Bowfishing During the Winter

Bowfishing hauls in big fish

A lone campfire flickered on the floating patio of the small marina office as clear, cold stars hung in the sky. Shadows from those huddled around the flames cast clean and black against the office exterior. Nearby, winterized boats sat on their lifts. We motor over to pay our ramp fees for our bowfishing trip, but the owner waves us off.

“You guys go kill a bunch of those things…but don’t leave ‘em at the ramp!”

During the warm-weather months, this marina on Missouri’s Meramec River is jumping. Tonight is different. It’s winter. The only souls foolish enough to be on the river this late are the ones enjoying the fire in lawn chairs…and us.

A sport for the whole year

Admittedly, I use to think of bowfishing as primarily a late spring through summer pursuit. I imagined all the carp and gar we chased while swatting mosquitoes to be sulking. Sitting motionless through the winter in deep holes, out of reach of our arrows. As with a fair number of things in life, I was wrong.

Temps were hanging in the low 40s and continuing down. We headed for the mouth of a creek where we always found schools of silver carp bunched up in summer. The water was markedly clearer than in summer and lower, giving us a peek at the secrets the river bottom held.

The silvers could not be found near the creek mouth, but we did begin seeing spotted gar. Big ones. They weren’t on the surface like we were accustomed to in spring and summer. Most were suspended at least a foot below the surface. Some lay almost motionless on the bottom, only moving when we finally stuck them or bothered them with too many arrows.

Marking multiple species on the Meramec

Eventually, we found the rest of the familiar fish faces: silver carp, commons, and grassies. The silvers tended toward deeper holes around downed trees. The commons nosed around on gradual, shallow, muddy banks. The grassies held in small eddies, just off areas where the river necked down into rapids and riffles. The other thing we noticed in short order, 90 percent of the fish we saw were big. There were few dinks in the bunch and some gar and grass carp were sheer monsters. It didn’t take us long to begin connecting on shots and dropping fish into the ‘deadwell’ (our nasty, old, fish-oil-soaked garbage can). Suddenly, we all forgot about our frozen fingers.

Wintertime bowfishing is similar to hunting fish during the warmer months. But, there are a few differences you’ll need to pay attention to be successful.

Dress for success

Falling into a summertime backwater on the river is no treat (close your mouth and eyes), but getting wet during the winter can be life threatening. Wear clothing that allows you to move freely around the boat and keeps you warm. Natural fibers like Merino wool or Alpaca make the best base layers for applications around water because they retain their insulating properties even when wet, giving you a better chance of surviving an unintentional dip.

Gloves that are both warm and allow you to shoot are helpful too. It’s likely your hands will be wet. Exposed skin with even the slightest breeze on the water will chill your paws in no time.

Too cold for your liking? Check out our Surefire Spring Solutions for when it warms up!

Prepare the depth charge

Many of the fish we shoot during warm weather are just below the surface. Or, in the case of silver carp, leaping well above the surface. There’s much less of that in winter. Most fish will be holding deeper. It will likely take you some time to get dialed in on these targets. Over time, you’ll develop a sense for what’s in range and what’s just too deep to bother about.

If you have some adjustment left on your draw weight, this would be a good time to put some extra oomph behind that fiberglass. You’ll also want to keep your tips sharp to maximize the energy transfer in each arrow.

Beware of strange bedfellows

Fish patterns change with the seasons. The Meramec clears up and water levels typically go down in winter, so fish congregate differently than they did in summer. Make sure you positively identify each fish you shoot. We’ve seen catfish (illegal to bowfish in Missouri), walleyes and bass mixed in with rough fish on rocky flats late at night.

With just a few adjustments, you don’t have to pause your bowfishing for the winter. You might even have the water to yourself! Make plans to get out this winter and share your pictures with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #iLiveMWO…and don’t leave your fish at the ramp.

If fishing and hunting were women, Tim would have married them both. Follow him on his mission to bring outdoor experiences the respect they are due and tune in to his podcast at TheThinkingWoodsman.com.