On boats rigged to turn night into day, fishermen with arrows for tackle pursue a sport once banned in Minnesota.
"I often think the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
-- Vincent Van Gogh
Revealing itself against our advancing flood lamps, the shallow water seemed an endless aquarium alive with bluegills, small northerns, bass and the odd beaver. We were hunting carp, and here and there some of these fish also showed up, the lot of them laboring heavily against their thick scales, mouths puckered grotesquely.
This was the other night, warm and dark, and the moon peeked through a small partition in an otherwise overcast sky. We were on Big Marine Lake not far north of St. Paul, and in addition to carp, we were targeting other finned bad boys among the state's long list of watery untouchables, including bullheads and suckers -- the whole reprobate enchilada.
"Right there," Pat Kirschbaum said, nodding to starboard and drawing the attention of my son, Trevor, who stood in the bow with Pat, arrow nocked.
This was a carp Pat spotted, weighing perhaps 15 pounds and leaving the scene like a bank robber. Perhaps the fish had been alerted by our boat's bright lights. Perhaps the whrrrrr of the electric trolling motor that pulled us ahead sent him yonder. Or perhaps he skedaddled into the vague margins separating light from dark for no good reason.
A tough shot, anyway, and Trevor loosed an arrow that angled away against long odds.
Watching from astern, I sat alongside Brian Petschl, a frequent bowfishing partner of Pat's. A onetime ardent angler -- that is, with hook and line -- Brian no longer casts plugs into lily pads for bass, or back-trolls for walleyes.
"All I do now is bowfish," he said. "Ever since the first time I picked up a bow and took a shot at a carp, it's what I've wanted to do. Bowfishing combines two of my favorite things: being on the water, and hunting."
A fast-growing sport, bowfishing gained steam in Minnesota beginning in 2009, when the Legislature finally lifted the state's ban on night fishing. Theoretically, the prohibition was intended to preserve the serenity of Minnesota lakes, the concern being that a bowfisherman's bright lights and the generators needed to power them might disturb campers, cabin dwellers and homeowners.
"When we got the night ban lifted, it brought us in line with every other state in the country," Brian said. "I think we were the last, or one of the last, states to allow night bowfishing."
Seductive in the manner of nighttime's more familiar temptresses, bowfishing is a visual thing. What you see is what you get. Also, the challenge of understanding how water refracts light is a brain teaser that requires the angler -- archer -- to aim his arrow not where his eyes tell him a fish is but instead, thanks to the trickery of refraction, below that point.
How far below varies with the amount of light above the water, the amount of light penetrating the water, the distance a fish is from the archer, and the depth of water.
A sharpshooting archer and good bow hunter, Trevor had never before triggered an arrow into the depths. Proficiency in the art requires practice, he soon learned, when the first carp he targeted escaped unstuck.
"It's instinct shooting," Brian said. "You don't aim with the aid of a sight, as you do while bow hunting for deer."
Both Brian and Pat are past presidents of the Land of Lakes Bowfishing Association (landoflakesbowfishing.com), and Brian is the outfit's current legislative liaison.
Though perhaps 3,000 or more Minnesotans fish with bows, fewer than 200 belong to the group.
"A lot of people haven't heard of us, that's one reason," Brian said. "Also, some longtime bowfishermen aren't sure why they should belong to our organization.
"I can assure you there are many good reasons."
Among them are additional efforts at the Legislature by Brian, Pat and other Land of Lakes members, one of which could end the statewide bowfishing prohibition during March and April.
The club also directs considerable attention to the pastime's relatively few poor sports.
"We emphasize adherence to state laws that restrict how close we can fish to shore," Brian said. "We're also big on proper fish disposal. No one wants to see a pile of dead fish at a boat landing. As soon as someone rigs up for bowfishing, the first thing they should consider is how they're going to get rid of their fish. A lot of farmers will take them for fertilizer."
As Brian spoke, another carp appeared to starboard. Trevor drew back elastically, and fired. Picking up our bright lights, his arrow traveled like a shooting star, trailing the string that connected it to Trevor's bow.
Faster than the eye could calculate, the arrow's broadhead penetrated the carp -- a real hog with a fat belly that approached 30 pounds in weight.
Birds don't generally mill around in the dark. Instead they roost. But had a bird been above us just then, say a whippoorwill, a nighttime aerialist, it would have seen Pat and Trevor struggle as they pulled in their arrow strings hand over hand.
Great thrashing ensued. Then the carp yielded to its fate.
How late in the night this occurred, I'm unsure. I do know most Minnesotans were asleep.
I know also the bottom of the big tub that sat amidships in our boat was filling up with carp.
Further into the darkness, soon illuminated, we cruised.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org
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