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"Native Americans have been using bows and arrows to catch fish for thousands of years," says Christine Appleberg, president of Illinois Bowfishers. "But modern bowfishing archery equipment didn't really take off until the 1970s, and even then it was guys using wooden arrows with nails bent back as the barbs. Now, in the last five years, it's become the fastest-growing segment of archery."
The last time I picked up a bow and arrow was summer camp in sixth grade. Now, after a few practice shots, I am sandwiched shoulder to shoulder between Parks and Riehn on the platform at the front of the boat. Parks mans the spotlight, panning it across the water to illuminate a sea of Asian carp floating like logs near the surface. Picking a target about five feet away, I draw back, shoot and miss completely.
After repeated misses, I'm ready to hand the bow back to the professionals. Finally, the line goes taut and a fish flops out of the water. My first catch is a silver carp barely ten inches long, shot through the dorsal fin.
"Oughta have that one mounted," Parks cracks.
Beginner's luck kicks in, and I start connecting on nearly every shot. Riehn picks up his bow and starts firing alongside me. The unsuspecting fish don't stand a chance as arrows rain down on them at close range.
Parks, tired of constantly stopping the boat to land paltry-size prey, instructs us to go after something serious. When Riehn spots what looks like a large bighead five yards to our right, we let our arrows fly and both hit pay dirt. With the shafts crisscrossing out its back, the carp is virtually lifeless as we reel it in.
To the amusement of my guides — who once bagged an eight-foot, 240-pound alligator gar — the three-foot, 25-pound fish is one of the biggest creatures I've ever caught. After posing for a picture, I toss it in a bucket and notice my hands are covered with a snot-like fishy slime. Hopelessly, I try to rinse them in the river, but the smell, having already oozed into my pores, won't leave my hands for days.
Psychologically, bowfishing is completely different from pole-and-line angling. This is not a matter of dangling a hook in the water and patiently hoping for an unseen fish to take the bait. Rather, nailing a fish with an arrow is an act of instant gratification. Not only are the carp visible at the surface, but it's possible to pick out the biggest one and spear it at near point-blank range. It is like shooting fish in a barrel.
The bighead carp is an ugly, stinky, slimy fish. Its defining feature is an oversized skull that bulges out from its silver-and-white body, like the cap on a mushroom. Eyes slung low on the sides of its head, it has a toothless, circular mouth, which contracts as it sucks in water to filter the plankton it voraciously consumes. As a result of its diet, it reeks of the combined stench of fish and composted grass clippings.
Common carp, native to Asia and Eastern Europe, have flourished in the nation's waterways since the early 1800s. Asian carp, common carp's larger relative, first appeared in American waters in the early 1970s when fish farmers in Arkansas stocked the silver, grass and bighead species to gobble up the plankton and algae that was polluting their aquaculture pens. Inevitably, some escaped.
Asian carp did not establish themselves in the wild until the early 1990s, their numbers rapidly increasing after the flood of 1993. According to one study, until 1992, commercial fishermen on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers inadvertently netted about 1,300 pounds of Asian carp annually. Since 1997, those same fishermen have caught more than 110,000 pounds of carp a year. The unwanted fish have been spotted in 23 states, including as far away as California and Florida.
According to Chapman, there's little hope the carp boom will slow anytime soon, for the fish thrive in the Midwest's shallow, slow-moving rivers. One mature female bighead lays nearly two million eggs a year.
The consequences of the unwanted proliferation are vast. Ecologists' biggest concern is that the carp will take plankton — the food on which virtually every type of newborn fish feeds — away from native species.
"Studies have shown the number of large zooplankton is down 90 percent and small zooplankton is down 50 percent," says Chapman. "That's a lot."
"We have a lot of species in the large rivers that are teetering on the edge," explains Kevin Meneau, a fisheries-management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "The fear is that the carp will compete for food and space, to the detriment of those species that are native and having a hard time."
The carp could someday impact humans as well. Because they consume only the largest varieties of plankton, the microscopic organisms they leave behind can spawn massive algae blooms that turn rivers greenish-blue, something Chapman says he's already seen in some local tributaries. In extreme cases, the plankton left behind by carp can turn water toxic to humans.
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