by Dustin Vaughn Warncke, VarmintLights.com Pro-Staff
I was introduced to bowfishing after winning a silent auction package including a 4-hour trip donated by Marty McIntyre with Garquest Bowfishing guide service at one of our annual Fun Shoot events with Hill Country Bowhunters. Marty and I became friends as a result and have fished several different lakes and rivers over the years with our bowfishing gear. Since Marty taught me everything I know about bowfishing and I am proud to call myself part of his team and Pro-Staff, I enlisted his help and over 25 years of experience in bowfishing as he has fished all over the nation and even the Middle East during his time working overseas.
Marty and Dustin on a Bowfishing Marathon
Bowfishing using Lumenok Lighted Arrow Nocks
The Essential Bowfishing Bow and Gear
Bowfishing has come a long way from where it was even a decade ago with the advent of products such as the Safety Slide System, which helps prevent potential “snap back’ of the arrow or line when shooting. One of the nicest innovations has been in bowfishing reels such as the AMS Bowfishing reel. This is nicer than having to hand spool the line, as was done in years past, or mounting a spin-cast style reel and having to remember to release the reel every time you shoot. Many arrows and points are also available and are now made with durable materials for big fish and harsh conditions.
For a bowfishing bow, most people prefer a compound or recurve bow. You can purchase one new but there is really no reason to not buy a used one from a pawn shop or other outlet. Just be sure to check the limbs for cracks or splitting as this could be a dangerous issue down the road. Also make sure that the string is in good shape and not showing serious signs of fraying as new bowstrings will run $60 to $100 or better. Other than that, you don’t need anything fancy or flashy and you can buy a used bow, especially an older one, for a very reasonable price. I acquired my bowfishing bow from Marty, an older Onieda Screaming Eagle lever bow. The finish was old and a bit dated so I sprayed it with black truck bed liner after taping over the cams and strings and other moving parts to prevent overspray. I followed that up with a glossy clear coat and ended up with an awesome looking bow that had a finish as tough as nails and It looked like new. Have fun with whatever you do.
Marty prefers a lever action bow, such as Onieda bows, because it is the best of both worlds in the power of a compound bow but with little let-off when at full draw, like shooting a recurve bow. I used to think these bows were uglier than five miles of mud fence until I shot one. Now, that is all like to shoot on most of my bowfishing trips and I can see why so many professional bowfishing guides and tournament bowfishing teams like them so much. Lever bows and even recurve bows are excellent for the fast “snap shooting” action of bowfishing if you can find one at a good price. Compound bows are certainly more common and will work fine as well as mentioned before.
For setting up your bow for bowfishing, AMS has a complete bowfishing kit available at most sporting goods stores or online, complete with the AMS reel, mounting brackets, arrows, hardware, and even a DVD of some bowfishing action. Marty even did an entire series on the step-by-step process on setting up an AMS bowfishing reel on a new or used bow (SEE GAR TALES). An important note here is to always purchase and carry more than one arrow every time to head out to the water for a bowfishing adventure. Many trips have been cut short by an arrow breaking or being lost by one means or another. Back-up arrows are always a good idea and a good repellent for Murphy’s Law.
The basics of shooting are simple. Draw back and find an anchor point, just like shooting a bow at a normal target on dry land. My anchor point is my middle finger on the side of my cheek, for instance. This will help yours shooting be consistent. Invest in a pair of Archer’s Gloves for protecting your fingers when shooting or a pair of “finger savers” which are a soft material that goes above and below your knocking point on your bowstring, to protect your fingers as you shoot. This will help you to draw you bow easier as well. I ran across another bowfishing videos on the internet one day and everyone on the boat was wearing a shirt with the phrase, “Aim Low, Think Big!” This sums up bowfishing quite well.
Because of the refraction of the water, your shot will always be higher than the fish actually is if you aim right at where the fish appears to be. This is one of the unique properties of water and the way the human eye sees what is in the water. How far to aim under the fish depends on the depth of the water and distance of the fish from the boat, hence the challenge of the hunt! Bowfishing certainly shares all the challenges and excitement of bowhunting. I believe in rod and reel fishing too but enjoy bowfishing more simply because of the challenge and, quite frankly, the adrenaline of the hunt. Much like rifle shooting, you have a good days and bad. Sometimes you hit almost everything you aim at and sometimes you can’t hit the broadside of a barn from the inside.
Starting Out and Bank Fishing
Many people think you have to have a boat outfitted with elaborate light rigging and a generator to fish at night for bowfishing. This is not true. When it comes to navigating many different places on a lake or river and get to more fishing opportunities, a boat certainly helps, as it does in normal rod and reel and other types of fishing. For bowfishing, it’s not always a necessary tool. Marty has one of the nicest bowfishing boat rigs I have ever seen, let alone had the chance to fish from, and he still enjoys bowfishing from the bank. All you need are a pair of polarized sunglasses for daytime fishing or a portable white light LED for night fishing and your bowfishing gear. Polarized glasses will help your eyes penetrate the water and a white light will penetrate the darkness of the water better than any other color of light for the most part. Until you get to know your area well or unless there is adequate lighting, I would recommend bank fishing during the day at first. You can chum an area, much like you would for catfishing, with range cubes, dry dog food, or even deer corn, depending on what you are fishing for. You can wade in the water or walk around on the bank on dry land and fish a stationary point or slowly stalk the water as you would hunt anything in the woods. I have done this both day and night time and it is fun. I even got a new acquaintance hooked on the sport of bowfishing when we met at a Christian fishing ministry event by bowfishing the bank and boat docks around our lodging during our downtime away from jug lining for catfish. I chummed the water earlier in the day and we wait until night time and took several shots at carp and bull shad that night alone. Needless to say, he went home and out fitted on of his bows with bowfishing set-up right after our event and has been hooked ever since!
If you have a boat or access to one that you can rig for bowfishing, high pressure sodium (HPS) lights or LED lights are a good light choices. Marty has four HPS lights on each side of his boat for a total of eight lights. One to two generators are a good idea for keeping your batteries charge: one for the battery powering your night fishing lights and one for your trolling motor battery. You can easily find a power converter for your charging system at most RV retail outlets. There are pros and cons for inboard and outboard motors and many even prefer to step up to an airboat or fan boat. Again, our rule is to use what you have where you can if you already have a boat or easy access to one you can use if you are just starting out. A good trolling motor will make your adventures on the water the most enjoyable, even if that is the only motor you have. Marty often fishes local rivers, like the Brazos and Leon River, near his home with a two man pontoon boat and trolling motor during the day with his best friend, Ivy the Gar Dog. He has filmed and produced many videos with his GoPro video on his website and on ours under GAR TALES or www.GARQUEST.com if you want to see how this is done. It is simply, effective, and a very inexpensive way to make a solo bowfishing trip or one with another person.
Bowfishing for Food
I certainly love to eat what I catch on the water or hunt in the woods. For many years when I fished for carp before I started bowfishing for them, I would pressure cook carp in canning jars, which was a technique I learned from my grandparents when I was growing up in my formative years. You could make fish patties, similar to salmon patties, and they were decent, just not my first pick of a fish for good table fare. Since I usually am blessed with a freezer stocked with fish from saltwater fishing trips and catfish and other fish from our local freshwater lakes, I usually don’t keep many of the fish I shoot in bowfishing with the exception of Gar. When I started bowfishing, I initially had a moral dilemma with the issue of not eating what I shot as it seemed wasteful. But then I realized that there are plenty of fish, turtles, snakes, even raccoons and birds, who are most grateful for an easy meal now and again and nothing ever goes to waste in cycle of nature. I do save meat from Carp, Buffalo, Red Horse Suckers, bull Gizzard Shad, and other fish on occasion for making frozen chum or making cutbait for my other rod and reel or jugline fishing adventures. Just about everything is edible in bowfishing though, as with most things in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many people do not know that carp were originally imported into our country and widely distributed into lakes and ponds as a food source back when our country was in leaner times in the early 1900’s. Most Americans turn their nose up at Carp and other “rough fish” but many countries around the world wouldn’t think twice about eating meat from one and often do on a regular basis. Native Americans would frequently bowfish for Gar and Buffalo on a regular basis as a food source for many decades and centuries ago before the US was settled.
Two serious considerations for table fare are the Alligator or Long-nose/Short-nose Gar and Tilapia. Gar are relatively easily easy to find during day or night and can be easily cleaned with a pair of "tin snips" or any tool that can cut through their armor plating. Under that armor are two white strips of boneless meat, similar to deer or pork backstraps, which make a great meal just about any way you cook them. Once you get the hang of it, they are easy to clean and yield a good amount of meat for the work. Cajun Gar Balls, Gar Patties, or just regular Fried Gar is good. One method I like is to boil the meat in a Louisiana Cajun crawfish boil for about 10-15 minutes or until the meat is cooked all the way through. Then, let it sit in that water and cool for about 5 minutes after you turn of the heat so it soaks up more spice and flavor. You can do a variety of things with the meat from this point. It reminds me of lobster in its texture and even a little in the taste…and now I am hungry...
We had Tilapia in the Comal River which ran through our local park in New Braunfels, Texas when I was growing up there. I never knew much about them other than they did not eat the bait I was fishing with and, consequently, were a hard fish to catch by normal means. Tilapia is now one of the most popular fish in meat markets and restaurants today. Concentrated mainly in warmer-water lakes in the southern US, Tilapia are a challenging fish to pursue and Marty teaches me something new each trip we make hunting… I mean bowfishing, for them. Power plant cooling lakes usually have good quantities of Tilapia, especially here in Texas. Lakes such as Calaveras, Brauning, Colleto Creek, Gibbons Creek, and more are all known for Tilapia bowfishing and cast netting around Texas as they are all centered around privately owned power plant facilities with warm water discharges. These lakes are neat as they are man made and many times stocked with fish for rod and reel fisherman, like freshwater redfish, that many other lakes do not have. Power plant lakes use the water from the lake to cool the plant during its operation, yielding warm water year round.
One method Marty perfected in his earlier days is to get a tripod hunting stand or step-ladder and set it up in about 3 or 4 feet of water, much like a deer hunting stand. Climb up on top of your elevated platform and just wait for the tilapia to come in during the day, right off the bank. They are curious fish and always like to see what is new in their surroundings but if they see any fast movements from above, they will dart for cover in a flash… hence the addiction to game. It is similar to bowhunting on land for deer or turkey in many ways. Get a floating costal stringer and you can have hours of fun just wading out or sitting stationary bowfishing for these crafty fish. It goes without saying these fish are an excellent table fare as well as tons of day time fishing fun!
Many other lakes will have tilapia as well. Marty and I happened upon one of the best kept secrets on our recent Tilapia fishing trip with Lake Calavaras having mixed results since the cast net boats had been through the bank lines and the water was unusually cloudy, making visibility an issue. We hit the jackpot on some nice huge slab Tilapia on Lake Dunlap though, which is part of the Guadalupe River that runs between Austin and San Antonio through my hometown of New Braunfels. This little gem of a lake holds a ton of different kinds of fish and was and unexpected bowfishing paradise both times we have been on it in the last year. On one night trip we took on this lake during the last leg of a four lake 24-hour bowfishing marathon yielded several Longnose Gar, a few Plecostomus (Armored Sucker Catfish/Algae Eaters), a Rio Grande Perch, Tilapia, and more in a two hour time span! Talk about hot bowfishing action! I caught my second wind real fast after we started shooting fish that night even though I was about worn out from the efforts we put in earlier in the day.
Lumenoks for Bowfishing
For night bowfishing, product that Mac, Prowler, Marty, and I have all fell in love with lately are the bowfishing products from Lumenok (www.lumenok.com). From lighted arrow nocks and adapters for your current bowfishing arrows to complete assemblies of entire bowfishing arrow with the Lumenok included, these definitely deserve some consideration for your bowfishing war chest. Being able to watch your shots and get immediate feedback on your point of impact in the water is awesome. What’s even more is that Lumenoks have a long run time and replaceable batteries making them a great value with long-term use. As an added bonus, we love filming video on bowfishing trips using these lighted nocks as they show up very well on camera.
If you are new to bowfishing, or just need some pointers to get better at your game, hiring a bowfishing guide is an inexpensive way to get introduced or brush up on the sport and most guides will have all the equipment you need for the trip. Since bowfishing is becoming more and more popular nationwide, there is most likely a full-time or part-time bowfishing guide service in your area. Marty is one of the best bowfishing guides in the industry and if you are in the Texas area, please visit his website and consider booking a trip with him at www.GARQUEST.com or call (254) 931-3474. He has an awesome bowfishing boat and travels frequently.
Whatever you are after, bowfishing is a fun way to keep up with your archery skills, take invasive fish out of your local lakes and riviers, and enjoy the great outdoors in a fun new way. Every time I step on Marty’s boat, it is as exciting as the first time I met him and picked up my first bowfishing bow. Aim Low, Think Big and have fun out there on the water. Be creative on how and where you fish and even call your local area game warden to see if he has any problem areas or good spots while you’re at it. Most likely, he will be happy you are out there fighting the good fight against the invasive species or as the Garquest logo goes, “Saving Game Fish, One Trash Fish at a Time.” Now go shoot some fish!
About the Author
Dustin Vaughn Warncke is an avid hunter, outdoor industry consultant, and Pro-Staff for Mac & Prowler as well as several outdoor industry product and guide service businesses. E-mail Dustin at email@example.com or visit Warncke Enterprises at www.dustinsprojects.com
2120 W Slaughter LN
AUSTIN, TX 78748
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