Indeed, no matter where you look?his vehicle, his boat, his clothing?you?re going to be confronted with The Motto. ?Bowfish Or Die? reflects the lifeblood and lifestyle of Wisconsin bow fanatic Ron Skirvin.
Ron Skirvin Shark Tales
?That?s been my motto for many years,? says the mild-mannered power dispatcher with a major Midwest paper company. It reveals the seriousness we take bowfishing, but it?s really all in good fun. Of course, my job of regulating seven Wisconsin River dams certainly makes things convenient. I know the temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, flowage rates and everything else that affects fish movement and location. After work I pretty much know where to go to make things happen.?
Skirvin with a 47-pound Buffalo fish. I know what some of you are probably thinking. Bowfishing? Aren?t there enough things to do, come summer? Besides, don?t bowhunters need an off-season? The answers are simply, ?yes!? ?so what,? and ?absolutely not.? Let the Skirvin File show you why.
The Skirvin File: Biobolic Reflector Something mystical happened years ago when a peach-fuzzed eight-year-old noticed fish splashing in the shallows of a flooded Midwest river bottom. The more the kid looked, the more he noticed fish rolling everywhere. Only one problem: There was too much brush in the way to fish with conventional hook and bait. So the young Skirvin improvised.
First he fashioned a bow from green saplings. Then he carved arrows from split wooden staves and pounded nails into them to prevent the fish from getting away. It worked like a charm, even in dense willows! It was a downhill trip from there; that biobolic reflector thing kicked in big time. Every spare moment of young Skirvin?s life was spent sneaking and stalking and scouting and scoping the shallows for fish. Carp, buffalofish and gar were suddenly in a heap of trouble.
And they still are today. It?s difficult imagining anyone logging more hours on the water with a bow than Skirvin, who often travels hundreds of miles by car and hundreds more by boat while ?prefishing? and competing in bowfishing tournaments.
?Whenever we weren?t working, we?d be on some lake or river from March to September,? Skirvin recalls. ?It was a grueling schedule, but we learned early on that you get out of a tournament what you put into it. That?s why it takes a lot of preparation to perform at your highest possible level.?
Records, Records & More Records When Skirvin says ?we? he?s referring to his late cousin, Jim Skirvin, who was killed in a tragic automobile accident last year. Cousin Jim was Ron?s trusty boat partner for more than two decades, a period when the duo competed in 103 tournaments. They finished first a whopping 79 times, an unmatched record.
And speaking of records, Ron Skirvin very well could be the most decorated bowfisherman of all time. Consider these regional accomplishments: Wisconsin Bowhunters Association Largest Fish Award (1981, ?82, ?88, ?89, and 1994); Wisconsin State Bowfishing Champion (1981, ?82, ?86, ?89, ?92 and 1995); Central Wisconsin Bowfishing Champion (1988, ?89, ?90, ?91, ?92, ?93, ?94 and 1995).
In addition, Skirvin is the only multiple Bowfishing Association State Champion (Minnesota and Wisconsin Pro Division). And he?s the Yamaha Region II Elite Angler Bowfishing Champion (1993) which comprises 16 Midwestern and southern states. Add a pair of second-place finishes in prestigious national events (Great Lakes Bowfishing Championship; Pro-Am Grand National Bowfishing Championship) and you get a good idea of Skirvin?s skill level.
But as impressive as these records may seem, they pale in comparison to the fistful of honors that were bestowed upon Skirvin by the National Field Archery Association. Six times he won the annual Bowfisherman Of The Year, an award the NFAA grants to the bowfisherman who arrows the largest fish in one of four categories (carp, alligator gar, shark and stingray).
?I was fortunate to arrow the largest alligator gar in 1983, and the largest carp in 1990 and 1992,? he said. ?Then in 1994 I took the largest stingray and in 1995 I took the largest carp again. That left only one species, the shark, to make it a clean sweep. I discovered that nobody had ever won the [Bowfisherman Of The Year] in all four categories, so my new goal was hunting down the biggest shark I could find.
?I quickly discovered that this would be no small challenge for a guy living in the Midwest. In fact, it took three years, five trips and about 12,000 miles. But I finally got it done?a 263-pounder in 1997. What a thrill!?
There?s more to this story. The following spring, the NFAA presented Skirvin with the first-ever Bowfishing Grand Slam award. All those years of persistence, dedication and patience paid off. To date, no one has equaled this incredible accomplishment.
Bowfishing?s Changing Image The steady rise in popularity of bowfishing is a tribute to the positive role models of bowfishermen like Ron Skirvin who, despite his menacing motto, is one of the nicest guys this side of the Mississippi.
?We?ve worked real hard with state conservation agencies,? Skirvin says. ?It hasn?t been easy, but many are slowly coming around. For example, we?re finally allowed to use electric trolling motors on Class A muskie waters in Wisconsin. I guess [state agencies] finally realize that recreational and competitive bowfishing are doing anglers and nature lovers a favor.?
Indeed, rough fish such as carp are notorious bottom feeders?they root up vegetation and often destroy valuable spawning habitat and even nesting grounds for waterfowl. Furthermore, carp are a hearty, prolific species that?s difficult to keep in check. Since the carrying capacity of each lake, river and impoundment is finite?it can only support so many fish?bowfishing can play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
A case in point is the 1996 Great Lakes Bowfishing Championship headquartered out of Beadle Bay Marina near Caseville, Michigan. During the two?day event, 250 two?man teams combined for 278,871 pounds (that?s 190 tons!) of trash fish, mostly carp. The popular walleye fishery of Saginaw Bay is better off for it. What?s more, the event raised more than $10,000 for the Wildlife Education Foundation Youth Camp, where 4,000 kids each year can learn about wildlife conservation and shooting sports safety.
Wet ?N? Wild Ron Skirvin?s a bowfishing fanatic for a very simple reason: No other sport matches the unique combination of action and serenity. In addition, the sport imparts a special gift to all who dare to go the extra mile.
?If you want to learn how to be a better bowhunter, take up bowfishing,? advises Skirvin. ?Your observation skills will peak. So will your stealth. I mean, stalking a mature fish in the shallows takes as much patience and skill as stalking an elk or mule deer. Maybe more.?
You also get a healthy appreciation for nightlife. ?The only way you can bowfish effectively is when the fish are in the shallows because your arrow can?t penetrate very deep water. When fish aren?t spawning and it?s the dead of summer, this often necessitates night-fishing; the wrap of darkness seems to draw all fish into the shallows. It?s one of my favorite ways to bowfish.?
Nighttime can be eerie. And it can be discombobulating. But it allows Skirvin to experience a hidden face of many crowded recreational lakes. ?I usually have the whole place to myself,? he says. ?I feel like I own the lake. I can go anywhere and not worry about offending or competing with anyone else. It?s very soothing on the nerves.?
There are exceptions, of course. Like the time when Skirvin became preoccupied with drifting down a river to get within bow range of a huge buffalofish. Just as he was about to draw and release an arrow, he saw more stars than there were out that night?an overhanging branch cracked him in the head and sent him tumbling overboard. Fortunately the cool water brought him to his senses away and he managed to grab onto his boat before it drifted too far.
Another time Skirvin spent the better part of the night looking for familiar landmarks in a huge Southern reservoir while chasing elusive alligator gar. ?We were dead lost,? he recalls. ?I?m telling you we had no idea where we were. This was back in the days before GPS. We just sort of groped around in the dark for hours. If it weren?t for sunrise, we might still be lost in some desolate back bay.?
Then there was the time he was night-fishing alligator gar on Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the when he got into the battle of his life. He and cousin Jim managed to get two arrows in a huge fish that wasn?t fighting all that hard … then Hades erupted.
?First one of the arrows pulled free as the fish thrashed at boatside,? Skirvin recalled. ?Then the other arrow pulled free, forcing us to gaff the fish. That?s when the gar realized he was in trouble and really put up a scrap. We had no intention of bringing the fish onto the boat alive, but we had no choice. Man, what a mess. It was jacknifing and snapping and ended up knocking the generator over that powered our lights. One minute we had lights, the next minute we were in total darkness a few feet from a 6-foot-long thrashing fish with big, sharp teeth. During the fracas one of our bows tipped overboard … but it was a small price to pay, considering we escaped without a scratch.?
Strange things can happen on the water. One time Skirvin was bowfishing a tournament when a ominous clouds began building on the horizon. Thunder was rolling in the distance. Soon the hair on his forearms began sticking out like porcupine quills. He headed for shore, which turned out to be a questionable move.
?Out of nowhere a bolt of lightning struck a tree right next to us,? he recalled. ?It could have easily chosen us, because we were in an aluminum boat. That was close! ?And speaking of trees, one time we were weaving our way along a stretch of shoreline where there were a lot of blowdowns when out of the blue a big popple tree snapped.
It fell right across the middle of our boat smack between the two of us. Why that tree picked that time to break is beyond me. It creased the gunwale and could have killed one or both of us or possibly capsized the boat. We were fortunate.?
And yes, over the years Skirvin has dueled big seas threatening to capsize his boat: ?I?ll never forget this one tournament when we really loaded up the boat [with fish]. You have to realize that there?s no place to ?store? fish during an event, so when you have a good day, you could be toting hundreds of extra pounds of fish in your boat as you head back to the marina. Well, we were so heavy we couldn?t get the boat up on plane when a wind whipped up and a huge wave slapped over the bow. I thought we were sunk, literally. But we somehow managed to turn the boat around and work with the rollers and pull the drain plug. If we couldn?t have done that, I might not be talking to you right now.?
Equipment Helps Ron Skirvin?s extreme bowfishing skill has attracted the backing of several sponsors, including Honda Marine, Hydro Optics, Plowman Marine, Shure Shot Fish Points and Mathews Inc. Skirvin is especially excited about a new Mathews bow model, the Sportsman. ?It?s designed specifically for ?snap shooting? instinctively,?
Skirvin explained. ?When a dominating bow company such as Mathews takes the time to produce and perfect a low let-off bow for bowfishers, it?s a major victory for the sport. I hope the rest of the bowhunting industry sees the light.? The advantage is on the water. Because of the nearly imperceptible let-off, you can release an arrow just about anywhere along the draw cycle. There?s no wall and no sudden drop-off in poundage, so your arrow will fly true if you have to aim and shoot quickly at, say, a fish suddenly appearing in the shallows.
You?ll also need a bowfishing reel that mounts to the stabilizer receptacle via a reel seat; Zebco?s 808, 888 and 888 Great White are good starter reels. Line is typically comprised of Spectra (the same Fast Flight material modern bowstrings are made from).
Fiberglass arrows and strong fish points, such as the Shure Shot Penetrator or Muzzy Point, round out the system. All that remains is polarized sunglasses and a pair of leather gloves for hand-lining big fish to the boat. A final handy accessory might be a duck bill push pole if you bowfish by boat (wading can be relaxing in the summer heat).
Bowfishing accessories are widely available, but if you have a hard time finding a local source, consider these mail-order catalogs: AMS Bowfishing (888-541-7657; www.amsbowfishing.com and Sully?s Bowfishing Stuff (800-447-2759) www.sullysbowfishing.com.
The next time someone says something crazy like, ?Bowfishing?? look them square in the eye and ask, ?Why not?? If you find yourself feeling the least bit sheepish, remember Ron Skirvin?s motto. *
Gar Is Gah Sportsmen from states like Texas, Louisiana and Alabama call gar ?gah.? They also pronounce God ?Gah.? There may be a connection. ?Talk about table fare!? Skirvin exclaims. ?We always bring back as much gar meat [from tournaments] as we can. It?s one of the best-tasting fish there is. Doesn?t matter if you fry, broil or bake it. It?s even good cold.? The only problem is removing the long, narrow fillet. You?ll need tin snips and a machete for penetrating the thick scales.