Geysers erupted around me like small depth charges as I rowed, probed and maneuvered around Lake Poygan’s patchwork of cane beds in the shallows near Boom Bay in central Wisconsin. All these watery explosions triggered by spawning carp could mean only one thing: My nephew must be near.
If it’s dawn in early to mid-June and carp are wallowing in Poygan’s shallows, that’s where you find Beau Christensen. We failed long ago to interest him in walleye fishing or deer hunting, but carp? He’s been hounding those big uglies ever since his grandfather got him a used bowfishing rig about 12 years ago.Still, looking for Beau in Poygan’s maze of tall cane is one thing; finding him, another. He didn’t answer his cell-phone, and my yells only irritated the Forster’s terns and yellow-headed blackbirds flying and squawking overhead.As I listened for an answering holler, a pack of carp whacked my rowboat’s keel and exploded to the surface beneath my starboard oar. Half the geyser splashed onto the seat beside me, dousing my iPhone and camera.
After drying the prized possessions with my shirttails and sleeves, I rowed to a bare spot in the long breakwater separating Boom Bay from shallows to the west. I pulled alongside a log and stepped onto the piled rocks. Looking northeast, I spotted Beau about 300 yards away, stalking carp as if they were trophy elk.As far as people like Beau are concerned, carp are more fun to hunt than any ol’ land mammal. When pursuing deer, bears or other big game, bowhunters might get one shot all season. When carp are active, bowfishermen draw, hold and shoot so often their arms and shoulders ache.
That might explain why interest in bowfishing is increasing in Wisconsin and nationally. At least biologists and conservation wardens with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources believe it’s growing. All that’s required to bowfish is a general fishing license, so the DNR can’t document its numbers. However, most of Wisconsin’s rough-fish records have fallen since 2006, which suggests a surge.What’s more important to the DNR is that bowfishermen have every opportunity to shoot rough fish such as carp, buffalo and sheepshead. There’s no limit, and about the only requirement is that people keep what they shoot. They cannot release their catch or heave it onto the shoreline.Kendall Kamke, a DNR fisheries biologist in Oshkosh, Wis., encourages archers to shoot all the carp their boat can safely carry ashore. “Realistically, when you consider how many carp are in a big lake, it’s almost like scooping a teaspoon of sand off the beach,” he said. “But it removes some destructive fish, it provides people endless recreation, and in some situations it probably improves water quality. When four or five bowfishing boats move into a small bay, those guys pretty much clean it out before carp can root everything up.”
Carp were transplanted into U.S. lakes and rivers about 150 years ago after being brought here from Germany. Though revered in Europe, carp are considered destructive pests in North America because they root up aquatic plants while feeding. This activity releases nutrients from bottom sediments, making life difficult for sight-feeding native fish like bass, bluegills and crappies.Kamke also encourages bowfishermen to learn all they can about each lake, and target only destructive rough fish. On the Winnebago System, he asks archers to leave gar and bowfins (dogfish) alone. “We want to reduce carp numbers as much as possible, and dogfish and gar prey on small carp,” Kamke said. “Why shoot something that’s eating baby carp?”Speaking of eating, although most carp shot by bowfishermen end up as farm or garden fertilizer, some people enjoy eating them. In his classic DNR cookbook, “A Fine Kettle of Fish,” the late Vern Hacker printed at least a dozen recipes for carp chowder, baked carp, pickled carp, canned carp and smoked carp.
Kamke also urges bowfishermen to be respectful of shoreline property owners when hunting at night. Along with the Wisconsin Bowfishing Association (www.wibfa.com), he suggests archers contact local conservation wardens when they’ll be bowfishing at night with generator-powered lights atop their boats.“One of the few complaints we get on bowfishing is when they go into a bay ringed with shoreline homes, and fire up their klieg lights,” Kamke said. “The lights reflect off the water and shine through people’s windows. That hurts the sport’s image.”As bowfishing grows in popularity, expect to see more and larger tournaments throughout summer. In fact, some diehards stalk carp in open rivers during winter.This should surprise no one. True believers don’t abandon their recreation to a little cold discomfort.