Bowfishing the Invasive Carp Apocalypse
Bighead and silver carp are destroying our rivers and creating the best tailrace bowfishing you’ve ever seen
Last night, raccoons pulled moribund carp from the water’s edge and up onto the walkways below the dam. They ate pieces of them, and today’s hot sun and flies will devour the remaining juicy bits. Some of the fish heads and skeletons will be here all summer though, festering as they turn a dull yellow. The bank fishermen have learned to step around them and ignore the smell.
Something’s always dying down here. About everything that gets pulled through the dam dies. Occasionally there’ll be a cormorant or raccoon, bloated and swirling in the current. You’ll see dead catfish and gamefish, too. But mostly, it’s just the carp.
A guy wearing a cut-off T-shirt and sunglasses is leaning against the walkway railing as I approach with my bowfishing rig. His wife is at the water’s edge, holding a spinning rod with a skipjack rig. The turbine closest to shore is generating, and that’s usually a recipe for good bank fishing from the walkways. But not today. At least not with a rod and reel.
“The carp are killing this river,” the man says, mashing a quarter can of wintergreen chew into his lower lip. “Nobody’s catching fish. The shad dippers don’t come down here because the shad are all gone. Hell, there aren’t many skipjack left.”
“You ought to stand right here to shoot them,” his wife says to me, motioning. “I’m not even casting because I keep snagging them.” As if on cue, a 30-pound silver carp springs from the boils in front of her, turns a half somersault 6 feet in the air, and splashes. Then it’s gone again. She smiles at me. “I think you could’ve killed that one if you were quick.” He shakes his head. “In 10 years there won’t be anything but carp in here.”
Invasives Are Killing a Classic Fishery
Like numerous others throughout the Mississippi River basin, Kentucky and Barkley dams are flood-control projects and sources of hydroelectric power. Built on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively—both tributaries of the Ohio just upstream of its confluence with the Mississippi—the dams created two massive reservoirs, Kentucky and Barkley lakes. They—and the lock-and-dam systems—are important shipping channels. But more than that, they are legendary fisheries and the lifeblood of the local economy. Million-dollar bass tournaments take place on the lakes each spring. You can still stroll into a fish market and buy live channel catfish. Mom-and-pop tackle shops thrive.
The tailrace fishing below the dams was excellent, some of the best bank fishing anywhere. You could catch everything from blue cats and paddlefish to stripers, white bass, and smallmouths. Both waters held rumors of divers who saw catfish the size of cars while working on the turbines, and who were bedamned if they’d ever get in that water again. That was half the fun of fishing here. Every cast was into the unknown. Many of the locals carried surf-casting tackle, just in case.
It seems the carp are slowly killing that. Two particularly invasive Asian species—bigheads and silvers—are now here, probably numbering in the millions. The bigheads grow to outlandish size. The silvers leap from the water and smash unsuspecting boaters in the face. There’s no way to accurately count them, but a fish kill below Barkley seven years ago left an estimated half million silvers floating on the surface. You couldn’t run a boat through the carcasses. The next week, after they’d all flushed downstream into the Ohio, it was as if nothing had happened. The carp were still everywhere.
Both species are plankton feeders, meaning they outcompete native species from the bottom of the food chain, up. Originally brought to the U.S. in the ’70s for phytoplankton control in various delta aquaculture facilities, some would invariably escape after floods. Their spread was steady and unstoppable, like zombies at the apocalypse. Now they live in most every tributary, trickle, and ditch in the Mississippi drainage, and they’ve been steadily spreading both north and east. Great Lakes managers are concerned, as Asian carp have been found in the Chicago River, just 9 miles from Lake Michigan.
The two species are also almost unnaturally prolific spawners, each female laying a million or more eggs at a time, and they grow so quickly that not much can eat them. A bighead can reach 30 inches in just four years and top out at 100 pounds or more. Silvers average 15 to 40 pounds. They feed almost continuously. In static environments—like oxbows cut off from the main river in summer—they outcompete plankton-feeding baitfish and starve them to death. In tailraces, they become so numerous that there just isn’t room for much else.
Asian carp first appeared below Kentucky and Barkley dams in the late ’90s. “By the mid 2000s, we started getting really concerned about their populations,” says Neil Jackson with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “In the past five years, their numbers have just become staggering. There are days when it looks like you could step out of your boat and walk across them.”
Each year, there seem to be more of them—and each year the bowfishing seems to get easier. I have buddies who would rather bowfish in a tailrace than sit in a treestand for deer. It’s hard to argue with them. We’ve killed carp the size of button bucks—fish that took half an hour to land.
A Rise in Bowfishing for Silver Carp
I talk to a guy from eastern Kentucky as he’s prepping his boat. He has driven across the state to bowfish and has been looking forward to it all winter. “I used to come down here to shoot buffalo and gar,” he says. “The Asian carp are a lot more fun. Man, they fight.” They’re killing the river, he concedes, but… “Might as well make the most of it.”
There’s a clear correlation between the Asian carp invasion and the surge in bowfishing’s popularity. “Our product lineup has doubled in the past four years,” says Mathew Schillinger with AMS Bowfishing. “The flying silvers set off the initial craze. Now, when you see some of the giant bigheads that people are shooting—who doesn’t want to try that?” Schillinger makes a couple of trips to Kentucky every year to shoot them. “I see bowfishing boats and license plates from all over the country.”
Neil Jackson says the ultimate goal would be to eradicate the carp completely. But that seems highly unlikely. “The more realistic goal in places like this, where they’re already so established, is to try to manage their numbers,” he says.
Efforts are under way to create commercial markets for the fish. Although they’re full of bones, silver carp flesh is white and flaky and tastes just fine. Two Rivers Fisheries in Wickliffe, Kentucky, is one processing facility that prepares commercially taken carp for the table—albeit, most of it is for overseas export (https://www.outdoorlife.com/bowfishing-eating-asian-carp/). Overcoming the local stigma of eating carp is a hurdle, and that market remains sluggish (despite attempts to rebrand silver carp as “Kentucky white fish”).
Still, the commercial fishing market for Asian carp is better than it once was. Getting recreational and commercial fishermen—two user groups that don’t always get along—working together on the problem is another issue, since more commercial fishing is rarely seen as the answer to a resource problem. Jackson believes bowfishing has the potential to help bridge that gap.
I take a few shots from the walkway before launching my boat. Longnose gar and buffalo are rolling on the surface—easy pickings—but the silver carp are out just a bit farther, tantalizingly in sight but out of bow range from the bank. My johnboat doesn’t have a special raised shooting deck or lights for night shooting. On a hot, bright day like today, with a good pair of polarized sunglasses, that doesn’t matter.
I launch and make the short run to the face of the dam, where, once I stand up, I can see a huge, dark, shapeless form in the water. Tails and heads with white, sucking mouths disturb the surface. I drop my trolling motor and ease into them.
Thousands of silver carp flank my boat; some passing underneath gently bump the hull. I don’t even have to aim to kill one, but I nonetheless pick out a good-size fish, anchor the fiberglass arrow, and let fly. A mass of silver explodes beside the boat as the school scatters and my fish struggles in a plume of red. A spooked carp jumps, and then another, and another. I haul my fish aboard, bash his head three times with a club, and shuck him off my arrow into a leaf tub. I reel up my slack line as fast as I can, and within 10 seconds, I’ve shot another one.
The frenzy produces half a dozen fish before the school sinks. They’ll be back in 10 minutes. We’ve had plenty of 100-fish outings, days when blisters form on your shooting fingers and you feel exhausted from reeling the damn things in, tired of washing off the slime and blood. You kill so many it feels monotonous—and in some ways, hopeless. The line has long since been overrun. There’s no more holding it.
Then the school comes back up. Even if you’ve stashed your bow and vowed to call it a day, you can’t help but shoot just one more. Maybe two. Every little bit helps.
Where Are Invasive Carp?
The Asian carp problem hasn’t been solved in the six years since I originally wrote this story in 2015. (I’m updating it in September 2021). But the situation in Kentucky and Barkley lakes has certainly improved, thanks to intense carp removal efforts funded in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and spearheaded by the KDFWR. Much of this funding has been used to supplement commercial fishermen who are targeting Asian carp, with an annual removal goal of 17 million pounds.
In February 2020, the U.S. Geological Survey, KDFWR, and the USFWS partnered on an experimental carp removal project using the Modified Unified Method. A few bays in Kentucky Lake were designated test areas and temporarily closed to boating traffic. Then, a complex series of nets—totaling 2 miles long—was set into place. Boats then used a combination of electricity and sound, via submerged microphones, to coral fish into the nets, which were tightened incrementally until the carp were contained in a small area. Fisheries managers say that while Asian carp are prone to this “driving behavior,” most native species are not. They just hide when the microphones pass over, and so the bycatch rate is very low—and most incidental catches can be easily released unharmed.
On Kentucky Lake, managers did run into challenges, such as submerged brush piles snagging the nets, but still, the effort was deemed a success, with more than 69,000 pounds of fish, mostly Asian carp, harvested. A report by KDFWR said, “With adjustments, the 2020 efforts revealed good potential for the Modified Unified Method to be successful in Kentucky waters, and possibly throughout the Mississippi River Basin.”
Due to the turbulent environment, the carp problem in the tailrace areas may never be fixed. But in the lakes, things seem to be improving a bit, thanks to sustained carp-killing efforts. Anecdotally, I’ve seen fewer jumping silvers in shallow bays while fishing the past couple summers, and many local anglers are reporting better bass and crappie fishing than they’ve seen in a few years. Perhaps most importantly, anglers on the lakes this past year have been seeing a lot of shad—a key baitfish that’s particularly affected by Asian carp. All of that said, the bowfishing is still pretty good, too. —W.B.
Bowfishing Tip: Where to Aim
Because of light refraction, you have to aim low to hit any fish beneath the surface. But with the deeper shots common with Asian carp, you’ll often aim so low that it seems certain you’ll miss underneath—and you’ll still miss high. Learning to compensate simply takes practice. Fortunately, on a good day, you’ll get plenty. —W.B.