Fishing

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 beginner tools: a bow and arrow with a fishing point. Of course, you’re not just shooting arrows all willy-nilly into the water. Although fun, it’s not productive. 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 seasoned archer, it probably shouldn’t be fancy at all. Get comfortable with an entry-level product, then upgrade later once you’ve mastered a few of the basics. 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 when using a traditional 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… or a lot of 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 often have a glare. To get the best shot, and the best catch, you’ll want polarized shades.

Waders– Especially in shallow water, it’s nice to get as deep and as close as possible 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 but I’m working on it – never give up), then a kayak or paddleboard can help you get much closer to fish in deeper water. Plus, it makes hauling your catch back to land easier.

Lights – Fishing mid-day in the heat of the summer 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. Don’t let them deter you though! Bug spray will keep them at bay.

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 just any old fish with an arrow. Sorry. 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 bowfishing anglers.

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

This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means, and each state has its own rules (for example, some states require taking catfish with a hook and line). Check regulations before you start shooting fish to be on the safe side.

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. Both buffalo and gar are quite appetizing (but beware of gar roe—it’s extremely toxic). Otherwise, bon appétit!

The Fishing

bow fishing in Missouri
Three men fishing with bow and arrow in Missouri. Image: Shutterstock.

When should you fish? The easy answer… morning, day, or night. You can fish at any time of the day. It tends to be fruitful when fishing in the heat of June and July since monster carp are typically spawning in the shallows during that time.

For the best shots, the fish really 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 possible 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 an engaging 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 and can make your aim less than accurate. The refraction of the water makes the fish look as though it’s in a different location than it actually is. As a result, 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, you can do some quick calculations in your head to account for distance, depth, and angle.

Bow fishing in rapids
Bow Fishing in Rapids may prove challenging. You’ll need to be quick. Image: Shutterstock

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. Then it’s game on!

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    My uncle, in the ’50s, made his drum reel but placed it so that the arrow would release through the center of the reel. Don’t forget to compensate of water distortion of depth. Have fun!

    1. Wade Thiel

      That sounds like a cool setup, Peggy.

  2. Avatar

    Great introduction article. Bow fishing is a lot of fun and I have a lot of stories. But it’s been a few years, Glad to see something like this getting the information out. Bow fishing is a great way to “clean up the waters” for game fish. Great job! Alex Ragulsky

    1. Wade Thiel

      Hey Alex, I completely agree. It’s an underutilized and fun way to clean up the waters and have a great time doing it.

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