A Cheapskate’s Guide to Bowfishing Gear

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You can enjoy bowfishing without a boat and other expensive equipment. Here's how

Part of what makes bowfishing so much fun is that it’s accessible to just about everyone. You can spend a great day on the water shooting a bow, and as a bonus you can end up with the main ingredient for a fish fry (or maybe a really good fish taco bowl). The best news is that you don’t need fancy gadgets, tricked-out boats or the latest equipment to be successful. All you need to get started is a simple, affordable setup.

Bowfishers can find plenty of success shooting from the bank. Image by Michael Pendley

Bowfishing Bows

“A bow that is 10 to 15 years old is perfect for bowfishing because you are hard on them,” said Nick Tramp, a mentor at Nebraska’s Bow Fishing Mentor Program. I spoke with Tramp as he was spending the morning bowfishing for paddlefish on the Missouri River. Tramp is the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s lead for the agency’s bowfishing outreach program. He’s spent years getting kids involved in the sport, which he says he wouldn’t be able to do if it wasn’t cost-effective.

Some species, such as this paddlefish, make excellent table fare. Image by Will Brantley“When we started the bowfishing program, we were self-funded. The state helped us with a little bit for gear but we were using recycled bows; we were not using high-end bows or brand-new bows by any means,” Tramp said.

Tramp encourages people to use their older model bows or hand-me-downs from friends and family for bowfishing. You can also use your target or big-game hunting bow, just know it might take a little bit of a beating. He also suggests looking for used bows online or in archery shops.

Before buying or drawing, though, make sure the equipment is in good shape. Inspect the cams and limbs for cracks. Look at the string to make sure it isn’t frayed and in need of replacing.

“If you’re using a compound bow, you need to have deep cables so that they don’t pop off when you’re twisting and turning with the bow,” Tramp said.

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Recurves also work great for bowfishing. You also don’t need a bow with a heavy draw weight. Tramp says bows with 35 to 40 pounds of draw weight are perfect. Lower poundage allows you to make a successful shot and draw numerous times without fatiguing.

“There’s no reason you can’t use grandad’s old bow to bowfish,” Tramp said.

Bowfishing requires some added accessories like a reel and line, but they don’t have to break the bank. A bow-mounted retrieving reel makes it easy to recover the line and arrow after each shot. Top-of-the-line reels can exceed $100, but they’re not necessary. Retrieving reels fall into three categories: drum, bottle, and spin-cast.

Hand-wind drum reels are the cheapest and simplest setup. Shooters manually wrap the bowfishing line around a drum that’s attached to the bow, usually in the stabilizer port. These reels can be found for less than $20. Because they’re made of minimal parts, drum reels tend to last a long time. Some bowfishermen even make their own reels using a plastic soda bottle and string.

Bottle reels, not to be confused with the homemade kind, gather the line into a closed bottle instead of onto a spool. This is the preferred system for many bowfishermen because it’s easy to use, but such reels can be expensive, costing between $75 and $150. A spin-cast bowfishing reel is similar to a traditional fishing reel. It has a spool to hold the line and a handle that allows for quick retrieval. These reels typically range from $50 to $150.

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Bowfishing Arrows

Tramp says not to scrimp on your bowfishing arrows. They’re made of heavy fiberglass or graphite and built to withstand a lot of abuse, smashing into rocks and brush, but also penetrate through the water and through tough, scaly fish. Top-end bowfishing arrows might cost $80, but you can find good fiberglass ones, with points and safety slides, for as little as $25. You should buy at least two or three arrows because you don’t want to lose or bust one on the water and be forced to end your day early.

Good polarized sunglasses make all the difference for seeing fish. Image by Michael Pendley

Polarized Sunglasses

In addition to a good arrow, Tramp recommends investing a little extra into a high-performing pair of polarized sunglasses. “If you can’t see the fish, you can’t shoot them,” he said. “If I was picking one spot to put my money into, it would be a pair of good glasses.”

Simply put, polarized lenses allow you to see things underwater that you otherwise couldn’t see. While you can find polarized sunglasses for less than $50, Tramp recommends doing your research and buying a pair specifically designed for fishing. There are several companies like Smith, Costa, Bajio, and Shady Rays that make polarized lenses for anglers. You can even pick up a pair of Shady Rays in Realtree EDGE camo. When it comes to picking the right pair, you’ll also need to do your research on lens colors. Different colors work best in different lighting and water conditions.

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A hand-wind drum reel is an economical way to get started. Image by Cajun ArcheryAccess

While having a boat can be nice, it isn’t always necessary for bowfishing. In some situations, sneaking up on fish from the bank or by wading can be easier and more successful. The best water for bowfishing is clear and shallow, ranging in depths from around 3 to 5 feet. You need to see the fish to make the shot, but also most of the species being targeted hang out in this type of water. Because these fish frequent shallow water, it’s important to be sneaky. When fishing from shore, bowfishermen can move quietly and stalk the fish as they look for them along the banks. An old pair of chest waders or hip boots can be nice on spring days when the water is cool. Shore fishing and wading can also give you access to areas that are inaccessible by boat.

While not as cheap as shore fishing, a paddleboard is another way to bowfish that still costs significantly less than a boat and motor. The popularity of fishing from paddleboards has boomed in recent years, so much so that many companies have boards designed specifically for fishing, and they happen to work well for bowfishing too. Paddleboards are quiet, so it’s easy to search for fish without spooking them, but they offer a sturdy platform for standing and shooting. Plus, you can throw them in the back of the truck or even on top of a car.

Bowfishing is an exciting activity that keeps you in shooting shape and feeds the family. On most outings you get to the enjoy the sun, take plenty of shots, and practice being stealthy, even if you don’t own a boat, new bow, or expensive accessories. With a basic setup, knowledge and practice, you’ll be shooting and fighting fish in no time.

Get your fishing gear at the Realtree store.