April 15, 2011
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
Redefining adventure in the backwaters of the prairie.
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
When I decided years ago that the conventional autumn hunting season just wasn't long enough for me, I promised myself I would find ways to hunt 12 months per year. Cougars and turkeys at home, part-time residence in Alaska, and a lot of overseas travel in between eventually allowed me to do that. But this year, like many of us, I decided to cut back on my travel in deference to the faltering economy. In June, instead of gearing up for another long trip to Africa or Australia as I've done for most of the last 20 years, I jumped into a truck with several friends and headed for a reservoir south of my central Montana home.
A geyser of water and a fish with a face only its mother could love are the results of my well-placed fish arrow.
Carp were our quarry, and we couldn't have picked a better time or place to find them. A wet spring had left the water level up in the grass around the shore, and rising water temperatures had drawn the fish into the shallows to spawn. As soon as we reached the far side of the lake in our canoe I could see carp tails glistening above the surface at the edge of the weeds, and farther back in the grass big fish were sloshing around with their backs out of the water. Given the many variables weather and water conditions can create, carp hunting can be a hit or miss proposition, but it didn't take long to figure out we'd hit a home run.
I know a number of people who take their bowfishing as seriously as I take my deer hunting, but I'm not one of them. I don't tinker with my tackle, weigh my fish, or otherwise engage in the numerous little rituals that indicate a driving passion for any element of the bowfishing experience. In fact, when conditions are favorable, I don't even bother with lines on my arrows or reels on my bows. I've learned over the years that I can recover most fish in shallow water without them, and one of the real benefits of "off-season" small game and varmint hunting is the practice it provides for "real" bowhunting later on. The closer your tackle matches what you plan to hunt with in the fall, the more helpful that practice becomes. But my hunting shafts don't fly anything like fish arrows (fortunately). That's why I keep a box of beaten-up old shafts and broadheads labeled "CARP" in my garage.
Conditions that morning were perfect for shooting carp with no strings attached. The fish were in water so shallow that my untethered arrows pinned most of them to the bottom and I had little difficulty running down the rest. Since most of the carp had their backs out of the water I didn't have to correct my aim for refraction, which meant I could take plenty of shots at realistic bowhunting distances. An hour into my first run down the shoreline I'd taken so many carp that I returned to the canoe and traded my bow for my fly rod.
I'd spend a lot more time bowfishing if I could eat what I shot. It's not that I don't like fish; when we are at our coastal Alaska home, we live off the North Pacific's bounty. But I'm generally less enthusiastic about eating fish from fresh water, much as I love to catch them on fly tackle. While I keep promising myself I'm going to tackle one of the Missouri River's giant paddlefish with my bow some day, my choice of everyday fish targets is practically limited to carp. I know carp are regarded as fine food fare in Europe, but I just can't find a way to make them palatable.
Carp have been around so long that it's easy to assume they've always been part of the landscape. In fact, carp are an Old World species first brought to America in 1877 by Rudolph Hessel, a biologist working for the federal government, in a classical example of what must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The carp promptly escaped from their original confinements and dispersed throughout the country where, like many invasive species, they have caused great damage to habitat that wasn't meant to contain them. While I oppose killing any form of wildlife just because we don't like it, that prohibition doesn't apply to species that aren't supposed to be there in the first place. This analysis has made it a lot easier for me to justify shooting carp I don't plan to consume.
No matter whether the quarry is elk, whitetails, or carp, the change in any species' seasonal imperatives can mean the difference between fast action and tough hunting. Eager to share some more furious carp shooting with my wife, Lori, I brought her down to the same reservoir a couple weeks later with quivers full of arrows and a picnic lunch. But a quick run down the shoreline in our canoe revealed an inconvenient truth: the spawn was over and most of the fish had moved back into deeper water beyond our reach with archery tackle.
Tails are often the clue that reveal a fish's location when carp are in the shallows.
Finally, Lori, who has sharp eyes for this kind of thing after plenty of experience sight-casting flies on saltwater flats, alertly spotted a carp's tail gleaming in the sunlight back in the weeds. Despite my protests to the contrary she insisted on manning the camera, so I'm the one who slipped over the side with my bow. I'd already figured out that with the fish scarce and favoring deeper water, I better go armed like a real bowfisherman, so I had a reel strapped to my recurve and a heavy glass fish arrow with a barbed point clutched in my hand.
With the carp's tail down more than up, I had to fix some landmarks and ease forward cautiously as if I was stalking a wary mule deer instead of a fish. Once I'd oozed into position 15 feet from my final approach fix, I still had to study the water for several minutes before acquiring a target. Even then there was a bit of guesswork involved regarding the exact location of the fish's body as I came to full draw, but that's one of the pleasures of carp shooting. The meticulous discipline regarding shot placement on big game doesn't apply to fish, and if you miss completely, wellâ€¦ it's only a carp.
My arrow sent up a geyser of spray when it impacted the water and for a moment the results of the shot remained a mystery, but then my line hissed off toward the depths behind a powerful wake as the vital sense of contact with the fish reminded me why so many archers find bowfishing so much fun. Since I shot at what I could see, the arrow was lodged in the tail section of the otherwise healthy fish, which made the fight a vigorous tussle. I finally got my hands on the prize: a golden-sided slab of a fish with a face only its mother could love.
And so it went over the course of the morning, as the fish proved wary as well as scarce. The third time I told Lori she should have been with us back in June, she wisely replied: "Shut up and hand me my bow. This is fun!" And she's right: the effort we have to put into locating fish and the care needed on each stalk turned the day into a bowhunt instead of a stroll through a watery shooting gallery, and in the end I enjoyed it even more. The comparison between the two days' events simply reminded me of the wisdom of Aldo Leopold's advice when he pointed out that the measure of any hunt derives from its challenge rather than the bag at the end of the day.
As we hoisted the canoe back on top of the car for the drive home, I realized that within a few short weeks I would be hunting antelope. And no doubt about it: my two days on the reservoir have left me better prepared for my next big game challenge.