The Complete Guide to Bow Fishing

Bow fishing is exactly what it says – catching fish using a bow. It is an extremely popular sport in North America, with many men and women enjoying spending their time in the great outdoors. This hybrid sport allows you to practice your hunting skills in a different way and is certainly nothing new. Indeed, Indians have used bowfishing to hunt for food in the Amazon River basin for hundreds of years.

You probably have a picture in your head of a guy stood on a rock, surrounded by swirling water, shooting a fish with a bow and arrow. But what happens next? You don’t want to have to jump into the water and retrieve your trophy. You also don’t want to lose a load of arrows from inaccurate shots either.

There is more to this wonderful sport than meets the eye and it is essential you know the basics, before heading out to start discharging arrows here there and everywhere. So before you go out, start by reading this complete guide on how to bow fish.


What is Bow Fishing?

Instead of using a standard bow and arrows set up, hunters can use specialized archery equipment to hunt fish. Arrows are barbed (have nasty looking spikes on) and are attached to a reel, which is mounted on the bow, with a special line.

You can actually use any type of bow – longbow, compound or recurved. A recurved or compound bow is best, as they are smaller than a longbow and take up less space on your boat. They also offer sufficient force to shoot at a fish, so there is no need for a heavier bow.

You can fish using a bow by both standing in shallow waters or from a small boat in slightly deeper waters. You can choose to hunt both during the day and the night, making this a very flexible activity to fit into your busy life schedule.

Bow fishing is also a very good way of keeping your eye in between hunting seasons. If you prefer to shoot at a live target to keep it authentic, why not practice and hone your skills by heading to the water? This will help to keep your skills sharp and extends your hunting season considerably. In fact, you need never stop.


What Equipment Do I Need?

You can use a traditional bow if you like and it need not be expensive. However, if you want to fully submerge yourself into the bowfishing experience, specialized bows are recommended. They are very lightweight and designed for the best shot possible in bowfishing, so are ideal for beginners. A reel is already attached, so you won’t need to do this yourself; another reason this is a good choice for beginners.

Whatever bow you choose, you must be able to shoot quickly and repetitively. Most of your shots will be within 10 feet from your target fish, so a higher draw weight is wasted and will only tire you quicker. Fish move quickly, so you won’t have a lot of time to lose.

You will not require the use of a sight on your bow and the fish wouldn’t give you time to adjust it anyway. You will rely on instinct instead and although this may feel slightly alien at first, you will soon get accustomed to it and it will help you in other forms of hunting also.

Bowfishing arrows are designed to travel through dense water and trap the fish, ensuring it cannot get away. This is to allow you to easily retrieve the fish, instead of having to dive into the water and either chase it or look for it on the river bed. Not the most practical of solutions!

Arrows are made from a heavier weight fibreglass than the usual hunting arrows and do not have fletching. This is because the fletching would divert the arrow as it travels through the water. The barbed arrowheads keep the target trapped on the arrow and they are designed to keep the fish as whole as possible, rather than using a broadhead type arrowhead which would completely decimate the fish!

You will also need a reel, which is clamped onto the bow. There is a choice of 3 types of reel:

  1. Spin cast – The line is placed on a fixed spool and is designed for lighter bait. They are ideal for beginners, due to the setup of the reel and the cost. They are designed to prevent backlash and lessen line snares, making them very popular.
  2. Retriever – The line is placed inside a bottle, instead of wrapped around a spool, as it needs to be able to reel out much quicker than a conventional line. These are typically used for larger fish, such as those found in saltwater, eg. Sharks and alligators.
  3. Hand-wrap – The line is manually wound around a circular spool, before being put into a line holding slot. As you shoot the arrow, the line unravels from the spool and you then retrieve the fish by pulling in the line with your hands, in the traditional way.

It is a good idea to attach a float to your reel, to enable you to see where the fish is once barbed. The brighter the float the better, for there is no point in using a float for visibility if it blends in with its surroundings.

The arrows also have to be tied to the reel using a line, so they usually feature a slide mechanism. This also prevents snap back. The lines are usually made from braided nylon and come in bright colours for better visibility.

You should wear gloves to protect your hands during the reeling in process and if you are bowfishing in shallow waters, hip waders are a good idea. These are typically made from rubber to keep you dry. If you are out during the day, you may get quite a glare from the water. In this instance, it is a good idea to wear some sunglasses with polarized lenses to help reduce it. Don’t forget to take suntan lotion with you!

If you choose to fish at night, be sure to take a decent light with you. This may even attract the fish to you, result! Mounted Halogen lights are the best choice, being the brightest.

If you decide to bowfish from the comfort of a boat, you will require a flat-bottomed boat which allows you to steer it into shallow water. Rails are essential, to allow you to hang over and get a more accurate shot. Remember to find one with a quiet motor, for you don’t want to frighten those skittish fish away!


What Are The Costs Of Bowfishing?

The start-up costs are not too high, when compared to some sports, but you will probably need to buy a fishing licence. Individual states regulate bowfishing, so be sure to check you are licenced in the right area before you begin.
The boat is the most expensive piece of equipment, so be sure to budget for this if you do choose to use one.


Where Can I Go Bowfishing?

This really depends on where you are and what you prefer. You can go bowfishing in freshwater lakes, ponds or rivers and you can also go in saltwater bays, estuaries and beaches. The water will typically be 3 or 4 feet deep and should be clear, aiding you in being able to see the fish and shoot at them accurately.

It is no good hunting in deeper waters, for the more dense the water, the more it will slow down your arrow and therefore reduce the chance of penetration. The basic principles of hunting still apply and so the arrow needs to have enough force to penetrate the target.

If you hunt in the day, spring is the best time to do it. This is because the amount of fish in the water multiplies, due to spawning. If you fancy trying your hand at bowfishing at night, you can do this at any time of the year but you may find you have better luck during spring also. Big fish are better hunted in spring and summer, as this is when they are most active (day and night).


How To Bow Fish

As with all hunting, good preparation and staying concealed is essential. Make sure you stand approximately 10 or 15 feet away from your target, to ensure you can see the fish but they do not notice you. This should also prevent your shadow from being cast over the fish, for that may spook them into swimming away. Disaster!

If you stand downwind, this may also startle them. So be sure to approach them from upwind and go slow, you don’t want to cause huge ripples in the water. Be sure to be still for quite some time before shooting at the fish and let them come to you, don’t go chasing after them.

An important note to remember, is that the fish you see will be the refracted image due to the light travelling into the water. This means that the fish will be deeper under water than the image, so you will need to aim in a certain way.
Be sure to aim low, for this should ensure you hit the fish rather than the refracted image. If you aim high (or even straight at the image) you are much more likely to miss. Follow this rule of thumb for more accuracy:
10-4 rule: If the fish is 10 feet away and 1 foot below the water’s surface, you should aim 4 inches low. Aim approximately 6 inches low for every 1 foot of depth.

As with all prey, a fish contains vital organs and therefore has a kill zone. Be sure to aim for the front half of the fish, to hit the brain or vital organs. Accuracy is vital, for fish can swim very fast and change direction quickly. Don’t forget, this is their natural domain, not yours.

Once you have hit the fish and ensnared it, reel in the line and there you have it: your prize. You can’t release a live fish back into the water with bowfishing, for the arrow is designed to kill it.


What Fish Can I Catch?

That all depends on where you are hunting. Different states will have different legislations, so be sure to check these out before going hunting.

The type of fish hunted with a bow are usually what is known as ‘rough’ fish. Rod fishermen would normally ignore them but for bowfishing they are perfect. These fish are normally bottom-feeders and don’t raise much in the sense of monetary value, so wouldn’t attract many rod and reel fishermen. They are very low down on the food chain but don’t let this put you off, as you can still eat them.

If you decide to hunt for fish in freshwater areas, you will probably go for eels, carp, gars and catfish. If you would prefer the saltwater environment, you can hunt for the slightly more exhilarating fish such as sharks and sting rays. If you really fancy some excitement, you can hunt for alligators in some states. Not for the faint-hearted.

You must check the local state regulations before bowfishing, for some areas have different rules for day and night and others have complete bans on hunting certain types of fish. For example, you mustn’t go bowfishing in salmon spawning locations and to hunt an alligator gar you will need an official scientific collector’s permit.

If you don’t want to kill the fish, then bowfishing isn’t the sport for you. Some fishermen call this unsporting and as many of the rough fish go uneaten, this can be viewed as wasteful too. However, some rough fish are seen as harmful to the ecosystem when left unchecked, so bowfishing can actually be a good way to control numbers.

Don’t forget that some fish are entering the endangered zone, such as some sting rays, so think carefully before you choose which fish to go after. Hunting, when done sensibly, need not affect whole species.

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