Bowfishing Lake Eufaula

Bowfishing is a great way for archers to hone their skills while helping reduce invasive species from our waterways.

John N. Felsher | April 14, 2019

Out of the gloom, a large, scaly creature materialized at the water surface in the transition zone where a bubble of light merged into clutching darkness. Suddenly, a heavy barbed projectile flashed through the thick, humid air, smacking into the beast. Water churned as it went through its death throes. Another very large carp met its demise on Lake Eufaula, a 45,181-acre impoundment spanning the Georgia-Alabama line on the Chattahoochee River.

“I grew up near Lake Eufaula on the Georgia side,” remarked Mark Land, our airboat captain for the evening adventure and a nationally known archery expert. “We’d fish for bass in the morning with rods and reels. Later, we switched to shooting carp with bows. Typically, there’s a lot of action when bowfishing. We never know what we might see.”

Many sportsmen begin bowfishing because they want to extend their hunting opportunities. After deer season ends, they don’t want to put away their archery equipment until next fall. Instead, they just continue arrowing other game­—ones with fins and scales instead of hooves and fur!

“Bowfishing is kind of like bird hunting but combined with the thrill of big game hunting and sight fishing,” explained Mark Malfa, a veteran bowfisherman. “There’s a lot of shooting, and at any time something big can come along.”

In Georgia, archers can shoot non-game species in fresh water to thin populations of “rough” fish. Several carp species rank among the most popular targets for bowfishermen. Sometimes called German carp, common carp actually originated in China. They came to America in the 19th century and spread across the continent. Now, they populate most, if not all, freshwater systems in Georgia. Carp frequently become pests that muddy waters while eating game fish eggs and fry. Common carp can grow to more than 70 pounds, but some carp and buffalo species exceed 80 pounds.

Mark Land and Joella Bates, a world champion archer, show off a large carp she shot while bowfishing Lake Eufaula.

“Most states allow shooting of rough fish such as gar and carp,” Land commented. “Most state fisheries biologists totally favor harvesting these invasive species. Carp spawn about the same time and in the same places as largemouth bass. They are very aggressive with their spawning antics. Carp can absolutely destroy a prime bass bedding area and have a detrimental effect on spring spawning success. Common, or German, carp are almost like catfish. They will absolutely eat anything they can get in their mouths.”

Besides various carp species, archers in can shoot mullet, several garfish species, bowfin, eels, suckers, freshwater drum, buffalo and other non-game species. Georgia archers can arrow channel and flathead catfish only in the Savannah River, its tributaries and impoundments.

People can catch some rough species, such as bowfin, drum and garfish, on rod and reel tackle, but few anglers fish for them. Moreover, many rough species, such as grass carp, only eat vegetation or plankton, making them virtually impossible to catch on conventional tackle. Therefore, they receive almost no pressure except from bowfishermen.

“Asian carp are mostly vegetarian,” Land advised. “That makes them very difficult to catch. Occasionally, they might take a piece of bread. Bighead and silver carp are plankton feeders. They’re competing for the same food that the game fish fry and baitfish are eating. Silver carp are becoming a huge problem in many areas.”

Many archers prefer to bowfish at night. Serious bowfishing enthusiasts rig specially configured craft with raised shooting decks surrounded by battery-powered LED lights. Some people add safety rails and even bring small generators to power elaborate illumination systems.

To get started bowfishing, sportsmen need the proper equipment. An archer could use the same bow that brings down deer, but probably should get an inexpensive bow just for fishing. Most people use compound bows since they can more easily attach accessories to them, but many bowfishermen prefer recurves.

“I would not recommending breaking down a hunting bow to make it into a fishing bow,” Malfa counseled. “I’d get a bow just for fishing. Fishing bows are usually a little smaller. Sometimes, people can get an old bow at a pawnshop for less than $100, and it will work great for fishing.”

For sticking fish, sportsmen don’t need a bow powerful enough to knock down a monster whitetail buck at 40 yards. Most fishing shots occur at less than 10 yards, frequently less than 10 feet. Powerful bows could propel arrows completely through fish, even heavily armored garfish, or drive an arrow into the mud or a stump. If the arrow hits a rock or other hard object, it could break or make a dangerous deflection. Bowfishermen normally don’t need anything stronger than 40 pounds of pull.

In addition, bowfishermen don’t need sights that can tangle line playing out from a reel. In fact, sights might cause bowfishermen to miss. Archers need to learn to shoot instinctively and quickly because of physics.

Thicker than air, water creates more resistance when things pass through it—including light. Light passing through air into water slows down slightly and may even change direction. This creates an optical illusion. When an archer sees a fish in the water, that person doesn’t actually see the fish but a reflection of it on the surface. Because of the physics principle of “light refraction,” the actual fish may hover several feet beneath where the archer thinks it is.

To further complicate matters, the difference between virtual image seen on the surface and the actual fish increases or decreases according to the angle at which someone looks at it. When viewed at a lower angle, the distance between the image and the object increases. Bowfisherman must compensate by shooting where they believe the fish really is, not where they think they see the image. Some expert archers accustomed to arrowing various big-game animals at great distances embarrass themselves when shooting at fish barely a few feet away,

“The worst people I’ve ever tried to teach how to bowfish were seasoned tournament archers,” Land admonished. “They have a set routine and a precise shooting style that they’ve built up over the years. Their old habits will not allow them to shoot off target. When a fish is down deep, sometimes an archer has to shoot 3 or 4 feet below it. With really experienced shooters, their brains just won’t let them do that. Where to shoot varies depending upon depth, distance and angle. Aim very low and work from there.”

In the old days, bowfishermen would tape old spinning reel spools or other objects to their recurve bows to create a reel loaded with heavy twine. That worked, but archery equipment technology progressed far beyond that point today. Now, archers can choose from a wide variety of equipment specially made for different types of bowfishing. Some reels look like old pushbutton spin-cast reels. Others resemble plastic bottles that hold a lot of line with crank handles to retrieve it. Some reels use friction trigger systems to retrieve line. For line, use high visibility heavy-duty braided line instead of monofilament to withstand the force of the arrow carrying it.

“I started bowfishing as a kid with a fiberglass bow and a coffee can taped to it with monofilament line wrapped around it,” Land recalled. “I took a wooden arrow and drove a finish nail through it for a barb because I saw Fred Bear shoot fish on television. Today, people can buy a wide variety of reels designed specifically for bowfishing. I prefer the spin-cast reels because I believe they offer the best arrow flight and can handle the fish. With these reels, people can actually fight the fish with drag systems just like on conventional rod and reel tackle.”

For arrows, leave the broadheads at home. Pick specially designed fish arrows with heavy, durable fiberglass sinking shafts. Barbs keep fish from sliding off the arrow so use one with either a detachable head or one with retractable barbs to facilitate removing the arrow from the fish. Many fish arrows don’t come with feather fletchings but may use rubber or flexible plastic ones. Many bowfishermen use brightly colored arrows or add some colored tape to the shafts so they can see where they hit and find any arrows that might go astray.

“Bowfishermen need a bow and arrows designed for bowfishing and a reel that can hold an adequate amount of heavy line that will hold up to the rigors of shooting these heavy arrows,” Land recommended. “Arrows are typically fiberglass with a removable barbed point. We used high-strength braided line with small diameter so it shoots smoothly. It needs to handle the force of the bow shooting the area and the weight of the fish on the line.”

Many archers prefer to hunt fish at night. Serious bowfishing enthusiasts rig specially configured craft with raised shooting decks surrounded by battery-powered LED lights. Some people add safety rails and bring small generators to power elaborate illumination systems.

However, archers can hunt out of just about any stable shallow-draft craft. Many people hunt out of simple flatboats while others prefer airboats. Some people pole along the shorelines. Others maneuver quietly with the help of an electric trolling motor to sneak up on anything they can spot. For hunting at night, anglers could use lanterns, headlights or flashlights. Sometimes, a person with a flashlight serves as spotter and illuminator, allowing the archers to keep both hands free for shooting.

“I’ve bowfished from boats, the banks, by wading, from bridges and docks,” Land related. “I’ve shot fish out of kayaks and canoes, bass boats—anything that would get me close to fish! During the spring spawn, when carp are most active up in the shallows, we shoot just as many fish in the day as we do at night. At any other time, night is always best.”

In boats, people frequently hunt in teams. Someone poles or operates the trolling motor while others prepare to shoot. Hunting in teams can become a very social event, perhaps even a friendly competitive one. Shooters keep moving and generally see frequent action. They can talk and don’t need to sit still in a tree for long hours, making bowfishing an excellent way to introduce children to archery. In a good area, no telling what might materialize, especially at night.

“Bowfishing has a lot more action than sitting in a tree waiting for a deer to walk into range,” Malfa commented. “We see many fish. When hunting deer, people are usually alone and have to remain quiet. Bowfishing is a social sport. Fishermen can talk and have a good time. It’s a lot more relaxed. Shots are usually at much closer ranges and very quick.”

Georgia only allows bowfishing from sunrise to sunset except on reservoirs at least 500 acres in size. For hunting during daylight, many archers get out of their boats to walk the shallow flats and weedy lake shorelines. People in drier uplands can walk up the middle of a hard-bottomed creek looking for carp and other rough fish to arrow. A good pair of polarized sunglasses makes it easier to spot fish in daylight. At night, wade fishermen might use a battery-powered headlight.

When wading, keep movements to a minimum. Archers move along slowly and stealthily, keeping the sun to their backs to provide better illumination and so fish can’t see them as easily. If people can see fish, fish can see people. Pick a spot with shallow, clear water, hard bottoms for easy walking and excellent fish-attracting cover such as weeds, lily pads, fallen trees or other places where fish like to stay. Also try to go when very little wind blows. A breeze rippling the surface can make spotting fish and accurate shooting more difficult.

As archery and bowhunting grows in popularity, more hunters might want to extend their seasons through the warmer months. Instead of putting down their bows, they just pick up different ones and stalk another type of game.


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