Shot In The Dark

Story and Photos by Mike Suchan

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

Photo of two anglers bowfishing at nightA 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 AcademyThe 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."

John Paul has upgraded in the past 10 years, now conducting his hunts from a Tracker pontoon boat named "The Blood Vessel," complete with a 28 LED SeeLites powered by 2 Honda 2000 generators. It has a Mercury 250 ProXS with a 25 hp kicker motor along with a Minn Kota 112 trolling motor. Oh, he’s also got a full sound system.

Johnny Morris has come to see the light and hear the tune his son has been blasting.

"My boy has got the passion. That's what drives a lot of things in life," he said. "All kids got their own trail, their own path. He's always loved hunting. I think I burned him out on fishing maybe, so now he's got to compromise with bow fishing."

Bowfishing has become another section in the stores. Not only does Bass Pro Shops stock the specialized bows, reels and arrows, but Tracker is now marketing a Grizzly 1860 bowfishing boat.

"It's a huge growing sport that's just at the beginning, I think," Johnny Morris said moments after giving away one of the boats to a U.S. Open participant. "When I came here last year, it gave me an instant flashback of being on Table Rock in 1970. I fished in the first national bass tournament then, and you saw these fishermen coming from all over the country and you could just sense then that it had the potential to be something, a really big sport."

Sure, John Paul could be the Ray Scott of bowfishing. He promoted this event to greatness. Bass Pro Shops had the venue in its Outdoor Academy, a shooting range near the Big Cedar Lodge resort. There was plenty of room on the grounds for all the boats, which were sectioned off in alphabetized areas filling a scenic hill leading to the lake. There were vendors, food booths, bow and shotgun shooting venues, music and entertainment. John Paul secured appearances by bow hunting personalities T-Bone, Lee and Tiffany Lakosky and Brian "Pigman" Quaca. Giveaways to competitors included tons of merchandise, bows, arrows, reels, GoPro cameras, with the big two items the boat and a Bad Boy Buggy. The first-place team would win $10,000 out of a $45,000 purse. The biggest fish was awarded $5,000.

Photo of Keith Fennessey and his son DaltonDespite having one of the simpler boats, Keith Fennessey and his son, Dalton, 16, knew they had as good a chance as anyone at the $5,000 big fish.

That helped draw 236 teams from 27 states, up from 127 teams last year. Some teams were named creatively, like Sucker Punch, Carp Commander, Garzilla, Nocturnal Madness, Bottom Pokers and Sticknmofish. Some boats had fancy wraps, while others were simple.

Keith Fennessey and his son, Dalton, 16, came three hours from Union, Mo., hoping to do better than last year's 55th-place finish. They had one of the simplest rigs, a 16-foot semi-v boat with a 50-hp motor, but said they had as good a chance as any to turn their $200 entry into a $5,000 fish.

It's a mini vacation; we come compete and do what we like," Keith said. "They got $50,000 rigs out there, but it's anybody's ballgame. It's that one fish that could make you a happy person."

Nighttime Is The Right Time

Just after a final captains meeting and instructions to obey the 30 mph night speed limit, the teams were sent to their rigs to head out. They could launch at any ramp on the two lakes and begin fishing at 7 p.m. It took only 51 minutes for all the teams to leave the grounds. Some only drove 10 minutes to the nearest ramp, while others spent more than hour driving to the most remote regions of the lakes.

Fancy or plain, most boats had handmade or custom raised platforms on the bow, with a bank of LED lights tucked underneath and powered by a gas generator aft. Via a kicker or trolling motor, they skulked along the shoreline and in shallows in search of carp that come up to feed at night. Some have controls in the bow, where the archers stand at the ready to draw and fire.

Photo of anglers bowfishing at nightThe two- to four-man teams fished from 7 p.m. until the 7 a.m. check-in.

"It's snap shooting," said Team Pokaho captain Greg Pyle of Indiana, who's competed for 25 years. "The thing about aiming is the water refraction. You have to aim low."

He spouted off a formula for how many inches one aims low for each foot of depth, and how many more inches at distance. Pyle said a beginner might be fortunate to stick one fish in 25 attempts, while experienced hunters can shoot better than 75 percent.

Hunting bows can be used by adding a reel, but most favor a bow made specifically for fishing. There are a variety of reels, from the Zebco 808 for around $35 to $100-plus models where line is retrieved into plastic bottles.

The arrows are heavier and stronger, lack fletching and are tipped with a variety of barbed broadheads. Most important is a slide mechanism that prevents snap back – an arrow coming back at the shooter. It's attached to the side of the arrow shaft so the outgoing line doesn't cross the plane of the bow or the bowstring. The line tends to be brightly colored braid, in weight ranges from 80- to 400-pound test. Some bowfishermen go with 600-pound test for alligators.

The Hunt Is On

John Paul Morris said he is all about the big fish, the 50, 60-pound grass carp. Despite spending long hours running the event and not being eligible to compete, he went out on tournament night to satisfy his addiction.

Photo of anglers taking practice shotsIt's splashdown in the Top Shot competition. Anglers tried their hand at hitting submerged targets at varying distances for prizes.

"I want those big picture fish. That's what does it for me, the battle with the big fish," he said. "A lot of times they run. I've got a spinner button on my reel, a Zebco push button. As soon as I hit a fish, I don't click it in gear. I let it run, 40 or 50 feet. And then they lay down.

"What I do is sneak back up on them and reel in the slack, and when we get up close, I have all the other guys in the boat draw back. I try to ease the fish up to the surface and they try to get a second arrow in it."

Finding the giant grass carp on Table Rock was the trick. Common carp probably made up 85 percent of the catch in the U.S. Open. The occasional gar was weighed in, but they don't carry the weight on the clear water reservoir.

The Georgia team of John Hood, Greg Campbell and Brian Ellenburg found grass carp of 38 and 32 pounds in their winning total of 376 pounds. The experienced team, which has numerous state titles and top finishes in national events, scouted for two months on Google maps before spending three nights on the water before the event.

"We put our homework in," Ellenburg said. "The first night, we didn't find anything. The second night, we maybe seen 10 fish. The third night it got a little bit better. We were just checking different spots and seeing more fish as the nights got warmer and warmer. The last night we scouted we knew where we wanted to shoot."

The secretive nature of anglers crosses over to bowfishermen. The team would only divulge they drove 50 minutes to launch — "we might want to fish there next year."

Campbell said the team wasn't used to the water visibility, which is 20 feet in the daytime. "There are some good-sized fish living here, but they can spook easily when you come up on them," he said. "You'd better shoot fast or they're gone."

Photo of Johnny Morris With Boat Winner Ben PattersonJohnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and son, John Paul, flank boat winner Ben Patterson of Supulpa, Okla.

The total take from the lakes was 40,000 pounds, and a truck from SF Organics was there to process it into food and make organic fertilizer. Nobody has any qualms with reducing the rough fish that muddy the water and compete for food and habitat with sport fish. Along with helping their fishery, some bowfishermen say they turn their recreational catches into fertilizer for their deer food plots.

"It's a very healthy thing for bass, to eradicate some of these other fish, and these guys are trying their best to do that," Johnny Morris said.

Salt Stings

Joe Powroznik and son, Van, came from Prince George, Va., but their BoTime team didn't fare so well. They didn't fish where they had practiced and only had one 19-pounder to finish second to last. The Powrozniks, cousins of bass pro Jacob Powrozniks who won a Bassmaster Elite Series event on the same weekend, are more accustomed to shooting stingrays.

The elder Powroznik, who runs the hunting program at Fort Lee, has been putting on bowfishing tournaments since the 1980s. He says he's competed in saltwater events on Chesapeake Bay for 18 years. Their main target, stingrays, are plentiful and an annoyance to the seafood industry.

"Crabbers, oystermen and clammers, they love the bowfishermen taking out the rays," Powroznik said. "The cownose stingrays have specialized mouths to break the shells. They can just tear up an oyster bed in no time. The big fish are the southern stingrays, which can go 100 pounds. We've got special tips for soft-fleshed fish. It's a different setup. We really enjoy the saltwater."

Stingrays are also popular bowfishing targets in Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico, as are sharks and barracuda. Other saltwater species commonly targeted are flounder, sheepshead and redfish. The Powrozniks all shoot traditional bows, or recurves, and they figured out something about Table Rock's clear waters.

"We learned one thing; we can't do deep shots," Van Powroznik said. "It doesn't have the poundage. This is the worst we've ever done."

So they tucked tail for the16-hour drive home, gaining knowledge for next year. They are entrenched in bowfishing competitions. Lee Powroznik, who has bow hunted for big game from Canada to Florida, holds family doubles and blind draw carp tournaments each spring on the army base. "Fishing with archery tackle is just something great to do in the offseason," he said.

Learning Curve

Bowfishing is still in its infancy as evidenced by the various rigging on the boats. "It is a sea of rednecks, and all kinds of contraptions on these boats," T-Bone said. "It does my heart proud. For the last five or six years if we don't have anything mandatory to do, cameras or not, I'm out there on the water bowfishing. Short of killing a whiteail, it's my favorite thing to do."

The competitors were checking out each other’s setup, seeing if there was some better way to trick out their rig. John Paul Morris kept his eyes open for any innovative techniques he could borrow, not only for his boat but possibly to market.

"You hang out around here and you learn so much. You see little things on their boat that are great ideas — I'm going to do that on my next boat," he said. "The way people have their lights set up, the way they rig up a kicker motor or trolling motor to power their boat."

Not that long ago, bowfishing equipment was hard to come by. Now outdoors outlets are responding to requests of the growing participants.

"They're asking for it," John Paul said. "In the last three or four years, it's really started to take off. I used to go out and never saw another boat. Now, every time I go out, I see three or four other boats out."End of story hook

— Published: Summer 2014

Custom Airboats Run Over Land And Sea

Photo of a 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.


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