For any casual archery fan who has ever considered giving the sport of bowfishing a try, participate at your own risk. Upon release of that first arrow - cowering over the front rail of the boat with bugs in your teeth, gas fumes in your nostrils and the roar of the generator ringing in your ears - odds are you'll miss the fish but stick the arrow deep into your own heart.

That's exactly what happened to "Big Al" McMillan, a diehard bowhunter from Madison, on his first bowfishing expedition several years ago. These days McMillan and his fishing partner, Sean Ford, spend a few hours every night during the week prowling the backwaters of Ross Barnett Reservoir in search of "trash fish." On the weekends, the pair makes longer forays to such bowfishing havens as Chotard, Eagle Lake or one of the swampy federal game refuges across the state.

"It's a nasty, dirty sport, and I love it," McMillan said. "We go Monday through Thursday over to Barnett because it's so close, but on the weekends there are dozens of places you can find gar, carp, buffalo and bowfin and have all the shooting you want."

 

Gearing up

Like most outdoor pursuits, bowfishing can be done at the simplest level, like walking pond edges with a bow and a flashlight, or in the extreme using specially designed airboats to access the hearts of the deep swamp to do battle with fish that weigh nearly as much as the shooter.

When it comes to equipment, the first piece you'll need is a bow. Many novice bowfishers start out with a used or outgrown hunting bow.

Bert Turcotte of Vicksburg has been an avid bowfisher since high school. Turcotte says the choice of bows is a personal one.

"All kinds of bows can be used for bowfishing," he said. "People who like traditional archery can easily equip a recurve bow for fishing.

"Any compound bow can also be easily set up, however the range of draw weight is the key. Forty pounds of draw weight or less will get the job done here in Mississippi.

"Several of the top bow manufacturers offer specific models for bowfishing. The PSE Barracuda, AMS Fish Hawk, Darton Aquaforce and the Oneida Osprey are some of the most popular models."

Unlike hunting bows, fishing bows are equipped with reels in order to retrieve the prey. Three types top the list: hand wind, retriever or "bottle reels," and spincast (spinners).

Hand-wind systems are more traditional reels, and can be dangerous if the shooter is not careful, especially with larger fish. Bottle reels are popular but tend to put more drag on the shot. Spincast, or "spinner," reels are very popular and see more widespread use, but can present a challenge for beginners. The Zebco 808, Muzzy XD and the Shakespeare TI-20 are good choices for spinner reels.

Arrows and broadheads are next on the list of gear. Arrow shafts are typically heavy fiberglass, though carbon and hybrid carbon/fiberglass shafts are gaining popularity. Broadheads are typically steel that screw onto the shaft and have a reversible dual barb to hold fish after the shot.

"My friends and I first started by walking the banks of Muddy Bayou and Steele Bayou with one bow and a flashlight," said Turcotte. "We would also fish off of piers equipped with lights at Eagle Lake."

Once the bug hits, most bowfishers take to the water in a converted or specially designed bowfishing boat. Propulsion methods while fishing typically break down to airboats and those propelled by electric trolling motors. While fishing with McMillan, Sean Ford of Madison runs a trolling motor on his rig.

"My setup is pretty standard," said Ford. "We use a gas generator in the back of the boat to power either sodium or halogen lights.

"The platform will allow two of us to fish at the same time from the front as we ease along in shallow water with the trolling motor looking for fish to shoot."

 

Fishing grounds

Nearly all bow fishing is done at night when carp, buffalo and gar can be found holding in extremely shallow water. Buffalo and carp feed on aquatic vegetation, and are especially fond of newly planted areas that have recently flooded from spring rains. The larger-bodied fish like buffalo, grass carp and bighead carp tend to like cooler water temps, and spawn earlier in the year than gar species.

After the temperatures rise, carp may become scarce, but an abundance of shortnose gar, spotted gar and even catfish may remain in the shallows through the summer. Gar are the most commonly sought daytime species, and can be found "sunning" in shallow water or lurking near the surface over deeper water.

"Shallow grass flats are great places to bowfish," said Ford. "Anytime there's flooding, carp and buffalo will swim up on the new grass to feed.

"I've shot flooded food plots that were planted for deer but drew in carp when the water rose."

Ford suggests staying in water no deeper than 3 feet. Deeper water is difficult to see through, and fish tend to hold closer to the bottom. Getting arrow penetration is also tougher.

Just about any body of water will contain legal species for bowfishing, but the oxbow lakes of the Mississippi River, Yazoo River and the Big Black consistently offer great bowfishing. This list includes Yucatan Lake, Lake Ferguson, Chotard/Albermarle and Eagle Lake.

Upper reaches of big lakes like Barnett, Sardis and Enid are also possibilities. One often overlooked venue is the thousands of swampy acres within the national wildlife refuges.

"I love hunting up at Matthew's Brake," said McMillan. "It's one of the refuges in the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex. You buy a $12.50 annual use permit to get in there. It's basically an old river slough that is loaded with big carp and buffalo. It's a great place to shoot some big buffalo too. I've taken several out of there over 20 pounds."

 

Join the club

With the rise in popularity of bowfishing and the desire to meet with other bowfishermen, it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with the idea of forming a club and holding bowfishing competitions. Turcotte and Dan Prevost were two of 15 members who came together and founded the Bowfishing Association of Mississippi, more commonly known as BAM.

"During college, Dan and I would travel from Starkville to bowfish for carp at Eagle Lake," said Turcotte. "This is when we started to meet other people who had boats equipped for bowfishing.

"After a year or so of meeting our new friends on a regular basis while bowfishing, we began talking about forming a club. I guess you can say that our club was founded at the Chotard Landing boat ramp."

BAM was established in 2007 to promote the sport of bowfishing by providing a forum for communication, to provide structural means of support for annual and semi-annual bowfishing tournaments and to facilitate fellowship among likeminded outdoorsmen. BAM has grown to over 70 members across the state, and averages six competitive events per year.

"During the past five years, other members of BAM and myself have traveled all over the state seeking the best bowfishing waters," said Turcotte. "We hold our tournaments in the Mississippi River oxbows and other oxbows found in the Delta.

"We have also begun to host tournaments on some of the Corps lakes such as Sardis and Enid. This will be the second year that BAM has hosted a tournament at Pickwick Lake."

Membership to the club is $15 per year, and tournament entry fees range from $30 to $75 depending on the size of the event. Tournaments are based on either heaviest weights for a designated number of fish or by total number of fish taken during an allotted time period.