How Bowfishing Works

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.
These two are about to start bowfishing for carp with their compound bows and arrows at the base of the Gavin Point Dam on the Missouri River.
Jose Azel/Aurora/Getty Images

How do archers or bow hunters extend the hunting season? How might they improve their archery skills? Take to the water! The technique of hunting fish with a bow and arrow is called bowfishing or archery fishing. Bowfishing combines the thrill of hunting with the skill of archery and the sport of fishing.

Although the term "bowfishing" may be new to you, the idea of hunting fish with bows and arrows probably isn't. Humans have hunted fish like this for centuries. For example, Indians in the Amazon River basin have used bowfishing as a means of gathering food for generations and still do today.


On the surface, bowfishing appears similar to spearfishing. Both techniques use pointed objects to catch fish rather than baiting them with a hook. In addition, you can practice both methods standing in shallow water or in a boat. Bowfishing, however, uses its namesake bow to propel the arrow. Spearfishing relies on nothing but your hand to propel the spear. Skilled spearfishermen can als­o hunt underwater, using a speargun for propulsion and some sort of diving gear, such as snorkels or scuba.

­The sport of bowfishing appears to be growing increasingly popular among both hunters and fishermen. More bowfishing tournaments are held annually in the United States and Canada, and the activity isn't limited to North America [source: AMS Bowfishing]. Bowfishing forums abound on the Internet, and outdoor guides offer bowfishing trips in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

How do you get started bowfishing? Will any old bow do? And what can you catch with an expertly aimed arrow? We'll tell you all that as we explore the sport of bowfishing.

Next up: Find out what gear will help catch your gar.


Bowfishing Equipment

You can use any type of bow for bowfishing, but that archery site won't do you a lot of good.
David Madison/Getty Images

Bowfishing is a flexible sport. You can bowfish in shallow waters or from a small boat. You can bowfish during the day or at night. To get started, you need a bow, arrows and a reel.

Any type of archery bow will do (longbow, recurved bow or compound bow). Recurved and compound bows are smaller, offer sufficient force (greater than 45 pounds or 200 Newtons) to propel an arrow and take up less space in your boat. An archery site on your bow is useless because it can't account for depth or refraction.


Bowfishing does require different arrows than archery or hunting. Typical archery arrows are made of lightweight fiberglass or wood, have fletching (feathers) to propel them through the air and end in points. But bowfishing arrows must travel through denser water and trap the target, so these arrows differ in the following ways:

  • They don't travel as far, so they're made of a heavier weight fiberglass.
  • They don't have fletching because it diverts the arrow as it moves through the water.
  • The arrowheads are barbed, so that they ensnare the target and keep it on the arrow.
  • They have a means of tying the line from the reel to them, usually a slide mechanism of some type. This slide mechanism prevents snap back (see sidebar).

Your last piece of bowfishing equipment is the reel, which usually clamps to the bow itself. The fishing line is usually piled within a bottle, rather than wound around a spool, as it is in conventional reels. Because a bowfishing line travels with the arrow, it reels out much faster than a conventional line that's cast from a rod. Also, a spooled reel would slow the arrow and tangle when shot. Some reels also have a float attached to the line so that you can track the fish.

­Optional bowfishing gear might include rubber hip waders to keep you dry if you'll be fishing from shore or wading into shallow water. Gloves are a good idea to protect your hands when you handle the fishing line and "reel" in your fish. Sunglasses with polarized lenses will reduce the water's glare if you're fishing during the day. If you're fishing at night when they're more active, you'll need a good light to see. Bonus benefit: The light may attract the fish.

If you bowfish from a boat, you'll need a flat-bottom vessel that can take you into shallow water. Make sure it has rails that you can hang over to get a clearer shot and a quiet motor to keep from scaring the fish away.

Compared to some sports, like golf, bowfishing is practically a bargain. The basic equipment (bow, reel, arrows and sunglasses) can cost about $300. Like sport fishing and hunting, individual states regulate bowfishing, so you probably will have to purchase a fishing license. If you decide to use a boat, then your costs increase substantially. Many guided bowfishing trips will include the use of bowfishing equipment, license fees and the boat in the price.

Now that you're equipped, let's go bowfishing.


Bowfishing Logistics: Where, When and How

You can bowfish sitting in the boat or standing on the dock or in the water. It's a flexible sport.

Before we talk abo­ut how to bowfish, let's look at where you can bowfish. You can bowfish in freshwater (lakes, rivers or ponds) and saltwater (bays, beaches or estuaries). But whatever body of water you choose, you'll typically fish in clear, shallow areas 3 to 4 feet deep (0.9 to 1.2 meters) for a few reasons. First, the fish that you can hunt by bowfishing tend to hang out in shallow waters. Second, water is dense and slows arrows down; the less water that your arrow has to traverse, the more force it will have when it strikes the target.

Remember we mentioned that bowfishing was a flexible sport? It is. If you prefer daylight during your bowfishing trips, you'll want to head out in the spring around spawning time. Nighttime bowfishing, however, can be done at any time, although again you'll probably have the best luck in spring around spawning time and in fall when water is clear. If you're bent on big fish, plan to bowfish during the spring and summer when they're most active (day or evening).


So how do you bowfish? You have to hunt around the shallow water for your target fish, especially near grasses and weeds that provide cover. Ideally, you want to be about 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 meters) from your target. Try to avoid casting a shadow over the fish because that will spook it. You also may want to approach it from upwind.

When you choose your target fish, aim your bow and shoot. However, there is a trick to aiming the bow. As light travels from one medium into another, it bends or refracts, so the fish that you see from the surface is actually the refracted image of the fish in the water (apparent fish). The actual fish is deeper in the water than the apparent fish. If you aim straight at the apparent image you'll miss (or go high). That's why bowfishermen always say to aim low. Exactly how low you aim is part of your hunting skills. Here are a few rules bowfishermen may use to help them compensate for refraction:

  • The 10-4 rule: If the fish is 10 feet (3 meters) away and 1 foot (30 centimeters) below the surface, then aim 4 inches (10 centimeters) low. If you double either the 10 or the one, then double the four. For example, you would aim 8 inches (20 centimeters) low for a fish that's either 20 feet (6 meters) away and 1 foot deep or 10 feet away and 2 feet (60 centimeters) deep.
  • Aim about 6 inches (15 centimeters) low for every 1 foot of depth.
  • Look at the fish and aim 10 inches (25 centimeters) low.

When you shoot at a fish, aim for the front half. This portion contains the brain and vital organs, so you will most likely kill the fish. In addition, remember that fish can swim fast in the water, so you don't have much time to aim and shoot. Also, some large fish, like alligator gars, may take more than one arrow to kill them. Once you've struck the fish, haul in the line. Unlike rod and reel fishing, bowfishing kills the target fish and doesn't allow catch and release.

Now that we have covered the basics of bowfishing, what can you hunt?


What Can You Catch Fishing with a Bow?

Carp is one of the quintessential fish to catch when bowfishing.
Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty Images

Bowfishing usually takes what a­re called "rough" fish. These fish aren't the heavy fighting fish that rod and reel fishermen prize, but instead are usually bottom-feeders, fish that are low on the food chain or fish that people rarely pay a big price to eat, but that doesn't mean that you can't eat them. Rough freshwater fish include carp, eels, suckers, perch, catfish and gars. Saltwater fish can include dogfish, sharks and stingrays. In some states, you can even hunt alligators by bowfishing. The type of fish that you can hunt legally is regulated by individual states, so check local regulations with the department of natural resources or fish and wildlife where you'll be bowfishing.

For example, Florida allows bowfishing for nongame fish such as carp, eels and suckers during the day and night; however, alligator gars require a scientific collector's permit [source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]. Wisconsin allows bowfishing for what it categorizes as rough fish -- suckers, common carp, gars, sea lampreys, bowfin, shad and smelt -- during its open seasons [source: Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources]. California permits bowfishing for carp, sucker, blackfish, hardhead, pikeminnow and blackhead. Restrictions apply to certain areas. For example, in the Colorado River District, only carp, tilapia, goldfish and mullet may be taken. Bowfishing isn't permitted in salmon spawning areas [source: California Fish and Game Commission].


­Bowfishing isn't free of controversy. Purists maintain that bowfishing isn't sporting compared to traditional angling with rod and reel. For example, bowfishing kills the fish, while traditional rod and reel fishermen often release their catch unharmed. In addition, traditional rod and reel fishermen are typically limited to the number of game fish that they can take, while bowfishermen often can take an unlimited number of rough fish. Rough fish aren't necessarily prized to eat in the United States, so many go uneaten, and some people consider this practice to be wasteful.

Bowfishermen, however, maintain that their sport can benefit the ecology of a given area. They're only allowed to take rough fish, some species of which are invasive or alien species and are unchecked in many ecosystems. That means that bowfishing can control the populations of these species.

Despite some of these controversies, bowfishing is becoming increasingly popular. Keep reading for more fishing links that you might want to catch.


Lots More Information

­Related Articles

More Great Links

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