Bowfishing: Catching carp with a bow and arrow

As a gray curtain of clouds closes around Coon Lake, Brian Petschl skippers a flat-bottomed jonboat across the water. About the size of a Vikings tackle, Petschal rests his giant paws on thesteering wheel and delicately maneuvers through the shallows. It's just hours before sundown and Petschl wants to get to a spot teeming with carp.

He signals to hold on as he jams his blue camouflage baseball cap between his legs, wiggles his Fu Manchu mustache, and glides the throttles down. The nose of the boat rises out of the water as an outboard motor exhales a wide, white wake.

Petschl glances about as the boats revs up to 35 mph. He weaves around weeds and algae blooms before heading straight toward the murkiest section of the lake.

The AMS Fish Hawk is a custom-designed bow for instinctive shooting
Nick Vlcek
The AMS Fish Hawk is a custom-designed bow for instinctive shooting
Brian Petschl helped open up nighttime bowfishing across the lake
Nick Vlcek
Brian Petschl helped open up nighttime bowfishing across the lake

"That's where we'll find the carp," he says. "The gray ghosts."

The onboard computer shows the lake going from a depth of 7.5 feet to a shallow 2. Just when the propeller might hit sand, Petschl kills the engine.

Silence spreads across the lake; the only interruption is a steady hydraulic whine as the outboard lifts out of the water.

Petschl heads to the front of the boat and lifts himself onto a custom-built platform. He reaches for his specially designed AMS Fish Hawk bow, light blue and black, built with a trigger-activated retriever reel. The fishing line connects to a white fiberglass arrow with a two-pronged barb.

Petschl summons a guest to the platform, hands him the bow, and instructs him to focus on the water. Below is a world filled with algae, lily pads, and milfoil bloom. But in a couple of minutes, thanks to polarized sunglasses, the murky water begins to reveal its secrets. Schools of pan fish scatter beneath the boat, a turtle paddles around a reed, and several bass flash their silver bodies like exhibitionists.

"Look there! Look there!" Petschl says, pointing 10 yards in front of the boat. On the surface of the water, V-shaped wakes shoot out, indicating something big just swam underneath. Petschl shuts off the trolling motor and the boat drifts toward the wakes.

The gray ghost appears. In a hole free of plants, a carp rests at the bottom. Its scales glisten softly amid the muck as its pouty lips open and close calmly.

"SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT!" Petschl barks.

The arrow flicks from the bow with a "Thwip!" The line skitters behind it like a jet trail. The sharpened point pierces the water, slicing toward the head of the carp. It hardly seems fair.


AS PARTISAN BICKERING over the state budget bubbled over in the Legislature this season, a little-known bill sailed through without controversy. It amended laws crafted during WWII and opened up pretty much all lakes and rivers to nighttime bowfishing.

It wasn't the first time bowfishing came under the spotlight of the law. Nighttime bowfishing was legal in the state from 1919 to 1929, but bowfishers ran into complaints from lakeside property owners. By 1930, bowfishing was restricted to designated lakes, its season reduced. This lasted for 13 years, until more complaints from landowners forced the state to limit the sport to only a handful of lakes.

"According to the few documents of history we have on bowfishing, people were taking too many fish, the lights were too bright, and the whole process of fishing at night was too loud," explains Linda Erickson-Eastwood, a fisheries program manager for the Department of Natural Resources.

In 1945, Minnesota placed a ban on using lights for night fishing. This effectively killed the sport, as the success rate of shots in the daytime is miniscule.

Over the next 50 years, bowfishing took off in the southern states, becoming a big-time sport. Tournaments popped up, along with custom-made bows, arrows, and boats.

Yet in Minnesota, a state where hunting and fishing are written into the Constitution, the sport atrophied.

In 2005, bowfishers began lobbying the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to amend the restrictions on bowfishing. After three years of pressure, the DNR acquiesced, opening up 73 lakes for the bowfishers to patrol at night, but only on a trial basis.

Even with the small victory, the bowfishers didn't see why they couldn't just fish the entire state, so they took their case to the Capitol. In roundtable discussions held by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley) early in the 2009 session, the bowfishers made their case.

"They expressed their frustrations with the DNR," Chaudhary recalls. "So we crafted a bill and introduced it to the Environmental Policy committee. We had one public hearing on the issue. It was a veritable love fest."

About 10 witnesses came forward to testify in favor of the bill. Not a single person spoke out to oppose the request.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) served on the committee alongside Chaudhary and wanted a clause that gave cities the ability to control lakes within their limits.

"They were really open to the compromise," recalls Dibble. "We added the clause in without a problem."

What passed from the chambers was one of the strictest laws regarding bowfishing in the entire country. Any generators used to power lights had to run at a maximum of 65 decibels, a little louder than a normal conversation. Bowfishers had to stay 150 feet away from occupied structures when fishing at night, and remain 300 feet away from campsites. And every carp or rough fish they shot had to go with them—no tossing the fish back in the lake or dumping them along the shoreline.

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