Let’s Talk Bowfishing—A Beginners Guide

Bow hunting in the middle of the amazon rain forest in Brazil.

In my experience, there are two types of people who bowfish. First, the archers. The types who bow hunt, generally enjoy archery and even target practice. They just feel right with a bow in their hands.

Second, the types who are terrible at setting hooks and are looking for a more efficient way of skewering a fish.

I’m kidding a little bit about that second one. But only a little.

The fact of the matter is that bowhunting is fun and provides anglers a chance to catch fish they may not otherwise—and to take a different approach. Want to get started? Here are a few things to know.

The Gear

bowfishing setup
Image from Gander Outdoors

To start bowfishing, you’ll need the most obvious of tools: a bow and arrow with a fishing point. Of course, you’re not just shooting arrows all willy-nilly into the water. You’ll also need a drum reel to pull your arrow (and ideally your catch) back to you.

Your bow doesn’t need to be fancy. In fact, unless you’re a pretty seasoned archer, it probably shouldn’t be fancy. Get comfortable with an entry-level product, then upgrade later. You want a draw weight from 25-50 lbs. to really whip the arrow.

The line in the drum reel (or plastic bottle in some cases) is heavier than you would fish with a rod and reel. We’re talking braided line, between 80- and 400-lbs. test. You’re bringing in big fish here, and with an arrow through them, they’re going to be doing some flopping.

Finally, there’s the arrow and tip. Solid fiberglass is the way to go for arrows (you’ll only need a couple to start with). Don’t skimp on a tip, either. A good tip is key to landing your fish. A grapple tip (think grappling hook) is designed to go through the fish, then flare out and “grab” it, making it more difficult for the fish to wriggle off the arrow on the way in.

That’s the core, but there are a few other things that are nice-to-haves.

  • Polarized sunglasses – you’ll be fishing in water that will have a glare. To get the best shot, you’ll want polarized shades.
  • Waders – Especially in shallow water, it’s nice to get into the shallows for a closer shot.
  • Paddleboard or kayak – If you’ve got enough balance to stand and fire an arrow, then haul a large fish back to you (I don’t and can’t), then a kayak or paddleboard can help you get much closer to fish in deeper water.
  • Lights – Fishing in the heat of the summer days is great, but night fishing with a bow can be rewarding as well. You’ll want a series of lights to help you see the fish, including a headlamp and a spotlight (for your spotter friend).
  • Bug spray – Because turns out, mosquitoes and a million other bugs are attracted to lights.

The Fish

photography showing a grass carp. The photography was taken from the town of Romanèche-thorins.
Image from Getty

Bad news, bass fishermen: you can’t shoot any old fish with an arrow. Many game fish (those highly fished for both trophies and eating) aren’t legal. Instead, bowfishing targets are often rough fish. These guys tend to be invasive species and grow to be big—which makes for a nicer target anyway.

So what can you shoot? Here’s a quick list of freshwater varieties that are popular among anglers.

  • Carp – Common, Bighead, Silver, Grass
  • Gar – Longnose, Shortnose, Spotted, Alligator
  • Buffalo – Bigmouth, Smallmouth
  • Freshwater Drum
  • Catfish
  • Tilapia

This list isn’t exhaustive, and each state also has its own rules (for example, some states require taking catfish with a hook and line). Check regulations before you start shooting fish.

One quick note—if you’re like me, you sometimes like to eat the fish you catch. Carp aren’t known for being particularly appetizing, especially in North America, but they’re quite the delicacy in Asian and some European countries. Otherwise, buffalo and gar are both quite good (but beware of gar roe—it’s extremely toxic).

The Fishing

Morning, day, or night. You can fish at any time of the day. It’s particularly good fishing in the heat of June and July when those monsters carp are spawning in the shallows.

For the best shots, the fish need to be near the surface. That makes shallow creeks particularly nice for bowfishing. You can wade, or if you have a boat, kayak, or paddleboard, you can float as close to the fish as you can without spooking them. Of course, shooting from the bank or a dock can also yield great results.

On moving water, especially larger rivers, aluminum boats are common. These may be equipped with special decks to give a bowfisher a better angle and view into the water.

Good bowfishing can be a serious social experience. You don’t have to worry about being quiet. If you’re new to it, you can ask questions and not be concerned about spooking the fish.

Now, aiming. Water creates an optical allusion. The refraction of the water makes the fish look as though it’s in a different location than it actually is. So if you’re aiming right at the fish, you’re probably going to miss. The rule of thumb is to aim low. If you’re good at math (I’m not) you can do some quick calculations in your head to account for distance, depth, and angle.

The best advice is to simply take a few practice shots. Find a leaf or something beneath the water and try to hit it. Adjust your shot until you do.


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