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Bow fishing in the brine: archery gear opens up a brave new world of saltwater excitement.

My wish is that I'd saved the stingray for the taxidermist. The preserved fish would've been displayed at my front door like a bear rug. Unfortunately, that adventure soured with the speed of a switchblade, and the mount would've proved a major deterrent to my father ever visiting his grandchildren again. See, Dad, though he won't admit improbably still has nightmares of being tagged by that stingray we hauled aboard his Aquasport a few summers ago.

The ray had fought a tough fight in the cocoa-colored runoff pumping out of Ft. Pierce Inlet that day. It was a deep, hurried shot, but the broadhead met its target. After 30 minutes of wrestling an animal seemingly magnetized to the bottom, Dad and I finally subdued the ray. It was now resting calmly on the deck. Or so it appeared.

The ray was a trophy--35 to 50 pounds, in my estimation. No novices with rays, we were sure to keep a distance, but somehow, some way, that whip-like tail flailed out and nailed the top of Dad's foot as I worked to remove the arrow.

Blood--some of which can still be located by casual forensic teams examining cracks in the fiberglass --sprayed across the port gunnel. It looks like a scene from a slasher flick. Fortunately, none of the stingray's barb broke off in his foot. Dad refused a hospital trip. He washed the wound with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged it. The pain was excruciating, he said. There didn't seem to be any lasting physical effects, other than a possible reduction of gray matter: Dad skippered a successful bowfishing trip for barracuda the following summer. He quivers at the talk of rays, though.

Why would he want to hunt stingrays again, anyway? It's not like they're prized quarry--plenty have been hooked off that boat over the years, the hopes of a picture-worthy gamefish dashed as their slimy wings unfurled and slapped against the side of the vessel. Bowfishing, though, in all of its aboriginal essence, makes fine sport of rays and other "complicated" fish. How about the school of mullet that balls up off the dock? That ancient-looking sheepshead crunching barnacles off the piling who's seen more rigged shrimp than you've seen sheepshead?

Bowfishing is a challenging outdoor pursuit, but before you begin plunking arrows in the water, recognize that it's far easier talking about bowfishing than actually arrowing a saltwater fish. Here are a few pointers to get you started.

Stalking the Hunting Grounds

Where to start bowfishing? By way of common sense and state and local ordinances, you might start by eliminating a few places, such as crowded beaches and piers. Unless posted otherwise, most Florida parks and preserves are off-limits to bowfishing. If working from a boat, the captain must mind the depth. Arrowing a large ray in a few inches of water is an exercise in futility if the vessel can't float. For land-based archers, dislodging a broadhead from pilings, oyster beds, and other submerged debris is a bummer. But it's a fine line to dance--too deep and bowfishing is ineffective, and with no structure, you're not likely to find fish.

Luckily, plenty of huntable species live inshore within close proximity of one another. A jaunt for stingrays is a hunt for sheepshead, jacks or mullet. As you venture into brackish water, gars appear on the menu. Mangrove snapper, flounder, spadefish and black drum are inland options given suitable water clarity, especially at night. It's a dealer's choice, once you've learned what's legal and how to avoid ruining your equipment.

Essential Bowfishing Gear

My rig is a Frankenstein deal--PSE Kingfisher recurve fitted with an AMS Retriever Pro. I prefer the free-spooling design of this reel, especially after nearly making a eunuch of myself when--admittedly through operator-error--a tethered arrow snapped back while using a push-button design, which is the other common style. In all reality, the reel function is for ease of arrow retrieval for misses--speared fish are hand-lined.

Currently tied to the 200-pound Dacron line is a RPM Bowfishing Featherweight 28-inch, 600-grain shaft and stainless-steel Fathom broadhead. This particular arrow I chose for near-surface mullet and gar.

Its conical design limits planing, helpful for squarely piercing small targets with tough scales. I bagged the big ray with a Cajun Archery Sting-A-Ree Tournament Bowfishing Arrow, its heavier weight designed for deeper shots at bigger fish. And, I cut my teeth and was perfectly content with the Muzzy Bowfishing Classic Fish-Arrow that came with the PSE kit--it just wore out over time.

Minus the cost of the various arrows, the set-up totaled around $250. With Internet shopping or snooping around pawn shops or flea markets, this investment can be reduced. For those who prefer compound bows over recurves, several manufacturers sell them at reasonable prices. A forearm guard is advisable to prevent the bowstring from bruising your skin. Polarized glasses are a must-have, and gloves are prudent for hand-lining big fish.

Shooting Fish Outside the Barrel

Now comes the tricky part. While locating fruitful hunting grounds in Florida is a relatively simple objective, actually harvesting a fish is a different task. The fundamental techniques of archery are still practiced; however, even a person who's never handled a bow won't be too far behind the learning curve.

My first time handling a recurve was in a turkey camp several springs ago. After I buried several of his arrows in the dirt, the owner suggested focusing on the target instead of peering down the arrow. This counsel has served well with piscine prey. But, there are still a few rubs.

With bowfishing, the targets move, dart and dash--or will be promptly if you've stalked close enough for a killshot. Also, water refraction must be calculated into instinct shooting. If you aim at the body of a fish, even one a few inches under the surface, the arrow will strike over it. Learn to hold underneath, while concentrating on the fish, to compensate for this. I'm sure there's a mind-bending formula for calculating hold based on depth, but all I've learned is it takes practice. And missing happens far more than hitting.

Of course, there's no reason why you shouldn't shoot as much as you please at fish near and far-the arrow is attached to a string! You may get lucky and accomplish something you never thought possible ... which, I almost forgot, brings me back to the barracuda hunt.

Balancing on the pulpit of the Aquasport like Quint, I spied a black Polaris missile of a cuda lazing at the surface near a buoy. Dozens of others were cruising nearby. I pointed Dad in the direction, and we approached as close as I thought we could get before loosing the arrow. I'd been nervous because I didn't want any of these jet-propelled fish launching into the boat and chewing up Dad--or my wife and toddlers who were along for the show (hello, DCF). But, scars heal, and the glory of this fish would never fade.

I whiffed over the top. On subsequent laps around the buoy, I spotted him again, but he was far warier, grinning up at me from his safe depths.

Unfortunately for one of his cohorts, I'm an experienced bowfisherman seasoned by failure. During one pass, I stuck a medium-sized cuda behind the pectoral fin. Rather than an aerial show, he dived for the bottom, but the broadhead held, and I yanked him aboard, my first barracuda with a bow. At that moment, the world was my oyster--right up until I missed the next three fish.

And that's a lot of the fun of bowfishing.

Dining on Gars, Rays and Cudas

If you're daring enough to hunt rays, gars or cudas with a bow, consider applying that adventurous spirit to the dinner plate.

While large barracuda should be avoided due to ciguatera poisoning, smaller ones--say, under 30 inches or so--are fine eating with white flesh and a firmness somewhere between seatrout and snapper and can be prepared in a similar manner.

As for rays, I'm uncertain if this is an urban legend or not, but rumor has it that before the days of sophisticated diners, state regulators, and intense investigative reporting, restaurants would market ray "wing" meat as sea scallops. Palates differ, but many folks today enthusiastically saute, fry or bake rays and skates as one would the aforementioned bivalve.

Gars are a different cup of tea--they don't surrender their fillets easily. The process involves tin-snips and not ingesting the toxic roe. Fillets are good fried. Alligator gar are protected.

I'd exceed the space available to detail how to clean rays and gars. Luckily, YouTube hosts numerous how-to videos on processing and preparing these unconventional fish posted by some, well, unconventional people.

Rules of SALTWATER Bowfishing

Per FWC, bowfshing falls under the spectrum of spearing, though the rules are more lax for folks with archery gear. Still, the list of off-limit species remains the same: billfish, spotted eagle ray, sturgeon, manta ray, sharks, bonefish, tarpon, goliath grouper, snook, blue crab, nassau grouper, spotted seatrout, red drum, weakfish, stone crab, pompano, African pompano, permit, tripletail, lobster and the families of ornamental reef fish. Size limits and bag limits for managed species remain the same as they would for hook-and-line anglers. The bag limit for unregulated species is two fish or 100 pounds per person, per day, whichever is more. For heavierfish such as stingrays, if you harvest two fish with a combined weight of 150 pounds, that is the limit.

For up-to-date information on saltwater bowfishing, please visit FWC's webpage on the subject at http://myfwc. com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/spearing/.
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Author:Nance, Ian
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:May 1, 2015
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