Bow fishing becomes fast-growing sport

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Brothers Nathan (left) and Tracy Elsinger hold a 52 pound, 42 inch grass carp caught with a bow and arrow on the Mississippi River. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IA-DNR), bow fishing has become a fast-growing sport that has potential environmental benefits. 

Bowfishing brothers

Nathan Elsinger of Guttenberg began bowfishing with friends over 15 years ago when his younger brother, Tracy, was 10 years old. He often shared stories about his fishing adventures, which piqued Tracy's interest.  "After hearing his stories of their adventures for a few years, I wanted to try it too," commented Tracy. "It quickly became one of my favorite summer pastimes, both as a fun activity, and as a chance to spend time with one or both of my brothers."

Tracy also enjoys rod-and-reel fishing, particularily trout, and fishing for smallmouth bass, redhorse and bluegills in the spring. "Overall I prefer bowfishing because there is less of a chance of getting bored when the fish aren't biting. I'm not the most patient person, so I lose interest pretty quickly when I don't catch something," he explained. 

Tracy finds similarities in bowfishing and hunting. "If you don't catch any fish in the first spot, you pick up and move to a different location until you find fish," says Elsinger. "Also, the fish don't have to be hungry for you to have a successful bowfishing trip."

Bowfishing requires good water conditions, normal water levels, and water clarity. "Water clarity is vital. If you can't see the fish, you can't shoot them!" he stressed. 


Bowfishing equipment can be as simple or complicated as the angler chooses. "All you really need is a bow, arrow, and some kind of reel to hold the line that attaches the arrow to the bow," he listed. "That can be as simple as a tin can taped to the bow, but we use AMS Retriever reels. They have a bottle to hold the line, and are reliable and simple to use. The line is more of a thin, strong cord than regular fishing line, but you can also use a spincasting reel with monofilament line."

He went on to say, "The arrow is a heavy fiberglass shaft without fletchings, since they're not necessary for the short ranges that are typical in bowfishing. Most shots are taken at less than 40 feet. The arrows have barbed tips, to keep the fish from getting off after they've been shot. There are lots of different styles of tips, but pretty much all of them unscrew all or part of the way to allow the barbs to reverse when you've reeled in the fish."

Bowfishing is dirty and can be hard on equipment, so using expensive bows isn't necessary or wise. "Almost any bow will work for bowfishing. We use old and/or cheap round-wheel bows," he noted. "My brother has also used a crossbow in the past, and they work well for kids who aren't strong enough to draw a compound." 

The Elsingers use Nathan's boat – a 16' flatbottom with a trolling motor  and a mud motor that allows navigation in shallow water where traditional motors can't operate. "Boats are definitely helpful for bowfishing, but they aren't necessary, at least for daytime fishing. You can be successful fishing from the bank in the right location," he said. "Finally, polarized sunglasses are a necessity when bowfishing in the daytime. They cut the glare on the surface of the water and allow you to see the fish under the surface." 

Anglers can either bow fish during the day or at night. "Some of the best action is during the day in late spring and early summer when the carp are spawning," said Tracy. "In late summer the daytime fish activity diminishes and they become more active at night, so we switch to pursuing them after dark." 

Night time bowfishing

Nathan's boat is equiped with a raised deck  with four attached halogen lights that are powered by a generator that holds the equivalent of about four hours' worth of gas. "We generally go out about dark and stay until about 1 a.m. most nights," Tracy told The Press. "The lights allow us to see under the water better than during the daytime, but only about 30-40 feet out from the sides and front of the boat. In general I prefer fishing at night, since the fishing is usually better and there's less boat traffic." 

The downside to fishing at night is the bugs. "The lights attract tons of bugs, which can be absolutely maddening if there's not enough of a breeze to keep them away," he said with frustration. 

In Iowa you can only shoot "rough" fish with a bow. "These are species that are either invasive or not sought after by sport anglers, and which often are destructive to the fisheries they inhabit. The species we shoot most often are common carp, grass carp, smallmouth, bigmouth, and black buffalo, quillback and other species of carpsuckers, freshwater drum, longnose gar, redhorse, and bowfin," he elaborated. 

Tracy feels bowfishing both in general and in Pool 10 on the Mississippi River is gaining popularity. "When I started bowfishing about 15 years ago, it was almost unheard of to see anyone else doing it" he reported. "Now it's unusual to go out on a nice summer night and not see at least one other bowfisherman. I've also seen a marked increase in the number of articles and videos about bowfishing in outdoor publications and websites." 

The Elsingers mainly fish the Mississippi River, but have also had great success on the Volga Lake in years past. “Nathan shot several 50+ pound grass carp at Volga Lake in the years before I started bowfishing,” he commented. “The proximity of the Mississippi River and the amount of rough fish it contains makes it the best place in this area to bowfish for us, but in many places lakes offer excellent bowfishing opportunities.”

Catch of the day

The heaviest fish the Elsingers have shot thus far was a 52 lb. grass carp that they both shot a couple years ago. The longest was a 57” longnose gar six or seven years ago that was longer than the state record at the time, but half a pound lighter. “The wide variety of sizes of fish you might shoot on any given outing is another appeal of bowfishing for me,” he remarked. “Quillback and redhorse are typically 2-3 pounds or less, but buffalo and carp often exceed 20, and grass carp can grow much larger, like the 52-pounder mentioned above.”

Creative cooking

Although most rough fish are quite bony, the Elsinger have found creative ways to utilize the fish they catch. “We typically pressure-can much of the buffalo and quillback we shoot to soften the bones and make them edible,” he noted. “We can them in a sauce of ketchup, white vinegar, and salt, and the result is better than tuna in my opinion.”

They also fillet and smoke some of the quillback, and grind the fillets after smoking/cooking, which chops up the bones fine enough that they disappear and are undetectable when eating. They mix the ground fish with mayonnaise and make fish salad, or form into fish patties. 

They remove the boneless meat of the buffalo fish located over the ribs and bake or fry it, and can the rest of the bony fillets. “An 8-10 pound buffalo has a boneless slice of rib meat about the size of my hand, and it’s terrific eating,” he shared. “Gar are the exception to the rule in the bone department. They have a totally boneless fillet similar to a deer’s backstrap, and it’s my favorite fish to eat. It may be a cliche, but gar truly does taste like chicken. The texture is also closer to chicken breast than fish.”

Tracy’s favorite way to prepare gar is sliced thin and baked with olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. “The worst part about gar is getting at the meat through the armor-like scales,” he shared. “That’s why we don’t shoot any gar which are under 40” long. The small ones are so skinny they don’t have enough meat to justify the effort of cleaning them.”

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