Bowfishing doesn’t refer to a species, and is not really fishing at all, but a hunt for fish. Although the word “fishing” is in the sport’s name, bowfishing is more similar to small game hunting than to fishing, because it is the pursuit of fish with a bow and arrow. This is a legal method to pursue nongame fish, including bluegill, green sunfish, carp, carpsuckers, suckers, buffalo, drum, gar, and all other species not defined as game fish or listed as endangered in the Wildlife Code of Missouri. Bowfishing offers an exciting way to pursue these fish that typically draw little interest with traditional pole-and-line or setline methods.
A fishing license is needed to bowfish. Traditional fishing uses hooks, and fish aren’t typically seen during the angler’s pursuit of them. Bowfishing is quite different in that fish are first spotted and then shot at with a bow or crossbow. The bow or crossbow shoots arrows attached to a line so that the fish can be retrieved after they’re pierced. Due to the water’s refraction, connecting with a fish is harder than you might think. The deeper the fish is in the water, the more refracted it is by the water. The angler has to compensate for this refraction, making the shot more difficult. The tendency is to shoot over the fish, so learning how to adjust the shot at a moment’s notice on a moving target can prove quite tricky.
Fish can be successfully pursued during the day, but many people bowfish at night when fish are often more active and more visible than in the daylight. Old-timers used small, wood-burning fires in baskets hanging over a boat’s bow to illuminate the water at night. These were later replaced by oil lamps and lanterns. Today, halogen lights powered by a gas generator or LED lights are commonly used. Bowfishers without boats use handheld lights along the banks or other vantage point. Moonlight alone does not provide sufficient light for locating and properly identifying fish.
The moon phase and water clarity play an important role in bowfishing. During a full moon, fish are typically more skittish because they feel more exposed, and can be more difficult to get close to; during a new moon it is often easier to get closer to them as they feel more hidden in the dark. The same goes for water clarity – the clearer the water, the more difficult it can be to get close to fish even though you can see them better. The opposite is true of murky or turbid waters. Because fish are pursued by sight and most legal fish are bottom feeders, slowly cruising the shores and still backwaters are generally most productive for bowfishing. Fish will typically be seen feeding in the substrate, along the shore, or just loafing. Smooth, still water is most conducive for proper fish identification and shooting; choppy water makes it more difficult. During the day, the use of polarized sunglasses reduces glare on the water and enhances visibility.
Because nongame fish are pursued and harvested at significantly lower rates than game fish, their populations are typically abundant. The Department conducts some dedicated management for species like alligator gar, working to restore these fish to their former native habitat in southeastern Missouri in recent years.
Invasive species control helps to protect native fish species in Missouri waterways. These invasive species include silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, and common carp, as well as goldfish. Regulations and other public awareness initiatives to prevent invasive species from inhabiting new waters are ongoing, and regulations permit unlimited harvest with few restrictions on these invasive species since their total eradication would be ideal.
Many conservation areas don’t support adequate nongame fish population or an area large enough to offer ample bowfishing opportunities and therefore don’t permit bowfishing. Access to large lakes, reservoirs, and rivers provide the best opportunity and success for bowfishing. Try large waters by way of Department accesses, or consider one of these suggested areas. For more detailed information about an area, visit the Department’s Places to Go webpage.
Shooting a fish with an arrow is not the same as catching it with a hook. Shot fish are considered harvested and must not be returned to the water. “Catch and release” bowfishing is simply not ethical. Nongame fish are often overlooked for the food they provide. Some restaurants serve nongame fish, and some grocery stores sell it as well.