Bowfishing is a lot like bowhunting. Except that you get to shoot a whole lot more. And it's warm. And you can talk to your buddies. And you don't have to worry about the wind. And you get to reel in a bunch of big fish...
It's an inexpensive sport that in its essence requires minimal gear, and is available in some form almost everywhere. In short, bowfishing is flat-out fun, and it’s difficult for me to understand how any bowhunter couldn't enjoy it.
From the lowly common carp swimming in a drainage ditch to major-river trophies like paddlefish and alligator gar, freshwater bowfishing targets vary greatly in size, appearance, temperament and location. Quite a few of these are pretty good eating. Several of them are incredibly strong fighters. Here’s a look at the Big, Mean 13 -- bowfishing’s most sought-after freshwater species.
1 | Bowfishing for Carp
Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) -- The common carp needs no introductions. It’s the most popular bowfishing target in North America due directly to it widespread availability and its non-native status. If you live in the Lower 48 and have water close to home – anything from polluted drainage ditches to pristine trout rivers -- you likely have invasive carp close at hand.
Bowfishing Tip: The best carp shooting is enjoyed during the spring spawn, normally starting in early April to late May when water temperatures reach 62 to 64 degrees. It’s then that carp frolic in shallow water, making them easy targets. During these festivities, ditch your boat and jump in with both feet. Wade the weedy, shallow back bays and sloughs for nonstop action.
Fish Fact: While Americans generally shun carp as food due to an abundance of bones, cultures in Central Europe (where carp is part of traditional Christmas Eve dinners) and especially Asia (where they are raised commercially to the tune of 20-plus tons annually) consider carp prime eating.
2 | Bowfishing for Grass Carp
Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) -- The grass carp, aka white amur, is a herbivorous carp species that prefers reservoirs connected by larger rivers with generous flow-through. Grass carp came to America from eastern Asia as a means for aquatic weed control. They generally do best in temperate southeastern states. The 72-pound-plus bowfishing record came from Alabama. In contrast to the common carp’s generally overall golden color, the grass carp is dark olive, shading to brownish-yellow with a white belly.
Bowfishing Tip: Adult grass carp feed primarily on higher aquatic plants and submerged terrestrial vegetation and are shy, so quietly cruising the edges of weedbeds and shoreline reeds in a boat with a silent trolling motor or allowing the wind to drift you through productive areas is usually the best strategy.
Fish Fact: Grass carp require large rivers to spawn. They reproduce in 77-degree waters, which means they essentially become sterile in small, cool ponds and lakes. Pound for pound, they’re one of the strongest fish you’re likely to shoot, typically exploding into a fierce, bulldogging run as soon as the arrow hits.
3 | Bowfishing for Silver Carp
Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) -- Silver carp, probably better known as “flying carp” to bowfishermen, offer unique sport because of their habit of jumping up to 10 feet out of the water when startled by an approaching boat, providing sporty aerial shooting. But beware. This can also lead to painful collisions with a flying 10- to 40-pound fish! They are now primarily found in the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri rivers and their tributaries.
Bowfishing Tip: Since aerial shooting is the main attraction of the silver carp, arrive prepared for from-the-hip shooting. This means a smooth-drawing bow and quick, instinctive shooting without sights.
Fish Fact: In 2003 a woman jet-skiing had her nose and a vertebra broken after colliding with a silver carp. She nearly drowned. In another incident, a silver carp broke a teenager’s jaw while he was being pulled behind a boat in an inner tube.
4 | Bowfishing for Bighead Carp
Bighead Carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) -- Bighead carp, as the name suggests, are big and ugly transplants from China. The bowfishing record, taken near Alton, Illinois, tipped the scales at nearly 93 pounds, though they have been recorded up to 143 pounds (Brazil). They have a large, scale-free head, prominent mouth and eyes located low on the head, with an overall molted silver-grey coloration. Like silver carp, they are primarily zooplankton/phytoplankton filter feeders, but they don’t jump from the water when startled.
Bowfishing Tip: Bigheads are especially sensitive to vibrations, so when bowfishing at night turn the generator and halogen lights off and stick with hand-held, portable spotlights. Approach bigheads by drifting with current, and avoid banging the sides of the boat. You’ll slip up on many more fish and get into more shooting.
Fish Fact: Bighead carp are so invasive that many states, Illinois and Missouri among them, have made it illegal to possess live bighead carp or use them for bait. In December 2010 the U.S. Congress banned the importation of bighead carp altogether.
5 | Bowfishing for Buffalo
Buffalo Fish (Ictiobus bubalus, cyprinellus and niger) -- Buffalo species include the smallmouth (with down-tilted mouth), bigmouth (actually a sucker, with forward-pointed mouth) and related black buffalo. Specimens from 90- to 100-plus pounds have been taken with bowfishing gear, though 20-pound fish are more common. In outward appearances buffalo closely resemble carp, but these natives have a stockier, humped outline and lack barbels. Buffalo frequent clear, moderate- to fast-moving rivers and occasional lakes of watersheds terminating at the Gulf of Mexico. They’re most commonly found in Mississippi River tributaries all the way to the Canadian border.
Bowfishing Tip: Like carp, buffalo begin spawning when water temperatures reach 62 to 64 degrees. In my experience they spawn in large, circling pods consisting of a single large female surround by smaller males, sticking to deeper, open water. Success depends on intersecting or ambushing these moving pods, as they tend to be spookier than carp.
Fish Fact: Buffalo have a light, flakey flesh unlike the darker, “fishier” meat of carp, making them good eating, despite the fact that they share the floating intermuscular bones that make carp meat unpopular. Bigger fish from clean waters are best, since they allow you to pick around the bones. Down south, fried buffalo ribs are a tradition.
6 | Bowfishing for Gar
Shortnose and Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus platostomus and oculatus) -- Shortnose gars are differentiated from other gars by lacking the upper jaw of the alligator gar, the long snout of the longnose gar and the posterior markings of the spotted gar. They live primarily in cooler, open waters. The spotted gar gets its name from clusters of dark spots on its tail section. They prefer weedy, brushy cover in warmer waters, so are more common in southern regions. A 3-footer of either species would be a real trophy; the current bowfishing record is only 8 pounds and came from Mississippi.
Bowfishing Tip: The shortnose gar’s body is covered in rows of interlocking rhomboidal ganoid scales that create a highly protective, yet flexible armor around the fish. This combined with a relatively slender body makes glance-offs extremely common. Success depends on using only the sharpest bowfishing tips available.
Fish Fact: Shortnose (and other gar species) require little dissolved oxygen to survive. They have gas bladders that function essentially like lungs. For this reason, gars are regularly seen “gulping” air, giving the cruising, boat-bound bowfishermen quick-draw shot opportunities in murky waters.
7 | Bowfishing for Alligator Gar
Alligator Gar (Aractosteus spatula) -- Gator gar are one of bowfishing’s true “big-game” species. Fish weighing 125 to 150 pounds and measuring 6 to 8 feet long are regularly taken with a bow. The best to date taken with bowfishing gear was a 290-pound behemoth from Texas’ Trinity River. They represent one of the largest freshwater fish in North America, potentially growing to 10 feet long. They sport a double row of large teeth on the upper jaw, and their entire bodies are covered in armored scales that Native Americans once used for arrowheads. They’re found on the Lower Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coast areas as far north as Oklahoma/Arkansas, Kentucky/Tennessee/Missouri and Virginia, in fresh, brackish and salt waters.
Bowfishing Tip: The biggest gator gars require heavy-duty equipment, from the sharpest points (such Steel Force’s The Gator), stoutest arrows (such as Muzzy’s Carbon Classic), and abrasion-resistant Spectra line (or Muzzy Gator Cord). Break-away buoy systems are welcomed when targeting the biggest trophies in open waters.
Fish Fact: Gar meat is delicious, resembling shrimp in taste and texture when fried. Use a heavy knife and tin shears to cut away the tough skin and expose the succulent “backstraps” beneath. Avoid all gar roe like you would battery acid, as it’s highly toxic!
8 | Bowfishing for Freshwater Drum
Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) -- Freshwater drum, sometimes called “silver bass” or “grunts” (“sheephead” in the north), are found in a wide variety of habitats in the eastern half of the nation west to East Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma and north to Hudson Bay. They typically weigh 5 to 15 pounds and relinquish tasty filets. The official bowfishing record, shot by Muzzy's Mark Land, weighed more than 27 pounds and came from Alabama. Freshwater drum typically prefer clear water with gravel bottoms, but are tolerant of turbid conditions.
Bowfishing Tip: Freshwater drum are nocturnal, making nighttime bowfishing from a boat equipped with a generator and powerful lights the formula for success. They also tend to hang out in deeper waters on gravel and shell banks, so deep-driving equipment is a must.
Fish Fact: The Latin moniker grunniens stems from the grunting noise male freshwater drum make when pulled from the water. This sound originates from a special set of muscles within the body cavity vibrating against the swim bladder, a function thought to be involved in spawning.
9 | Bowfishing for Bowfin
Bowfin (Amia calva) -- The toothy bowfin traces it lineage back to the Jurassic and Eocene periods, meaning it was around to see the dinosaurs. Native to southeastern Canada and the eastern United States, bowfin, also called grinnel or dogfish, prefer shallow, weedy lakes and protected backwaters. Like other primitive fishes (including gar), they’re able to breathe air via swim bladders that act as a lung, and so they’re often seen breaking the surface to gulp air. The bowfishing record, taken in Tennessee, weighed 16 pounds. Handle bowfin carefully, as they carry sharp teeth and will snap at careless fingers.
Bowfishing Tip: Bowfin make ideal bowfishing targets because they frequent shallow waters and surface regularly to gulp air. Cruising shorelines on foot or from a boat is most productive.
Fish Fact: Some consider bowfin caviar a delicacy. Bowfin survive drought by borrowing into mud like frogs, and can survive prolonged periods out of water, often slithering across land to reach adjacent waters.
10 | Bowfishing for Paddlefish
American Paddlefish (Polyodontidae spathula) -- Paddlefish are a primitive, ray-finned fish resembling sharks. Although they share a largely cartilage-composed skeleton and deeply-forked tail with the saltwater predators, the two aren’t related. The paddlefish’s elongated, spatula-like snout -- or rostrum -- makes it distinctive, and is used as an antenna to help detect the zooplankton they feed upon. They inhabit the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Yellowstone, Wisconsin, Des Moines and Arkansas river systems and commonly reach lengths of 5 1/2-feet and weights of more than 70 pounds. Harvest is heavily regulated, as habitat degradation, especially in the form of dams, has greatly reduced historical numbers.
Bowfishing Tip: Paddlefish success is normally found by plying free-flowing rivers with shallow pools made of sandy, rocky bottoms during the spring spawn. Paddlefish aren’t particularly difficult to penetrate, but do require an aggressive head that holds fast and heavy-duty line for the spirited fight ensuing after a hit.
Fish Fact: Paddlefish eggs are considered on par with the best sturgeon caviar (the meat is also exceptionally good), making them a target of poachers and past commercial harvest. Many game and fish departments, such as Oklahoma and Montana, trade cleaning and packaging services for roe, sold to finance conservation efforts.
11 | Bowfishing for Catfish
Catfish (various species) -- Catfish – channels, blues and flatheads – are popular sportfish because they taste so good. They’re native to or have been introduced into nearly every permanent body of water in North America as far north as southern Canada. Catfish are usually targets of opportunity for bowfishermen simply because they usually stay too deep to see. However, certain feeding conditions, such as a big shad kill on the surface, can bring predatory catfish into the shallows. Before taking a shot at any catfish, make sure you understand the rules of engagement in your waters, as many states restrict take to hook and line.
Bowfishing Tip: Purposely targeting catfish with bowfishing gear means seeking them in clear rivers or stillwaters. Be prepared to deal with quick, deep shots, which normally require a powerful compound setup.
Fish Fact: The official Bowfishing Association of America (BAA) world record catfish was taken by Zach Iffland in Alabama and weighed 60 pounds, although Kentucky state bowfishing records include a 60-pound, 9-ounce flathead catfish taken by Jay Knight on Kentucky Lake. The Texas state-record blue catfish stands at 59.3 pounds.
12 | Bowfishing for Suckerfish
Suckerfish (species Catostomidae) -- There are more than 80 species of suckerfish worldwide. Suckers often get a bad rap because of their down-turned mouths and fleshy Don Knots lips used to vacuum algae-covered rocks and sandy bottoms, but many species relinquish succulent white meat that savvy bowfishermen relish. The most sought-after examples come from cool, clean Southeastern or Far North streams and rivers. Also, keep in mind that while some Rocky Mountain and (especially) Southwest suckers provide bowfishing sport, others are engendered or protected. Read regulations carefully or consult an area fisheries biologist for more details.
Bowfishing Tip: The most productive sucker shooting is normally found in clean, rocky streams and rivers during the annual spring spawning run when suckers gather in shallows or pass over thin riffles to create high-odds “flock-shooting” opportunities. A fish-point/arrow that will absorb massive punishment is mandatory in these rocky environments.
Fish Fact: The four top-eating suckers in North America include the longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus), white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), northern hogsucker (Hypentelium nigricans) and redhorse sucker (Moxostoma carinatum) in the South, though this doesn’t mean there aren’t others just as suited to the skillet or smoker.
(Northern Hogsucker Illustration: Courtesy of New York Department of Environmental Conservation)