Bowfishing the Apocalypse

Asian carp are destroying our rivers and creating the best tailrace bowfishing you’ve ever seen.

The author sticks invasive carp below Barkley Dam. Photography by Hollis Bennett.

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 fisher-men have learned to step around them and ignore the smell.

Something’s always dying down here. About everything that’s pulled through the dam dies. Occasionally there’ll be a cormorant or coon, 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, splashes, and is 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.”

Flies work on one of many rotting carp.

Where Rivers End
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 are hosted 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 invasive Asian species—bigheads and silvers—are now here, probably numbering in the millions. The bigheads grow to outlandish size, outcompeting everything else. 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 last spring 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. 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’re still spreading.

They are 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 now 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 Silver Lining
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.”

Bloody hands.

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. A couple of new carp processing facilities have been built in the area. Although they’re full of bones, their flesh is white and flaky and tastes just fine. Still, overcoming the stigma of eating carp is a hurdle, and right now there’s little incentive for commercial anglers to target them. 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.

“It doesn’t seem like the numbers of fish removed by bowfishing can ever have as big of an impact as a sustained commercial harvest, but every little bit helps,” he says. More important, recreational bowfishing puts a spotlight on the problem, which has the potential to get both commercial and recreational users working toward the same goal. “We [wildlife agencies] don’t have the ability to lobby for our resources like the users can. The more people can get together in groups and help, the better.”

Fish Frenzy

A haul from just below the dam wall.

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 get 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 They?

Most major rivers south of the Great Lakes in the Midwest or South have Asian carp, and tailraces concentrate the fish. Many of the dams on these flows are managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If Asian carp are in the area, their local staff will know. If not, call back in a couple of years.

Aim Low. No, Lower.

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.