One of the most fun, effective, and challenging methods for harvesting Asian carp, or similar species of fish, is that of bowfishing. In recent years, since the Asian carp population explosion, bowfishing has become wildly popular! Bowfishing can be done from a boat, a canoe or kayak, or on foot, stalking the shorelines. No matter if you’re fishing from land or on the water though, bowfishing is basically done by first spotting the fish, then accurately shooting a specially designed arrow through it, and finally, successfully landing it…all of which can be quite challenging! In this blog article, we’ll take a look at the basics of bowfishing, specifically in regard to Asian carp: from essential gear to proven bowfishing tactics.
Overview of Asian Carp
Before we get into the specifics of bowfishing, lets first take a look at the fish themselves…in this case the Asian carp. I’ve done many other videos on Asian carp and have written a complete guide book on the subject that goes into much greater detail, but to offer a quick overview, there are four species of Asian carp: the silver carp, the bighead carp, the grass carp, and the black carp; all of which are a major threat to native fish populations and wildlife habitat and are currently causing unprecedented ecological chaos.
The black carp looks similar to the grass carp but is the least prevalent and most elusive of the four Asian carp species. Black carp are primarily bottom feeders who eat mussels and snails, thus, unless they’re present in very shallow water, they’re usually not a major target for bowfishing.
The silver and bighead carp, whose population equals that of a biblical plague, are a major target for bowfishing. As filter feeders, the silver and bighead species tend to hang out in shallower depths, sometimes right under, or even on, the water’s surface as they feed on plankton…making them fairly easy to spot in the right conditions.
Finally, the grass carp, who can eat up to 2-3 times their body weight a day in aquatic vegetation…resulting in massive native fish and wildlife habitat destruction…is another primary target for bowfishing, as they regularly hang out in very shallow water, often right along the bank.
The Best Conditions for Bowfishing
The best time of year to bowfish for Asian carp is in the late spring and summer months, as the fish tend to move into shallower water to feed and spawn. Bright sunny days with little or no wind are generally the best, which are optimal conditionals for spotting the fish. And, while early morning and evening hours can certainly produce some great fishing, the midday hours are among the most productive, as the more direct sunlight helps immensely with seeing fish. Cloudy, windy, rainy days are pretty much a waste of time, as precipitation and high winds make spotting the fish virtually impossible.
Spotting Asian Carp
The first step in bowfishing is to spot and clearly identify your target, but before that, you need to know where to go fishing in the first place. If you don’t know where some potentially good locations may be for bowfishing Asian carp in your area, a quick call to your local Conservation or Fish & Game Department will most likely provide you with a wealth of information. It’s also good to check on what areas are open to bowfishing, as there are restrictions in some places.
Once you have a potentially good location for your bowfishing efforts it’s time to start looking for the fish. As I mentioned earlier, Asian carp are extremely wary and startle very easily, so when you’re scouting around for fish, move slowly and quietly, and be sure to have a good pair of polarized sunglasses to be able to better spot the fish under the surface of the water.
Asian carp can be difficult to spot, as they often live in muddy, turbulent environments. So first of all, begin your fish scouting efforts in areas where the water is fairly calm and somewhat shallow. If there’s good visibility or at least some clarity to the water and there’s not a lot of wind disturbing the surface, you’ll be able to see the fish fairly well if they’re around. But, you’ll also have to be patient. When you find a potentially good spot, stay put for a while and see if any fish move through the area or surface before heading on down the line.
Asian Carp Sign
What you’ll be specifically looking for when trying to spot Asian carp, especially in not-so-clear water conditions, are the fish feeding, moving around, or holding still fairly close to the surface. This might only look like a dark, submarine-like shape slowly rising up or going down, and sometimes accompanied by pulsating, concentric rings made by the sucking motion of the Asian carp while they’re filter-feeding or eating vegetation. Other times you might only be able to spot the fish by a long, dark sliver of color moving through the water, which is the top of the fish’s back. Another means of spotting the fish is what’s know as “ghosting,” which is when a relatively quick, pale or silvery color flashes under the water when the carp are moving around. So again, be patient and really spend some time analyzing the water.
An important word of caution in regard to spotting Asian carp, it’s critical to clearly identify your target! In muddy water where the fish are hard to see, keep in mind that other species of fish, along with turtles and even diving/swimming waterfowl can be the source of those underwater manifestations, dark shapes, and flashing colors. Don’t take a shot unless you’re 100% certain it’s a target fish. Like any other outdoor skill, the more you bowfish and spend time in Asian carp country, the easier and more accurately you’ll be able to clearly identify what you’re looking for. A final option for clearly identifying Asian carp in stained water conditions is to fish at night and use a bright halogen spotlight. The intense light significantly illuminates the water making it easy to spot and shoot a target fish.
Taking the Shot
A great way to stack the odds in your favor when closing in on Asian carp to get within bow range is to use camouflage clothing. This could be a matter of wearing one of the many camo patterns that are available on the market and matching it to the environment in which you’ll be fishing, or wearing “earth-toned” clothing to blend into your surroundings. For example, if you are bowfishing along a river channel that has nothing but big, bleached out boulders and rocks everywhere, you might simply want to wear white or gray-colored clothing, or, some of the new “fish camo” patters that are on the market these days. If bowfishing in a wetland swamp area, camo patterns used by duck hunters work well. The bottom line is to simply match the color and contrast of your clothing to the environment in which you’ll be fishing…and don’t forget to always move slooooooooowly and quietly!
An additional method for minimizing your presence and significantly silencing your approach is to bowfish out of a canoe or kayak. When quietly gliding along in such a vessel, you can float right over the top of schools of Asian carp, even in shallow water, and not startle them at all, or at least very little.
When it comes to actually taking the shot, keep in mind that the diffraction of sunlight hitting the water causes an optical illusion of the fish being shallower than it actually is. One must always aim low! Keep in mind too, once you let that arrow fly, whether you connect or not, all the fish in the area will disperse instantaneously. So after the shot, you’ll have to let the carp regroup or hunt down another school.
As far as suggestions for connecting with fish regularly with a bow and arrow, practice is the name of the game! Whether you shoot with a sight on your bow or instinctively (no sights), repetition leads to consistent success. Like everything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get. One easy way to sharpen your bowfishing skills is by taking practice shots on small sticks, leaves, or any other debris in the water…just make sure it’s in a spot where there are no big rocks underneath, which will damage your arrow. Another suggestion is to throw slices of wheat bread in the water for target practice, which may also help to attract carp to the area when the bread eventually dissolves.
Bowfishing Gear List
- Recurve or compound bow: If you would like to give bowfishing a try but don’t want to spend a ton of money on new equipment, there are hundreds of used bows on eBay and other online marketplaces that you can purchase at very low cost which will work just fine for bowfishing. And, even if you already have a bow that you use for target or hunting purposes, I still recommend having another bow dedicated strictly to bowfishing, as it will get knocked around and get very dirty and smelly from all the action! It’s also important to have a bow that fits you correctly, that you can pull and shoot comfortably, with holes drilled in the riser/handle for attaching accessories, such as a bowfishing reel. There are lots of online articles and videos to help you properly selected a bow for your size and strength.
- Bowfishing reel and line: minimum of 25 yards of 200-pound test or more for long distance shooting
- Bowfishing arrows with slider apparatus: Bowfishing arrows are more like harpoons than arrows. They consist of heavy, featherless, fiberglass shafts and specialized tips which screw and unscrew to set or release the barb. Most bowfishing arrows now come with a sliding apparatus already attached, which ensures both safe shooting, improved arrow flight, and easier retrieval. Do not simply tie your line to the back of an arrow and let it fly, as it may get tangled upon release and cause injury.
- Shooting glove, tab, or release aid: This is simply a matter of preference for comfortably holding and accurately releasing the bowstring. Bare fingers work fine too if you have callouses built up.
- Fish club
- Sharp fillet knife
- Polarized sunglasses
- Backpack cooler or wheeled cooler: You will most likely be on the move while hunting and stalking fish with a bow and can end up covering lots of ground. As mentioned earlier, when harvesting fish, I first bleed them out on a stringer in the water. Next, I either fillet them immediately and put the fillets in a plastic bag in my backpack cooler, or in a cooler with wheels that I can easily tote around.
- Bug/tick spray
- Camo or earth toned clothing
- Hat or sun visor
- Spotlight if night fishing
If you’d like to find out more on these topics and much more, check out my book, Eat the Enemy, Turning the Asian Carp Invasion into Health Delicious Cuisine. It’s a complete guidebook to catching and cooking the Asian carp, including 50 mouthwatering recipes. Click on the image below to order today.