I had the opportunity this month to go bowfishing. Having never had the chance to experience this sport, I was admittedly a little skeptical when I received the assignment. But I must admit I was intrigued to find out what this was all about.
Fortunately I was going out with one of the most acknowledged bowfishing experts in Georgia and Alabama, so at least I would see how it was done right. And, let me tell you, it was a HOOT!
Gene Hobbs of Douglasville is a full-time archery specialist and bowfishing guide. He has invested years perfecting his skill with a bow and even spent some time on the professional archery tour.
I met Gene at the Idle Hour ramp on Bartletts Ferry just before dark on an evening in early June.
The first thing that was obvious was that Gene was well equipped for the sport. His boat was a custom-made affair consisting of a shallow draft, 18-foot jonboat with a wide beam and plenty of deck for a shooting platform. Gene said he can easily manage four shooters at a time.
The main power plant was an outboard to move from spot to spot, but the most interesting element was a big fan motor mounted on the stern above the outboard. Gene designed the fan motor himself. It consists of a wire cage mounted on a swivel pedestal that changes direction to propel the boat and turn it. The engine is a 35 horsepower Briggs and Stratton 2-cylinder model equipped with an ultra-light aircraft propeller.
“This boat will float in as little as 7 inches of water,” said Gene. “And the big fan will slide the boat through grassbeds and shallow spots where a trolling motor or the outboard just wouldn’t be able to function.”
The rig looked like a toned-down airboat and was designed to be more maneuverable and less noisy than its bigger Everglades cousins. The steering mechanism was also a custom-made device that was mounted in the bow and gave Gene full control over the throttle and the direction of the fan.
The next impressive element was the sophisticated lighting system consisting of an on-board gasoline-powered generator and 10, 250-watt, high-intensity lights mounted on the forward gunwales and bow.
Couple that with top-notch compound bows and you have a unit that is made especially for a bowhunting outing.
As we left the ramp, Gene headed the boat upriver toward the shoals.
“We’ll be looking for fish in 10 inches to 4 feet of water,” said Gene. “Much deeper than 4 feet and it is very difficult to hit the fish.”
When we arrived at the shoals, it was still daylight and Gene suggested I try a few practice shots to get acquainted with the equipment. We were using Oneida Osprey Compound Bows set to about 35 pounds of pull. The bows were equipped with AMS pro retrievers spooled with 130-lb. line, allowing us to reel in the fish once we struck pay dirt, or retrieve a wayward arrow. The bowfishing arrows were solid fiberglass models from Innerloc. They were fitted with Pro Points, with a barb device, as well as AMS slides to attach the lines.
As I took my practice shots, Gene told me to aim several inches below the spot I wanted to hit. The deflection of the water as well and the distortion caused by light refraction causes the arrow to fly higher above the target than you expect.
“Most people miss high,” said Gene. “It is also better to make snap shots rather than trying to aim at the fish.”
The fish are often on the move and if you think too long before firing you’ll miss your shot.
As darkness fell, Gene moved us into position, cranked the generator and turned on the big spotlights. We saw fish in the shallow water almost immediately. He then turned on the fan, and we began cruising around the area with bows at the ready.
“There is just something about being on the water at night,” said Gene. “The crowds are gone, and the game just seems to be more relaxed.”
As we cruised around, we saw beaver, heron, ducks and other water birds in the bright lights, none of which seemed to be too concerned about our presence. There was plenty of aquatic life to look at as well. The shoals were full of fish and turtles. There was always something moving around the boat.
It became apparent, pretty quickly, that this sport was much more like hunting than fishing. Gene said there is an old saying in bowfishing: “I ain’t waiting on no fish.”
It was clear that we were going to do a lot more stalking than waiting. There was no shortage of targets with fish darting around the boat in every direction.
“You might shoot a couple of hundred arrows in a night,” said Gene. “You’ll miss a bunch, but when you connect you are in for a treat.”
Our targets of choice included carp, gar, bowfin and shad. It is illegal to shoot game fish with a bow, except channel and flathead catfish may be taken in the Savannah River basin. Be careful and sure of what you are shooting at before you fire. However, it’s pretty easy to spot the gar and carp.
It took about six shots before I connected with my first fish, a nice gar. That hurdle behind us, Gene and I both took shots from the bow as we moved through the shallows and connected quite a few times with several of the species we were after.
Being quick was the key. If you spend a lot of time lining up your shot and worrying about technique, you’ll miss more than you hit. But you should expect to miss more often than not. This fish shooting is more of a challenge than it seems on the surface. There will be fish that you could almost reach out and touch and the arrow will go skimming by them.
“The more I aim, the more I miss,” said Gene. “Shoot from the hip, release when it feels good.”
Sometimes when the water is extremely cloudy Gene advises clients to shoot at the wave made by the fish in the shallows, and often they connect.
After working the shoals for an hour or so, we began to head back down river, checking out pockets and coves along the way.
As we entered the first pocket, Gene advised to keep an eye out for gar at the points on either side of the entrance to the pocket.
“Big gar will often hang out on these points,” said Gene.
On the night we were out, the gar were not showing up so we moved deeper into the pocket. Once inside we moved along the grass on the edges looking for carp. In the first pocket, we found two good carp side by side in a grassbed. With two quick shots we both connected and had a double on and pandemonium broke out for a couple of minutes.
We continued down the lake hitting pockets and picking up fish along the way. Our final stop was a huge grassbed in the middle of the lake right next to the Idle Hour ramp. We picked up a few more good carp and headed back to the ramp. While we didn’t find any really big carp or gar on our outing, we still had a lot of action and a great time on the water.
Gene has been shooting bows since he was about 15 and bowfishing for close to 20 years. The last couple of years he has been guiding bowfishing clients for a living.
“Skill level is not all that important,” said Gene. “I like to introduce new people to the sport. It really is a lot of fun, and most folks catch on quickly.”
While Gene is well equipped for guiding customers, he said it is pretty easy to get started bowfishing.
“When I first started I just waded the shallows looking for fish,” said Gene. “The boat and lights help because you can cover a lot of water in a night and see plenty of fish, but you can start pretty easily by just wading.”
You’ll need some kind of retrieval device attached to the bow, so you don’t lose arrows and fish. While the pro retrievers are nice, you can start with something as simple as a closed-face spinning reel attached to the bow. Gene had one attached to one of his bows, and it seemed to work fine. As long as you can retrieve the arrow and fish, you are in business.
Gene began bowfishing to remain active with his bow between hunting seasons.
“There isn’t a better way to shoot a lot of arrows at live, moving targets,” Gene said.
And while the activity did keep him sharp, he soon found that he enjoyed bowfishing in its own right.
He spends most of his time on West Point, Bartletts, Lake Weiss and Alabama’s Lake Guntersville. Guntersville is particularly good for big carp, Gene said.
But this technique is likely to work on most area lakes during the spring through fall months.
Gene stays away from more populated areas because he is sensitive to the noise of the fan and the bright lights that might disturb people in their homes along the banks. So he generally opts for lakes with wooded shorelines.
There is also a competitive environment for bowfishing, and Gene participates in as many events as he can. But nowadays he is staying pretty busy between his archery shop, Hobbs Archery, that he runs out of his house, and his bowfishing guide business.
If you would like to try your luck at this unique and growing sport, give Gene Hobbs a call at (770) 316-7987 or visit his website at <www.bowfishingmadness.com>. There’s also a recipe for cooking gar that you’ll want to check out.
If you do, get ready for a full night of it. We were on the water from about 8 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. And Gene said it isn’t unusual to stay out until 4 a.m. or even later.
But, if your trip is anything like mine was, you are going to have a ball shooting lots of arrows at fun, moving targets. You might even hit something once in a while. Gene welcomes beginners as well as experienced bowhunters. Even if you have never picked up a bow, he’ll have you flinging arrows in no time.
A fishing license is required for bowfishing, so make sure you pick one up before you head out.