All us Southerners know how oppressive our summer days can be. No, make that down right tortuous, especially during a long day — or even a night — of fishing on the water.
That’s right, even fishing long after the sun has set offers little relief to the stagnant, constant humidity.
Yet, there’s a growing band of Mississippi sportsmen who don’t mind the steamy nights, or even the millions of treacherous flying insects that are always drawn to the lights mounted on the front of the boat.
Welcome to bow-fishing, where the masks worn to protect faces, necks and ears from blistering sun during the day are worn at night to keep off the gnats, flies and mosquitoes.
It’s a sport growing by leaps and bounds, sparking the development of bow-fishing-specific equipment and even real-money payouts at tournaments. Fishing with archery equipment is far more like hunting than fishing, in that stealth, target identification and proper aim are critical.
“Target identification is paramount,” said Joe Williams, who operates Arrow-In Addiction Bow Fishing of Hernando. “Game fish, such as bass, bream, and crappie are protected by state law. Some states protect catfish, but Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas allow the harvest of catfish.
“Primarily, we’re targeting what some call “trash” fish — gar, buffalo, carp and bowfin.”
Most biologists are happy to see them targeted, especially invasive carp.
Targeting fish at night in the water is a tough learn.
An algorithm is required for the sighting on fish. Consider the depth of the fish in the water column, the distance from the boat, the angle of the shot, and the arrows trajectory once it enters the water. All these factors go into the “hold under” required to connect with the target.
Yes, you read hold under. The refraction of the light in the water causes the fish to appear higher, or shallower, than it really is, requiring the shooter to aim under the target. According to Williams, this is the most important lesson for a novice to learn.
“The first year I started (bow-fishing) I never stuck a fish,” he said. “There was no one to teach me, so I picked up what I learned by reading what I could and figuring it out for myself. That was 15 years ago. I’ve been guiding now for eight years and have started a lot of people on the path to night fishing with a bow.”
Williams considers the lakes and rivers of northwest Mississippi as his home waters. He fishes on Tunica Cut Off, the backwaters of the Mississippi River, and on Sardis and Enid reservoirs.
Back when he started, Williams stood on the casting deck of a bass boat using a homemade outfit crafted from a retired hunting bow, but little by little he began to connect with the fish. He remembers the pluses and minuses of each trial, a good thing for the lucky ones under his tutelage.
His experiences and knowledge allow others to bypass the trial-and-error method of equipment selection and get right to sticking fish.
“Shooting the bow has to be instinctive,” Williams said. “The only way to become proficient is to practice. Unfortunately, there is not a block target that will simulate the shot on dry land. There might be a way to rig a suspended target, maybe a milk jug or something in a swimming pool that will allow repetition, but real-life conditions will never be as clear as a pool.”
Bow-fishing is a sport where the angler launches an arrow at a fish, and, if a connection is made, he or she retrieves it by a reel attached to the bow.
There is no rod to aid in fighting or guiding the fish. Some of the fish, such as gar and buffalo, can easily pass 20 or 30 pounds. Think of the biggest fresh water fish you have ever caught with a rod and reel; then consider doing it with just the rod handle and the reel — pretty challenging to say the least.
Expanding the sport
Mark Land is a product specialist for Feradyne Outdoors, a company specializing in archery equipment and accessories. Land travels the country visiting bow-fishing tournaments with his impressive boat in tow.
Many tournaments offer a prize for the biggest fish, and teams are often judged on the “Big 20” — the 20 heaviest fish, since a wide assortment of non-game fish will be caught.
At the 2015 Muzzy Tournament in Alabama, Land said 83 teams checked in thousands of pounds of fish, and he points out that just because most species are considered trash fish, they do not go to waste.
Most fish went to a commercial turtle farm, others to plants that make cat and dog food, and some to plants that make fertilizer from the composted fish.
“The popularity of bow-fishing is growing with phenomenal speed,” Land said. “Naturally, a competitive following has developed and sponsors have been quick to jump on board. There is a tournament just about every weekend somewhere.”
Land believes that there is no bad time to grab a bow and go fishing. It can be done in the heat of the summer, as well as in the winter in areas where the water doesn’t freeze over.
The silver and big-headed carp spawn in large numbers and are more active at night. The same can be said for buffalo and gar.
“Fish on the surface are easy to identify,” Land said. “The silhouette of the fish is clearer; spots and fins help identify the bowfin and gars. A largemouth bass may appear as a white glow in the water but has a black line, setting it apart from carp. If there is a doubt, pass on the shot until a clear target comes along.”
Remember, due to the refraction, a fish is deeper than it appears. Land recommends aiming about three inches under a fish on the surface. For a buffalo, which may be 5 to 8 feet deep, you will have to aim 3 to 4 feet below the fish, which may only appear as a glow in the water.
“Shooting a lot is the only way to learn how to compensate for the refraction,” Land said. “And shooting from an elevated platform, such as we have on the Muzzy Boat, changes everything.
“The refraction is less, especially if you are above the fish. Remember refraction is a vertical phenomenon.”
Gar and bowfin (a.k.a. grinnel) are fish left over from a pre-historic era. While gar are considered edible, bowfin are not. However, one source listed the only reason being that the grinnel is very bony. Their diets closely resembles that of a bass, so they should have a similar taste. Both of these fish are considered predators, competing with game fish and catfish for prey. The possible exception is the alligator gar, which is known to feed on the invasive Asian carp. While a “gator gar” may be a top prize for bow anglers, they may be more valuable left alone.
Buffalo and common carp are definitely edible species and while not on the top of the menu should never be wasted. A savvy shooter should have little trouble finding an outlet for these fleshy fish. Williams consumes the buffalo he harvests, saying they are fine table fare.
Asian silver carp are an invasive species that should be removed at every opportunity. Their aerial displays make for challenging daylight targets. They hurl themselves from the water in a frenzy when an outboard motor comes near.
The fish, which frequently weigh 12 pounds and some grow much bigger, become formidable missiles that can cause damage to those objects they impact, including people, boat windshields, tackle and the like.
Both Williams and Land stress the importance of proper fish disposal. Whenever possible arrange to compost unwanted fish. If there is no outlet, dispose of the unwanted fish in a responsible manner.
“Nobody likes to see a pile of dead fish rotting in the sun next to the boat ramp,” Williams said. “Game fish such as bass and crappie left floating injured or dead in the water send a wrong message to other sport fishermen. There are plenty of ways to recycle trash fish, so don’t be a slob, do the right thing.”
The reel may be the most important link in the successful bow-fishing setup. It has to be capable of casting and retrieving a very heavy line. Bright color braided lines in the 100- to 400-pound classes are preferred. Look for lines specifically designed for the sport.
“Getting the arrow back in as fast as possible is important,” Williams said. “For that reason the reel is a critical piece of equipment. I use 400-pound test Fast Light braided line that has no stretch. I prefer an AMS Fish Hawk or Fish Eagle bow. They are light and quick.
“You can make a homemade outfit, but you will eventually shop for a sport-specific rig. I like to use a recurve for snap shooting, especially on Asian Carp that take flight when a boat gets near them.”
AMS, Feradyne Outdoors, and all the big box outdoor retailers such as Bass Pro Shop offer some sort ready-out-of-the-box bow for fishing, costing from a few hundred bucks to over a thousand. Like any sport, you can invest as much as your pocketbook will allow.
In deer hunting the heavier the draw weight the better. Not so with bow-fishing, where Williams recommends a 40-pound draw weight.
According to Williams and Land, draw length is not as important and bow weight should remain under 40 pounds. A full draw is not even necessary since targets are usually pretty close to the boat. Williams favors a recurve without sights and uses instinctive shooting. Such ability comes with hours of practice. He uses the recurve to tag Asian carp as they leap from the water.
“There are many who wish to convert an old hunting bow into a fishing bow,” Williams said. “It can be done, but you’ll want to buy a sport-specific outfit sooner or later. The same can be said for the boat. Any boat will work, but if you become addicted to the sport, a boat with an elevated shooting platform will become the craft of choice.”
What’s not to like?
The hum of the mosquitoes is barely distinguishable over the drone of the generator. The night is warm, a little bead of sweat starts down the center of your back as you come to full draw.
You make a mental calculation of range, trajectory, and refraction before you let her fly.
It’s a good stick, and the huge carp makes a run for deeper water, nearly snatching the bow from your hand. The drag of the spincast reel is set correctly, just slipping enough to keep the fish on the other end of the 100-pound line from snatching the bow from your hand.
Working the reel handle without a rod may seem a little like scenes from a bad dream, but you manage. The other anglers are cheering you on.
One of your partners grabs a gaff and the carp is snagged securely. The rush of adrenaline makes you forget about the bloodsuckers trying to find one spot on your head where ‘skeeter dope’ might have missed.
You’re happy, very happy.