Bowfishing: Everything the Beginner Needs to Know

An in-depth guide on bowfishing for beginners. Bowfishing: Everything the Beginner Needs to Know

If you have ever bow hunted, you know that it can seem like your prey just materializes out of nowhere at times. One second, there will be nothing. The very next, you notice a dark figure through the shadows. It isn’t a monster, but it is worth shooting. You pivot, draw your bow, and aim before cringing and letting loose.

It might be just a bass, a largemouth, but it is a nice size one that would leave conventional fishermen in awe. To you though, it can look like 7 pounds of disappointment.

You turn your trolling motor back on and head off in search of your ideal prey – carp. Only a few moments later, you have one flopping in your boat right on the end of your fishing arrow and are all smiles.

3-D shooting and backyard practice are fantastic ways to keep those shooting muscles in shape and to maintain your form during those long hot months before fall. However, when it comes to unadulterated action that is filled with adrenaline, nothing beats bowfishing. This is a sport that is exciting, challenging, affordable, social, and fun. Just ask anyone who participates in this sport and they will tell you just how addictive it can be.

Choosing Your Bow

Just as it is with bow hunting, the right gear will depend on the game you are after. Massive targets like monster sized alligator gar or huge coastal rays will require special approaches and equipment, but your basic setup for bowfishing will be just right for the most popular types of fish – such as gar and carp.

A lot of people who bowfish use a type of bow called a recurve bow. These are good for the almost instinctive snap type shooting that is necessary in most scenarios when it comes to this type of fishing. Recurves enjoy popularity due to their being affordable, effective, and simple. Additionally, they don’t weigh too much, and when you will be holding it for long hours, that can be critical.

You can put together a recurve bowfishing kit that is solid, and that includes a few arrows, the line, and reel, for just under $200. You might even be able to do it for less if you know where to get your gear. Most bowhunters will have an old recurve just laying around somewhere. Even if the old bows won’t ever get near a tree stand again, they can still be ideal for fishing. If you already have an old recurve, companies such as Bohning Archery will have basic kits for bowfishing that will have everything in them that you will need for as little as $30.

That said, before you get that old recurve outfitted for your next fishing trip, think about the sentimental or monetary value of it. Bowfishing is a sport that is tough on the gear, and even a single season can be disastrous for a classic recurve.

Because of this, some shooters tend to go with the more conventional compound bow. There are also a growing number of compound bow manufacturers who make compounds specifically for bowfishing that are equipped with constant draw weights for the snap shooting that is required. One advantage of this type of bow is that they come tapped and drilled for accessories. Additionally, most people who bowfish will already be familiar with how the compounds feel because they already use them during hunting season. You can get a quality compound that has been optimized for bowfishing for about $200.

When it comes to the draw weight, a modest one will do just fine. Most of the fish will not be more than just a few feet deep, and even a bow with a 25 – 35-pound weight will be able to push the fishing bows to that depth with force. Bows with draws that are lighter will reach those fish that are close to the surface, and this means that it is easy for kids to bowfish too.

When it comes to kids, this is a great sport. As soon as they are able to draw the bow, they can be out there fishing.

Bows that have heavier draw weights will give you all of the performance that the adult bowfish enthusiast will need while still being light enough to wear out a shooter who takes more than 200 shots each day.

Tuning your bow is critical. This might be one of the most overlooked aspects when it comes to people just getting started with this sport. Unless the fish you are aiming for is just beneath the surface of the water, if the arrow doesn’t go into the water perfectly straight, you will not be able to hit your fish. You can easily tune the bow by shooting bare shafts into a target.

Rigging Up

Let’s talk a bit about reels. You basically have 3 options.

The one that is the most basic is the hand wrap. These reels are inexpensive, durable, and functional. You can pick one up for about $20. However, the shooter needs to manually wind their line back onto its spool each time they take a shot, so in situations where you are able to take quite a few shots, they aren’t exactly ideal.

You might choose to go with a heavy-duty spin cast type fishing reel that is attached to a special seat that you just screw onto the stabilizer bushing of the bow. This type of reel allows for you to retrieve your arrow quickly, and the drag of the reel can assist with those fish who put up a fight. Heavy-duty fishing reels work just fine when they get moderate usage.

Your third option will be a reel that has had its internal gears beefed up so that it can handle the rigors of this sport with ease. One such reel is the Xtreme Duty Bowfishing Reel by Muzzy.

When it comes to the line you will be using, popular choices include 150-pound BCY Spectra Braid and 200-pound Brownell Fast Flight.

Retriever reels are also an option. These reels attach right to the sight holes on the riser of the bow. They utilize a system that stacks heavy line inside of a pod that is enclosed. There are some advantages to this that include line retrieval that is relatively quick, shooting that is drag free, and being able to use lines that are heavier. However, these reels weren’t designed to haul in massive fish, so the ones you need to pull in by hand will be lost. These reels can also be rigged with float rigs that are detachable so that you can tackle the larger game like alligators, gator gar, rays, and sharks.

As far as price goes, you can get a solid spin cast reel or a retriever reel, along with the reel seat and line for around $80.

Ok. On to the arrows.

Arrows used for bowfishing will take quite a beating, so you need to get ones that are durable. Most are made from fiberglass, but you can also find carbon ones or ones that are carbon/fiberglass hybrids. These can be anywhere from $10 to $30. They need to be heavy, and they typically come with a few options, such as glow in the dark shafts,

Fletching isn’t needed. Both the heavy weight of the arrows and the trailing line will keep them flying straight.

You will also find quite a few different types of points for bowfishing. Your basic carp point will be fine for most uses. Of course, each person who participates in this sport will have their own preferences. Some like the tips that have larger barbs because of their awesome holding power. Others will prefer different heads made for specific game.

Until just recently, most of the time, anglers would just thread their arrows right to the strings using a hole near where the nock is. However, the new norm is safety slides. When you keep the line right in front of the riser, the slides will negate the chances of the string getting tangled with the cables or bowstring, which can lead to arrow snap back that is dangerous.

Bowfishermen also have quite a few options when it comes to rests, and these can be as much as $20. Roller rests are both effective and popular. Some shooters prefer capture rests though. The thing is, you will need a rest that will be both tunable and durable enough to hold your heavy arrows.

You can also always shoot off the shelf. This can lead to difficulties with tuning though.

Only a few anglers will use releases. This game requires finger shooting. Some of the veterans of this sport will have fingers that have been toughened by shooting for so many years now that they are able to shoot bare. Most will use protection. Full leather gloves, 3 finger gloves, or tabs are all options for this. However, some people say that they get in the way. Also, they can quickly get nasty from the fish slime and water. An effective and simple alternative is to just use some rubber protectors on the string, like No-Glovs or Fin Slicks.

Lastly, sunglasses that are polarized to cut the glare from the surface are absolutely critical when it comes to bowfishing in the daytime.


Targets for bowfishing run the gamut from giant alligator gar to small suckers. There are also videos of archers who shoot at the flying Asian carp, which is an invasive species that has garnered a lot of interest by Bowfishermen.

However, the most common species is simply the carp. This is because it can be found nearly everywhere and in great abundance. This is also considered an invasive species and it was brought here from Europe as a food fish all the way back in the 1800s. Since then, they have become so plentiful that managers of fisheries tend to be quite agreeable to bowfishers shooting them, especially since they hardly ever receive catch and keep pressure from those anglers who go the more traditional route for catching fish.

During the spring and all through the spawn, they can be found right around shoreline brush. When they form their massive spawning pods, the most difficult challenge can be singling one out to aim for.

If it isn’t spawning season, the carp tend to not be so visible during daylight. However, sometimes you can find them around the shallows feeding. Bowfishing for this species can be difficult because of them being so spookable, even in places where there aren’t too many bowfishers.

When it comes to hunting grass carp, buffalo carp, gar, and carp, the best time is after nightfall. For this reason, many archers will invest in special boats that have raised platforms for shooting along with banks of halogen lights that are powered by on-board generators. That being said, you can also participate without spending a fortune.

You can easily do this with a light that is bow mounted to illuminate your targets. Powerful headlamps are also useful, but it can be tricky to keep it pointed right at your target while you draw.

If you are looking to shoot some saltwater fish, primary targets include rays and skates, and these can often be seen gliding near the surface of the water.

You need to remember that the species you are legally allowed to bowfish will vary depending on the state you are in, so you always need to check local regulations, along with hunting regulations for the laws regarding this type of fishing. You also need to have the right licenses.

The Difficult Part

There is an old saying that says if something is easy, everyone would do it. That definitely applies to this type of fishing.

It is easy to get outfitted and even to locate the fish. The tricky part is being able to hit your target, and this isn’t just due to the fact that you will be shooting on instinct.

The difficulty lies in the refraction of the water. Because of the way that the rays of light are bent in the water, the fish you will be aiming for won’t generally be right where they seem to be. If you aim directly for the fish, you will miss it. You need to aim and shoot low.

The thing is, how low do you need to shoot? Refraction can depend on a few things, including how far away the fish is, the depth, and even how tall you are. 2 of those things change constantly. This means that each shot will be different. The keys are perseverance and practice.

Once you have mastered this, you will be able to fill your belly and spend countless hours of enjoyment hunting for fish.


  1. You Tube, Bowfishing Tips for Beginners
  2. Locked Up, Bowfishing for Beginners
  3. Big Game Hunt, Bowfishing 101
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