Bowfishing enthusiasts say sport worth trying

Monday, July 16, 2012 | 7:36 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A green metal fishing boat slowly moves down Perche Creek. Small waves in the murky water rock the boat and its passengers sway with the rhythm.

Tips for bowfishing

A benefit to bowfishing is its economic feasibility.

“It’s one of those sports where you can spend as little or as much as you want,” Gunn said.

  • Bows: Pawn shops are great for finding bows. A compound bow is more common, as it is ideal for low-depth waters such as rivers and creeks. A recurve bow is better for deeper water because “it shoots longer and stronger,” Thompson said. A crossbow may be used to shoot in shallower water.
  • Arrows: Arrows with special tips sometimes called "carp points" are recommended.

  • Reel options: Spinning, closed reel or a “can-style,” hand-wound reels.

  • Safety slide: Put it on your arrow Keeps the line in front of your hands and you safer.

  • Boat or no boat: Boats aren't essential to bowfish, Gunn said. They are a must to venture out into the rivers and lakes, but Gunn said it is possible to have the same fun and results fishing from the bank or off a low bridge. 
    “Some people fish hanging out of the trees, too,” Sizemore said.
  • One element that is almost essential to to success: polarized sunglasses. “Without them, you won’t see anything,” Robert said.

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Two college students from New London, Mo. — Jeff Thompson, 24, and Nathan Sizemore, 23 — stand atop a wooden platform on the front of the boat.

Each holds a compound bow rigged with an arrow and a black spinning reel. With watchful eyes, Thompson and Sizemore scan the water’s surface for a flash of light or moving speck of sunlight.

“There,” Sizemore shouts, pointing to a small, tan oval weaving just beneath the water’s surface. His fingers curl around the bowstring and the muscles in his arm tense as he draws the string back and readies the arrow.

With a whoosh and a splash, the arrow slices through the water and pierces its target. Sizemore quickly reels in the line, hoping his target is of good weight. Round and round the line goes until the fish emerges from the water, flopping helplessly against the side of the boat.

Sizemore swings the fish into the boat, laughing at his first catch.

“That’s a baby, Nathan,” Thompson says.

The tan scales of the fish’s belly contrast with the dark green coloring on its top and the orange edges to its bottom fins. Its wet body glistens and sprays droplets of water.

Sizemore shakes his head and tosses the fish into a barrel in the boat.

The men are bowfishing.

Dating back to Native American cultures in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Asia, bowfishing entails sighting and then shooting primarily non-game fish, or “trash fish,” such as carp, drum or gar. Sizemore's catch was a silver carp.

Bowfishing is not well known by many outside of its circle.

"There's a lot more action,” Sizemore said of the sport. “You're not just sitting there waiting for a bite.”

Those who bowfish generally get their start by meeting someone already involved in the sport. Thompson, for example, began bowfishing with his father at the age of 8.

Guy Robert, 33, an avid bowfisher and tournament organizer in the Columbia area, pointed to the lack of paid guides in the mid-Missouri area. He said minimal coverage of the activity in the media and lack of information available doesn’t help either.

The sport didn't make it on the map until the late 1980s and early 1990s when bowfishers started reporting alligator gar exceeding 200 pounds, Robert said.

Despite this surge, negative stereotypes also keep some away from bowfishing.

“(People) think I’m a barbaric redneck because I bowfish,” Robert said.

Robert’s friend, Neil Gunn, a 29-year-old Columbia resident and fellow bowfisher, said that the shooting aspect of the sport gives it a bad reputation.

But Gunn and Robert have hopes for the future as more information reaches the public.

The sport's appeal is growing. Thompson said the rivers are becoming more populated with bowfishers.

“The number of species you can take in Missouri while bowfishing is long,” Robert said. Thompson described a usual catch as a large water barrel overflowing with fish. He said that on a great day the total he and his friends catch spills over into the bottom of the boat.

Most bowfishermen either throw the fish back in the water for birds to eat or toss it in the collection barrel. Some fishermen will keep their catch and grind it up for fertilizer.

The size of the fish is a huge draw for experienced fishermen, Thompson said. He has caught gar longer than four feet.

A long fishing season and access to numerous fishing locations makes the sport accessible to many. Robert said bowfishing can be done year-round, but he did say that the time of day, temperature of the water and type of waterway affect the catch.

“Missouri is a hotbed for bowfishing,” Gunn said. “The Mississippi and Missouri rivers give bowfishers great opportunities within the state to find big fish, plus reservoirs like the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman, as well as Bull Shoals and more, offer those with a fishing license ample area to bowfish.”

Robert said he's also seen an increase in the number of children participating, crediting the “abundance of targets close to home” for making it easy to have family time.

“It’s easy for dads to keep the kids entertained on the water at any skill level,” he said.

Thompson, Sizemore, Robert and Gunn each said they love the sport for its ability to allow groups of friends to go out, relax, have a few beers and just talk and fish.

“Although, tournaments are also an excuse to tell our ladies we just got to fish today,” Gunn joked.

Bowfishers can also fish outside of Missouri if they wish to make a trip of it. Texas is considered the “mecca” of bowfishing, Gunn said. The Trinity River running through Dallas is of special appeal because of the large alligator gar found there, Robert said.

Gunn joked that the claim that everything is bigger in Texas is true, for the climate allows the fish to grow larger than they do in Missouri.

Competition has increased awareness of the sport as well. Tournaments, which have traditionally been held at night on large reservoirs, are beginning to move closer to Columbia thanks to Robert’s efforts.

Robert organizes “trailering events,” which allow fishers to meet up at a specific location, fish any public body of water they want and return to the starting point with their catches by the final weigh-in time to earn cash prizes.

The next area tournament, the 2012 Anything Goes Rough Fish Roundup, will take place Aug. 4 in Jefferson City.

Robert, Gunn, Thompson and Sizemore all plan to keep fishing as much as they can for the rest of the summer.

“It’s hot, but it’s just so nice to get away from everything and just be out here,” Robert said of his trips this summer.

Looking around at the quiet, murky Lamine River with his hair still damp from a quick dip, Robert turned and smiled.

“Isn’t this the life?” he said.

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