An Arrow Runs Through It: Bowfishers take aim at Asian carp

Save for the lightning flashes of a distant thunderstorm, it is a pitch-black night on the Mississippi, a few miles downriver from Festus. A chorus of frogs and crickets drowns out the quiet hum of a small electric motor as Robin Parks navigates his boat in the still, shallow waters behind a dike.

Keith Riehn, Parks' full-time fishing buddy on the pair's Web broadcast hunting show Aim Low Bowfishing Journals, kneels on a platform at the boat's bow and hooks up a handheld spotlight. Parks kills the engine and they peer out into the darkness.

Riehn readies an arrow on the strings of his hunting bow while Parks picks up the spotlight and scans the river. The light reveals hundreds of iridescent fish floating near the surface. Picking out the biggest one, Parks douses the light to keep from spooking the creature and moves the craft to within ten feet of the target.

Tom Carlson
Robin Parks poses with a 25-pound bighead carp he bagged on the Mississippi River.
Robin Parks poses with a 25-pound bighead carp he bagged on the Mississippi River.

Parks then flicks on the light and in a split second Riehn takes aim. He pulls back and sends an arrow plunging into the water at nearly 100 miles per hour, yellow fishing line spooling after it. With a reel attached to the handle of the bow, Riehn labors to land the fish he has just impaled.

Soon, he pulls a wildly flopping, three-foot long, 30-pound bighead carp into the flat-bottomed johnboat. He clocks the fish on the head with a small wooden club and holds the trophy up by the gills for the cameraman to shoot. The arrow is lodged directly behind the fish's eye.

"That's the best place to hit 'em if you don't want much of a fight," Riehn deadpans into the camera, a smile sprouting from beneath his bushy goatee.

Parks and Riehn are two of the nation's biggest names in bowfishing, an unusual and aggressive form of angling that's become popular with archers from across rural Missouri. The first bowfishers association was founded in Arkansas in 1990, and today, there are 28 such organizations in fifteen states.

For the most part, the sportsmen's primary target is Asian carp, an invasive, plankton-feeding fish that has exploded in population over the past decade and, according to concerned marine biologists, become the scourge of Midwestern rivers.

"We've done studies on certain backwater refuges and over 95 percent of the fish species were Asian carp," says Steve Shults, an aquatic invasive species specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "That's a tremendous problem."

For Missouri bowfishers, though, it means open season, no holds barred. Free of catch limits and other regulations, it is not uncommon for them to bag 2,000 pounds of the aquatic nuisance in a single trip.

Most carp hunters are driven by the adrenaline jolt that comes with seeking and destroying the fish, as opposed to hauling it home for dinner.

"Some people think it's wanton killing," notes Tim Hunter, president of the Missouri chapter of the Bowfishing Association of America. "But if you ever do it, it's as addictive as cocaine. You shoot your first fish and you'll be hooked."

The once-distant thunderstorm has rolled in and turned the Mississippi into a wash of whitecaps and driving rain, forcing our boat off the river after less than an hour of fishing.

Sitting in the back seat of Robin Parks' massive four-door Ford pickup, Keith Riehn has a decision to make. Parks wants to drive two hours south and fish until dawn at a spot just outside of Cape Girardeau, where the chance of rain this night is slim. But Riehn, a special-ed teacher at Fox High School in Arnold, has to be at work at 7 a.m.

"We gotta be outta there by 3:30," pleads Riehn, who hails from Pevely. "I can't call in sick on the first Friday of the school year."

"OK, but you know that's the time we usually get into the big fish," Parks says with a mischievous grin. An environmental engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers who lives in Hillsboro, Parks has the next day off. "If you call in sick we can play golf tomorrow."

Two hours later, Parks guns the outboard motor and speeds along the Ohio River, an hour east of Cape Girardeau on the Illinois-Kentucky border. Riehn is busy teaching a crash course on bowfishing, starting with the meaning of "Aim Low." Because light bends in the water and makes the fish appear deceptively close to the surface, shooters must set their sights on a spot about six inches below the actual target.

Picking up Parks' powder-blue bow, Riehn launches into a tutorial on the equipment. The bow is a compound, meaning it uses several pulleys and cables to help bend the weapon's limbs. It has a 45-pound "draw weight," the amount of force it takes to pull the string completely back and shoot. Once the string is cocked, however, the tension eases and holding the arrow in firing position is relatively easy.

The arrow (there's only one) is about three feet long and made of fiberglass. To keep the fish from sliding off, Riehn explains, the arrow has two steel barbs the size of small nails that protrude from the pointed tip at 45-degree angles. There's no fletching (the feathers normally used to stabilize it in flight) so that it can easily glide into the water, sticking targets as deep as five feet. A simple knot connects the tail of the dart to a length of 200-pound test fishing line and a reel just like the basic press-the-button-and-cast variety found on traditional poles.

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