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March 2012

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Shoot That Fish

Bow fishing draws on primitive methods to turn angler into archer.

By Amber Conrad

Have you ever stood atop a flat-bottom boat and pondered your chances of hitting fish with a bow and arrow? There’s something primitive and ancient inside all of us that sparks thoughts of our ancestors’ methods of hunting and fishing. We wonder if we could have survived with only sticks and stones and our wits as the tools to feed ourselves. Why not take a bow and arrow and try your luck at catching an enormous alligator gar?

I grew up fishing. I learned to cast down our suburban street with a washer tied to my line, refining my form in the waters of Lake Buchanan on summer holidays. I caught a lot of driftwood, but then again, I also caught a lot of fish. I grew up listening to hundreds of boxed crickets eat away at sliced red potatoes out in the laundry room the night before my family went out for a day of fishing at the Landfords’ stock tank. In all those years, it never crossed our minds to combine archery with fishing.

I’ve been content to watch bobbers bob or to reel in a cast hoping for a tug at the other end. Little did I know my traditional rod-and-reel approach could be considered a ho-hum concept made for those content to sit and wait. Bow fishing is for stand-up-on-your-boat-ready-to-shoot-a-fish doers. Sure, bow fishing is like shooting fish in a barrel — but it’s a million-gallon barrel.

Captain Mark Malfa frequents some of the best-kept-secret gar spots around the state on his custom 20-foot flat-bottom boat. I joined him and a group of bow-fishing enthusiasts last summer to try our luck in Southeast Texas near Palacios.

We geared up, and they handed me a Fred Bear recurve bow with a Zebco 808 reel. As I tested the pull-through, I discovered I was never going to fully draw those 40 pounds. I made a mental note to buy a pull-up bar and start drinking protein shakes. I did manage to pull about half the weight, allowing me to fake it as the other guys easily pulled their 45 to 60 pounds.

Laws prohibiting the discharge of weapons along certain navigable rivers and streams in Texas unintentionally prohibited bow fishing in some places, but this oversight was corrected during the 2011 legislative session. The practice is described in a bill analysis as a sport involving “spearing fish by discharging a barbed fishing arrow from a bow equipped with a reel.” The impact of the bill was minor, but the legislative bow fishing action grabbed my attention.

The bill specifies the type of archery equipment that must be used. The bow and arrows you donned for a period costume at the Renaissance festival aren’t going to cut it, though I suppose you could still dress up and go medieval on some carp with the appropriate equipment.

With expanded legality, bow fishing is practiced all over the state and in waterways across the nation.

Fishing with archery equipment is just one way people are trying to re-create the practices of the early days of hunting. Primitive hunting enthusiasts are flint-knapping their own spear points to stalk eels in Mass­achusetts and hunt feral hogs in Texas. Silicon Valley CEO-types are attending workshops out in the mountains of California learning how to get back to nature and unlock their inner carnivore. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg got into the primitive hunting game, vowing last summer to only eat meat he personally kills for a year.

My new interest in bow fishing prompted some thoughtful conversations with my fishing buddies. One of them, Jacob Garrett, suggested that perhaps hunters feel that hunting has become too easy, with sophisticated gear like laser scopes and techniques like fly-over hog hunting. Bow fishing and other primitive sports might be a response to our ultra-modern world.

Garrett, a bow fisherman for about a decade, got his schoolyard friend Rob Salsman into the sport just this year. Salsman’s reasoning behind the move to try a primitive sport like bow fishing is simple.

“I like fishing and I like hunting. It was the best way to combine the two in the summer,” he says. “Besides, there’s just more action than sitting and catching a sunburn on a boat all day.”

More action is an understatement.

We slowed to our first fishing spot, and the guys started to break out the equipment. Salsman’s neon orange line promptly bunched when he fired off a test arrow. Garrett pointed out the rookie mistake and instructed Salsman to wet his line.

Malfa began pointing out the gar, flapping their tails on the surface of the calm morning water. Trophy alligator gar will do a quick roll and disappear as soon as you spot them, making landing one a game of luck and well-oiled reflexes. A flap and a tap on the water and Garrett’s arrow flew after a 3-foot gar. Salsman is seconds behind him, but the shots are too low and the fish is gone.

The trick is to aim below the fish because the surface tension of the water warps the shot’s trajectory. You also have to take into account the fish’s depth and use the appropriate bow force.

“There’s no way I could penetrate a bigger gar without a compound bow with a draw of at least 30 pounds,” Garrett explained as he stood with bow drawn.

The other alternative fishing method to gain legislative attention in 2011 is hand fishing, otherwise known as noodling. Noodling, now legalized, involves wading out to chest-deep waters and poking around until you find a hefty catfish resting in a catfish hole. Then you take a breath, dive under and grab it by the mouth and wrestle it up onto your boat.
We made a few jokes about noodling, moved to a different spot and drifted with the current as we hunted. Malfa made casual notes about technique, pointing out fish and suggesting shots. A tail flap and the fishuu of an arrow hitting water occasionally broke the silence as the sun opened its eyes on the tall grass along the riverbanks.

A lull settled over the water. But then a whale of an alligator gar came within an arm’s length of our boat, just inches from the surface on the starboard side. Salsman’s arrow flew, and he hit it square in the flank as the fish attempted to roll just a split-second too late. The gar started flailing, Salsman started hollering, and we all clambered around to help. Garrett shot the gar again farther down its body so it wouldn’t slip off Salsman’s arrow. Together they reeled it up to the boat, where Malfa was waiting to pull it up and onto the boat floor.

The gar was as long as I am tall, more than 5 feet from tip to tail. Its crocodile-green scales were gorgeous and altogether unworldly.

We caught a couple of smaller gar (the statewide daily bag limit is one) but none that resembled our party’s spectacular morning catch. My personal best was a medium-sized clump of spongy weed, though I did catch an interest in going out bow fishing again, and set up a trip of my own with some friends. I don’t know if I’ll ever sneak up on a feral hog armed only with my homemade spear and all my mother’s prayers, but I’ll spend a day on a boat bow fishing anytime.

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