Bowfishing - The Ultimate Guide to Fishing with a Bow
Bowfishing: How To Fish With a Bow
Bowfishing is an action-packed adventure where outdoorsmen use a bow, retriever reel, and barbed arrow with bow fishing line attached. It is often compared to bowhunting and referred to as a bow hunters off-season sport. There are many proven strategies for how to fish with a bow on a successful bowfishing trip, whether you are bowfishing during the day or at night.
The purpose of this article is to help you get started bow fishing, obtain proper bowfishing lights and supplies, understand how to find the target bowfishing species, and ultimately combine this knowledge together to prepare you for many successful bowfishing trips.
Bowfishing Discussion TopicsWhat makes Carp an Invasive Species?
Day Time Bowfishing
Night Time Bowfishing
Bowfishing Platforms and Boat Setups
What is Bowfishing?
Definition of bowfishing
Learning how to fish with a bow requires some unique insight. Bowfishing bows are not the same as hunting bows. Bowfishing bows typically have a lower draw poundage in the 20-30 lb range while hunting bows maintain a higher draw poundage in the 50-70 lb range. A bowfishing bow is made for a high volume of quick shots whereas hunting bows are designed to shoot a couple times at much higher velocities. A hunting bow is geared to take down large animals such as deer while bowfishing bows are geared to penetrate invasive fish such as carp. If you're on the market for a bowfishing bow, you may find this article helpful in choosing the best bowfishing bow for you.
Bowfishing bows typically do not have sights and bowfishermen rarely pull string back with releases. They tend to wear gloves, put "finger savers" on the string, or even leave the string bare so they can quickly pull the arrow back and release when a fish is swimming by. Bowfishing is a fast paced sport that relies on quick reaction times and instincts to be successful. Fish rarely stay around long enough for bowfishermen to take the perfect shot.
Getting Started Bowfishing
Bowfishing lights illuminate the marine life underneath the boat and you will often see more than just the target invasive species. It is not uncommon to find good fishing spots for bass, crappie, catfish, and more while out chasing invasive species. Bowfishing at night is also a good way to stay cool and avoid the sun in the heat of summer.
Bowfishing Gear You'll Need
- Bowfishing Bow
- Compound Bow or Cam Bow
- Bowfishing Reel
- Hand Reel, Spincast Reel or Bottle Reel
- Bowfishing Arrows
- Fiberglass, Carbon, or Hybrid
- Arrow Tips
- Carp Point
- Gar Point
- Standard Nock or Lighted Bowfishing Nock
- Arrow Rest
- Bowfishing Line
- Bowfishing Lights
There are 3 variations of bows to use for bowfishing - compound bow, recurve bow, and although extremely uncommon, there are even crossbows made for bowfishing. The recurve is an old style bow that some people still use due to the added difficulty and strategy required to successfully shoot fish with it. The crossbow, along with recurve, are the least commonly used bows in bowfishing. The most common type of bow are variations of compound bows. Some bow hunters that are new to the sport prefer converting a hunting bow into a bowfishing bow. This can be a good short term solution for someone in a bind, but ultimately it is best to purchase a bow specifically made for bowfishing.
Compound Bowfishing Bows
There are two primary types of compound bowfishing bows: lever action bows and cam bows. The traditional cam style bows are typically a lower cost option in comparison to lever action bows, and are most popular among beginner bowfishermen.
Lever action bows are typically more precise, shoot at higher velocities and have higher let off in comparison to their cam counterparts. It is not uncommon to go to a bowfishing tournament and see the vast majority of bowfishermen competing utilizing a lever-action bow.
Spinning / Spincast Reels
Bottle Retriever Reels
The two most important components of a bowfishing arrow is the arrow shaft composition and the bowfishing tip or arrow points. The best bowfishing arrows are made from a fiberglass-stainless steel combination shaft for increased strength and rigidity, with grapple arrow points that will hold on tight to fish during retrieval.
Arrow Shaft Composition
If you are an experienced bowfishermen, you are probably already aware of the problems I am talking about. If you are new to bowfishing, then a standard carbon or fiberglass arrow will probably work fine for you until you are more comfortable with spending extra money on this feature.
Carp Arrow Points
Gar Arrow Points
You are probably thinking - why don't they just make the barbs on gar points better so they can be used for carp and gar? Well that's because you'll never be able to get a gar off the arrow if you use a carp barb unless you just unscrew the arrow tip. There are some bowfishing companies who make arrows that do this as well, but it is typically more labor intensive.
Bowfishing Arrow Nocks
Bowfishing Bow String
How to Aim when Bowfishing
Bowfishing is done with the use of instincts and without the use of sights. The best method for learning to aim is repetition, repetition, repetition. The most common phrase for how to aim when bowfishing is "aim low". This is due to the refraction angle making the fish appear in an offset location.
The refraction angle is the angle at which light passes through the water and the apparent angle changes depending on how deep the fish is, and how far you are from the fish. In other words, a fish close to the surface of the water may require you to aim at the bottom portion of the fish, while a fish deep in the water will require you to aim well below the fish.
Universal Aiming Rule for Beginners
- Aim 6 inches below the target fish
10-4 Ruler for Expert Bowfishermen
- For every 10 ft away, aim 4 inches below the fish. This assume the fish is 1 ft deep. If the fish is twice as deep (2 ft deep), aim twice as low (8 inches low). This rule follows the general principles of light refraction through water.
Another key tactic when aiming is knowing how much force to put behind the arrow.
Shots up close (<10 ft)
- Quickly pull at half draw. Great for numbers shooting.
Shots far away (>10 ft)
- Pull a full draw to pack as much force into the shot as possible. Great for big fish shooting.
How to Find a Good Bowfishing Spot
Beginner Level Bowfishing Spots
Where you find carp, there are bound to be gar. That’s the primary reason more bowfishing trips are geared after bowfishing for carp and gar. Most gar will feed on game fish species, bait fish, and even carp.
Alligator gar have different regulations depending on the state and county you target them in, some states such as Florida do not allow the harvest of alligator gar at all. Similarly, different areas of Texas have different requirements for harvesting alligator gar. Alligator gar are well known for eating carp and some believe they are a good control mechanism for keeping carp numbers in check. Most water bodies away from the coast that have gar will typically have spotted or long nose gar, which are not protected in most states.
Both spotted and long nose gar will primarily eat other fish. The best way to find them is to look for bait fish and there are bound to be some gar nearby.
Expert Level Bowfishing Spots
When scouting for tournament holes, these guys typically do so several days and up to a week in advance of the tournament. They keep a close watch on the weather because they know the weather strongly dictates fish activity. Their strategy depends on if they are planning to shoot numbers (focus on high volume of fish in the hundreds or even thousands, typically smaller in size) or if they are focused on shooting big fish (focus on 10-20 fish depending on tournament rules, with highest weighted average possible).
Is the water movement natural or is it artificial? If the water movement is artificial such as a dam opening or closing, it is best to go to these spots when the movement is scheduled. If the water movement is natural, such as near a spillway or a river inlet, then the spot is typically more reliable from one day to the next.
If you are fishing saltwater, it is important to be aware of the tide levels. A changing tide can cause water movement in the inlets and canals and it can also impact the third feature to look out for: water clarity. Generally speaking, water clarity is best near spillways and grass beds and is worst on mud flats.
It is hard to compensate for muddy water, but some quality bowfishing lights and other bowfishing supplies can help increase your visibility. It is best to implement a strategy that finds clearer water sources such as spillways, grass beds, and even rocky bottoms .
Wind is another important tactic for numbers shooting. Understanding where the wind is coming from and finding protected areas based upon that will lead to finding fish.
Typically banks that are protected by trees and protected islands are the best bowfishing spots on a windy day. If you play the wind right, it can often solve problems related to water clarity.
Big Fish Shooting
Big fish have been around a long time and there is a reason for it - they are smart. In order to effectively find big fish, you have to really understand their behavior and habitat. Big fish are rarely in shallow waterways, they like to hang out in deeper waters that are 4-5 ft deep and beyond.
The one instance that might push a big fish into shallower water ways is a low barometric pressure. A low barometric pressure is commonly associated with a low pressure system moving in, or a cold front.
Big fish need cooler temperatures. Thus, they are not commonly found in stagnant water in the heat of the day. They are found near moving water sources typically at night. If you're able to use advanced bowfishing supplies like to sonar the bottom of a lake or water body and find underwater humps where there are shallow areas of "underwater islands", you may be able to find cooler water temperatures more easily. These areas are nearly impossible to find without more advance instruments such as a sonar depth finder or by accessing an underwater map of the lake which can often be found online.
Water clarity is more important in finding big fish than it is in numbers shooting because they are in deeper waters. Having effective bowfishing lights to illuminate these fish is essential but if the water is straight mud it doesn't matter what you use to light up the waterway because there are too many suspended solids in the water column. A fellow bowfishermen once told me that you are better off going home and eating ice cream than chasing big fish in extremely muddy water on a warm night.
We've found that the south end of a lake near a spillway produces the best water clarity and is normally well protected by the wind. If you don't have a spillway on the south end of the lake, then you should find an area protected by trees that has grass, rock, or even a sandy bottom. These all promote better water clarity and give you the best opportunity to see big fish swimming down under.
Once you are able to find the right location that meets the constraints above, the next tactic to putting you on a big fish is finding their food source. If you are able to find an area that meets all of these variables, then you are putting all of the odds in your favor that you will find some absolute monsters. As a wise man once said, they call it fishing and not catching. Nothing is guaranteed. The best we can do is put the odds in our favor.
Competing in Bowfishing Tournaments
Bowfishing tournaments started out as a group of guys getting together and throwing money in to see who could shoot the most fish or the biggest fish.
This pot luck format continued to grow, and eventually caught the attention of major brands such as Bass Pro Shops, who now hosts the annual U.S. Open Bowfishing Championship. The rise in payouts has resulted in high competition that requires a bold strategy, determination, and a little luck to consistently win bowfishing tournaments.
The original pot luck bowfishing tournament format has formalized into 3 primary tournament formats: numbers, big 20, and big fish tournaments. Each format requires a different strategy to win.
Numbers Bowfishing Tournament
- Most invasive species fish wins
- Strategy is to bring in high volume of small fish
- Small fish are typically in shallower waters (3-4 ft or less)
Big 20 Bowfishing Tournament
- Largest average weight of 20 biggest invasive species wins
- Strategy is to bring in big fish average
- Big fish hang out in deeper waters (4-5 ft)
Big Fish Bowfishing Tournament
- Biggest invasive species fish wins
- Strategy is to bring in one monster fish
- Big fish hang out in deeper waters, single biggest fish may be in 5+ feet of water.
In order to consistently win bowfishing tournaments, it takes strategy, preparation, and ultimately a lot of hard work and determination. Luck can win some big fish competitions, but the team who scouts and is well prepared is typically the team that will win the bowfishing tournament.
What makes Carp an Invasive Species?
Soon to follow at the turn of the century, carp was transitioning from a prized fish to a total nuisance. The same attribute that made them initially desirable - the ability of females to lay over 2 million eggs in a year and for fry to grow to 8 inches within one year - has now caused them to take over ponds, lakes, and streams. Carp were also found to decrease the water quality of lakes because they would ravage the bottom floor eating all of the insect larvae and uprooting plants. The combination of stirring up the muddy bottom and removing plants can result in a rapid decline in water quality. Low water quality has an affect on the appearance of lakes and streams but it also effects the game fish species and vegetation that live in those waterways. The game fish are no longer capable of seeing their prey and the vegetation is not able to obtain proper sunlight for continued growth.
Day Time Bowfishing
Other instances where day time bowfishing can be a lot of fun is during the spawn. When fish are spawning, they run up into shallow waters by large volumes and are really easy to shoot. Some folks compare it to shooting fish in a barrel because it's so easy to find a bunch of fish.
The downside to day time bowfishing is the sunburns associated with being out in the heat of the day. To combat this, many people prefer night time bowfishing.
Night Time Bowfishing
Bowfishing at night opens up more opportunities for finding fish than day time bowfishing does. As discussed above in the section on Finding a Good Bowfishing Spot, the water temperature, barometric pressure, and water clarity are the most important factors to consider when trying to find fish. Bowfishing at night takes care of the water temperature issue because it is naturally cooler at night versus the day. The other two factors depend on what part of the lake you are on, and they are discussed above in Finding a Good Bowfishing Spot.
If you're new to bowfishing and you aren't ready to spend the money on a boat full of bowfishing lights, then we recommend starting out with a bow mounted bowfishing light. This is the cheap alternative to being able to get out at night and experience the fish moving into the shallows. When I first got started bowfishing, I put a bow mounted bowfishing light on my bow and walked the river banks to shoot fish. This was arguably one of the most fun times I've ever had and despite spending the majority of my time on a boat now, I still walk the river banks every now and then.
Bowfishing Platforms and Boat Setups
Is your boat dedicated to bowfishing, or do you like to duck hunt and do other types of fishing as well?
Are you bowfishing during the day or at night? Or both?
If you are bowfishing during the night time only, then we have found a similar setup works well but you can get away with a more low profile setup where it is easier to see over the deck. The reason being is the fish are in the shallows at night and they are right there in front of you. You don't have to hunt them down like you typically do in the day time. There are low profile decks and then there are flush mount decks. The difference in the two is one tends to have more deck space than the other.
Subscribe to our blog in the bottom right corner to learn more about the great sport of bowfishing and become the ULTIMATE OUTDOORSMAN!