Wednesday evening on Forest Lake the twinkling lights of fine homes and cabins and condominiums circled the water like beacons. This was just after sunset and darkening clouds partitioned the sky unevenly. Vaughn Nelson, Scott Stroyny and I would have paid to be on site, panoramic as the setting was. But everything was free for the taking, the lights, the water and the scant patches of sky hued midnight blue.
This was the first day of June, or rather the first night of June, and the point was to find carp, Cyprinus carpio. We were bowfishing, which, like many other field sports, can be practiced with a significant cash outlay, or with very little.
At its most basic, bowfishing requires a two-bit bow, a small quiver of barbed arrows and a pair of rubber boots, the latter optional. Upward from there, the sky is the limit, witness bowfishers who deploy customized aluminum boats with aircraft-carrier-like shooting decks, high-pressure sodium lights and whisper-quiet generators.
“There are no guarantees on this lake,” Vaughn said as he piloted his johnboat toward a distant shoreline. “Numbers of carp aren’t here like they are in some lakes. But there can be some big ones.”
The owner of a landscaping business, Vaughn labors long hours in summer, sometimes daybreak to sunset. This can cut into nighttime fishing. But the allure of staring for long hours into the shallows of a lake or river, seeing here and there game fish such as muskies and walleyes and nearly always bass and sunfish and crappies, can be addicting.
So sometimes daytime work occurs with a bowfishing hangover.
“I get out as many nights as I can in summer,” Vaughn said. “But winter is better for me. I might shoot two or three times a week in winter. There’s no one around then. When the temperature is 20 degrees and you’re on the Mississippi, you’re pretty much alone. I never did winterize my boat this year.”
In Minnesota, only “rough” fish can be legally targeted by anglers armed with bows and arrows. These include buffalo, sucker, redhorse, sheepshead, bowfin, burbot, cisco, gar, mooneye and bullhead. Also of course there is the primary quarry, the common carp, a fish whose run-of-the-mill specimens often are big — some 25 pounds and more — and frequently plentiful. As a bonus, carp are powerful, fast and quite capable of eluding even the most accurate bow-wielding predator.
Scott had spotted the comparatively diminutive fish as we patrolled water only a few feet deep. As quickly he drew back his bowstring while moving his arms and bow fluidly with the fast-departing fish. Almost in the same motion he loosed his arrow, which in a blur penetrated the clear water but missed the bullhead. In a secondary effort, Vaughn made a similar shot and also came up empty.
Unlike traditional archery, in which deer or other game are pinpointed using exacting bow sights, shooting fish with a bow is an instinctive exercise.
That is, the bowfisher in most instances draws back his bowstring, sans sights, aligns by eye his arrow with his chosen fish and releases the bowstring, all nearly in the same motion. Done well consistently, this is mastery refined to a high level, especially considering the target is always moving, usually posthaste.
“Even if it’s a slow night, I gain a lot of knowledge about fish just by looking into the water,” Scott said. “Sometimes when there’s no wind and the water is clear, it’s like a big aquarium. You can see 6 or 8 feet down.”
A regulated sport
In Minnesota, bowfishing was a state-governed sport from 1919 to 1929. Thereafter, due to complaints from lakeshore owners about nighttime disturbances, the activity was restricted to a relative handful of lakes. In 1945, Minnesota effectively put a fork in bowfishing when it outlawed the lights necessary to pursue the pastime at night.
At the forefront of the fight to restore legitimacy to Minnesota bowfishing has been the Land of Lakes Bowfishing Association (LLBA), a small but politically active group of which Scott and Vaughn are members.
In recent years, bowfishers have regained the right to practice their sport statewide, albeit with a list of regulatory footnotes as long as your leg. One limits generator noise to 65 decibels (which is good). Another, strongly supported by the LLBA, requires bowfishers to properly dispose of fish they shoot.
“It doesn’t take much to find a farmer or someone else who is happy to take the carp for fertilizer,” Vaughn said. “A few years ago I put a small ad on Craigslist looking for people wanting my carp. I had 15 responses in no time.”
Wednesday night, bewitched by cool weather that kept fish in deep water, Vaughn, Scott and I shot no carp. Thursday night, however, was different: Scott and his 16-year-old son, Jacob, pilloried on the same lake a garbage-can full of the gruesome critters.
Thus the pair’s reward for staying up late and shooting straight.
As John Milton once wrote, “What hath night to do with sleep?”
For bowfishermen, nothing.