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.
"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.
Pushing for most of those requirements were the bowfishers themselves. They wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the past. Their hope was that the requirements would help the sport gain acceptance and grow.
Their biggest ally may be their quarry: the carp. An invasive species, the carp is a plague on the state, responsible for millions of dollars of damage to the ecosystem. It is also indomitable—no one has found a very reliable way to kill it.
"Bowfishing is one effective tool for helping with the carp problem," says Chaudhary. "They are paying us to help instead of us paying to eradicate a non-native species. Legislators saw it as a complete win-win."
"AW, MAN!" says Petschl. "You missed it! Went right over thetop of his head. Like I told you before, you really need to aim low."
He revs the trolling motor and the front of the boat lurches forward with a whir. A tug at the line reveals a clean shot that pierced several inches of mud.
Petschl say he doesn't even really aim, because the light refraction of the water tricks your vision. It's not like archery or bow hunting. It's all feeling. All reaction.
"I kinda just shoot," he says. "Hard to explain. But everyone gets it after a while. They call the style 'instinctive shooting.'"
Petschl continues to patrol the shoreline. He tells stories about a big fish he once reeled in on Coon Lake—trophy-size, it took two hands to hold up. But it has been two years since he's picked up a pole. Bowfishing is too much fun.
"All my girlfriends left me during hunting season," he says without resignation.
Petschl pilots the boat toward a row of lakefront homes. Up ahead, a woman in capris and a V-neck stares at him from her lawn. She strides to the far end of her dock. Petschl sees her and aims the boat in her direction.
She politely asks what exactly he's doing.
"We're just out fishing," says Petschl.
"With a bow?"
"Yep. Bowfishing. This water around here is full of carp."
"Yep. A month or so ago I shot a couple big ones right off the front of your dock."
"Well, in that case, please make sure to shoot every last one of them," the homeowner says. "And while you're out there, could you chop up the milfoil?"
"We'll try," Petschl says with a laugh.
"Have a good day then, and good luck."
She turns and walks back off the dock. Petschl says that such conversations are commonplace. People are a little nervous when they see guys with bows out on the water in front of their homes, but when they realize the goal is to harvest carp, they ease up.
If there were ever a fish Minnesotans wanted shot to death with arrows, it's the carp.
Hailing from the Caspian Sea, carp quickly spread through ancient Europe with an assist from the Romans, who considered it nature's portable protein. The fish were prized for their rapid growth cycles and reproductive ability. Young carp grow about 1 to 3 pounds per year and can live past age 50. A female carp produces close to 300,000 eggs per spawn.
"They are really unlike most other fish species," says University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation biology professor Peter Sorenson. "Rarely do any animals with a long life cycle produce such high amount of offspring. It's one of many factors contributing to their dominance in our lake systems."
In a ground-floor laboratory at Hodson Hall, Sorenson and a team of researchers are trying to understand the effects carp have on the local ecosystem, ways to control them, and their basic biology. A Montana-born man with a soft New Jersey accent, who favors khaki pants and white Nike walking shoes covered in lake scum, Sorenson looks more like a friendly uncle who collects duck stamps than someone with the nickname his researchers gave him: "The General."
The General is waging a campaign to understand and hopefully reverse a mistake made by the state of Minnesota nearly 135 years ago.
In 1874, Minnesota set up its own fish commission with the goal of engineering a better aquatic ecosystem than nature could supply. With the rapid growth of the Northern Pacific Railroad line, it was hoped that sport fishing would lure tourists to local waters.
According to a Minnesota Historical Society paper by Steven R. Hoffbeck, the first attempts to stock local lakes consisted of 80,000 hearing shad, followed by Atlantic, landlocked, and Pacific salmon. The majority of the salmon died within the first year.
While other fish, like brook and rainbow trout, flourished in streams, scientists of the era were most excited about carp. They hailed the fish's desirable traits, like climate adaptability. Like the Romans before, the U.S. government saw the fish as a cheap source of protein that could feed the growing population. The New York Times published an article praising carp, noting how they could withstand sewage and tolerate water with low oxygen levels.
In 1882, the Minnesota fish commission finally got hold of 69 precious carp. The fish were immediately introduced to shallow lakes mostly populated with buffalo fish and suckers. Two years later, the commission stocked an additional 9,000 carp in 90 different spots around the state.
Minnesota gave up on carp stocking in the 1890s. But the carp didn't give up on Minnesota. In the book Fishing for Buffalo, authors Rob Buffler and Tom Dickson write, "About this time, people began noticing that as carp numbers were exploding in rivers and lakes, the populations of game fish hadn't rebounded at all, and in fact had continued to deteriorate."
Much of the damage was due to the fish's feeding habits. Carp burrow for food, in the process rooting up phosphorus that long ago seeped into the lake from agricultural run-off. Algae consume the treat, and the lakes go from clear to turbid. Sorenson calls the process a negative cycle.
Popular outrage over the sudden dominance of carp led the state to enact a rough-fish removal program in 1909. Fishermen began to net out carp by the ton. This continued for the next 50 years, but netting alone could not control the prodigious carp.
Scientists took eradication efforts to another level in the 1960s, when the Conservation Department started to treat lakes with high levels of rotenone, a fish poison. The goal was to kill every living thing in the lake, then repopulate it with sport fish.
Like most experiments involving chemicals and mass killings, it didn't turn out well.
"Killing off everything in a lake can create a perfect place for carp to thrive," says Sorenson. "If only a couple find their way into the water system, they'll soon take it over."
The state abolished its rough-fish removal program in 1979. Sorenson estimates that millions of dollars were wasted in the futile efforts to rid the lakes of carp. Yet in that time, there wasn't a single scientific study conducted on the fish they were trying to kill.
Aided by the Australian government (that country is experiencing the same sort of carp problem that Minnesota saw in the early 1900s), Sorenson's team is conducting the first full body of research on the common carp in Minnesota. The hope is to discover better ways to control the fish, possibly with native species. If the carp eggs they found in the bellies of bluegill are any indication, there could be hope.
Walking around the pastoral St. Paul U of M campus, Sorenson discusses another interesting fact about the carp: The fish is a beloved creature in foreign waters. The Brits see carp as a supreme game fish, with anglers paying thousands of pounds each year to go after the biggest carp in England's lakes. As with much of Europe, the English revere carp like Minnesotans appreciate walleye.
"People either love the fish," Sorenson says, "or hate it to death."
Petschl maneuvers the boat near another set of docks. On the shore, a man ignores him as he sets up a sprinkler to snuff the remaining embers of a smoldering brush pile. As Petschl steers toward a deeper section of lake, numerous V-shaped wakes appear and clouds of brown dot the water—a telltale sign of carp.
"Let's go pick up the professor and give this place a chance to calm down," Petschl says.
Back at the docks, Sorenson waves from the shore. Though he's spent years of his life studying carp, he's never seen bowfishing before. After reading headlines about the new regulations, he wanted to check out the sport for himself. He'd heard claims that bowfishing could solve the carp problem, and he wanted to make sure that it didn't get passed off as scientific fact.
Petschl, meanwhile, has no problem showing the professor his sport up close. He welcomes Sorenson into his boat with a sturdy handshake and offers him a seat.
The return trip feels like a first date with the odd couple. The two men sit side by side on the boat, struggling to make small talk. Each seems intimidated by the other.
Sorenson asks about the behavioral pattern of the carp, where they are at each time of day. Petschl says they tend to hang out in deep water during the day and come near shore to feed at night. He thinks they're scared of the motorboats zooming across the lakes.
After each answer, Petschl, who is president of Minnesota's Land of Lakes Bowfishing Association, qualifies that it's just his observation. "I don't have any degrees on it," he says. "It's just what I see."
Sorenson nods and tells him his researchers are finding the exact same patterns. Petschl grins and nods back.
They reach the spot where the carp were thick, but there's no sign of them. With the sunlight fading, visibility reduces to about five yards or less. Chances for a kill are nil.
Petschl calls off the hunt. He cruises back into shore as the sun sets. It's during this lull that talk turns to why both men are attracted to the carp.
"Well, they're really enigmatic," Sorenson says. "The way they use our waterways and interconnected lake systems to thrive is astonishing to anyone curious about ecosystems. And they're really a smart fish. People around here don't give them enough credit."
Petschl listens patiently, then offers a more succinct answer. "My favorite thing about carp? Shooting them."
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