The Basics of Bowfishing

The Basics of Bowfishing

Bowfishing is a fun and exciting outdoor activity that will help keep your archery skills honed during the off-season. It combines many of the world’s most popular outdoor activities, including fishing, bowhunting, boating, and outdoor fellowship.

In most states, bowfishing has few restrictions, making it easy for just about anyone to get started. Most areas offer many public bodies of water, as well as plenty of fish, providing ample opportunity to shoot underwater targets. Also, the basics of bowfishing are fairly easy to master, and the necessary gear is surprisingly affordable.

Whether you are new to archery in general or you’re a seasoned bowhunter itching to apply your skills to a new pursuit, we’re here to help you get started. Let’s dive into the basics of bowfishing.

What is Bowfishing?

Not quite fishing (at least not in the traditional sense), and not quite hunting, bowfishing falls somewhere in between. It uses specialized archery equipment, including a barbed arrow attached to a length of fishing line, to retrieve fish. The arrow is launched from a bow, pierces the fish like a spear, and then the line is pulled in, either hand over hand or with a fishing reel.

Who Invented Bowfishing?

Our ancestors first used primitive bows more than 10,000 years ago. No one knows who first shot an arrow at an underwater fish, but it was definitely in the earliest years of human history.

In the Amazon River Basin, indigenous people still hunt fish today with a bow and arrow, just like they have for countless generations.

Thankfully, we no longer have to rely on crude wood bows and arrows. Bowfishing technology has improved by leaps and bounds, especially as the sport has gained popularity over the past decade.

The Bowfishing Association of America (BAA) was incorporated in 1989. Although this organization didn’t invent bowfishing, its members work to “preserve, protect and provide education on the sport of bowfishing.” 

What Type of Fish Can I Bowfish?

While you can shoot almost any species of fish with a bow, some are easier to shoot than others. When it comes to bowfishing, carp is probably the most popular species to shoot. Carp is an invasive species, intentionally introduced in North American rivers in the mid 1800s. Although a popular food source in Europe, these bottom feeders were never well-received by American palates. Carp have also taken an unexpected toll on native species, overpopulating and competing with them for habitat and food sources.

Today, carp can be found in almost every major body of fresh water in the United States. Due to their negative impact on local ecosystems, most states have no limit on how many carp you can catch. There are also few regulations on how you can harvest them.

Freshwater gar and bowfin are another popular bowfishing quarry, especially in the southern states. There are also few laws governing how many you can catch or what method you can use to catch them.

Other non-game fish commonly taken with a bow and arrow include Paddlefish, Threadfin Shad, Bigmouth Buffalo, Smallmouth Buffalo, Freshwater Drum, Tilapia, and Asian Snakehead. In most areas these fish are considered “trash fish” or “rough fish”, meaning they fall outside the category of game fish. Although they are not necessarily great for dinner, populations of these undesirable fish need to be controlled. Bowfishing is an effective way to keep these populations in check.

Catfish (especially channels,  blues, and flatheads) are also popular targets for bowfishing. These fish are large, often sedentary, and unlike rough fish species, are pretty tasty. Before bowfishing for catfish, be sure you understand the rules and regulations in your area. Many states restrict harvesting catfish of any kind with anything but a traditional hook and line.

The type of fish you can legally harvest with a bow and arrow varies depending on where you are bowfishing. Bowfishing for game fish may be completely prohibited. Also, the legality of bowfishing for non-game fish varies by region. Make sure you fully understand all the rules and regulations in your area before you hit the water with your bow.

Can You Bowfish in Salt Water?

Legal saltwater targets depend on where you are bowfishing. Just like with freshwater fish, state and local regulations can limit the number of fish and the species you can legally harvest. Some common saltwater fish taken with bow and arrow include sharks, flounder, sheepshead, and rays. It is extremely important to know what saltwater fish you can legally shoot before you draw that first arrow, so check to be sure you understand all state and local laws.

Does Bowfishing Kill the Fish?

Unlike traditional fishing methods that use hook, line, rod, and reel, bowfishing kills the target fish by spearing them with an arrow. In this sense, bowfishing is more like hunting than traditional sport fishing. Although some larger fish may require more than one arrow to kill them, bowfishing is definitely not a catch and release sport.

Do You Need a Hunting License to Bowfish?

Because there are many similarities between hunting and bowfishing (specifically the weapon used for both), many people ask if they need a hunting license. A hunting license is not required for archery fishing. However, you will probably need a fishing license. Check with your state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to review all bowfishing regulations and licensing requirements.

What do You Need for Bowfishing?

When it comes to recreational bowfishing, the necessary gear is fairly simple and straightforward. While fancy boats, high-powered outboard engines, and expensive polarized sunglasses might make bowfishing easier (and maybe more fun), they are not at all necessary. Basically, all you need is a bow, an arrow, and a fishing reel.

Can You Bowfish with Any Bow?

It is not uncommon for people to get their first taste of bowfishing using an old out-dated bow bought from a pawn shop or passed down from a serious bowhunter. While these old bows will work, they definitely aren’t the best tools for the job.

Bowfishing requires an entirely different set of shooting skills than traditional bowhunting. When it comes to bowfishing, you want a bow with a smooth draw that allows you to shoot on the fly. When you are bowfishing, you probably won’t have time to draw the bow fully, find a solid anchor point, and settle on your target before pulling shot. Instead, you will need to do some frequent snap shooting, often before the string even meets your cheek.

You need a bow that makes pulling off these shots easy. That probably won’t be the same bow you used to hunt whitetails.

What is the Best Bowfishing Bow?

A good bowfishing rig will have several key features. First, a bowfishing bow needs to hold up to wet conditions and rough use. You will be on the water, and your bow will inevitably end up in the bottom of your boat where it might get kicked around or slapped by a slimy fish tail. Be sure to choose a bow with a durable construction and non-corrosive components.

Because bowfishing requires a ton of snap shooting, many archers choose a recurve bow for bowfishing. The constant draw weight and uncomplicated design makes a recurve perfect for the snap and finger shooting required in bowfishing.

However, compound bows remain the most popular choice for bowfishing. A compound that has cams with deep grooves and little to no let-off will work best. Therefore, a compound bow designed specifically for bowfishing will be better suited than a modified traditional compound.

Bowfishing Arrows

Arrows used for bowfishing will need to be heavier than standard archery arrows. The extra weight helps them cut through the water. Bowfishing arrows are also missing the fletchings commonly found on field arrows. While fletchings help stabilize arrows as they fly through the air, they can be detrimental to accuracy when traveling through the water. When shooting through water, fletchings can actually cause the arrow to veer wildly off course.

Arrow heads for bowfishing differ significantly from the field points and broadheads used in traditional archery. Bowfishing arrow heads feature tough barbs like those on fishing hooks. These barbs help hold the fish in place once it has been speared.

Bowfishing Reels

You will also need a reel to hold the fishing line that attaches to your arrow. Usually, a reel can be mounted to the spot where a stabilizer would attach to a traditional bow. There are three reel types that work well for bowfishing.

Hand Wrap or Drum Reel

Probably the simplest bowfishing reel design, the hand wrap reel (also called a drum reel) isn’t technically a reel at all. The epitome of low-tech, a hand wrap reel is basically just a spool that holds your fishing line. The line spools off freely when an arrow is released. Then, you pull the line in hand over hand, manually wrapping it back around the drum when you retrieve a fish.

This type of bowfishing reel can be frustrating, especially when the fishing is fast-paced. However, they are the most affordable bowfishing reels on the market, and there are few moving parts to malfunction when you’re on the water.

Retriever Reel

Perhaps the most popular (and expensive) type of bowfishing reel, the retriever reel (or bottle-style reel) is practically fool-proof. The retriever reel stores a thick line inside a bottle-shaped container. There is no drag to set or buttons to push. You simply draw the bow and release the arrow. The line flows out of the container with minimal resistance. A simple crank is used to retrieve the fish once it’s been hit.

Spincast Reel

Just like the spincaster you have mounted on your favorite fishing pole, the spincast bowfishing reel (or spinner) provides a smooth payout on the shot and lightning fast retrieval of your arrow.

Another benefit of a spincaster is it usually has a drag system. This system is particularly useful when fighting big fish. If the fish pulls hard enough, the reel will rotate in reverse, allowing the fish to pull line out rather than snapping it. Then as the fish tires, you can reel it in more easily.

You will need to push the bail release button before making a shot, otherwise your arrow won’t be traveling very far from your bow. However, if you’ve ever done any traditional fishing with a spincast reel, you already have a feel for how this works.

How Do You Find Good Bowfishing Spots?

Because you don’t want to commit any legal snafus, make sure to check your state’s fishing regulations. There may be areas where bowfishing is restricted. There may also be species you cannot legally shoot. With that out of the way, there are few ways to find a good bowfishing spot.

  1. Find a Mentor. Unlike traditional fishermen, who have a penchant for keeping their honey holes a well-guarded secret, the bowfishing community is usually more than willing to help newcomers find success. Take advantage by finding an experienced bow fisherman and pick his or her brain.
  2. Use a Map. A map will help you identify back bays, feeder creeks, and drainage ditches. The slow currents in these locations make them a magnet for rough fish like carp, bowfin, and gar.
  3. Visual Cues. Look for visual signs of fish in the area. Surface ripples and muddy swirls just below the surface are signs there are a fish swimming somewhere under the surface.
  4. Shallow Water. If you can locate clear shallow water, you’ve probably found a good place for bowfishing. After all, you can’t shoot fish you can’t see. Shallow flats, coves, and weed beds also make a welcome habitat for many species of rough fish.

Do You Aim Above or Below a Fish?

After you have chosen a target fish, approach it carefully, making sure your shadow doesn’t spook it. Ideally, you should be approximately 10 to 15 feet from your target. However, you don’t want to simply draw your bow and shoot. Aiming at an underwater target can be tricky.

As light travels through water, it refracts. This optical distortion can fool your brain, shifting the visual location of objects underwater. The fish you see from above the water is actually the refracted image of the real fish below the water’s surface. If you aim at the image of the fish you see with your eyes, your arrow will miss high every time.

Those with some experience in bowfishing often give out this piece of sage advice, “When in doubt, aim low, then aim lower.”

But how low should you aim? That depends on the depth and distance of the target fish. A common rule in bowfishing is the 10-4 rule. Put simply, if the target fish is 10 feet away and 1 foot under the water’s surface, you should aim 4 inches below where you want your arrow to pierce the target.

If you double either the 10 or the one, then you also double the four. This requires a little math, but is a relatively simple concept once you grasp it. As an example, if the fish is 10 feet away and 2 feet underwater, you would aim 8 inches low. Likewise, if the fish is 20 feet away and swimming at a depth of 1 foot, you would also aim 8 inches low.

Even though the math is relatively simple, computation on the fly isn’t everyone’s forte. Some fishing archers choose to aim about 6 inches low for every fish they encounter. With some experience, the aiming point actually becomes almost instinctual. Experience is the best teacher, and you shouldn’t need to carry a calculator with you to make effective shots.

Is Bowfishing Good in the Winter?

Bowfishing is a fun activity you can do all year long. Many people associate bowfishing with the warm months of spring, summer, and early fall. While winter weather often drives target fish to deeper water, it doesn’t necessarily drive them out of range.

A little experience will help you determine which fish are worth shooting and which are too deep to bother. If you can do it, dialing up the draw weight on your bow will drive arrows deeper, allowing you to hit more wintertime fish.

One great perk of wintertime bowfishing is you are likely to have the lake all to yourself. Summer bowfishing can leave you feeling crowded out by all the boat traffic and traditional fishermen. However, you won’t have much competition during the colder months of the year.

Do I Need a Boat to go Bowfishing?

Many people choose to pair boating and bowfishing. Shooting a bow from a boat makes it harder to make good shots. (Imagine trying to pull off a steady shot on a fast moving fish while the boat rocks back and forth. It is just as hard as it sounds.) However, a boat gives you the opportunity to fish at night, allowing you to use lights powered by a generator. Night fishing with lights is a fun and productive way to bowfish all year long.

While a boat is handy for nighttime bowfishing (and will also get you to some of your favorite fishing spots fast), it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Wading and bowfishing also works, as long as you are willing to get a little wet. Wading can actually let you get closer to your target fish since shadows cast from a boat often scare those sitting just under the surface. However, you still need to use ninja-like skills to get up close enough to pull off a good shot. Drawing and aiming your bow while standing in waist-high water can also be challenging.

Shooting from the shore or from large rocks above the surface of the water is another bowfishing option. This technique gives you a better vantage point for spotting fish and allows you to draw your bow without it being partially submerged.

The Best Bowfishing Kit

Successful bowfishing requires the right type of equipment. While some bowfishing archers choose to purchase their equipment individually, there are some perks to getting an all-inclusive kit.

When you buy a ready-to-shoot bowfishing kit, you know all your equipment will work together in harmony. The Hooligan Bowfishing Kit from AMS is our favorite, and it has everything you need to get started in bowfishing.

The AMS Bowfishing Hooligan Bowfishing Kit includes a lightweight compound bow with the AMS proprietary Rapid Adjustment Post (RAP) cam system. This system makes adjusting the draw weight (24 to 50 pounds) simple and easy. All you need is a single tool. The Hooligan is a zero let-off compound bow, which allows you to release anywhere in the draw. This one feature makes it easy to fling those fast, instinctive snap shots that are necessary when bowfishing.

The kit also includes an AMS Tidal Wave arrow rest, Chaos FX Arrow with an EverGlide Safety Slide, an arrow holder, a pre-installed drum reel with line, and a retrieving crank. We admit this complete kit is a tad on the pricey side. However, it comes with everything you need to start bowfishing right out of the box, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better bowfishing set-up.


Bowfishing helps create healthier lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. By reducing rough fish species like carp, bowfin, and gar, that degrade water quality, bowfishing helps make freshwater ecosystems healthier for other fish. Many species of rough fish also compete with game fish for food sources and spawning territory, so keeping their numbers down will help game fish thrive.

However, ecology isn’t usually anyone’s top reason for bowfishing. Bowfishing is an active and fast-past sport that offers plenty of exciting shooting opportunities. It also tends to be more social than many forms of hunting, so you get to spend time with your buddies on the water. What could be more fun than that?

Whether you are a bowhunter looking to extend your season or an archer looking for a new shooting challenge, bowfishing offers a fun and challenging way to enjoy archery. So kick your bow shooting skills up a notch, hit the water, and take aim at some colossal carp. There are few feelings that top reeling in a monster you just shot with your bow.

The Basics of Bowfishing