Bowfishing is an exciting way to spend some quality time on the water.
It was a Dark and Exciting Night
The sunset a few hours before had been gorgeous. The surface of the water had reflected the pinks and golds at the end of another fine hot summer day in Alabama.
Right now, however, everything was dark, dark except for the bright, focused lights of a small boat that created a pool of glowing brilliance in the otherwise black nighttime water.
A bowfisher stood on the bow of the boat as it was quietly maneuvered along the shoreline. Suddenly, the bowfisher stood taller and peered into the water as the bow and fish arrow were raised to shooting position. Sure enough, something was there moving slowly across the patch of light in the water, and it was big.
A shot was made, angler and fish contact was made, and the quiet of the dark night was shattered as a big fish made a loud commotion in the vicinity of the light-equipped boat. After a short but very active struggle, the big fish was pulled to the boat and lifted over the side and into the bottom where it joined a few other big fish which had been taken earlier.
The bowfisher carefully removed the point from the arrow and slid the big fish out of the way. Then the arrow and its line were prepared for another wet battle.
This scene was a nice change of pace from the bright sun, super-hot temperatures, and crowded lakes and coastlines of daytime rod-and-reel fishing on Alabama’s waters. No crowds, much more comfortable fishing conditions, and best of all lots of big fish to be taken. All combine to make bowfishing a good call for summertime anglers who want to have some late-night fun.
How to do this Bowfishing thing
Bowfishing in Alabama can be effectively done day or night, from a boat or from shore in some cases. It’s the kind of hunting/fishing that has a good possibility of success nearly any time of the day.
However, we must admit that most bowfishers do their best work at night. And they fish from specially tricked-out boats.
Once the beginning bowfisher is equipped (we’ll look more on that topic later), the trick to successful bowfishing is to practice, practice, and then practice a bunch more. That’s because shooting fish from a position above the water calls for dealing with a problematic situation called “refraction.”
Refraction happens when we see an object below the surface of the water. The water works something like a lens. It changes the light waves coming from the objects we see. The distance to the fish, the depth of the water, and even the height of the bowfisher make a difference in how much refraction occurs.
What all of this means is that if we shoot at a fish in the water like a normal person would—right at the target we see—we will most certainly miss our quarry. Correcting for water-caused refraction requires that the bowfisher shoot low—sometimes very low. Only practice shooting in a range of water conditions will tell the bowfisher just how far below the target to hold for a good shot.
Captain Jason Mallette of Liquid Trails, a bowfishing charter service out of Orange Beach, advises bowfishers, “Draw to the target. That gets the left and right part of aiming taken care of. Then, aim low. Don’t hold on the target too long. Make a quick shot within three seconds of draw.”
Once the fish is shot and the arrow is in place, it’s just a matter of hauling the fish in. This sounds easy, but when a big fish is stuck by an arrow, it usually is somewhat upset and inclined to resent being pulled into the boat. This is actually the fun part of bowfishing.
Wrestling with a strong and lively fish can be hard work, pretty messy, totally wet, and filled with confused yells for help from the shooter and advice from his buddies aboard. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun?
Bowfishers in freshwater can take carp, buffalo, gar and many other invasive or exotic species. Most of these fish overpopulate waterways, and usually there is no limit; check with the local game and fish folks to make sure before you shoot.
In saltwater, Captain Jason Mallette tells us that bowfishers can take rays, mackerel, sharks, flounders and even cobia by bow. These saltwater fish are all edible, and some are first-rate table fare. Lionfish is an invasive species in the Gulf you can target.
The range of potential targets in any water anywhere in Alabama is wide open. Of course, game fish are off limits, so make sure of the target before letting the arrow loose.
What Kind of Equipment?
Perhaps more than any other kind of bow hunting, bowfishing allows shooters to use equipment that suits them without worrying too much about draw weight. Most shots taken while bowfishing are short range, so lighter draw bows work just fine.
By the way, this short-range shooting and light-draw bows make bowfishing a great way to introduce kids and beginning archers to the sport of bow hunting.
“A bit of advice to bow hunters who want to use their deer hunting compound bow on the salt water—don’t do it.”
Captain Mallette says, “We pretty much use a compound bow and we adjust it down to 20 or 30-pound draw to match the angler’s strength.”
A bit of advice to bow hunters who want to use their deer hunting compound bow on the salt water—don’t do it. Even if the bow never actually gets in the saltwater, there is enough salt in the air and from fish splashes to get on the bow, and salt water does bad things to delicate metal parts. Get a dedicated fishing bow.
Some bowfishing folks use classic recurve bows, but using an heirloom bow is not recommended because bowfishing is hard on equipment, and a valuable wooden recurve bow could be damaged in only a single season.
Captain Bryan Hughes of Backwater Outdoors, the world’s largest volume bowfishing retailer says, “For bowfishing you’ll need a bow of 30 to 50-pound draw, and bowfishing reel setup (we use the Muzzy bowfishing reel, 2000-pound Fast Flight line, a Muzzy reel seat, and Muzzy Fish Hook rest. A few bowfishing arrows (Muzzy carp point arrows are what we use) and you’re ready to go bowfishing.”
Setting up a dedicated bowfishing boat is somewhat involved. Lights for night fishing must be carefully placed so that shooters get the best benefit of light-spread for good shots at fish.
“My bowfishing boat is a 198 wide-model Carolina Skiff with a welded aluminum light rail with shooting stool,” Captain Mallete says. “I have ten lights—six 250 watt halogen lights and four 50 watt LED lights. The lights all run off a Honda 2000 generator.
Captain Bryan Hughes says, “Most bowfishing in the South is done at night because of the heat and boat traffic of the summer. Most people use a flat bottom type jon boat powered with a trolling motor, kicker motor outboard, or air fan to troll the shallows looking for fish. Airboats are also popular, but they use a lot of fuel and require a good deal of maintenance. Airboats and air fans don’t have a prop down in the water, so you can glide over grass or obstacles.”
Where are Good Places to go?
Generally, lakes and rivers that are good for rod-and-reel fishing are also good for bowfishing. Lake Guntersville is world famous for its big bass, but it’s also very good for bowfishing.
Captain Bryan Hughes tells us, “Lake Guntersville offers some of the best freshwater bowfishing in the United States. You can shoot large common carp up to 35 pounds, grass carp up to 85 pounds, buffalo up to 75 pounds, gar up to five feet long, bowfin, drum, and catfish up to 60 pounds.”
In the saltwater, Captain Mallete says that both inshore bays and bayous of coastal Alabama as well as the open Gulf can be very good for bowfishing.
“If it’s a really low tide, shooting won’t be too good, especially in summer. An incoming or high tide is best.”
“It depends on the weather and tide,” he says. “On low tides, we can shoot in water a foot to two and a half feet deep. On high tides, we can shoot as much as six feet deep. In the open Gulf, we shoot in a foot and a half over the bars and up to six feet deep in open water. Perfect conditions are winds less than ten knots, and clear water. If the water is murky, chop is a problem; it makes it hard to see the fish.”
Mallette continues, “If it’s a really low tide, shooting won’t be too good, especially in summer. An incoming or high tide is best. On a good bar on a good tide, shooters can collect 200 to 400 pounds of rays.”
Who Can Help Us Get Started?
The best way to learn any skill is by spending some time with someone who is already good at it. This is especially true for bowfishing. Trying to get in the bowfishing game with no experienced help to give direction can lead to frustration.
Both Captain Malette (251-979-3550) and Double D Outfitters on Lake Guntersville (256-776-9109) would be happy to take a beginner fishing and show how bowfishing is done, and offer some good professional advice on equipment and improvement of skills.
After the Bowfishing is Over, What Happens to the Fish?
It is possible for a small group of skilled shooters to collect several hundred pounds of fish in a single night. Some of the fish taken on bowfishing trips are quite good for consumption, and most of these go home with the shooters. But what about the other, less desirable fish? Captain Malette sums up the actions taken by the great majority of bowfishers in Alabama. “Nothing goes to waste,” he says. “The rays we shoot are used for shark bait. All of the fish unwanted for consumption can be used for crab trap bait. The crabbers are happy to get a good supply of free trap bait. Also, many anglers like to dress out and eat the rays and shark we shoot.”
For gardeners, a load of carp or other non-game fish buried in a garden makes some of the best fertilizer possible. Bury the fish deep and look at next year’s veggies when they respond to the fish fertilizer.
Important contact information:
Captain Jason Mallette
Captain Brian Hughes