Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Bowfishing: Equipment and Technique

men bowfishing in the lake at dawn

Whether you are an angler looking for a new challenge or an experienced archer wanting to sharpen your skills during the off-season, there are many reasons to consider bowfishing. It is an exciting way to connect with the outdoors and comes with a certain personal satisfaction once mastered.

But how do you get started? Let us help you with that.

Why Bowfishing?

Bowfisher's hand and gear upclose

As stated earlier, there are many reasons to take up bowfishing. Experienced anglers enjoy the new challenge, and archers use it as a way to sharpen shooting skills during the off-season. Others find it attractive because it lets them target species rarely caught by traditional rod and reel.

But why you are considering bowfishing is not important. What you need, how you get started, and landing your first fish stays the same.


One of the benefits of bowfishing is that you do not need much specialized equipment.

If you are an experienced angler or archer, you probably already have some of it. What you do not have can be picked up relatively inexpensively, although most anglers soon upgrade to better (more expensive) gear down the road.


Man shooting bow and arrow in an open field

You need a bow. While you can purchase a new bow, or a complete setup for that matter, it is not necessary. Many beginners repurpose an old hunting or target bow.

You will want a bow that has a lower poundage than a bow used for hunting. The lighter weight will allow for the quick, short draw shots commonly used when bowfishing. Most anglers use bows with a weight rating between 30 and 40 pounds.

There is also flexibility when it comes to the type of bow used. Traditional recurves are the easiest. However, compound bows are growing in popularity, and even crossbows are being used by some anglers. It is important to research your local regulations, as some states restrict the type of bow that can be used.


Truglo speed-shot bowfishing arrow
TRUGLO Speed-Shot Bowfishing Arrow

It goes without saying that you will need arrows, but this is one piece of equipment that cannot be repurposed. Hunting arrows are not strong enough to withstand hitting the water and river bottom repeatedly and are often too short for bowfishing.

Arrows designed for bowfishing are longer and constructed of either fiberglass or carbon fiber for increased strength.

You’ll also want an arrow rest designed for bowfishing. They’re relatively inexpensive and there are a lot of good options out there.

Arrow Tips

Hand setting up arrow tip for bow fishing

You will need to equip your arrow with barbed tips that hold the fish once shot. While it is possible to purchase arrows and tips separately, it is recommended that beginners purchase arrows and tips as a set. This eliminates the need to determine the proper weight of each.


There are several options when it comes to bowfishing reels. Let’s look at each plus its advantages and disadvantages.

Hand-wind or bottle reels

Ams bowfishing retriever pro
AMS Retriever Pro

These are the most basic reels. The bowfishing line is wrapped around the reel or stuffed loosely into the bottle for storage. When a shot is taken, the line pays out, and the angler retrieves by hand, wrapping the line around the reel or stuffing it back into the bottle.


  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to set up and use


  • Slow, offers few follow up shots
  • The line can easily tangle

Spin caster

Spincast bowfishing reel

This is the same type of spin caster many of you have on a traditional rod-and-reel combo, though they are generally a bit larger to accommodate 200 pound test braided line. There are several that are made specifically for bowfishing. And they’re mounted to the bow via a special bracket which is often called a stabilizer. They are operated in the same manner, with the angler releasing the spool, shooting, and retrieving by winding the handle.


  • Faster, allowing for follow-up shots
  • Most anglers are already familiar with these
  • Assists angler in landing fish


  • Increased cost
  • May not be suitable for larger species

Specialized reel

Megamouth specialized bowfishing reel

The increase in bowfishing’s popularity has driven some manufacturers to offer reels specially designed for bowfishing. These reels offer heavy-duty gears and drag systems as well as bow-ready mounting options. They are also able to be rigged with heavier fishing line or thin cord.


  • Heavy-duty, allowing the angler to target larger species
  • Specially designed for use with bows


  • Expensive
  • Not interchangeable with traditional rod-and-reel combos

Fishing license

Although the regulations differ in each state, almost all will require a license for bow fishing. Some may require additional permits as well, depending on where you are fishing or what species you will be targeting.

Optional Equipment

Polarized sunglasses on deck

Here are some suggested items that are not necessary to get started but can make your efforts more successful:

  • Polarized sunglasses for day fishing
  • Headlight or mounted light for night fishing
  • Gloves, especially if using hand retrieved line

What Can You Target?

The regulations on what species may be taken by bow vary from state to state. Some states are more restrictive and only allow anglers to target sucker, carp, or catfish. Other states allow bowfishing for gar, rays, or even alligators. It is important to research local regulations before fishing.

Finding the Fish

Man in a boat by the river setting up for bowfishing

Bowfishing is done in shallow water. This is where you will need to look when trying to locate targets. If you have access to a small boat that is stable enough to allow standing, you’ll have better access to potential areas. Otherwise, you will need to stalk the shallows by wading or walking the banks.

When fishing during the daytime, polarized sunglasses will allow you to identify targets under the water. If fishing at night, a headlamp or bow-mounted light will serve the same purpose.

Look in shallow, slow-moving areas. This is where many fish search for food or go to spawn. If wading, approach from downstream to avoid muddying the water. With a boat, you want to drift into the area without the motor running for the same reason.

Making the Shot

Fisher holding big fish pierced with arrow in water

The hard part is hitting your shot. Even the experienced archer finds that hitting an underwater target difficult at first. Not only are you taking fast, instinctive shots, but it is also necessary to adjust for refraction.

Because of the way light bends through water, an underwater target is not where it appears to be. In most cases, it is necessary to shoot lower that you think is necessary.

Unfortunately, the only answer is practice. While it is likely you will miss your first couple of fish, it does not take long to get the hang of it. Before you know it, you will be filling your creel in no time.