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Saltwater Bowfishing

Saltwater Bowfishing
One of the best times for bow fishing the marshes is after the sun sets. Photo by John E. Phillips.

All down the eastern seaboard of the United States saltwater bowfishing allows those with an adventurous bend to take a variety of interesting creatures. These not only include the carp and gar from estuary and tidal waters that fall under saltwater fishing regulations, but tasty flounder and off-the-wall species like stingrays.

Generally, saltwater species may be taken by bow fishing, provided that the bow fisherman abides by the same regulations as their hook-and-line brothers. There are significant exceptions, and some areas prohibit saltwater bowfishing for particular species.

Popular species, like the redfish and sharks, have the most restrictions on locations, fishing methods and size. This is a challenge for the bow fisherman as he must identify and size-up his fish before he looses an arrow at it. The applicable rule is, "if you don't know it, don't shoot it."

Nonetheless, much fun can be had taking species like flounder, sheepshead and drum or even sharpening your shooting eye on mullet. Besides fish, the smaller rays provide common targets and the cow-nosed ray is a larger species that oystermen would like fewer of, as they feed on oysters. These rays also provide some good eats, as will be explained later.

One nasty that is hated by shrimpers is the gafftopsail catfish, which has a tall dorsal spine that can give a very painful infection-prone sting. This spine can easily penetrate the tennis shoes of the deck crew as they attempt to shuffle them off the boat's deck.


If one is after the usual run of smaller saltwater species, the same bow and arrow used for taking carp and gar work well enough. It is not so much that specialized equipment is needed; it is that anything used in salt water must be cleaned in fresh water to remove any salt to prevent corrosion. This includes soaking your braided line in fresh water before spooling it back onto your reel.

For those not up on their bowfishing gear, powerful bows, such as one might use on deer, are not needed for general bowfishing. Instead of taking a single shot at a deer, you may shoot hundreds of time during a night of bowfishing, and bows with a 40-pound draw are more than adequate. Some bowfishermen use the Mathews Genesis, which has a pull weight of about 22 pounds.

A typical bowfishing arrow is a solid fiberglass shaft, and must have a tip with a barb to retain the fish, as well as having an attached line. Muzzy has a series of bowfishing arrows with stainless steel points that penetrate well and are long lasting, assuming you are not shooting sheepshead or drum against the rocks used in a jetty. If you are, use a file to resharpen your points often.

Braided 200-pound-test bowfishing line is the best weight. You can use 600-pound-test if you are targeting large fish, but 200-pound allows you to spool more line on your reel and has sufficient strength to take hard pulls and abrasion. Most beginning bow fishermen lose fish not because the line fails, but because their knots slip. The first task for any bow fisherman is learning to tie an open loop knot that holds.


Large capacity closed-face spinning reels are often used. Zebco's 808 was once the most commonly used reel, but more rugged designs from Muzzy and others are better for saltwater. Some bowfishermen prefer hand-wound reels, and retrieve their fish by pulling them in hand-over-hand. This is more time consuming, but if you are not tournament fishing, the time taken to retrieve your fish is less important.


Bowfishing near the Intracoastal Waterway provides access to thousands of miles of tidal creeks and backwaters. Some may be sufficiently clear to see fish several feet beneath the surface. These clear waters are found in harbors and bays away from the silt-laden rivers. Shallow areas on the mainland side of islands often provide good fishing water, while keeping you away from wave action.

Grassy areas are more difficult to bowfish than sandy bars because of the difficulty of seeing the fish. Once you develop and eye for them, flounder are prized fish to look for in sandy areas, but pay attention to size limits and shoot only the big ones.

Boating in the relatively protected waters near the Intracoastal allows the use of the same medium-sized boats that one would use on inland lakes. I prefer something no smaller than a 14-foot with a 40-horsepower engine. You may be able to work close in with smaller johnboats, but winds and currents can easily swamp these craft. Even so, the semi-V and flat prows of many lake boats take a pounding when a strong wind starts to blow across the brine, and then it is time to run back to the dock.


High tides during the early morning hours before the onshore winds start to kick up are usually the best time to go bow fishing. In areas where tidal swings may be only 2 to 4 feet, this is less important.

It is tempting to bow fish large coastal sounds. You may if you realize that these are dangerous places should a thunderstorm start to kick up some serious wind. Waves in huge sounds can build up very quickly, and you may have miles to go before you can reach cover. Know where you are, and have an escape plan if you need to move inshore in a hurry.

Another aspect of saltwater bowfishing is that you are standing in your boat while fishing. When the winds start to strengthen about mid-day your bowfishing visibility is at its best, but you may not be able to safely stand on the deck because of wave action. Then it is time to put the bow away and get out your conventional fishing gear.

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