Summertime Bow Fishing

By Tim Kjellesvik, photographs by David Stonner | May 20, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2015

For outdoor enthusiasts, Missouri summers can seem like a pause between the appeal of gobbling turkeys and hungry crappies in the spring and the anticipation of big bucks and migrating waterfowl in the fall. But if you’re willing to gear up and practice your aim, summer is a good time to try a sport that pairs the anticipation of hunting with the tactile tug-of-war of fishing.

Gearing Up

Like many of our modern day game-getting methods, bow fishing isn’t new, but it’s becoming more mainstream. Flourishing invasive fish species like the Asian carp present new and abundant opportunities for bow fishing. At the same time, archery equipment companies are developing more and better gear to outfit the bow angler.

A Cheaper Bow Will Do

Another upside is that bow-fishing bows don’t need to be an expensive deer-hunting setup — in fact, it’s better to use a cheaper bow so you don’t have to worry about it getting knocked around on shore or in a boat (or slimed by a fish). You also don’t need as much draw weight. Forty pounds of draw is more than enough for shooting most fish. Since you’ll probably be taking more shots per outing than you would in a deer-hunting scenario, your arms will appreciate the lighter draw weight.

The other major difference between a bow-fishing setup and a deer-hunting bow is the line retrieval device required for bow fishing. This attaches to the bow’s riser via the threaded hole intended for a stabilizer and fall into two general categories. The first type is a bottle-style reel that uses poly-braid line. These reels are known for their snag-free smooth releases but typically can’t be used to effectively reel in larger fish. If you shoot a lunker, you’ll use your hands to pull it in. The second type is a large spin-cast reel spooled with heavy monofilament. These reels are great for bringing in heavier fish but aren’t very forgiving and can snap back if you forget to depress the casting button. Polarized sunglasses can serve as added eye protection against those instances and offer an added benefit of cutting glare on the water, allowing you to see fish more easily. Even as you read this, newer reels that address the weaknesses of both types are hitting the market.

Denser Arrows with Barbed Points

Bow-fishing arrows differ from their hunting counterparts in that they are constructed from durable fiberglass or larger diameter carbon shafts and have a barbed point. The arrows not only have to withstand the stresses of shooting and impact forces, but also the torqueing effects of a stuck fish. In addition, the greater density of the bow-fishing arrows allows them to maintain more energy as they pass through the water and into the fish. The barbs on the point keep the arrow from coming out of the fish as it is being hauled back and out of the water. While variations exist in types of connections, all bow-fishing arrows are attached to a line back to the reel on the bow. Your local archery shop will be up to date on the latest products and can help you get fitted with a rig that works best for you.

Exploring the Tactics

Like traditional fishing, bow fishing can be done with or without a boat. Our great Missouri streams and ponds are perfect for stalking along the shore or wading into to get closer to your quarry. As you begin hunting fish, you’ll find out how quickly they can key into your predatory intentions and dart away. The trick is to go slow, just lifting your feet enough so they don’t drag and disturb the bottom. Minimizing movement in your steps reduces vibrations in the water that alert fish to your presence.

Shooting from a Boat

Bow fishing by boat is best done with two or more people: one to drive, the others to bow fish or spot other fish. Ensuring you have a safe and stable platform is critical. Being at full draw can change your center of balance, especially in choppy water. While the boat is still on the trailer, work out positioning and determine where you can safely shoot from before launching. Also, keeping the boat clutter-free and clean will reduce line tangles and unnecessary messes once you land a fish. Many bow anglers outfit their boats with lights that attract and allow identification of fish during night excursions. If you plan on bow fishing at night, a headlamp is an invaluable piece of gear.

Sound can be a disadvantage or an advantage when bow fishing from a boat, depending on your location and quarry. Engine noise and other disturbances can spook fish, especially in shallow water. A quiet trolling motor comes in handy in these situations.

Scaring Up Your Targets

In contrast to stealthily slipping your boat toward fish, using motor noise is part of the strategy when pursuing Asian carp. This species, now found in many of our major rivers, has a tendency to leap out of the water when disturbed by a cruising boat. Folks who bow fish for Asian carp position themselves at the rear of the boat and attempt to shoot the fish out of the air while the craft is motoring along, as if they were trap shooting. It’s a frenetic scene when hundreds of these fish are leaping out of the water, and it can be dangerous. Unwary anglers have been struck and injured by these large-bodied airborne fish.

Practice Your Aim

Whether you are wading or bow fishing from a boat, especially in the early stages of your practice, always work to get the closest shot possible. Many bow anglers shoot instinctively, without the use of sight pins. A general rule of thumb is to aim below where the fish appears in order to compensate for refraction. The deeper the target, the lower you aim. Practice (or just missing a lot at first) will help you understand the trajectory and behavior of your arrow in the water. If you want some real-world practice before going out, try tying empty soda bottles with the caps on to different lengths of line anchored to heavy weights. Sink the bottles into a body of water on private land, and you’ll have an underwater archery range — just remember to pick up after yourself. Alternatively, you can just practice aiming for rocks and leaves submerged in the water.

Enjoying Your Harvest

Now that you’re ready to hit the water, what do you do once you’ve successfully harvested your fish? Consider bringing a large tote to store and transport your fish back home. It is unethical and against the law to simply kill fish with no intention of using them. The Department has lots of great fish (especially nongame) recipes and videos at Nongame fish have enjoyed a certain amount of protection from many anglers because they have historically been out of the mainstream of target species. With the increasing popularity of bow fishing and plentiful native and invasive species of fish, Missourians are now discovering this delicious secret. Putting tasty, healthy food on the dinner table is just another great benefit of bow fishing.

You don’t have to take a time-out from the outdoors during the summer! Head out to the water with your bow-fishing rig. Once your arrow finds its mark and your line tenses and pulses against your retrieval, you’ll see why summertime is as good a time as any for bow fishing in Missouri.

Know Missouri’s Bow Fishing Regulations

It’s our duty as responsible outdoor enthusiasts to know the regulations governing the types of activities we enjoy, and bow fishing is no exception. You may only take nongame fish species with a bow, and while most Missouri waters are open year-round for bow fishing, impoundments — bodies of water formed by dams or natural lakes not permanently connected to flowing streams — do have seasons when they are closed to this method. You must also have a valid fishing license to pursue fish with bow and arrow. For a complete and up-to-date listing of Missouri bow-fishing regulations, visit

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler