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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Bowfishing basics: Shooting fish is an enjoyable off-season practice for hunters


Archers who hunt deer, elk and wild turkeys should consider shooting fish in the off-season.

It’s an enjoyable practice that will help keep your archery skills sharp.

Legendary archer Fred Bear is considered the father of modern bow fishing in America. (Photo from Bow Fishing Association of America)

Bow fishing is most popular in late spring and summer after water conditions stabilized and surface temperatures rise above 70 degrees.

Ideal conditions are clear and stable water levels. A sharply falling water level pulls fish off the banks into deeper water, where they are harder to see. Stained water conditions can also make it more difficult to see fish and judge their depth.

Most bow fishing is done at night, on rivers or large reservoirs. Archers shoot from boats, using lights to illuminate the fish suspended just below the surface.

In the spring, when rough fish are spawning and typically in shallower water, bow fishermen can often get shots at fish during the day by walking the banks of lakes or rivers. A slight rise in water levels can create good opportunities because fish move up to the banks.

Bowfishing Regulations

Here’s a summary of bow fishing regulations, according to statute 301 KAR 1:410:

• Rough fish (except alligator gar and lake sturgeon) may be taken year-round by long bow, crossbow, compound bow, recurve bow or pneumatic air arrow launching device.

• Sport fish may not be taken.

• Arrows must have a barbed or retractable style point that has a line attached for retrieval.

• Catfish have a daily creel limit of 5 (in aggregate) and paddlefish have a daily creel limit of 2. There is no limit on other rough fish.

• Bow fisherman may fish within 200 yards of a dam, except by boat in boat restricted areas. Bow fishing is prohibited on the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam downstream to the Tennessee line, including Hatchery Creek and all tributaries for 1⁄2 mile upstream of their confluence with the Cumberland River.

• Persons using a bow and arrow for fishing must have the appropriate fishing license and may take rough fish from bank or boat.

• Bow anglers cannot sell paddlefish or their roe taken by bow and arrow.

• Paddlefish and catfish taken by bow and arrow must be taken into immediate possession and cannot be culled.

• Fish taken by bow must not be discarded on the bank. Bank disposal is littering and subject to a fine.

For all fishing regulations read the Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide online at fw.ky.gov.

Target Species

Species most frequently taken by bow fishermen include: catfish, gar, common carp, grass carp, buffalo and suckers.

Species taken by bow fishermen in big rivers in Kentucky include silver and bighead carp, natives of Asia, that pose a threat to native game fish species. (Photo from KDFWR)

In the Mississippi, Ohio, Lower Cumberland, Lower Tennessee, and lower ends of the Salt, Green, Kentucky and Licking River, and Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, the number one target species is exotic carp.

Silver and bighead carp, natives of Asia, have become established in rivers and lakes of the Midwest and pose a threat to native game fish species. They feed on plankton but grow to enormous size.

The skin of Asian carp is soft so it’s important to get a solid hit in the front half of the fish. Aim for their eyeballs.

A hit to the belly usually results in the arrow pulling out before the fish is landed.

Sticking a fish at an unknown depth below the surface is a bit tricky for beginners. Because of light refraction, you have to aim below the fish.

Bow Fishing Records

On big rivers, it’s not uncommon for Kentucky bow fishermen to arrow 15 to 20-pound silver carp and bighead carp in the 40 to 50-pound range. Kentucky’s state record bighead carp weighed 82 1/2 pounds, and was 5 feet two inches long.

Bow fishing records for every state are posted on the website of the Bow Fishing Association of America, which was founded in 1989.

For Kentucky’s current bow fishing records, visit bowfishingassociation.com.

Legendary archer Fred Bear is considered the father of modern bow fishing in America. He was one of the first to design bow fishing gear in 1958.

Bow Fishing Tackle

By regulation, longbows, crossbows, compound bows, recurve bows, or pneumatic air arrow launching devices are legal, but most bow fishermen prefer recurve or compound bows. These bows are the most popular because it’s easy to mount a reel, and they are available in a wide range of draw weights.

Draw weight is a major consideration because it doesn’t take much poundage to spear a fish with a fishing arrow. No more than 40 pounds of draw weight is needed to shoot fish. Fiberglass bow fishing arrows are heavy so they carry their energy and penetrate well.

Most bow fishermen prefer recurve or compound bows (Photo by Art Lander)

One of the best compound bows for the bowhunter and bow fisherman is the 2019 Mission Switch, made by Mathews Archery.

This highly-adjustable, versatile bow is ideal for the young archer who is still growing, the old timer who wants to hunt deer but can’t handle heavy draw weights anymore, and the two-season archer who wants to shoot fish during the summer months.

A completely redesigned cam system enables maximum performance throughout the wide range of draw length and draw weight adjustments.

The draw length is adjustable in half-inch increments from 18 to 30 inches, and the draw weight adjustment ranges from 10 to 70 pounds.

Archers can choose a wide range of draw weights based on their draw length, which makes the bow ideal for bow fishing.

Shooting fish at depths of one to six feet deep, a draw weight of about 30 pounds provides enough kinetic energy for all but the largest fish.

With the bow set for a 28-inch draw length, which is typical for an average size adult, the draw weight adjustment ranges from 29 to 70 pounds, which means deer and fish can be shot with the same bow.

Other specifications on the Mission Switch are: an axle-to-axle length of 31 inches, a weight of 3.84 pounds, and a string let-off adjustment of up to 80 percent.

The all-new bow from Mission has an ergonomic riser, paired with a slim grip design, and 6 7/8-inch brace height.

Available finishes include: Realtree Original, and Black.

This high-tech wonder is value priced at just $399.

For more information on the Mission Switch, and to find a local retailer, visit missionarchery.com.

Perhaps the best reason to go bowfishing is the removal of rough fish species, especially Asian Carp, which benefits bass, crappie and other game fish populations.

There are lots of bowfishing opportunities across Kentucky, and now is a good time to get in on the fun, when water conditions are favorable.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.


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