Big City Bowfishing
November 04, 2010
With a sharp vigil, you might discover outstanding bow-and-arrow fun right under your nose.
The date was October 9. New Jersey's deer season had been open for just over a month, and thoughts of hunting occupied my mind. However, one glitch interfered with that plan -- I had to pick up my son, Tristan, from school at 2 p.m., and, like many seven-year-olds, he has little patience for sitting in a treestand. Besides, the temperature was in the 80s, hardly great hunting weather. No problem. Before heading off to the school, I loaded up the truck for an afternoon of bowfishing. Plan B would work just fine.
With outriggers in the down position, Tristan mans the paddle while I stand on point. This unlikely setting harbors an amazing bounty.
By 2:15, Tristan and I were passing through New Brunswick, and five minutes later, we were on the Raritan River. That put us in perfect position to catch the tail end of the outgoing tide -- the best time to fish this section.
I was very excited about this trip for two reasons. First, I had my little buddy along, and he really loves these trips. Recently I had to laugh when he said to me, "Dad, you know me -- I'm an explorer. I like to keep moving. That's why I can't sit still in a tree."
Second, I hadn't seen the river this clear in years. We had not had a significant rainfall in weeks -- a very important consideration, as this river serves as the major drainage basin for central Jersey. With access limited in this section, big bowfishing rigs are out. We would be using my 15-foot canoe, complete with homemade outriggers.
As we floated under the highway bridge, I had Tristan give a few paddle strokes just to put us in position for our first drift. In the crystal-clear water we could see fish from a long way off, but they also could see us coming. Any sudden movement on my part resulted in the hasty retreat of my intended quarry. Then, in his excitement, Tristan stomped his feet in the bottom of the boat, sending a number of fish scurrying, and I took a moment to explain to him how water transmits sound waves.
I did get off a few shots on that first pass but none connected. After a few hundred yards, the water became too shallow to continue, so I got out, put the outriggers in the up position, and towed Tristan and his royal barge back upstream.
New Brunswick is the point at which tidal saltwater meets freshwater, and the resultant brackish waters provide an interesting mix of species. Striped bass and blue claw crabs can be seen swimming alongside carp, catfish, and largemouth bass, and seagulls share sandbars with Canada geese.
For our second pass, I had Tristan take us down the center of the river, where carp would likely be hiding in weed beds. Almost immediately, I spotted a fin sticking up through the grass. As we closed in, I drew back and released.
The water exploded and Tristan squealed, "Oh, my gosh! That thing is huge!" As line peeled out, I was glad I had recently switched to a slotted AMS Retriever reel. With this model, the end of the line is tied to a float. If a big fish takes out all the line, the line pulls free and the float provides drag, which tires the fish without applying too much pressure.
In this case, I did not want a big fight because any excess splashing would scatter nearby fish and muddy the water. The large carp headed upstream for 50 yards before taking cover in another grass bed.
I reloaded and was about to man the paddle to set out after the carp when I spotted a large catfish resting on the bottom. Due to the clarity of the water, I was having doubts about just how low to aim. Based on my earlier misses, I decided to hold just a little lower than normal and then, for good measure, even lower. The shot was dead-center, and I quickly boated the cat before heading upstream to retrieve the carp.
When we reached the float, I scooped it out of the water and wrapped the line around it as Tristan paddled us closer to the fish. When we reached the grass bed, I could see the back half of my arrow protruding from the heavy cover. Aiming a few inches below the nock, I released. Once again the water erupted, but with two arrows in the fish, the fight was mine. The common carp weighed nearly 30 pounds.
Our third drift ended much as the first, and since three drifts were about all this spot could handle, and three hours were about all my son could handle, we called it a day.
As we loaded our gear into the truck, a young couple noticed our catch, and their reaction was typical of others who had seen me fishing here. They were amazed. They didn't realize such large fish swam this far up the Raritan. In a city of 50,000 residents, I would bet only a handful of folks have any idea that such a diverse ecosystem exists only yards from their doors. That, to me, is ironic.
In the 1700s, New Brunswick served as a major shipping port, and city life revolved around the river. A popular song from the 1970s, "Brandy (you're a fine girl)," tells the story of a young woman who fell in love with a sea captain. Looking Glass, the group that performed the song -- and New Brunswick natives -- reportedly based it on a New Brunswick resident named Mary Ellis, who vowed to wait for the return of her sea captain.
After several years, she bought property on a high point overlooking the river in order to keep a constant vigil. In 1828, Mary died and was buried on the site, never having seen her true love again.
Much has changed since Mary's death. The city has grown up around her. Still, she maintains her vigil, of sorts, from the parking lot of a multiplex. Cargo ships no longer venture this far up the river. These days, the only vessels that pass beneath Mary's lookout are the sculls of the Rutgers crew team, the occasional pleasure boat, and my little bowfishing rig.
The author and his young son live in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Author's Notes: Due to their instability, canoes do not make for ideal bowfishing platforms. However, several of my favorite bowfishing spots are accessible only by canoe. To resolve this dilemma, I have built my own outrigger using scrap lumber, eight large L brackets, four 5-gallon plastic paint buckets, and some screws and bolts. The base is bolted to a rim around the edge of the canoe. I use wing nuts on the bolts for easy on and off, which enables me to car-top the canoe.
outrigger arms in the down position, the canoe is very stable. With the arms up, I can paddle through shallow spots, rocky patches, or areas of heavy vegetation. I can also paddle upstream against a slow current or tow the boat against a stronger current without the added resistance from the buckets. The arms also are removablefor transport.