by Deneshia Larson
As someone who is relatively new to bowfishing, I am constantly learning new techniques, terms, timing and tricks. For example, did you know that you don’t need to use sights to bowfish? It is preferable to line up quickly and take an instinctive shot. Otherwise, the fish is likely to take off and leave you standing there with a dry arrow and an empty fish tub. But that is not what we are going to be discussing today, maybe we will cover that topic later. Today’s focus is going to be on the most pressing thing a newbie needs to know – what am I allowed to shoot?
Bowfishers are often viewed as the “outlaws” of the fishing world…out on the water, flying around on airboats that are covered in neon lights at all hours of the night, shooting anything that moves with an arrow. Most of that is completely untrue. Okay, some of that is completely untrue. The reality is that bowfishers come in all shapes, sizes, bank or boat preferences, bow setups and skill levels. Probably the only thing we can all agree on is that we really, REALLY like to arrow fish.
Hunting with a bow requires a special skill set. You have to be able to get extremely close to your prey, unless you are an expert distance shooter. With bowfishing, you add the extra challenge of calculating for refraction of the water. In very clear water, a fish can appear to be only two feet deep when it is actually closer to five or six feet, maybe more. Not only are you basically doing trigonometry to plan your shot, you are doing it as you rapidly approach your target which means you have to constantly reevaluate the trajectory of your arrow. Most importantly, you are doing all of this while looking at what is hopefully an area covered up in fish and attempting to identify the fish before releasing your arrow. Why? Because you are absolutely not allowed to shoot just any fish that you see in the water!
Are you newbies surprised? I was too. Growing up fishing and hunting, I knew what I was allowed to catch or shoot and when I was allowed to do it. Bowfishing was an entirely new game. Lucky for me, the sport of bowfishing just happens to be enjoyed by some of the nicest people I know who are always willing to help you learn if you ask them. Our first time out bowfishing was with Jeff Neiball and we were hooked immediately. First of all, he had a smoking hot airboat…what’s not to like about that? Jeff is quite the ambassador for the sport of bowfishing. He was incredibly patient with my horrible shooting (there is a huge learning curve for some of us learning to shoot into water accurately) and taught us to identify quickly the legal freshwater fish that we could shoot.
Legal fish vary, depending on where you are in the country. Some of the most common freshwater fish shot are bighead carp, common carp, grass carp, catfish, buffalo and several varieties of gar, including the massive alligator gar. Many of these fall under the category of rough, or trash, fish. Rough fish are those fish which fall outside of the category of sport fish. They are species not commonly eaten and are often invasive species. Because they are not typically targeted by fishermen, bowfishing is a very good means of population control and removal of these often undesirable fish.
Carp and gar species are the most common rough fish sought after by bowfishers. These fish frequently grow to large sizes and make for easier targets (until they have been over-educated by near misses with multiple arrows, not that I know anyone who does that). They spawn in the spring and bowfishers all over the country will slow to drive past bodies of water, looking for the telltale rolling of fish breaking the surface of the water that indicates the beginning of the best shooting time of the year. Carp and gar will typically spawn in shallow, grassy water, making it easier to plan the correct shot placement, presuming you are able to sneak up on them without spooking them to deeper water. If that happens, just wait awhile because they will typically come back within a few minutes during the spawn.
What Fish Can I Actually Shoot When Bowfishing?
Here’s a list of the legal fish for bowfishing that can be found in various parts of the country:
Common Carp, Bighead Carp, Silver Carp, Grass carp, River Carpsucker, Longnose Gar, Shortnose Gar, Spotted Gar, Alligator Gar Paddlefish, Threadfin Shad, Bigmouth Buffalo, Smallmouth Buffalo, Freshwater Drum, Catfish, Tilapia, Asian Snakehead, Bowfin.
Just as in freshwater, legal targets for saltwater depend on your location and cover everything from sharks, flounder, sheepshead and rays to redfish (in Louisiana). Because redfish are sport fish, they are not legal to shoot in most states. Just as you would in any hunting or fishing situation, it is very important that you know what saltwater fish are legal to shoot before you go out, and certainly before you nock an arrow.
No matter where you go bowfishing, you will need a sport fishing license. Each state has its own fish and game laws and you are responsible for making sure that you are legal for the state where you are bowfishing. Always check for yourself to ensure you have everything you need for licenses and permits. In the state of Georgia, where we primarily bowfish, arrows must be equipped with barbs or similar devices for recovering fish and must be attached to the person or bow by a line sufficient for recovering the arrow and fish. Legal hours for fishing with bow and arrow are from sunrise to sunset, except that non-game fish may be taken at night while using a light in reservoirs over 500 acres in size. It is illegal to fish for game fish, except American shad, hickory shad, channel catfish, blue catfish, or flathead catfish, by any means other than pole and line.
In the state of Florida, bowfishing for game fish is prohibited and the regulations for going after non-game fish vary by region.
As someone new to the sport, it is recommended that you join one of the many bowfishing associations such as Bowfishing Association of America. They can provide you with guidance if you have general questions about bowfishing and it is a great place to connect with others who enjoy the sport.
This is the right time to get started bowfishing! It’s spring, so grab a bow and dial the draw weight down, look for some shallow, grassy water and keep your eyes peeled for a bunch of big scaled, large bodied fish to break the surface. You don’t even need a boat. Just walk down the bank, wade out into the water and find out why this is the time of year bowfishers have been waiting for.