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How Bowfishing Works

Bowfishing Logistics: Where, When and How
You can bowfish sitting in the boat or standing on the dock or in the water. It's a flexible sport.
You can bowfish sitting in the boat or standing on the dock or in the water. It's a flexible sport.

Before we talk abo­ut how to bowfish, let's look at where you can bowfish. You can bowfish in freshwater (lakes, rivers or ponds) and saltwater (bays, beaches or estuaries). But whatever body of water you choose, you'll typically fish in clear, shallow areas 3 to 4 feet deep (0.9 to 1.2 meters) for a few reasons. First, the fish that you can hunt by bowfishing tend to hang out in shallow waters. Second, water is dense and slows arrows down; the less water that your arrow has to traverse, the more force it will have when it strikes the target.

Remember we mentioned that bowfishing was a flexible sport? It is. If you prefer daylight during your bowfishing trips, you'll want to head out in the spring around spawning time. Nighttime bowfishing, however, can be done at any time, although again you'll probably have the best luck in spring around spawning time and in fall when water is clear. If you're bent on big fish, plan to bowfish during the spring and summer when they're most active (day or evening).

So how do you bowfish? You have to hunt around the shallow water for your target fish, especially near grasses and weeds that provide cover. Ideally, you want to be about 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 meters) from your target. Try to avoid casting a shadow over the fish because that will spook it. You also may want to approach it from upwind.

When you choose your target fish, aim your bow and shoot. However, there is a trick to aiming the bow. As light travels from one medium into another, it bends or refracts, so the fish that you see from the surface is actually the refracted image of the fish in the water (apparent fish). The actual fish is deeper in the water than the apparent fish. If you aim straight at the apparent image you'll miss (or go high). That's why bowfishermen always say to aim low. Exactly how low you aim is part of your hunting skills. Here are a few rules bowfishermen may use to help them compensate for refraction:

  • The 10-4 rule: If the fish is 10 feet (3 meters) away and 1 foot (30 centimeters) below the surface, then aim 4 inches (10 centimeters) low. If you double either the 10 or the one, then double the four. For example, you would aim 8 inches (20 centimeters) low for a fish that's either 20 feet (6 meters) away and 1 foot deep or 10 feet away and 2 feet (60 centimeters) deep.
  • Aim about 6 inches (15 centimeters) low for every 1 foot of depth.
  • Look at the fish and aim 10 inches (25 centimeters) low.

When you shoot at a fish, aim for the front half. This portion contains the brain and vital organs, so you will most likely kill the fish. In addition, remember that fish can swim fast in the water, so you don't have much time to aim and shoot. Also, some large fish, like alligator gars, may take more than one arrow to kill them. Once you've struck the fish, haul in the line. Unlike rod and reel fishing, bowfishing kills the target fish and doesn't allow catch and release.

Now that we have covered the basics of bowfishing, what can you hunt?