Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bowfishing for "Rough" Fish, by Don Orth

Only a small fraction of our fishes are sport fish (or game fish).  Yet these game fish require a very large part of the modern fisheries agency’s time and talent. In Virginia,  "game fish" means trout (including all Salmonidae), all of the sunfish family (including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass, rock bass, bream, bluegill and crappie), walleye or pike perch, white bass, chain pickerel or jackfish, muskellunge, and northern pike, wherever such fish are found in the waters of this Commonwealth and rockfish or striped bass where found above tidewaters or in streams which are blocked from access from tidewaters by dams." VA Code § 29.1-100 (2014)    Recreational fisheries are managed with many strategies, including creel limits, seasons, size regulations, stocking, restrictive use of baitfish, and limitations on competitive fishing tournaments.  However, what about all the other fishes? To use the terms “nongame” or "aquatic wildlife" is nondescript, and “rough” fish has negative connotations.    What we call the others is as important as how we manage them. Bowfishing for large non-traditional “rough” fish is a growing activity that raises important challenges. Not the least of which is what to call these fish.

Fishing license sales and fishing participation are not growing  and declines in ifishing are a threat to the future of freshwater fishing and fish conservation. Activities such as fish stocking are important, however, stocking alone does not necessarily lead to increases in participation.   Angler motivations have been well studied and they revolve around catching something (anything), catching big fish, catching many fish, and keeping fish.   These motivations have so shaped agencies, that they have shown little imagination for facilitating other fish-related activities, such as snorkeling, fish watching, and native fish keeping.   

Bowfishing at dusk.  Photo from Indian Head Ranch.
In 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish, Waldman (2005) described bowfishing as “a blood sport, a shoot-and-release is not an option, at least not legally or morally.” Bowfishing is practiced in many regions of the world to harvest fish for food.  In North America, it is legal in many states and common carp is a frequent target.  Many other large fish are targeted by bowfishers and the sport is growing. In 2005 Bowfishing Association of America (BAA) had only 500 members (Waldman 2005), but today BAA has around 4,000 members (Jason Emmelm, What is Bowfishing).    Bowfishing may never reach the popularity of trout fishing or black bass fishing.  However, numerous guides may be found to help the novice to enjoy this new sport.  

Hae Kim with Virginia state record common carp, 45 pounds, 7 ounces. Photo by Jason Emmel.
Bowfishing has grown as more states support recognition of trophy fish captured by this method.   Associations sponsor local tournaments to provide further validation to the skilled archer.  Each year new bowfishing records are set and more bowfishers enter the sport.  In March 22, 2017 a 258 pound, 7 feet 11 inch Alligator Gar set a new bowfishing record at Toledo Bend Reservoir.  In January, 2017, Tom Sheram shot a 81.3 pound Smallmouth Buffalo fish in Lake Athens, Texas.  Jerrime Tucker caught the biggest Spotted Gar with bowfishing in Arkansas, a 41.3 inches 12 pounds 5 oz.   Bowfisherman Robb Kemper shattered the previous Illinois state record bighead Asian carp with a 59 lb. 4 oz fish caught in Illinois in 2011. 

Winning TKO team at the 2016 US Open Bowfishing tournament.
Two trends, tournaments and invasive fish, suggest that growth in bowfishing is likely to continue. From small regional tournaments (e.g., Gar Bananza), the sport of bowfishing has expanded to national events such as the US Open Bowfishing Championship  (See album here). At the 2016 championship, held in Memphis, Tennessee, the first place team took 1,001.4 pounds, while second place was 963.20 pounds of “rough” fish. Most states allow bowfishing but each state has different restrictions for locations, time of day, and species that may be taken via bowfishing.  In most cases, the restrictions are developed to allow harvest of underutilized fish species while protecting other fishes.  Tournament bowfishers in Arkansas harvested 3.8 fish per hour, most of which were carp and gars (Quinn 2010).   Tournament rules often do not allow harvest of catfishes.

Robb Kemper with a 59 pound, 4 ounce Bighead Carp.  Source
Quinn (2010) and others suggested that bowfishing tournaments may help reduce abundant non-native common and Asian carps.   Consequently, bowfishing has been promoted as one approach to facilitate carp removal.    Many state agencies are grappling with policy implications of the growing interest in bowfishing.  Regulations will have to change and adapt to changing conditions.   For example, in Delaware it is now lawful to take invasive fish with bow and arrow.   Until recently, Maryland permitted the take of Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) with bowfishing until concerns about cownose rays annihilating oysters was de-bunked.  In the Midwest, where Asian carps are increasing in abundance and distribution, bowfishing is the most effective selective capture technique (Conover et al. 2007).  It is often the only way to collect unwanted grass carp (Morrow et al. 1997). In the Potomac River, bowfishing is a very effective technique for taking the Northern Snakehead because this air breathing fish is often very near the water surface.

Rough fish (or the slang trash fish) is a term used in the U.S to describe fish that are less desirable to sport anglers.  Harriet Carlander, in History of Fish and Fishing, explained that the term "rough" was a term used for lower valued fish that had only been partly processed during a busy day of fishing.  These fish could not be sold for full price. In northern Europe the term is coarse fish. Today, the term persists but many types of  rough fish ( are pursued by anglers interested in capturing the wide variety of species that exist in US waters.  The negative connotations of the term “rough” fish are unfortunate and the term must be abandoned. Putting Buffalo fish, carp, and gar in the same category for management makes no sense.
T shirt marketed by laments "so many species, so little time."
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet." These rough fish have values and the terms we use should reflect that value. For example, the common carp and the four Asian carps all have demonstrated a high probability of causing ecological and economic effects where populations become established (Conover et al. 2007).  Regulations on bowfishing should be liberal to encourage the take of these species rather they are turned into food or fertilizer.  Bowfishing tournaments have partnered with organic fertilizer companies to utilize the harvest.   Carpbusters Inc., a non-profit, created the EcoCarp® project that take carp and make nutritious, affordable food for zoos, sanctuaries, and other applications.
The 2016 US Open bowfishing tournament partnered with SF Organics to create healthy organic fertilizer products.
The growing group of bowfishers have not been well studied.  One target, the gars (Lepisosteide) are also very understudied and susceptible to overfishing.  States badly need to estimate bowfishing effort and population characteristics of gars in order to develop fair, protective, and rational bowfishing regulations.   Typically, creel surveys do not encounter night-time bowfishers.  One survey of Texas bowfishers indicated that the bowfishers were younger than traditional anglers (Bennett et al. 2015).  Bowfishers are a new and dedicated constituency with spe­cialized boats and equipment. US agencies must adapt to this new user group and study these anglers and their targets. New regulations may be needed to influence the emerging bowfishers. Regulations have the potential to influence participation and fishing license sales.  Bowfishing may not solve the invasive fish problems, but bowfishers can participate in their sport while removing unwanted fish.   The specialized bowfishers have a stake in freshwater conservation and we need to provide a name for the fish that are bowfished.

Specialized bowfishing gear and boats are used, such as the bowfishing equipped airboat.  Photo by William Sikes


Bennett, D.L., R.A. Ott, and C.C. Bonds.  2014.  Surveys of Texas bow anglers, with implications for managing Alligator Gar. Journal of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 2:8-14.
Conover, G., R. Simmonds, and M. Whalen, editors. 2007. Management and control plan for bighead, black, grass, and silver carps in the United States. Asian Carp Working Group, Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, Washington, D. C. Available:  Accessed May 30, 2017. 
Morrow, J.V., Jr, J. P. Kirk, and J. Killgore. 1997. Collection, age, growth, and population attributes of triploid Grass Carp stocked into the Santee-Cooper Reservoirs, South Carolina. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 17: 38-43.  
Quinn, J.W. 2010. A survey of bowfishing tournaments in Arkansas. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 30: 1376-1384.  
Waldman, J. 2005. 100 weird ways to catch fish.  Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.


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