The Filipino Negritos traditionally used bows and arrows to shoot fish in clear water.[1]

Bowfishing is a method of fishing that uses specialized archery equipment to shoot and retrieve fish. Fish are shot with a barbed arrow that is attached with special line to a reel mounted on the bow. Some freshwater species commonly hunted include common carp, grass carp, bighead carp, alligator gar, and paddlefish. In saltwater, rays and sharks are regularly pursued.



Bows are usually very simple. Most do not have sights, and aiming is by line-of-sight judgment down the arrow. There are a couple of types of rests including the hook and roller rest. Most bows have little to no let-off and not much draw weight. This differs with what one has available and personal preference. There are two main types of bows. Traditional bows include long bows and recurve bows. In more modern times, compound bows came into use. They use a system of pulleys to help the archer. Modern bows can have as much as 120 pounds (50 kg) draw weight.

The crossbow is also sometimes used in this manner and has its own advantages, including the use of a reel. See Recreational fishing.


Arrow with three prongs carrying three barbed points. For catching fish in rivers. From Guyana. Photographed at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, Devon.

Bowfishing arrows are considerably heavier and stronger than arrows used in other types of archery and are most commonly constructed of five-sixteenth inch fiberglass, but solid aluminum, carbon fiber, and carbon fiber reinforced fiberglass are also used. Bowfishing arrows generally lack fletching, as it can cause the arrow to flare to one side or another underwater and they are not required at the relatively short ranges associated with bowfishing. Line is attached to the arrow by tying to a hole in the arrow shaft or through the use of a slide system.


Bowfishing line is often made from braided nylon, Dacron, or Spectra. Commonly used line weights range from eighty to four-hundred pound test, with six-hundred being used when bowhunting for alligators. Line color is normally either lime green, white, or neon orange.


Three types of reels are commonly used in bowfishing: Hand-wrap, spincast, and retriever. Hand-wrap reels are the simplest reels; they consist of a circular spool that line is wrapped onto by hand and then secured in a line holding slot. When the arrow is shot the line comes free from the line holder and feeds off the spool. Fish are caught by pulling the line in hand over hand; hand-wrap reels are the least effective at fighting arrowed fish, but they can be used in conjunction with a float system to shoot and fight large trophy fish. Retriever reels have a "bottle" which holds the line in place. When shot the line comes out either until the shot goes too far and the line runs out or the hunter pushes down a stopping device which can be used to keep a fish from traveling out too far. Some retriever reels have slots cut in them and are known as slotted retriever reels. They are more commonly used for alligator, alligator gar, shark and other big game that will take more time to chase down than smaller game fish.


One of the keys to bowfishing is having a good visual of the target. In order to see the fish in the water on a sunny day, polarized sun glasses are helpful. They cut the glare on top of the water so it makes it easier to see what is below the surface. Different tints and lens colors make a difference in the color of water the hunter is fishing in, from darker brown to clearer blue and green. At night glasses are unnecessary, as lights are used to see through the water.


Although bowfishing can be done from the shore, bowfishers most often shoot from boats. Flat bottom "john boats" and canoes are used in areas of low water, as they have less draw, but are unsuitable for open water. Larger boats can accommodate multiple hunters. Many of these boats are highly customized specifically for bowfishing, with raised shooting platforms, and generators to provide electrical power to multiple lights for bowfishing at night. "Airboats" also incorporate some type of fan propulsion for operating in very shallow waters. The fan and motor are generally mounted on a raised platform at the stern.


Along with fishing from boats and off the shore, wading and shooting is also effective as long as the hunter doesn't mind getting soaked. Wading in rivers allows the shooter to get up close to the fish if the hunter is skillful. When keeping fish while wading, the hunter may utilize a stringer tied to a belt loop.

Standing on large rocks in shallower parts of a river is another technique. This provides a better view higher out of the water. Going from rock to rock in a river with two hunters gets the fish moving if they are inactive. It is similar to herding the fish to the other hunter; while one hunter is wading the other is stationary on a rock.

All of these river techniques typically work best for carp or catfish, depending on the location.


Knowing where to aim on a fish can be one of the most difficult skills to master in bowfishing. Due to the refraction of the water and how it optically distorts the location of objects in the water, aiming straight at the target usually results in a miss. Aiming well below the target compensates for the optical illusion. Depth and distance of the target also impact how far below the fish to aim. Aiming four inches (102 mm) low for every ten feet of lateral distance from the fish water, and adding 3 inches for every foot of water depth in which the target resides typically yields good results, though actual compensation for refracted light must account not only for distance and depth, but angle as well.

Common advice includes, "When in doubt, aim low, then aim lower."

Targeted species


  1. March, Alden (1899) The history and conquest of the Philippines and our other island possessions; embracing our war with the Filipinos in 1899 Page 39.


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