Angler hooked on bowfishing
CURWENSVILLE – Bright LED lights shine into the glassy water of Curwensville Lake in Clearfield County. Standing atop a platform in Jeremiah Weber’s 18-foot, flat-bottom, aluminum boat, six sets of eyes are searching.
Armed with bows and arrows – not hooks and lures – the anglers use a spot-and-stalk method, gazing into the water below. The lake is calm, with a slight fog floating over the top. A wall of rain hit the group but has since cleared.
Trolling along, abstract shapes of tree stumps, rocks and an old tire here and there appear from the muddy and sandy bottom below.
Suddenly, a fin is spotted and a scaly, big-bodied fish takes a sharp turn and swims under the lights.
“Carp!” yells Weber.
Arrows already notched, bows on one side of the boat draw back. There are no fancy releases, no peep tubes and no sights. Not even a full draw is needed when the arrow is released and sent into the depths.
A muffled “tha-ump” is heard. It’s a hit.
Before the archer’s hand can grasp the reel attached to the bow, the fish takes off. Fighting and swimming, it splashes its way to the back of the boat.
Before long, though, the fish is reeled back in and pulled from the water.
It’s a carp, all right. Weber holds the arrow, which penetrated straight through its bulky body.
One down. Many more to come.
Arrows vs. fish
Bowfishing has been around for quite some time. Humans have been slinging arrows at prey on and off the water since grunts and hand signals were a form of communication.
Over the years, bowfishing gained popularity and, today, bow fishermen stretch across the country from one coast to the next and in every little place in between.
For Weber, of Philipsburg, the hobby started because the dark is when he feels he is most awake.
“Basically, for me, it’s something to extend my season. I am a night owl and I am known for my predator hunting. When that ended, I had nothing to keep me up at night,” he said.
It wasn’t long until bowfishing had consumed him “to the point where I wished we had a longer season. (If we did) I probably wouldn’t even predator hunt,” he said.
A small business owner – he owns Boondock Outdoors – and bowfishing charter captain of Boondock Bowfishing Adventures, Weber cruises the waters in (and, sometimes, out of) the area, looking to shoot the three main species allowed in bowfishing: carp, suckers and catfish.
His main target is the carp. He fancies himself a conservationist, keeping down the population of what often is considered a “trash,” or “rough” fish – one that, in this case, isn’t commonly eaten.
According to the state Fish and Boat Commission, carp are members of the minnow family.
They first were stocked in the U.S. in the 1870s. Native to Asia, carp were brought here to take pressure off native fishes and to be used as food.
It still is raised as a food source in Russia, China and Asia, but, in the U.S., it’s no longer favored as a food fish.
Now, spread throughout the state, they can become a problem species and often are ill-thought of by many anglers.
“Carp are bottom feeders. Some of their main food source during the spawning season is eggs of other species. Bass, or anything that lays eggs in a spawning bed, will be sucked up by carp,” Weber said. “So, if you are a bass fisherman, you should be out there getting carp and helping yourself and your sport.”
Bowfishing is a niche market that Weber said still is growing. More – and better – equipment is being sold every day. Getting into bowfishing can be as simple or elaborate as someone wants to make it.
Newcomers need only one time, one shot, before they are hooked, Weber said.
On his charter service, all equipment is provided, along with instruction and even practice.
“I am big into archery and I played around with bowfishing when I was a lot younger, on a smaller scale, like shooting off the banks,” he said.
Though he never had shot a fish off a boat, Weber bought a pontoon boat with lights on it and began to pursue bowfishing.
Either a new or old bow can be set up to bowfish. Weber said a good, old recurve is a perfect way to start out, instead of using the popular compound bow.
“You hold a lot of your shots and you may not need to draw all the way it’s going to be more of a snap shot,” he said. “A brand-new bow set up for bowfishing … you are looking at $300 to $400 for a compound setup.”
Archery hunters can use the same bow they use in the field. But, Weber recommends more let off, which refers to reducing the force that is needed to pull the bow back, and cutting the draw length. That way it will be easier to finger shoot without using a release.
With a hunting bow, you may have to draw back every time, making quick snapshots hard.
Reels come in a few styles, such as hand lines and crank.
“What we are using are catfish reels,” he said, referring to the bow setups on the boat. “That is the only thing that will handle that size of carp and the line coming off that fast.”
Carp can weigh 20, 30, even 40 pounds.
Therefore, lines should be able to handle heavy weights.
They also should be able to take on hard fighters. Carp have a reputation for fighting. In fact, some anglers focus on carp for that quality, even though they might not be a species well suited for the dinner table.
“The arrows are solid fiberglass, and the points I use are made by the company RPM. They are the ‘NOS’ point,” he said.
As for skill sets, Weber said there aren’t any … at least, not at first.
“You are going to have to learn that skill set,” he said.
While dusk fell that evening, before all the LEDs were on and beaming into the water, Weber threw out a “target” on which the bowfishing newbies on the boat could practice.
Aiming for a fish isn’t pointing the tip of the arrow at the fish’s body. You’re shooting into the water, and you need to remember the science of light refraction. That’s the big challenge in bowfishing.
Aim low, because aiming directly at the fish is going to send the arrow straight over its back. You won’t be reeling in anything but some mud.
Where and when to fish
Bowfishing can be done off the banks of open water and waterways or off a boat. Weber said it is as simple as finding rivers, creeks, local reservoirs and tributaries where these species live.
“Find out where the carp are stacked up, in backwaters or wherever, and go take care of them,” he said.
Consider trying farm ponds where carp eggs could have been introduced by waterfowl or flooding.
“I like my water temperature over 70 degrees on a lake. Now, on some rivers, you can’t ever get that,” Weber said.
The ambient air temperature should be over 70 degrees, he added. That weather cocktail seems to really make the fish active.
From his experience, spring-fed water seems to have the bigger fish. He always thought that the river system would have more food for fish but, in fact, he’s taken larger carp from spring-fed as opposed to the river.
“The water can be crystal clear to muddy … it doesn’t matter. If … the water temp is right, they (carp) are going to be in there,” he said.
Quick, muddy clouds from the bottom are a good indication fish are in the area. So, scanning peripherally, or side to side, is a must when bowfishing.
A reason to draw
To Weber, bowfishing offers excitement, unlimited targets and a chance to aid in species conservation. It also gives him a chance to take people out and give them an enjoyable fishing experience.
He likes the serenity the night offers on the water, too. This particular night, only a few anglers on the bank were the only other human souls to be found.
Weber trolled along in the dark, bent over the edge of the boat.
“And, you never know when they (carp) are going to pop up out of nowhere,” he said with a grin.