Shot In The Dark

Bridging the gap, bowfishing has strung a cord between hunting and fishing

Story and Photos by Mike Suchan

Published Summer 2014

Photo of tow anglers bowfishing at night
A team in the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open Bowfishing Championships hunts for fish along the Table Rock Lake shoreline.

RIDGEDALE, Mo. – The scene was something out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” One by one, the blinding white lights spun into view, hovering over the water and rendering everything behind them dark. The only thing missing was the five-tone sequence.

There was sound -- the drone of a motor. When the lights turned to illuminate the shore, silhouettes of human form could be seen, with projectiles pointed down from the craft.
This was no spacecraft, but a watercraft – an 18-foot flat bottom jon boat turning in a shallow flat. The people were bow fishermen, standing on raised platforms poised to shoot arrows into any rough fish they happened upon.

It was bowfishing’s biggest night. There were 235 similarly rigged boats plying the waters of Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes, all vying to fill a 50-gallon barrel with the 20 biggest carp and gar they could arrow. The event was the second annual Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open Bowfishing Championships, and the 900 participants showed the sport might be alien to many but continues to gain serious traction across the country.

“It’s really the perfect sport,” says famed bow hunter and TV personality Travis “T-Bone” Turner, a celebrity guest. “It bridges the gap between hunting and fishing. It’s something to do in the offseason, in the late spring and all the summer. It’s fantastic. It incorporates hunting, fishing, archery and it’s done all at night when it’s cool in the summertime. On top of that, the fish don’t run when you rattle a Cheetos bag.”

Evolution To Sport

Bowfishing has been around for eons, and it continues today with indigenous peoples gathering food in areas like the Amazon River. No one knows exactly the first American hunter to take his deer bow out on the water to fish, but bowfishing quickly became competitive in our society and in the past several years has seen rapid advancements in gear and popularity.
Since the first redneck showed off his bowfishing prowess to his buddies, there have been others eager to follow suit. Many say their first night out hooked them. Competitions sprouted up and have been going on for more than 25 years, from small jackpot events hosted by bow hunting clubs to state-wide tournaments.

The Bowfishing Association of America, the national organization for the sport, was formed in 1990 to keep track of the tournaments, but it has altered its mission to advocate for bowfishing rights. The BAA has a small Hall of Fame, with five trailblazers, and it sanctions more than 50 tournaments a year. It was happy to sign up 200 new members at the Open.

Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Academy
The 900 anglers head down to their rigs parked on a knoll below the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Academy.

“Bowfishing has been going on for 20, 25 years and there’s been a really small hardcore group of guys who shot in tournaments,” said John Paul Morris, son of Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris. “Only in the last four to five years has it really become mainstream, popular.”

John Paul has had a little say in that. Growing up in the Bass Pro Shops world, he’s had the opportunity to hunt and fish all over the globe, but bowfishing became his passion after a friend in Kansas invited him for a night out. The 16-year-old Morris had a blast.

“I just got hooked on it,” he said. “I came back, ‘How am I going to get out there?’ I jerry rigged some lights on my boat and got out there."

“It’s so fun to be out there at night. It’s the perfect blend of archery and fishing. You never know what’s in there. It could be a state record fish, a world record. When you pull up on it, it’s up to your archery skills to make the shot. You get this instant gratification.”

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Custom Airboats Run Over Land And Sea

Custom Airboat

RIDGEDALE, Mo. – This boat really blows, on land and sea. A custom airboat designed specifically for bowfishing was on display at the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open Bowfishing Championships.

It was the biggest, baddest boat there, and of course, it comes from Texas. Namely, Pottsboro and Bobby Vogle of Elite Boats.

“This is total, total bowfishing rig,” Vogle said. “It’s an all-custom airboat, 20 foot by 8. It’s got a custom raised deck, a 550-cc supercharged big block engine, three seats up top. It’s got all custom LED lights; it’s got all LED interior lights, blue and white; a battery box and a custom fish box inside.

“They raise the lid open and throw the fish right in the boat. It’s got drains so there’s no bloody mess inside the boat -- Two 2-inch drains, one on each side.”

Vogle can made you one for around $50,000. With a tunnel hull it can run in six inches, but you get more with the big fan -- it can go on dry land.

“I can take it right here in this pasture and run it down and back up the hill,” Vogel said.

What about the rocks?

“It don’t matter, we slide right over them,” he said. “On the bottom we have a 3/8-inch polymer Teflon plastic. It’s all countersunk and screwed with stainless hardware. The polymer is super slick so it helps you slide better, but it protects the aluminum from gouges from rocks, sticks, T-poles sunk in the water. That’s what it’s for.”

So idling into a stump-filled backwater that might take a regular boat an hour takes only a couple minutes in the Elite airboat.

“You can go anywhere you want – between a couple swamplands, crawl through the woods, cross over the other landing,” Vogel said.

Vogel said he’s doesn’t have a number on how many of the custom airboats he’s made. “I lost count. It’s been going on for years and it really blew up in early 2000,” he said. “We build from ground up to each customer’s specs.”

And that includes prop boats, with just a bit more draw depth, but any or all the features a bowfishmen could want.
-- Mike Suchan