Bowfishing still a niche sport in Western Pennsylvania

Bob Frye
| Sunday, May 20, 2007

With no sun in the sky, Denny Russian was forced to search the clouds for carp.

Standing in his small green bass boat, the trolling motor pushing it along at its slowest possible speed, Russian peered into the water of Thompson Bay at Presque Isle on Monday. Weeds -- some of them looking like underwater hemlocks, with long "branches" of needly fronds, green tipped with red highlights -- swayed ever so gently just below the surface, as if dusting the glassy surface from below.

Then, in an instant, with a couple of excited "Oooh, ooohs," Russian wheeled at the waist, drew back his bow, and fired into the water.

The arrow disappeared with a plunk. Quickly, Russian, who lives in New Alexandria, grabbed the 400-pound test line that connected bow to arrow and started to pull. He felt a familiar weight at the end.

"Oh yeah, we got that one," he said. "He looked like a pretty nice one, too. I just saw his lips and then he took off."

The fish turned out to be a 27-pound carp, one of two Russian would shoot on this day. The other was only slightly smaller, a 24-pound fish.

It wasn't Russian's best day of bowfishing ever -- he killed a 54-pound grass carp at Erie last year, and has on occasion been able to shoot as many fish in a day as he wanted -- but for Russian, any day on the water with a bow is a good one.

"I really enjoy it. If you like to shoot a bow, and you like to hunt, bowfishing is great because it's a lot like bowhunting deer or anything else," Russian said.

It doesn't enjoy the same popularity as bowhunting, however. While bowfishing tournaments are big in some parts of the country -- there's even a Bowfishing Association of America that runs an annual World Shoot -- the sport is kind of a niche one here.

"I think it's a small group of guys," said Tom Qualters, assistant law enforcement supervisor for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in Somerset. "There are a handful of guys who do it here at Somerset Lake, and you hear of it at Shawnee Lake and a few other places, but you just don't see guys doing it that often."

That's too bad, said Tom Campbell of New Alexandria, another bowfisherman.

The sport is exciting, he said. At times, when carp are spawning and the sunlight is hitting the water, making the fish easier to spot, the action can be fast and furious, like rabbit hunting.

Even then, though, it's a challenge, he said. Archers floating through the shallows in a boat -- still-hunting, as it were -- have to learn to spot carp quickly because once a fish sees you, it's gone.

"It's sort of like hunting deer. If you've never hunted deer before and somebody takes you out, they'll say 'See that deer?' and you'll look and you won't be able to see anything. Then, after a few years, you learn to pick deer out of their surroundings," Campbell said.

"It's the same here. Spotting them is something you have to acquire a knack for."

A good bowfisherman can shoot a carp as deep as five or six feet underwater, Russian said. But the farther below the surface they are, the harder it is to hit them.

They're harder to see down deep, too, of course. The key is not to look for a whole fish, Russian said. You have to learn to look for a tail, their lips, maybe an eye. You can also look for "clouds" of mud and silt stirred up by fish rooting around in the bottom.

"You've just got to be quick," Russian said. "That's why I shoot with my fingers. I use a release when I'm hunting deer and a buck might walk past. But here, if a carp sees you, whoosh, it's gone."

"They're smart, the big ones are. That's how they got that big, just like an old buck. But that's what makes it so much fun."

Bowfishing -- which can be done with a compound or crossbow -- is legal in Pennsylvania only for carp and suckers. Fish can be taken day or night year round except in approved trout waters during the closed season.

The best fishing, though, lasts just a few weeks in the spring, Campbell said, when fish move into shallower water to spawn.

"You can do it anytime, but later in the year it gets tough. Fish get scarce," he said.

There are no regulations governing what type of equipment you have to use. Draw weight is not overly important, Russian said; it's best to shoot a bow you're comfortable with. You'll need an attachment that can hold 30 yards or so of 140- to 400-pound test line, however. YOu also need bowfishing broadheads, most of which have a collar that slides down on contact with a fish to release the blades.

For information on bowfishing equipment, visit . For information on the Bowfishing Association of America, visit . And if you want to find about about bowfishing tournaments, visit .

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