their most distant points and work back towards the dock as the night progresses. If they don’t make it back to the dock before the deadline, all their hard work will be for nothing.

In the meantime, organizers of the event have lined up sponsors and prizes. A portion of the entry fee goes into the prize pot, as do entries for any special side contest, such as for the largest carp. Companies donate bows, arrows and accessories that are often given away as door prizes or awarded for some category of the event. One way or another, most of the participants leave with something other than sore muscles and a cooler of fish.

Once on a spot the serious business of bowfishing begins. The airboat motor is turned off or the outboard’s prop is pulled clear of the water. From now until it is time to leave, the work of propelling the boat is done by the trolling or fan motor. Either is controlled from the front of the boat. The generator is started, and night is turned into day as the banks of 500 or 1000-watt lights penetrate the darkness and illuminate the water. Often the bottom is seen and a ghostly plume of mud marks a fish’s rapid departure.

“Fish coming. Your side,” your partner shouts.

“I’m not ready. Take him,” you reply as the fist gar passes in and out of range without an arrow being shot. Not to worry. He and considerably more will be back. Indeed here comes another, your partner misses; but you nail the first fish of the night and put it in the fish barrel. More fish, more shooting and more hits. When no more fish are seen during a ten-minute wait, it is time to pull out and move to the next spot.

A carp or gar may be found laying along the bank when the boat pokes along the edges propelled by the fan or trolling motor. When shooting in brackish waters additional targets may be a sheepshead or drum. These may not count in the tournament, but provide good table fair. As the night progresses, one barrel is filled up, poured into a tote, and work started on the second. The boat gets stuck and has to be pushed off and the arms get tired, but it is hours until daylight and there are still fish to be shot. By the time 5:00 A.M. arrives, this is more like work than fun, but there is still an hour of fishing time remaining before starting back to the marina.

You shot fairly well and feel proud of your efforts. You are hungry, but can’t eat now what the big airboat engine is running. There is too much danger of getting a can or something through the prop. Other than two cans of soda and a fried gar sandwich you haven’t had anything to eat all night. There will be some donuts and coffee at the dock to look forward to.

Once at the dock the boat must be pulled out of the water and put in line for the fish count. This is done at last, and you can kick back, see how the other folks did, grab a bite to eat and relax a bit for the first time in more than 12 hours. Most of the fish are small spotted gar with a few alligator gar. The small gar are counted and thrown into the dumpster, while the alligator gar are put to one side. They are too tasty to throw away.

“One hundred and eighty-six fish,” the counter says. Not enough to win, but enough to count as a respectable bag. Begrimed, slimy and smelling like a wet gar, it is time to sluice down the boat, go back to the motel, grab a quick shower, a much-needed nap and come back for the drawings and awards after lunch. In the end, you didn’t win much, but you learned more about the area than you knew before, shot at a lot of fish, met some of your buddies, made some new friends and had a good time.

– Day Fishing –

Some folks are night people and others are day people, and I will freely admit to being among the latter. Not only does day-time fishing work better with the body’s internal clock, but there is the significant advantage that no artificial lighting system is needed, which eliminates one source of considerable bother and expense. The downside is that many fewer fish will be seen. On daytime trips to the Savannah River between Georgia and South Carolina, I may see perhaps 20 fish during an afternoon. Working the same stretch of river at night, I will see more than 200 fish.

This considerable disparity in fish sightings gives some the opinion that daytime fishing is not worth doing, but it depends on a person’s priorities. If after some exercise, fun and the chance to take a really good carp or gar, day fishing has a lot of appeal. This is also an ideal time to introduce youngsters, women and newcomers to the sport and perhaps capture some of their successes on film. They will look better and their fish will look better after a daytime excursion rather than being photographed after being drug through a Louisiana swamp all night.

Being able to see the fish clearly adds considerably to the sport. As I write this passage, the usually muddy Georgia rivers are running clear due to a prolonged drought. Not only can I see the gar, carp and suckers that are my primary targets, but I can also spot bass and other game fish as well as numerous turtles and other wildlife. Seeing the alligators, deer, hogs, bird life and even wild horses on the riverbanks also contributes to a daytime fishing experience.

Depending on the fish species, the best results may occur at different times of the day. Carp still browsing on the tops of weed beds at daylight can offer early-morning shooting, but it is generally best to wait until midday if gar are the principal targets. The higher sun angles will provide better visibility on the deeper fish, and allow catfish, flounder and rays to be seen working the bottom sediment.

Because fish can also see the shooter better under clear-water conditions, camouflage clothing is an asset under some conditions. If shooting from shore to water, hunting patterns by Realtree, Mossy Oak and others are effective. When up on a boat with the sky as the only background, broken blue camo patterns may hide the bowfisherman long enough to allow for a closer shot.

A high efficiency sun block lotion, polarizing sunglasses, a hat and neck cover help the face and neck from being baked during daytime fishing excursions. It may look like something from the French Foreign Legion, but a white, reflective neck shade hanging from under the cap will go far towards preventing an uncomfortably roasted neck.

There is no need to be apologetic about preferring to bowfish during the day. True, fewer fish will be seen and taken, but if after a few good fish, rather than numbers, daytime bowfishing provides an interesting, and more relaxed alternative to nighttime excursions.

– Night Fishing –

Nightcrawler, Nightstalker and Midnight Sun are appropriate names for bowfishing boats set up with banks of light for night fishing. When suddenly coming upon one of these craft on a lake at night they look like a miniature aircraft carrier lit for a night exercise. However, lighting systems don’t have to be this elaborate to be of some benefit, although it is true that the more light and the greater the cast of the lights the better.

An interesting evening’s fishing can be done with a hand held or bracket-mounted light powdered by a marine battery or a Coleman lantern. A fully-charged battery will allow for between two and four-hours use depending on the size and condition of the battery. Hooking up two batteries in-parallel will extend shooting time. The sooner the fish can be seen, the greater the chance of making a successful shot, and this is the primary reason for using pole-mounted lights on bowfishing boats.

Some fish, particularly salt-water species like flounder, most commonly feed in the shallows after dark while other’s like carp are more active after sunset. Although I have shot gar every hour of the day and night, there is no question that more gar will be seen after dark.

There is more of a chance that something vital will be left in the truck or on the dock during night-fishing trips – particularly in the excitement of hurrying to get launched in time for a tournament. Check lists help insure that everything needed for this particular trip is actually on the boat.

When shooting carp during a tournament at night, the problem may arise that there are too many fish for the boat, and a fish deposit may have to be made before continuing. This is one reason that some tournaments award prizes for the heaviest string of five or six fish. Carp can be so numerous that it is possible to shoot enough fish to overload a boat to the point of swamping it – a complaint not often voiced by hook-and-line fishermen.

The best mix of all, and an aspect of the sport that is not sufficiently explored by many bowfishermen, is to enjoy bowfishing’s diversity. Plan some trips to try for different fish under different conditions. Don’t just specialize in one type of shooting, but fully enjoy it all – alone, with your best buddy, at tournaments, during the day, at night and in fresh and salt water. All of this is bowfishing, and all of it is fun.

PREVIOUS: Practical Bowfishing: Bowfishing Techniques – Part 1

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