Bowfishing: The Complete Guide
Jun 3, 2020 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

For years, bowfishing was considered an archery enthusiast’s game, or a bowhunter’s offseason fad. But over the last decade or so, this fishing technique has become a beloved sport for thousands of outdoor lovers. Fun and unique, bowfishing requires absolutely no previous angling experience, making it perfect for newbie fishers. If you’re looking to make your first bowfishing steps, you’ve come to the right place.

a bowfisher aiming his recurve bow from a boat

What is Bowfishing?

As you might have guessed, bowfishing is hunting fish using a bow and arrow. Sounds simple enough, right? Perhaps, but bowfishing comes with a few twists here and there. At first glance, bowfishing is almost the same as bowhunting, but there are a few key differences.

Bowfishing targets are typically much, much, closer than the ones you’d find in the woods. With no need for long-range shooting skills, beginners find it very easy to get into the sport. Not only that, the close quarter shooting takes away much of the need for specialized equipment, too.

Still, that doesn’t mean that bowfishing doesn’t have its own nuances. You are targeting a moving underwater creature, after all. In this guide, we’ll cover the species you can expect to catch, go through the gear you’ll need, show you a few bowfishing techniques you’ll want to know about, and more. 

Three bowfishers on a boat

By the time you’ve read this article, there’ll be nothing between you and a memorable bowfishing adventure. Let’s jump right into it.

Where Can You Bowfish?

Bowfishing can take place in a variety of waters, as long as they’re shallow and reasonably transparent. From lakes and reservoirs, to rivers and streams, you can bowfish pretty much in any type of freshwater. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t give the old bow and arrow a try in saltwater, as well. Shallow flats, estuaries and bays can be a great place to shoot ‘em up.

All these waters are what hunters like to call “target-rich environments”. In plain English, that means plenty of target practice, and plenty of fish to catch!

bowfisher aiming from a boat on a river
A typical bowfishing setting

The Gulf coast of Louisiana and Florida are two of the most popular bowfishing hotspots in the US. The Mississippi, Missouri, and Trinity River are all teeming with fish, and are extremely popular among bowfishers. North of the border, the mighty St Lawrence River is a bowfisher’s paradise.

Boat or Shore?

The great thing about bowfishing is that wading a riverbank can be just as productive as meandering inshore flats on a boat or kayak. If you do decide to hop on a motorboat, make sure you go out on a vessel with a shallow hull. This will allow you to get to the best bowfishing grounds.

Nowadays, you can find flat boats with specialized bowfishing platforms, downward-facing lights, and many other amenities.

What can you catch?

Contrary to what you might think, you can’t just grab a bow and shoot any random fish in the water. In most states, bowfishing for game species is illegal. Still, that doesn’t mean that you’ll have trouble finding a fish to catch. 

In freshwater, bowfishers typically start their “careers” hunting Carp. From Common Carp, through Bighead, to Grass Carp, newbies will have their work cut out for them. Hunting these species won’t just earn you a nice meal, mind you. Carp are one of the most invasive freshwater species in the country, and by catching them, you’ll be doing the environment a giant favor, too.

a carp underwater, carp are one of the most common bowfishing catches
Carp are among the most invasive freshwater fish

Garfish are another freshwater staple. Shortnose, Longnose, Spotted and Alligator Gar are all popular catches, and are legal for bowfishing in most states. Tilapia is another popular target, as well as Drum. Throw Catfish and Buffalo in the mix for good measure, and you’ve already got a decent menu on your hands.

In saltwater, bowfishers can target some truly exciting nearshore species. Flounder is the obvious choice for most people, but you can also target Sheepshead and even smaller Sharks! Bowfishers In Louisiana are particularly lucky, because in addition to these, they can legally catch Redfish, too.

a smiling young boy holding a his bowfishing catch, a sheepshead fish

Bowfishing Gear

Compared to bowhunting gear, bowfishing equipment doesn’t need to be as complex or sophisticated. There are a few items that are specialized for this type of fishing, but you won’t need to break the bank to get your hands on them. The most important items you should have are your bow, arrows and reel. 

Bows

Obviously, the bow is an important part of a bowfisher’s arsenal. Thankfully, any recurve or compound bow will do, especially if you’re a beginner. There are pros and cons to each type of bow, but in the end, things come down to personal preference.

four fishing bows laid out on a grassy bank

Recurve bows are the more old-school option of the two – they are essentially traditional bows with tips curved to the front for power. They are lighter and easier to maintain, but require more strength and are slightly less precise than the mechanical compound bows.

What some archers and bowhunters get wrong is that they use their heavy duty bows for bowfishing. The thing is, you’re hunting critters just a few feet away. In most cases, a bow with 30-40 pounds of draw weight will be more than enough.

a closeup of a compound bow

What your bow should have is the ability to support a reel and an arrow rest. And that’s about it. No fancy scopes needed. Again, this is just close quarter shooting we’re talking about. The “bare bones” approach isn’t just about saving money, mind you. Shedding the extra weight will save your arms a lot of effort, and that will do wonders for your accuracy.

Nowadays, you can find a number of ready-made bow packages, which have all the gear pre-attached to them. Buying one of these might be the easiest option for most people.

Reels

The reel can make or break your bowfishing success. There are three types of reels out there, each with its pros and cons. These are the hand reel, the bottle reel, and the spincast reel. Let’s take a look at each type.

Hand Reel

The simplest type of bowfishing reel is the hand reel. The ol’ faithful of the bowfishing world, this guy is nothing more than a drum with a line spool around it. Once you’ve shot your arrow, all you need to do is grab your line and roll it around the drum as you pull. Hopefully with a fish on the other end.

Not only is the hand reel simple to use, there’s literally nothing about it that can break. It’s also the most affordable type of reel. By a longshot. The drum reel is a popular choice among the traditional bowfishers, and it goes well with recurve bows.

The downside to the hand reel is that it requires heavier lines, and a lot more manual work compared to other types. Pulling a line with your bare hands will leave a mark, so make sure you have gloves on if you’re using this reel. Lastly, retrieving lines is a lot slower with hand reels, so you better hit the target on your first try.

Bottle Reel

The bottle reel is probably the most popular bowfishing reel out there. They are reliable, and generally make life a lot easier than hand reels. On one side, you have a bottle which serves to house your line. On the other, you have a handle, just like on any other fishing reel.

bowfisher aiming down

Like hand reels, bottle reels typically use heavier lines. You won’t have a problem pulling your line, but accurate longshots could pose a challenge. 

Spincast Reel

Spincast reels are what many consider the cream of the crop. It’s essentially a proper fishing reel mounted on a bow, and most anglers find using it comes quite naturally. Spincast reels allow you to retrieve your line faster than any other reel. And because they use thinner line, you can work those long shots with much greater accuracy.

Bowfishing army man aiming down at the water near Tyndall Air Force Base

The downside to spincast reels is their price. They can also be a nuisance to clean and maintain. For this reason, they might not be the best option for novice bowfishers. If you’re a competitive bowfisher, however, this is probably the choice for you.

Arrows

Just like bows, bowfishing arrows are something you can buy pre-made, or customize to your own liking. There are a ton of varieties out there, but all are made out of three components: the shaft, the point, and the nock. 

We know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. Using hunting or archery arrows is a bad idea. The fletching on these arrows can steer a submerged arrow in the wrong direction, resulting in a missed shot. The two components you should keep an eye on when choosing an arrow are shaft material, and type of tip.

Arrow Material

There are three types of bowfishing arrow shafts out there: fiberglass, carbon, and hybrid. All are heavy and sturdy enough to keep enough power underwater to penetrate fish. However, if you’re after larger game, carbon shafts are the better option. The only downside is that they come at a much higher price.

Arrow Points

When it comes to choosing the arrow point, it’s all about the species you’re after. These arrows all come with barbed tips. The barbs are there to make sure that the arrow sits in place while you’re dragging the fish to shore. However, they are not all the same.

a closeup of a man replacing a bowfishing arrow tip

If you’re after bigger fish, like Carp, you’ll want an arrow point that doesn’t need to come clear out of the fish to “set” its barbs. The arrow might stop somewhere inside the fish, and you want to still be able to pull it out. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a fish that’s hard-scaled, you’d better use a sharper, pointier tip, so that you can penetrate its skin.

Arrow Rest

This one’s pretty simple. The arrow rest is a stabilizer which keeps your arrow still as you line up your shot. There are several shapes and sizes out there, but there’s nothing too fancy about them. But the one thing you lefties should know is that there are ambidextrous arrow rests out there. 

Safety

Bowfishing happens quickly. Often, you find yourself in a heart-pounding fire-reel-fire loop, where it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening. If you don’t pay attention, your line could tangle, or slide anywhere around the structure of the bow. If this happens, and you fire your shot, there’s a good chance that your arrow will snap back, potentially seriously injuring you or someone nearby.

This is why it’s crucial to have something called a safety slide. A safety slide is a simple contraption that moves down the shaft of your arrow, bringing your line to the front, thus preventing any tangles. This piece of equipment isn’t mandatory, but it’s highly recommended that you use one, especially if you’re a beginner.

Now, let’s get to the fun part.

How to Bowfish

Compared to other fishing techniques, bowfishing isn’t what you’d call “difficult”. With practice, and a few practical tricks up your sleeve, you can become as good as just about anyone. The two main factors you’ll want to consider are stealth, and aiming.

Stealth

Bowfishing is almost exclusively done at close range, and in shallow waters. The thing is, fish that reside in such waters tend to spook very easily. This is why slipping into your target’s quarter unnoticed is extremely important. This is especially true if you’re fishing from the shore or wading. 

a wading bowfisher aiming with his recurve bow

Thankfully, with a few cues in mind, you can creep up to the most wary of critters. 

  • If you’re moving in from the shore, move slowly and watch out for any twigs or branches on the ground, or anything else that might make a sound if you step on it. 
  • Avoid casting a shadow over the fish you’re trying to catch. 
  • If you’re wading or moving in on a vessel, try not to stir the water too much. 
  • If possible, make your approach from upwind.

Aiming

Now, here comes the skill part of bowfishing. To explain it, we’ll need to go over a very brief physics lesson. 

Water is denser than air, and because of that, light travels through it differently. When light waves hit the water, they refract (or bend). In practice, this means that any underwater object you’re looking at is not actually where it appears to be. It’s lower. 

a bowfisher aiming down at the water

To hit your target, you’ll need to aim below it, and probably more than your instinct will tell you. Bowfishers have a saying “aim low, then aim lower”. It won’t take long for you to realize how true this is. Knowing just how low you should aim will come with experience. Still, there are a couple rules to help you start out.

  • Aiming 6 inches lower. This is a simple but effective cue, particularly useful for beginners.
  • The 10–4 rule. Slightly more advanced, this rule says that you should aim four inches low for every ten feet of distance, to hit a fish that’s a foot underwater. If the distance doubles or the fish is twice as deep in the water, aim twice as low. 
an infographic showing light refraction through the water. a bowfisher aiming down at a fish underwater

To become a master marksman, you’re going to need a lot of practice. Thankfully, with bowfishing, things couldn’t be easier. All you need is a body of water, your gear, and a simple plastic bottle to submerge.

Gradually, you’ll develop your own instinctive feel for aiming. In time, your accuracy will improve to the point where aiming will become second nature.

When to Bowfish

In terms of seasonality, bowfishing is best during the spring spawns, or during summer. During these warm months, you can catch fish at almost any time of the day. 

a bowfisher holding a Ray on a fishing boat. Rays are a commong bowfishing catch

Many bowfishers like to hunt during early morning, or at dusk, because this is when the fish are most active. Of course, some days will be more productive than others. But to get the best results, you’ll want to go out when the waters are calm, and visibility is at its best. That means clear skies, and no winds.

Others will opt for hunting at night. Bowfishing after sundown is very popular among boat fishers. These outings happen on specialized bowfishing boats, equipped with downfacing lights. The lights illuminate the shallow waters, giving you an exceptionally clear view of the hunting grounds.

Shoot Your Shot

Bowfishing is one of the most addictive ways to catch fish, period. It’s easy to learn, and better yet, you can find a good spot almost anywhere in the country. It’s one of the few fishing techniques that allows you to catch a tasty dinner, help the environment, and have loads of fun doing it!

two bowfishers on a small boat, fishing with the sunset in the background

And that covers it. What’s your favorite thing about bowfishing? Any tips we might have missed? Let us know in the comments below!

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