I don’t fish.
I don’t have anything against fishing. In fact, I kind of like it—mainly because you’re expected to enjoy a cold one while taking in the great outdoors. The only reason I don’t fish more has to with that economic principle called opportunity cost. For every hour I go fishing, that’s an hour I don’t have available for shooting, and to me, an hour not shooting feels like a century and a half. Given the choice between going shooting or going fishing, I often opt for the former.
Consequently, I know less about fishing than I do Jivaro embalming techniques.
When I had the opportunity to learn a few things about bowfishing last week at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association’s (SEOPA) annual conference in Fontana Village, North Carolina, I jumped at the chance. Shoot fish? Heck yeah, count me in! It seemed like a very elegant solution to that whole pesky opportunity cost thing. I could shoot and fish at the same time. If I was lucky, there might even be a barrel involved.
Waiting on my departure time to the Fontana Lake marina for an outing on the Muzzy Broadheads adventure fish-slaying boat, I pondered whether it was appropriate to ask our guide, Mark Land, whether I could use a regular gun instead of a bow. In my view, it should be more or less the same as you’re trying to hit a swimming fish with a projectile. Plus, I’ve heard stories on the internet about ill-tempered carp jumping into boats, so I figured there was a good self-defense case, too. While I even offered to use a suppressed gun to keep the noise down, Mark insisted I use a compound bow. Gee, when a guy who works for an archery company offers to take you out for free, I guess he expects you to use his products. That was okay with me, though—it was still shooting, more or less.
Arriving at the marina, I glimpsed the Muzzy adventure boat. That’s my name, not theirs, and I call it that because it’s far more aqua-tactical than those Jungle Cruise boats you ride on at Disneyland. Muzzy uses this one to promote bowfishing, and it’s decked out not just for bowfishing tournaments, but optimized for photography and television production outings. I’m pretty sure it has a two trillion horsepower Mercury outboard. It’s also got a different twist on the air boat concept: a trolling fan. This allows slow travel, maybe eight miles per hour or so, in very shallow and grassy areas. Using the fan, this boat only needs about eight inches of water to operate, so you can chase fish into the most elusive of hiding spots. The boat is also decked out with more floodlights lights than Rikers Island Penitentiary. Those are for spotting fish in the prime hours after dark. In fact, Mark’s got so many lights rigged on the Muzzy boat that a separate gas generator is required to power them all. Getting started with a rig like this is cheap—it’ll only cost you about fifty grand.
The most common bowfishing targets in Fontana Lake are common carp and suckers. At first, I thought Mark has hazing the non-fishing guy and calling fish who were willing to catch arrows “suckers.” He eventually convinced me they’re a rough fish in the “couple of pounds” size range. They’re big enough to make excellent archery targets.
I got a pretty decent equipment orientation while we were waiting for the ever-present rain to stop—not that I mind going out in the rain. The problem with bowfishing in any type of precipitation is that it ripples the water, making it near-impossible to see the fish.
While waiting on the weather, Mark gave me a tour of their own purpose-built bowfishing reel. Muzzy developed what appears to be an oversized spinner that’s optimized for 100 feet of 200-pound Brownell Fast Flight or 150 feet of 150-pound Braided Spectra line. You can buy the Muzzy Xtreme Duty Bowfishing Reel for about fifty bucks, but you’ll still need a reel mount, line, carbon fiber arrows, and fish points. One thing we found out was the value of using lighted arrow nocks. Those are the notched attachments at the pullin’ end of the arrow where you jam it onto the bowstring. Whether it’s light or dark out, it’s a heck of a lot easier to see your arrow in the water when it glows.
My next big lesson was that bowfishing requires attention to safety, just like shooting. Besides the obvious potential safety hazards of launching arrows across the bow, there’s another potential gotcha. Well, since I’d rather not get the nock end of an arrow jammed through my eyeball, I consider it a hazard. Since a spinner reel locks the line until you press the release button, it’s possible to fire an arrow that’s attached to a locked reel. If you have enough slack in the line to allow a full draw, you can let that arrow fly, at which point it will get yanked backward towards your face when the slack runs out. For this reason, Mark gave us all a good procedural lesson: always keep tension on the line between its attachment point near the arrow nock and the reel. Hit the button release just before firing. With no slack, you won’t be able to draw the bow without the motion being stopped by the locked reel. You can get nifty attachments for your arrows like safety slides to help alleviate this problem, but the procedural solution seemed to make sense to me—like keeping your finger off the trigger on a regular gun. Never rely on mechanical devices and all that.
As a gun guy, aiming a compound bow was a new experience, but with a little instruction, I didn’t have too much trouble. Like shooting, experience plays a big role when it comes to practical accuracy. Unlike air, which I’m used to shooting through, water distorts the point of impact so you have to use some good old “Atlantis windage” and aim well below the fish. How much? “You’ll figure it out,” Mark assured me. I was overflowing with confidence from that helpful tip.
Results? Well, umm, the rain prevented us from nailing any fish worthy of embellished stories, but we did manage to scare the hell out of a number of freshwater jellyfish. But I’m not disappointed, it was enough to get me hooked.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Images by Tom McHale