The NRA logo on Robey’s cutoff tee is smeared with slime and blood. He finally bear-hugged the giant paddlefish to pull it over the gunwale. His arrow is busted, and so now is my rear running light, with the fish having smashed its tail into it. We take a moment to admire the beast. Its gill plates are still flaring down along the floor of my aluminum boat.
“That is a big son of a gun,” Robey says. “Might be a state record.”
We don’t know offhand what the bowfishing mark is, but we guess the fish in front of us at right around 70 pounds. It has to be close. Robey made a deep shot on the fish just below the tailrace. It pulled us a quarter mile downstream before we landed it, which we wouldn’t have managed without a couple of additional arrows.
“We just got here,” I tell him. “You really want to leave now? The fish will spoil in this heat before we find a certified scale.”
We can’t take a chance like that.
I beach the rig on a silt bank, and we drag the fish ashore to cut it up. Robey rearranges a bunch of drinks and a smoked chicken in the cooler to make room for thick slabs of fish. On the grill, paddlefish is as fine as anything that swims. With our haul safely on ice, we can spend the rest of the day shooting more fish, and looking forward to dinner.
Bowfishing is one of the fastest-growing segments of bowhunting. There are virtually no barriers to entry, and there’s opportunity just about everywhere. But the overriding question from curious—and skeptical—non-bowfishermen is “What do you do with the fish?”
Let’s be honest. Many of the targeted rough fish are invasive species that are wrecking our fisheries. The Asian carp problem has reached epidemic levels in the South and Midwest, and getting rid of them seems impossible. So there’s no shame in shooting and then using them as “fertilizer,” so long as they’re not festering in a spot that’s offensive to your neighbors. Some shooters haul dead fish offshore, slash them open so they sink, and then commit them back to the river. Catfish have to eat, after all, same as turtles.
I have eaten carp. Common carp, which are also invasive, are the most widespread and popular targets for bowfishermen. Overseas, they’re captive bred as food fish. Here in the states, the wild ones have a spongy, orange flesh laden with bones that’s about as tasty as it sounds.
Silver carp are better. Their meat is white and flaky (though also full of bones) and tastes just fine. There is an effort to create a commercial market for these fish in hopes of controlling their numbers, but public acceptance of carp eating is lukewarm at best here in the U.S.
Sadly, invasive carp are displacing several species of native, carplike fish that make for superior eating. Buffalo and suckers are excellent on the table, and for now still widely available to bowfishermen. Fried buffalo ribs are a Southern delicacy. Picture a skinny rib bone wrapped in fried fish instead of smoked pork, and you’ve got the idea. Shooting buffalo is an absolute blast during early spring when they move into shallow backwaters to spawn. Though buffalo in the 10-pound class are the best eating, 40-pounders are common, and they are incredibly strong fighters.
Gar are also worth taking home. Their eggs are big and round, like fine caviar, but eating them will make you wish for death—they’re toxic to humans. But if you avoid the eggs, gar meat itself is pretty good. Several species of these predatory fish can be found in just about any slow-moving Southern stream or river. Their backstraps have a mild flavor and a texture similar to shrimp when breaded and fried. Cajun garfish boulettes are a mixture of ground gar meat, breadcrumbs, eggs, and spices rolled into balls, fried, and served over rice with gravy. They’re not that much different from crab cakes, particularly after a few beers.
My favorite bowfishing quarry, though, is the American paddlefish—primarily because it tastes so good. Paddlefish numbers have, unfortunately, been declining for some time, and so their harvest is tightly regulated. Only a few states allow it at all. Silver and bighead carp are direct competitors with plankton-eating paddlefish—and far more efficient spawners. Still, paddlefish numbers are enough to support limited harvest. Here in Kentucky, bowfishermen can shoot two per day in some waters. In other states, it’s only a fish or two per season. These ancient, cartilaginous fish predate dinosaurs, and the best shooting for them is frequently in the turbulent tailwaters below hydroelectric dams.
Paddlefish flesh is white and firm—and perfect for the grill. Because there are no bones, you can simply gut them, slice into sections, and then trim those sections into steaks. Try one and you’ll understand why it was so easy for me to convince Robey not to leave the water to find a scale that day.
When we got home, we put several steaks on the grill and looked up Kentucky’s record bow-killed paddlefish. It was in the low 50s at the time. We laughed and ate. Somehow, state-record paddlefish tasted even better.
Photographs: Will Brantley