Ready, Aim, Splash! Bowfishing soaring in popularity
By Larry Woody
Its part hunting and part fishing, and by whatever definition you choose, bowfishing is growing in popularity throughout Tennessee and across the nation.
“It’s a hunt-fish mix,” says Clint Meadows of Nashville who got hooked on the sport eight years ago and has taken a 50-pound carp and a 45-pound buffalo. “You have to find the fish, stalk the fish and make the shot. It’s a challenge. It’s something different. That’s what I like about it.”
Meadows became intrigued by bowfishing after accompanying his brother on an outing.
“His ‘bowfishing outfit’ consisted of a Folgers coffee can taped to his bow with some line wrapped around it and tied to a regular arrow,” Meadows says with a chuckle. “But it worked.”
Meadows hunts year-round, in all kinds of weather. “I’ve bowfished when it was 12 degrees and my arrow froze on the bow,” he says.Bowfishing technology has made considerable advancements from a coffee can taped to a bow. Specialized bowfishing bows, reels and arrows can cost upwards of $1,000, and serious fishermen use customized boats equipped with shooting decks and Halogen lights. “It’s addictive,” says Jeff Nieball of Fayetteville, an official with the Bowfishing Association of America.
“About nine years ago a buddy talked me into going bowfishing with him one night on Tims Ford Lake,” Nieball says. “He let me try his bow, and on my first shot I got a carp. Three days later I bought a bowfishing boat, and I’ve been at it ever since.”
Nieball at one time held the bowfishing world record for a grass carp, a 91-pounder he arrowed on Guntersville Lake. Since then an even bigger one – by three pounds – broke the record. The BAA lists 23 Tennessee bowfishing records, ranging from 90-pound-plus carp to a nine-ounce Northern Hogsucker.
Nieball says the BAA has approximately 250 members in its Tennessee chapter and about 6,000 total. Those BAA members are among an estimated 50,000 bowfishermen nation-wide. “The sport began to really take off about 10 years ago,” he says, “and it has been growing ever since.”
Frank Fiss, Fisheries Division chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, can settle the question about whether bowfishing is hunting or fishing, at least technically speaking. “It’s considered fishing,” Fiss says, “which means bowfishermen have to have a fishing license and abide by state fishing regulations.” Bowfishing regulations fall under the same rules as gigging, snagging, spear-fishing, and grab-hooking (detailed in the Tennessee Fishing Guide.). The rules are fairly simple: non-game fish species, commonly known as “rough” fish, may be taken without limit, with a few exceptions. Game fish, sturgeon and alligator gar may not be taken. Catfish, paddlefish and skipjack can be taken in accordance to local limits, only one catfish over 34 inches per day, for example. “Since bowfishermen don’t need a special permit, there’s no way for us to know how many there are,” Fiss says. “Based on the sales of bowfishing gear and the number of bowfishing tournaments held every year, I’d say there are quite a few.”
Bowfishing has some positives and also presents some challenges.
First, the positives: bowfishing offers expanded opportunities for the state’s outdoorsmen, has economic benefits through equipment sales and guide services, and removes a number of non-game fish – including invasive species, such as Asian carp – from state waters. “Bowfisherman don’t remove enough of those fish to make much of an impact in most lakes,” Fiss says, “but every little bit helps.”
The biggest challenge that has risen with the growth of bowfishing is disposal of the fish. Obviously arrow-pierced fish can’t be released alive, and since most of the species targeted by bowfishermen are not considered edible, they are discarded at the end of the trip.
Such dumping around boat docks and ramps has caused problems in some areas. At one popular dock in Wilson County last summer, hundreds of pounds of dead fish were left strewn around the boat ramp by bowfishermen, left to rot in the hot sun. Between the stench, the swarms of flies and the flocks of buzzards, the public area was rendered virtually unusable.
“We occasionally receive complaints about situations like that,” Fiss says. “So far it’s not a tremendous problem, but it’s something we may have to address at some point.”
Fiss says there is no TWRA regulation regarding disposing of dead fish, aside from a general public no-littering law.
“We hope that as awareness of the problem grows, the sport will self-regulate,” he says. “Clubs and other bowfishing organizations don’t want to cast their sport in a bad light, and hopefully they will educate members about the situation.”
Nieball says that’s exactly what the BAA stresses: “We put up signs and post notices on social media reminding our members that dumping fish around ramps and docks is a no-no,” he says. “We’re very pro-education, and we police ourselves.”
What does Nieball do with the fish he collects?
“I give some to a turtle farm near where I live, and I sometimes give some to a farmer for compost,” he says. (Native Americans buried fish in their gardens to fertilize crops.)
Nieball and Meadows say they generally haul their catch out to the lake channel and dump it overboard. Fiss says such dumping of fish in the lake is legal – and preferable to dumping them on land. He advises puncturing the air bladders so the fish sink, rather than float on the surface and eventually wash up on the bank. Turtles and other scavengers will eventually dispose of the remains.
Another way to dispose of bowfishing catches is commercial processing. “There is a market for the fish,” says the TWRA’s Eric Ganus. “But it’s not simple. The fish have to be iced down and taken proper care of, not just dumped in the bottom of the boat, and the fisherman has to make arrangements with a commercial buyer.”
The TWRA has a special bowfishing commercial license, available for free by contacting Ganus at the Agency’s Nashville headquarters. (Only eight were issued last year.) Ganus can also assist bowfishermen with locating commercial outlets in their area. Ganus encourages bowfishermen to put some of their fish on the table. “I’ve tried baked buffalo and it’s really good,” he says. “Some people like carp cakes. There are several recipes that are worth trying.” An aside: Ganus says the TWRA’s preferred term for such species is “non-game fish,” not “rough fish,” or “trash fish” as they are commonly called.
Back to bowfishing: along with disposal challenges are occasional complaints about nighttime noise. “Most bowfishing is done in coves and along the bank, and we occasionally get calls from houseboaters and shoreline residents about the noise of airboats and generators used to run lights,” Fiss says. “To be fair to bowfishermen, I doubt that they make much more noise than party boats and other recreational users.”
Fiss has heard no reports of bowfishermen illegally taking game fish. “To my knowledge there is no problem from that standpoint,” he says. Nieball agrees.“All the bowfishermen I know are very ethical,’ he says. “We enjoy the sport and we would never do anything to give it a black eye. If you’ve never tried it, then you’re like I used to be -- you don’t know how much fun you’re missing.”
Larry Woody is retired outdoors editor of The (Nashville) Tennessean and member of the Tennessee Sports Writers Half of Fame and Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. He writes a syndicated outdoors column and contributes to numerous publications.