Bowfishing: What to Know Before You Go

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Video bow fishing for carp

Brodie Swisher

“You think we can make it back to the boat ramp?” The question came from my good friend as we found ourselves riding out a storm on Kentucky Lake. With my young boys on board the boat, it’s a question I didn’t take lightly. We had been bowfishing for a few hours when the weather forecast changed from a slight chance of rain, to severe storms in the area. We found shelter from the wind in a small pocket off the main river, but with more storms on the way, we knew we needed to get off the lake. However, when we attempted to navigate our way back up the river to the boat ramp, we quickly realized the impact of the storm’s fury. Things got western in a hurry.

bowfishing boat lit up

With the wind and waves slamming the side of our boat, I told my buddy to stay within eyesight of the bank. I at least wanted a fighting chance to swim, if the boat went down. My boys tucked down low in the boat and held on.

Once we cleared the main channel and got back out of the wind, the burden of a bad situation seemed to be easing its grip. We went from praying for survival, to thanking God for deliverance. It’s an adventure my boys and I still talk about to this day. But it’s also an adventure that could have been avoided with a little more knowledge of where we were and what we needed to do.

Bowfish long enough, and you’ll realize the best and worst of times can happen in a hurry – even on the same night. You better be prepared. Here’s a look at what you need to know before you go on your next bowfishing trip.

How to Get There and Get Back

I say the story above was avoidable because there were other alternatives that would have helped us dodge the situation we found ourselves in that night. While the wind and waves were manageable where we were, everything changed when we got back out in the river’s main channel. The river was raging, and the waves could have easily capsized our boat.

Brodie Swisher boys after bowfishing storm
Relieved to be safe after the storm.

Unfortunately, under the cover of darkness, it can be hard to realize a bad situation until you’re in the middle of it. We failed to have a backup plan. There were other boat ramps that would have allowed us a safer entry and exit. We should have called a friend or family member to meet us and shuttle us back around to pick up the boat trailer. The bottom line – know how to safely access where you’re going, as well as how to get back, should things go south.

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OnX is a great tool to help you navigate the lake while bowfishing. Even under the black of night, the OnX app can help you safely get back home.

For a limited time, onX Maps is offering a 20% discount code only for Mossy Oak’s fans toward the purchase of its revolutionary GPS mapping tool designed specifically for hunters. Go to onxmaps.com and use the promo code, “mossyoak” to receive 20% off the normal price of onX’s Premium or Elite memberships.

What Fish You Can Shoot

I’ll never forget standing on the boat deck, camera in hand, watching one of today’s “lady-hunting-celebrities” attempting to shoot her first fish with a bow. The guide told her, “Don’t be bashful. Just grip it and rip it!” However, after launching several arrows at trophy bass, he quickly changed his tune.

“You need to stop!” he said, realizing he had never explained to her that game fish weren’t up for grabs when bowfishing. “You can’t be shooting bass and crappie!”

Be sure to check your state’s fishing guidelines, and know the difference in game fish and rough fish that are the target species for bowfishing (carp, gar, buffalo, drum, silvers, etc.).

boys bowfishing carp

Your Boat/Motor is Working Properly

You can bet that if something is going to go wrong with your boat, motor, or trailer, it’s gonna happen at the worst possible time. Breakdowns on the middle of the lake, or the side of the highway – at midnight – seem to be the norm. It’s of the utmost importance that you ensure your boat, motor, trailer, and vehicle are performing like they should. Do you have extra gas on board? Are your lights working properly? Are the batteries charged? These are the basics you’ll want to know before you go – every time.

Be sure to have the necessary tools for repairs. A tool kit on your boat is a lifesaver. Keep a small bucket on board to bail water if things get ugly and your bilge pump quits working. Do you have a spare trailer tire and tools to make a change? Again, if it can go wrong, it certainly will while you’re bowfishing. Be prepared.

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How Much Gas is in the Tank

There’s no room for assumptions when you’re on the lake. Make sure your gas tank has more than enough fuel for the journey. You don’t want to get stuck with, “just enough.” Nor do you want to be limited by a gas tank that’s running low.

It’s also important to keep fresh fuel in the tank. It may be full, but if it’s leftover fuel from last year, you’re likely setting yourself up for failure. Keep it fresh – and full.

Aim Low

If there’s one rule to shooting success when bowfishing, it’s to aim low. Even if you think you’re aiming low enough, aim a little lower. Shooting over the top of the fish is easily the most common mistake in the game.

Why is this?

Shooting fish with a bow requires you to account for light refraction. Light distorts the placement of the fish. It’s misleading. It may appear deeper, or shallower, than you think. Either way, the key is to aim low to account for this refraction. The deeper the fish, the lower you’ll need to aim.

Brodie Swisher bowfishing carp

Polarized Sunglasses are a Must

When bowfishing during the day, polarized sunglasses are a must. Do they have to be polarized? Is it really that big a deal? Yes! Polarized glasses will make or break your daytime bowfishing experience. These glasses cut down on the water’s glare, allowing you to see fish below the surface.

Compare them to an unpolarized pair of glasses, and you’ll quickly realize the advantage of wearing them while bowfishing. Regardless of whether it’s sunny, or cloudy, these glasses allow you to see what you would otherwise miss. Don’t leave home without them.

How to Make Bowfishing Gear Repairs

Don’t let breakdowns with your bowfishing gear put you out of the game. Know how to make repairs to your bow, arrows, reels, and line. Your tool kit should include an Allen tool, multi-tool, extra bowfishing line, extra fish point, adhesives, lighter, portable bow press, and anything else you might need in a pinch.

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A spare bow and plenty of arrows is a good idea to keep you rolling, even when you have gear breakdowns in the middle of the action.

You Need a License

Don’t forget your license! Bowfishing delivers the best of both worlds when it comes to hunting and fishing. At times, there’s confusion as to whether you need a hunting or fishing license. Just know, bowfishing is considered fishing. And even though you’ll be shooting non-game fish, you still need a fishing license.

Be sure to check your local state regulations for license requirements for both kids and adults for bowfishing in your area.

How to Dispose of Fish

With the exception of gar, many of the fish taken while bowfishing are frowned upon because of their invasive qualities that are detrimental to the waterways. You’ll often hear them referred to as “trash fish.” For that reason, seldom are these brought to the table for dining. Disposal of these fish can be accomplished in several ways.

Some state agencies suggest slitting the belly of the fish with a knife and letting them sink in deep water. Other fish, turtles, birds, and aquatic critters will thank you for it. Some folks will haul their fish out and use them for fertilizer in and around their gardens for high-quality, organic compost. The bottom line – don’t leave these fish laying around the lake or boat ramp where others have to see or smell them.

And if you do find yourself feeling curious, you can certainly prepare these fish for the table. Carp ribs, gar balls, and buffalo nuggets can all turn out surprisingly nice with the right amount of seasoning. And you just might be impressed at how white, tender, and flaky the much-hated Asian carp can be after a few minutes in the grease.

Now that you know, it’s time to go! Don’t miss out on the abundance of shooting opportunities bowfishing is sure to provide this summer. Grab the gear, get together with friends, and enjoy one of the greatest outdoor pursuits you can experience all spring and summer long.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>