What is Bowfishing? A Beginner’s Guide!

Asian Carp

What Is Bowfishing?

Bowfishing is a little like fishing and a little like hunting. The basic premise is that you take a bow and utilize a reel and fishing arrows to harvest fish at short distances. The arrows are attached to a line so the fish can be retrieved once you hit the mark.

Bowfishing can be done at any time of the day or night and throughout the year. The sport is also popular all throughout the United States, although the Mississippi Delta and Florida are the two most popular destinations in the country.  

Bowfishing History

Guyana. Arrow with three prongs carrying three barbed points. For catching fish in rivers.

Bowfishing has been around for thousands of years. Early people groups like the Aztecs, Inuits, and Aborigines, practiced it for thousands of years before modern humans did.

At first, these ancient peoples would just tie rope to a single arrow on their bow and hunt from canoes using torches at night. 

The sport was not popular throughout most of the history of the U.S. until about the early 1900s when state laws started to change to allow it.

In most states, it had been outlawed due to concerns about noise, lights, and excessive fishing of game fish. But the attitudes started to change when there was a compromise on hunting non-game, invasive fish.  

Once the sport was widely legalized, it did not start to gain wide-scale popularity until the 1970s due to the invention of High-Pressure Sodium Lights.

These lights were some of the first truly portable, bright lights that turned night into day, which gave a huge advantage to bowfishermen. 

Even though these lights were extremely bright, they were not very waterproof and it was not until the invention of LED lights that the sport really accelerated in popularity.

These bright, portable lights could be mounted on almost anything and were a cheaper, less bulky alternative to the old HPS lights. It was around this time the Bowfishing Association of America was founded. 

The purpose of this organization was to lobby state and local governments for more liberal bowfishing policies as well as organize tournaments and create this somewhat obscure hobby into a national pastime. 

Now in the 21st century, bowfishermen can enjoy a whole range of bowfishing activities since the sport has become quite popular. There are a ton of clubs, groups, companies, and people like you spreading their knowledge about the sport. 

Is It Legal To Bowfish?

Yoyo500BowfishingCC BY-SA 4.0

Fortunately for you, bowfishing is legal in 49 states during all times of the year for non-game fish. Alaska is the only exception since it has some unique laws depending on the region of Alaska and the time of year.

However, the laws for bowfishing game fish are much different. Every state except for Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, and New Mexico outright bans it and these states have very strict laws regarding it.

No matter what state you hunt in though, you are going to have to check your local laws to determine what is considered a game and non-game fish.

For instance, in Virginia, the law explicitly lists that fish like the common carp, northern snakehead, goldfish, gar, and bowfin are all non-game fish.

But in Georgia, the law is a little murkier since it just states that any fish not explicitly listed as a game fish is a non-game fish.  

State law also differs on where and when you can bowfish. Using the comparison between Georgia and Virginia again, Georgia requires arrows to be fired at least 150 feet away from other people and to bowfish at night the public body of water must be at least 500 acres. Virginia does not have those kinds of restrictions though.  

One commonality for legality across all 50 states is the use of poison arrows and exploding arrows. As you may have guessed, these are resoundingly illegal since they not only cause undue suffering to the fish but can cause severe damage to the environment. You are also going to need a fishing license in all 50 states. 

Game Management

In the last section, the terms “gamefish” and “non-game fish” were thrown around a lot and it is crucial you understand the difference between the two. Understanding this difference pretty much explains why bowfishing exists as a sport. 

What are game fish?

Game fish are pretty much any fish that are sold commercially or have commercial value. This may simply mean fish caught for sport or that are widely accepted for sport.

These are fish like bass, trout, salmon, pike, catfish, etc. These fish are sometimes farmed and tend to have a better taste than non-game fish, according to some folks.

What are non-game fish?

Non-game fish are not typically sold for profit and tend to large scales, tough skin, or bony meat. These are usually bottom-feeding fish like carp, gar, bowfin, etc. Non-game fish also sometimes include non-native or invasive species.

Though most non-game fish can still serve a valuable place in the ecosystem, invasive species like the carp do not. Fish like the carp destroy environments by eating all the plankton and small plant life that smaller fish need to survive.

With no food for the smaller fish, they die, and in turn, bigger fish and other mammals suffer. Carp is listed as an invasive species across the US and there are no restrictions on when, where, and how many you can take. 

Carp might not taste the best, but bowfishermen can still feel good they are doing their part to help the environment by getting rid of fish like it. 

Does Bowfishing Kill The Fish?

Bowfishing is not like traditional fishing where you can practice catch and release. After that giant, barbed arrow goes into the fish it is going to die every time.

That is why the practice is pretty much banned across the nation for game fish since bowfishing would potentially decimate their populations because of this reason. 

What Do You Do With The Fish You Shoot?

Admit it. Your idea of a tasty fish dinner probably does not involve species like carp or other non-game fish. However, that does not mean you cannot cook and eat them. You just have to know how to do it right.


There are plenty of recipes and tips online to prepare fish like this. Even if you do not want to eat them yourself, you can look up local food banks, churches, or shelters that would take the fish.

While it might be a hassle to drive or help prepare them, making sure you are a good steward of your environment and helping your fellow man is definitely worth it if there is a need you can fill. 


Another thing you could do with these fish is to use them as fertilizer or feed. These fish actually have a lot of great nutrients for plants and crops so composting them for your garden or plot could be one idea.


These fish might also be good for feed for animals like pigs, so ask your local pig farmers if they want them. They might even pay you a little bit for it if you’re lucky. But, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

What Types Of Fish Can I Bowfish? 

There are a ton of non-game fish that you can go after. While it varies wildly from state to state as discussed above, below is a quick list of some of the most common fish that are legal to hunt: 

Common Carp

The most common non-game fish harvested by bowfishermen is the common carp. These fish are sought after because they put up a great fight and can grow up to 80 pounds! Common throughout all waterways of the U.S., you can pretty much find them everywhere.

Ictiobus (Buffalo Fish)

Known by its common name Buffalo, these fish are often confused with carp since they are a similar size. They put up a great fight like carp do and are often chased at night.


There are multiple varieties of gare and they are a common freshwater fish that has a torpedo-shaped body and characterized by its almost impenetrable scales. Some folks find gar desirable to eat, and actually prefer gar over other species.

Freshwater Drum

Drum are medium-sized fish that can be caught throughout the U.S. with no limits on harvesting. Drum are usually found in murkier water where it likes to eat small vegetation. 


Bowfin are one of the smallest of the non-game fish. They attain a max weight of only about 20 pounds and can grow up to three feet in length. Bowfin are bottom feeding fish similar to the freshwater drum. 


Paddlefish are a large fish characterized by their long snout. They are often described as “prehistoric” fish since they have evolved little throughout the ages. These fish can be quite large and are known for having very tasty eggs similar to caviar. 


Though a common fish for eating, most species of catfish are considered an invasive species in their local environments. Where legal, they can usually be harvested any time of the year, day or night. 


Commonly known as mullet, these are small bottom-feeding fish that are common throughout the Midwest and the southern United States.

Suckers usually exceed no more than six pounds in weight and are known for their distinct white lips that suck up whatever they can off of the bottom. 

How Do You Go Bowfishing?

Yoyo500Modern bow fishermanCC BY-SA 4.0

One of the best parts about bowfishing is that it is such a versatile sport you are really only limited by your imagination. First of all, it can be done at day or night.

Either way, the goal is to get in rather shallow water, and get close enough to shoot the fish with an arrow that is attached to your reel via a string. 

Why you need to fish in shallow water is because the fish that you are going after like to hang out in that depth and you are going to have to get pretty close. You are also sight fishing. Meaning, you are looking for the fish, identifying what it is, and taking a shot.

Also, the less water in between the fish and you the better because as the arrow travels through the water it loses energy. That means it travels less distance, or, worse, does not make sufficient penetration. 

Bowfishing can be done all year round. Daytime fishing is best done during the spring when the fish are spawning. Nighttime can be done year-round with excellent results.

Any size boat will also work for bowfishing and you do not even need a boat in a lot of cases but more on that later. 

What Basic Gear Is Needed?

The three basic things every aspiring bowfishermen is going to need is a bow, a reel, and arrows. You do not need to get a special, upgraded bow since practically any bow can be used for bowfishing.

But, the arrows are definitely going to be unique to the sport since fishing arrows tend to be a lot heavier than hunting arrows. They are meant to go a short distance with a lot of power. Fishing arrows are also going to have barbed tips but we will cover arrows a little further down. 

The only extra attachment you may want to add to your bow besides the reel is going to be an arrow rest. The arrow rest simply keeps the arrow lined up while you are trying to make the shot. It becomes quite handy when you are moving in multiple directions trying to get that perfect shot.  

While these are the bare minimums, one could go on and on about different lights, custom-built platforms for boats, upgrading bows, and other gear. T

he only other item not already listed would be a good pair of waders if you want to fish near the shoreline. Otherwise, just get wet if the weather permits.

Can I Bowfish With a Hunting Bow?

Yes, you can most certainly bowfish with a hunting bow! In fact, most people that start out usually start with their hunting bow. Converting it to bowfishing use is very easy. Just take off all the accessories put on the reel, arrow rest, and presto!

Be sure to check out our in-depth article on how to use a hunting bow for bowfishing.

How Do You Aim?

One of the biggest challenges beginners struggle with is their aim. While it may seem easy shooting rather large targets from a few feet away, the reality is it is not.

One of the things that really throws off beginners is refraction. Refraction is just the way the water bends light and distorts images to appear in a location they are not. 

To counter this, it is best to aim low since what you see on the surface has been refracted further up from where it is. While it might seem frustrating at first, just keep practicing your eye to anticipate this and soon enough you will be hitting the mark!

What Other Bows Can Be Used For Bowfishing?

As stated earlier, pretty much any bow can be used for bowfishing. The two most common types of bows used are the compound and recurve bows.

The recurve is the more traditional option since it can generate a lot of power. They are also very light but have a fairly heavy draw which may be an issue for some first-time shooters.  

Compound bows are the next most popular option and these are quite popular for hunting so many people already own this kind of bow. What is important to note is that they use bows that have an insanely high draw.

These higher draw weights are not necessary since the targets are only a few feet away and usually smaller in size. So, if you have a compound bow with a high draw you may want to switch out for a lighter one or adjust the draw weight down a bit. This will not only save time but improve your accuracy. 

What Types of Arrows Are Used?

Bowfishing arrows are unique to the sport. They are typically made of fiberglass to make them very sturdy and flexible while bouncing off the rocks and debris of lake and creek bottoms. They are also heavier for this reason than typical hunting arrows. 

These arrows do not have fletching since this would affect the accuracy once they hit the water and throw them off course. The tips are different in that they are all barbed to help keep them in the fish, and they have a slidebar to attach the line to the reel. 

What Types Of Tips Are Used?

When it comes to choosing the arrow point, it’s all about the species you’re after. These arrows all come with barbed tips, but do vary in design. The barbs are there to make sure that the arrow sits in place while you’re reeling in the fish. However, they are not all the same.

If you’re after bigger fish, like Carp, you’ll want an arrow point that doesn’t need to come clear out of the fish to “set” its barbs. The arrow might stop somewhere inside the fish, and you want to still be able to pull it out.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a fish that’s hard-scaled, you’d better use a sharper, pointier tip, so that you can penetrate its armored protection.

What Are The Different Types Of Bowfishing Reels?

The last thing that you need, and arguably the most important, is the reel. The purpose of the reel is to attach the line to the arrow and allow it to be drawn back in.

There are three basic kinds of reels: hand reels, bottle reels, and spinner reels. Below is a basic breakdown for each one:

Hand Reels

Hand reels are the easiest to install and are the most common. It is pretty similar to a standard reel for fishing, and as such is powered by your hand.

It attaches to the front of your bow and works best with a thicker fishing line since this is less likely to cut your hand when reeling in your prize.  

Bottle Reels

The next most common kind are bottle reels. These reels keep the line inside of a plastic bottle and work via a simple trigger that when released will allow the line to release.

The reel works best with a heavier line as well and is the best of all three for keeping the line out of the way so it does not get tangled. 

Spinner Reels

Spinner reels are exactly like the standard reels that come on some fishing rods. These reels need some special gear to attach them to the bow like a reel seat and stabilizer.

Spinner reels do offer the most customizing of all three for attachments due to the reel seat that has to be screwed to the bow.

Do I Have To Have A Boat To Bowfish?

One of the great aspects of this sport is that a boat is not necessary. Bow fishermen can use pretty much anything that floats like a kayak, paddleboard, or whatever else you can find that supports your weight and gives you a steady platform.  

Can I Bowfish On Foot?

Since the fish bow fishermen look for are in very shallow water, it is entirely possible and actually quite common to fish along the shore. I spent years and years bowfishing on foot.

I would simply wade through the shallows with a good pair of polarized sunglasses and some sturdy shoes. You have to take your time, but I have been able to harvest hundreds of fish using this method.


Bowfishing can an exciting and fun-filled sport. Fortunately, since it is widely accepted according to state law, it is accessible to most people. On top of that, the cost of entry can be kept really low if you do it right.

Get out there and give a shot. I love to hear what you think!


Colby has been involved in the outdoors for over 30 years. Part of his problem is that instead of focusing on one specific outdoor hobby he spreads his time over a multitude of outdoor adventures. This has provided him the opportunity to have varied experiences across a broad spectrum of outdoor activities. Jack Outdoors has provided him an outlet to share the things he has learned as well as his successes and failures.

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