Summer is heating up, bringing with it lake days, camping trips, weekend cookouts and epic summer stories. Sharing tales of big fish and bullseyes around a campfire is entertaining, but they pale in comparison to bowfishing’s hair-raising adventures. Trust us: Casting a line is even better when it’s attached to an arrow! The best part? It’s easy and inexpensive to get started. And you’ll see plenty of action!
“Bowfishing is a pretty active sport, so you get in a lot of shooting, and it’s typically a more social outing than some other forms of hunting,” said Katie Haymes, Virginia native and education programs manager for the Archery Trade Association (ATA). “It’s an opportunity to get outside with my bow and share the experience with family and friends. Everyone gets a chance to shoot, laugh, support and cheer each other on!”
Trust us: When you’re reeling in a 12-plus pound carp, you’ll hear nonstop laughter and excited shrieks.
Are you hooked yet? Reel in these six tips and start bowfishing.
1. Get to Know Your Fishy Friends
Before charging into the water, check your state’s bowfishing regulations through its fish and wildlife agency. Hunting and fishing regulations differ by state, and most require bowfishermen (and women) to buy a fishing license for fresh- and saltwater bowfishing.
You also must know which fish are off limits. Most states restrict bowfishing to non-game fish like gar and carp. Because bowfishing is a social sport, you can usually find an experienced bowfisherman to help you learn. You can explore various fish species and their distinctive markings here. Gar and carp are larger than your standard bass and bluegill, so you’ll win the tale of all fish tales this summer.
2. Suit Up
Summer can be scorching, so dress comfortably. A bathing suit and lightweight, breathable shirts and shorts with your favorite sandals (We see you, Chaco nation!) work great for bowfishing. But let’s get down to what you’re really wondering: What cool equipment will I use?
First, you need a bow. You can buy a new bow or add a bowfishing kit to your current bow for as little as $20. Randy Phillips, ATA Board member and owner/operator of Archery Headquarters in Chandler, Arizona, notes that you don’t have to spend tons of money right out of the gate. Start with an old bow or look for used bows online. Pick one that expresses your personality and meets your price point. Maybe you have a compound bow and want to try a recurve. Either style helps you spend hours of fun on the water, and your local archery shop can get you started.
Fishing points, a drum reel and one solid-fiberglass fishing arrow complete your bowfishing kit. These items are usually sold together. Bowfishing reels, points and arrows are designed specifically for this activity. The line is far heavier than standard fishing line, and is usually stored on a drum reel or inside a plastic bottle attached to the side of the bow. The line attaches to the arrow, so when you release your shot it unspools from the reel or bottle while flying with the arrow to its target. Whether you miss or connect, you simply pull or reel in the arrow and line much as you would a normal fishing line.
Once you set up your bow, you’re just a few practice shots away from reeling in your big catch. “Bowfishing is often done in a group setting, so newbies can have someone coach them through the experience to ensure they feel comfortable and confident,” said Nicole Nash, retail programs manager for the ATA. “I’ve taken friends who’ve never before shot a bow and had them set and ready within 15 minutes of instruction. You don’t have to be quiet, so you can ask questions without spooking the fish.”
3. Scout It Out
After getting your equipment, it’s time to pick a fishing hole. Look closely next time you’re standing on a bank, staring down into the cool, refreshing waters. That’s where your bowfishing adventures begin. During June, most waters are the ideal temperature for land-dwellers (that means you!) to escape the heat and humidity, and for fish to nest in shallow weeds and lay eggs. With the fish in shallow water, you can take close-range shots with a bow and arrow. Stable boats provide the most options, but a bank or dock gets you plenty close to the action. You can even bowfish atop a paddleboard or – if you can balance – from a kayak.
Look for shallow areas with good vegetation. That’s where fish will likely be. But don’t charge in too fast. “Fish can be ‘spooky,’ meaning they might swim away before you can get close enough to shoot,” Haymes said. “Be stealthy as you approach your target from the shoreline or boat.”
Even if you scare fish away or find your fishing hole “dry,” it’s not a wasted trip. “Even if fish are few and far between, you can still practice shooting at bubbles, leaves and other things floating in the water,” Haymes said. Just make sure swimmers, paddlers and other anglers are well out of harm’s way.
4. What time is it? Bowfishing time!
Man oh man, sleeping in is nice during summer, and that suits bowfishing just fine. You can bowfish any time of day. Some people use bright lights to fish between dusk and dawn, but you can have just as much fun and success bowfishing at midday.
And it’s totally OK to start by taking a few practice shots from the bank. In fact, new bowfisher Taylor Livingston recommends it. “Before my first trip, it would have been helpful to practice nocking the arrow, shooting the bow, and reeling it in,” she said. “Once you get on the boat and fish are all around, you don’t want to waste time trying to figure out all of that!”
5. Hit the Water
Fishing license: check. Bowfishing gear: check. Fishing hole: check. Pent-up anticipation and excitement: check, check!
Bowfishing is a great activity for groups of friends, and provides many shooting opportunities. “It’s great for new archers because it’s completely OK if you miss,” said Benjamin Summers, chairman of the ATA Board of Directors, and director of operations at T.R.U. Ball Release Products. Summers says even the best archers miss a few times. When sunlight hits the water, fish appear closer than they actually are, which means you must aim lower to arrow the fish. It might take a few shots to get used to it, but you’re guaranteed fun and laughter along the way.
When Livingston, 21, recently went bowfishing for the first time, she experienced great success. “Before shooting my first fish I shot at three or four gar, and all of my shots were too high and missed,” Livingston said. “Before shooting I kept reminding myself to aim low and not overthink the shot. Once I realized I hit the fish, I was elated, and everyone on the boat was, too. It was a very satisfying experience!”
6. Fish are Friends
As with any outing or hunting trip, it’s important respect the land, people and animals around you. “It’s very important to properly dispose of fish,” said ATA Board member Blake Shelby, VP of sales and marketing for PSE Archery. Leaving arrowed fish to rot in the water or on shore is the equivalent of littering roadsides. Besides, some people enjoy turning carp into chowder, patties or smoked chunks. If that doesn’t interest you, Shelby recommends using arrowed fish for fertilizer or compost around your home. Otherwise, look for specially designated disposal bins or fish-cleaning stations at state parks or boat landings.
Also, be respectful when taking photos, videos and Snapchats of your bowfishing trip. Traditional grip-and-grin photos (you must grip your fish so it doesn’t slip from your grasp while you grin for the camera) are the highlight of fishing trips. They should reflect the fun and fulfillment of your time on the water. Remember that you’re representing not only yourself, but an entire community of archers, bowfishers and traditional anglers.
Whether you want to try archery for the first time, or you’re seeking a water-based activity to hone your archery skills, you’ll have a blast bowfishing. Kick your summer up a notch, hop atop your paddleboard or johnboat, and take aim at a massive gar. There’s no feeling like reeling in a big one that you shot with your bow and arrow!