Bowfishing - The Ultimate Guide to Fishing with a Bow

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Bowfishing - The Ultimate Guide to Fishing 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 to a successful bowfishing trip, whether you are bowfishing during the day or at night. The purpose of this article is to provide an in-depth discussion on bow fishing, the target bowfishing species and how this can help you formulate the best strategies for a successful bowfishing trip.
  

Bowfishing Discussion Topics 

  1. What is Bowfishing?
  2. Getting Started Bowfishing
  3. How to Aim when Bowfishing
  4. How to Find a Good Bowfishing Spot (Beginner and Expert Level Spots)
  5. What makes Carp an Invasive Species?
  6. Day Time Bowfishing
  7. Night Time Bowfishing
  8. Bowfishing Platforms and Boat Setups (Bowfishing Boats and All-Around Boats)

What is Bowfishing?

Definition of bowfishing
Bowfishing is a method of fishing that uses a specialized bow and arrow setup for shooting and retrieving fish. The specialized bows used for bowfishing (bowfishing bows) have a reel mounted to them (bowfishing reel) with a spool of high poundage string (bowfishing line) which attaches to a barbed arrow (bowfishing arrow) that is used to spear and grab ahold of fish. 

Bowfishing is done in freshwater and saltwater; the target species in most states are non-game fish, but regulations vary from state to state. Most bowfishermen target invasive species including but not limited to carp, gar, and bowfin. 
Many bow hunters choose bowfishing as an off-season sport because the methodology is similar. Bowfishing is done primarily in the summer while bow hunting is done primarily in the winter. 

bowfishing for gar with bow and arrow

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.

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. 

bowfishers shooting carp

Many people ask if they can utilize a hunting bow setup for bowfishing, and due to the differences discussed above we always caution them away from doing this. It can certainly be done, but adjustments should be made to make it bowfishing friendly. It is typically better in terms of performance and safety to purchase a bow specialized for the bowfishing sport and keep your hunting bow for hunting only.

Getting Started Bowfishing

To get started bowfishing, you will need to obtain bowfishing gear. The basic bowfishing equipment includes a bowfishing bow, retriever reel, bowfishing arrows, and ultimately some bowfishing lights for night time shooting. Fishing during the day time is the easiest way to get started bowfishing, but shooting fish at night is arguably one of the most fun bow fishing adventures you can experience. It's a family friendly sport, great for all ages. 

bowfishing is family friendly and is great for little kids   

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.

List of 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
  • Nocks
    • Standard Nock or Lighted Bowfishing Nock
  • Arrow Rest
  • Bowfishing Line
  • Bowfishing Lights
bowfishing during the day time with gear and equipment



Bowfishing Bows

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. 


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 and are most popular among beginner bowfishermen. Bowfishing guides typically supply these for their clients due to their resilience, ease of use and affordability. The lever action compound bowfishing bows are typically more expensive, and are more common among the experienced bowfishermen.

bowfishing at night with bright lights and a lever action bow

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. 


Bowfishing Reels

There are 3 types of bowfishing reels: hand reels, spinning reels, and bottle retriever reels. The most common of these are spinning reels and bottle reels. 


Hand Reels

These are some of the original bowfishing reels used when bowfishing first came about. Their operation is very simple, it is a line spooled around a drum with a notch / handle for reeling the line in once you shoot a fish. Bowfishing enthusiasts may use hand reels today for fun, but they are not very common in the bowfishing world. 

hand reel for bowfishing


Spinning / Spincast Reels

Second to the hand reels, the spinning, or spincast reel started as literally a fishing reel where high strength fishing line is tied onto an arrow. Press the release prior to shooting, let the arrow fly, and then start reeling the fish in upon impact. Spinning reels have since made huge advancements, where today's spinning reels have higher gears to allow for pulling in large fish such as big alligator gar. The string has also been upgraded to help prevent bowfishermen from losing their prized catch or expensive bowfishing arrows. 

spincast bowfishing reel


Bottle Retriever Reels

The bottle retriever reels are the newest among the 3 options, but they have still been around for a long time. Unlike spinning reels which commonly have problems with gears, the bottle reel is one of the most low maintenance options available. They literally look like a bottle with heavy duty string inside of it. In order to shoot a fish, just pull back like normal and shoot the fish. Once you are ready to retriever your fish / arrow, you will have to pull down on a lever which puts friction on the string and allows the reel to start pulling the string in. This can be very difficult for large fish, but it is very fail safe in terms of never breaking. When I would personally use a bottle reel, I usually ended up just pulling the big fish in by hand rather than using the reel. 

bottle retriever reel


Bowfishing Arrows

These commonly come pre-made as a single unit. More advance bowfishermen may be able to build their own arrows, but the majority of the time you would purchase these as a complete unit. We do not recommend attempting to use an arrow designed for hunting when bowfishing. Bowfishing arrows have a different composition than hunting arrows because you are ultimately going to be reeling the fish back in. 

bowfishing arrow

The two most important components of a bowfishing arrow is the arrow shaft composition and the bowfishing tip or arrow points. 


Arrow Shaft Composition

Most bowfishing arrows are made from fiberglass, carbon, or a hybrid of both. In some instances on higher grade arrows, there will also be a stainless steel component integrated into the back portion of the arrow closest to the nock. These are typically far more expensive, but worth it in my opinion. This stainless steel piece helps when retrieving big fish because the bowfishing line has a stronger structure to hold on to. We've had traditional fiberglass bowfishing arrows break when trying to reel them in because the carbon / fiberglass does not have as much structural support as the stainless steel does. 

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. 


Arrow Points

There are two primary types of bowfishing arrow points: carp points and gar points. The carp points are made for softer fleshed fish such as carp while the gar point are made for fish with thick skin and body armor like the gar species have. 


Carp Arrow Points

Carp points typically have large retractable barbs, which help the arrow penetrate through the soft-fleshed fish and then hold on tight to the fish when reeling them in, without pulling through their soft flesh. Most carp points have a minimum of 2 long barbs but can have as many as 5 barbs on a single arrow. We typically use 3 prong barbs on our carp points, which are retractable for when we want to throw the carp in the fish box. 

carp arrow point


Gar Arrow Points

A gar point will typically have two shorter barbs and a very sharp tip. Gar points are made to penetrate through the strong, thick body armor like scales that are on a gars body. The sharp tip is the most important component of a gar point while the barbs are less important. If a gar point arrow successfully penetrates a gar, it will rarely pull out. Thus our focus on gar points having very sharp tips. Gar points will work for bowfishing carp, but since their design focus is not on the barb itself, they have a higher risk of pulling through a soft fleshed fish such as a carp.

gar arrow point

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

The purpose of the nock is to attach the bow line to the arrow when you pull back for your shots. It's important that the nock holds on tight to the bow line through the entire draw back process, until the arrow is released for a shot. Most bowfishing nocks are pretty much the same except for the different color variations they come in. In recent years, there have been companies who started manufacturing lighted nocks. These are great for being able to see where your arrow landed or to be able to diagnose your shot on film. 

bowfishing arrow nock


Arrow Rest

The arrow rest typically comes with the bow, and is responsible for keeping the bowfishing arrow inline when you are getting ready to take a shot. Some of the better universal arrow rests are made for left or right handed bow-fishermen. You would think that all arrow rests are ambidextrous, but that is not always the case. As common as online ordering has become, it is important to double check if the bow and arrow rest you are buying is suited to fit you in terms of right or left handed. 


Bowfishing String

Bowfishing line, or bowfishing string, is the fishing line that is attached to the arrow and spooled inside the reel. A common misconception is that you can use standard fishing line as bowfishing line. This is not necessarily true. It is best to purchase bowfishing line from a bowfishing store rather than attempt to utilize standard fishing line you have left over in your tackle box. Good bowfishing string is typically 200 lb test line, and is commonly braided or sometimes looks more like a small rope. The type of bowfishing line you use can vary depending on the reel you decide to use. The bottle and hand reels typically use a more rope-like line while the spincast reels typically use a braided high test line, more comparable to fishing line. 


Bowfishing Lights

Bowfishing lights are essential to experiencing the action packed sport after dark. Bowfishermen new to the sport can get started with a bowfishing light that mounts to your bow. This is the cheapest and easiest method to get out on the water and shoot some fish. 

Most fish come into the shallows at night to feed due to the cooler temperatures, whereas it is typically much warmer during the day time. This typically brings more opportunities for shooting fish at night in comparison to day time bowfishing.

Once you're totally into the sport and have a boat your ready to setup with bowfishing lights, you'll have to read our article on the best bowfishing boat setup which shows example of different bowfishing platforms and shooting decks.

Another great article to read is the Guide to Buying the Best Bowfishing Lights for Sale. This article discusses what to look for in a bowfishing light and key features that will make your trips much easier. The most important concept it discusses is related to having the right color tone for clear or muddy waters. Typically you want a cool white bowfishing light for clear water and warm white bowfishing light for muddy water. 

bowfishing lights illuminating the water

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.

bowfishing infographic showing water refraction angle and how to aim low

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. Anotherwords, 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 bellow the fish. 


Universal Aiming Rule for Beginners

  • Aim 6 inches below the target fish

10-4 Rule 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. 
If too much force is used on a fish that's close up, it can sometimes fly through the fish and make it more difficult to retrieve. 

 

How to Find a Good Bowfishing Spot

There are several key features that make a quality bowfishing spot, and the best bow fishermen know that good bowfishing spots are constantly changing. We are going to discuss entry level tactics to finding a good bowfishing spot and expert level tactics to finding a good spot.


Finding a Good Bowfishing Spot for Entry Level Bowfishermen

The basis of a good bowfishing spot is to look in shallow areas that have lily pads, brush, trees, weeds or other vegetation. Carp are typically bottom feeders, they eat insect larvae and uproot plants from the bottom of lakes and streams. This naturally causes carp to tend to be in muddier waters as opposed to clearer waters because they themselves muddy up the water. That isn’t to say you can’t find carp in clear water - there are plenty of carp in some of the clearest water bodies around such as Canyon Lake in Texas. It is important to just be aware of what the carp food source is and go to areas that match their food source.

bowfishing spot with lily pads and trees

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 are one of the most prized types of gar which are typically found closer to the coast in the southern states. The most popular states to bowfish for alligator gar are Texas and Louisiana.

bowfishing for alligator gar

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.


Finding a Good Bowfishing Spot for Expert Level Bowfishermen

We spoke with several bowfishermen who have shot and placed at the top of several state and world bowfishing tournaments. They all had similar advice - you have to understand the water conditions and habitat as a whole, and implement the best strategy based upon the hand you're dealt. There are 3 core features to consider for freshwater bowfishing: water temperature, barometric pressure, and water clarity. If you're fishing in saltwater, then add tide to the mix. 

infographic on finding the best bowfishing spot

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).


Finding An Expert Level Bowfishing Spot: Numbers Shooting

A good numbers bowfishing spot is typically going to be in shallow waters from 1 to 4 ft deep, where the smaller fish are located. Most of the time the boat is dragging the bottom and the water temperature is a little elevated. It is not common to see big fish in these spots, but it is entirely possible. It is important to keep an eye on any weather fronts moving coming in due to their impact on barometric pressure.
A low barometric pressure typically pulls the fish up while a high barometric pressure typically pushes the fish down. It's equally as important to watch the water temperature. The shallow waters are typically warmer than the deeper waters, which is why night time bowfishing is favored over day time bowfishing (shallow waters cool off at night). The next thing to look for is water movement. 

bowfishing tournament shooting numbers

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 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. 

bowfishing at night with bright lights for invasive species

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. 


Finding an Expert Level Bowfishing Spot: Big Fish Shooting

The strategy behind shooting a big fish tournament such as a Big 20 is far different than shooting a numbers tournament. Most big 20 tournaments are won with big fish that average close to 20 lbs a piece. That's a lot of meat, but it's not impossible if you play your cards right.

big fish bowfishing tournament

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 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. 

big fish shooting while bowfishing with bowfishermen

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. 

tournament bowfishing

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. 

What makes Carp an Invasive Species?

As crazy as it sounds, carp were once a prized fish in the mid 1800’s. There were zero carp in the United States at this time, and due to food scarcity they were seen as an economical means capable of feeding a rapidly growing Nation. An instance of this was in 1872, when Mr. Julias A. Poppe imported 5 common carp into his California farm and by 1876 he had a thriving operation that was fielding orders all across the entire country. 

netting asian carp

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. 

asian carp taking over a lake and other water ways

In the early to mid 1900s, the carp were causing obvious affects on waterways across the entire nation and increased efforts to slow them down were not working. Scientists found out just how tolerant carp are to pollutants when they introduced them to over 1,600 common chemicals found in United States waters. Out of the 1,600 chemicals, only 135 of the chemicals were capable of killing carp. 

Day Time Bowfishing

Bowfishing during the day is a great way to get started for beginners. If you are on familiar waters, you may already know where the invasive species likes to hang out. These spots are typically in the shallows near lily pads, brush, trees and other vegetation. If you are on unfamiliar waters, the first step in finding a good spot is to check the satellite view on google maps for areas that appear to match these characteristics. Ultimately, the only way to verify a bowfishing spot is going to be to check it out in person. There are some areas that are really fun for day time bowfishing such as on Kentucky Lake. Kentucky Lake has silver carp that will literally jump in the boat's wake and bow fishermen can shoot them in mid flight.

silver carp jumping on boat wake

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 is the preference of most experienced bow fishermen. The reason being is because you don't have to deal with the sun beating down on you and the water temperatures are cooler, which means fish are more likely to move up into the shallows. A good set of bowfishing lights is guaranteed to set you up for a fun night out on the water. 

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

bowfishing at night

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

The best bowfishing platform and boat setup varies from person to person and it depends on what your goals are. Many bowfishermen like an all-around boat that is fully capable of duck hunting, rod and reel fishing, maybe even flounder gigging, and so on. Those who are really into bowfishing and enjoy competing in annual bowfishing tournaments may prefer a boat that is setup with only bowfishing in mind. These are the first of several questions to ask yourself when setting up your bowfishing platform. 


Is your boat dedicated to bowfishing, or do you like to duck hunt and do other types of fishing as well? 


If your boat is an all-around boat, we've found it most beneficial if you make a removable bowfishing platform that can mount in place when you are ready to go bowfishing but can otherwise be removed when duck hunting or rod and reel fishing. Similarly, you can also utilize a low profile boat setup which keeps your bowfishing lights out of the way. This article on bowfishing decks has several good ideas for ways to make this happen.


Are you bowfishing during the day or at night? Or both?


If you are bowfishing during the day time only, we have found that raised deck platforms work best. Combine this with quality polarized sunglasses, and you have the best view in seeing fish off in the distance. The downside to this setup is it is more difficult to see when driving out to your bowfishing spots.

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. 

This article does a great job at diving into detail on these setups as well as other bowfishing deck setups: Bowfishing Boat Setups: Build the Best Deck & Shooting Platform.


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