There I stood, bow in hand on the banks of the Snake River, squeezing my way to the water on the hunt for an invasive species. I wasn't looking for a hog, a deer or any other mammal: I was seeking out the lowly carp.
Not a native to Idaho waters, carp were introduced into the United States in the 1880s as a substitute protein resource, which turned out to be a big letdown for the U.S. Fish Commission, a precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The hope was that aquaculture--specifically carp--would become as "important among the American farmers and planters as the cultivation of cattle, sheep, swine, poultry or of grains, fruits and berries."
The Fish Commission got that wrong. Aquaculture of carp is almost nonexistent in America. Even Idaho, home to a very productive aquaculture industry, does not farm carp. But these fish lurk in our waters, and some have taken up arms against them. The leader of the pack in Idaho is Brian Pokorney, a chapter representative of the Idaho Bow Fishing Association.
"It technically is a form of hunting that has been used for ages as a way to acquire food," said Pokorney, although bows are now much more high-tech and a special type of line is attached to a fiberglass bow for bowfishing.
While it might be considered a form of hunting, all you need to have in Idaho is a valid fishing license to shoot non-game species of fish like carp.
"Carp are a non-native invasive species that can have an adverse effect on a whole fishery as they feed on the eggs of game fish and reduce the amount of food for them," Pokorney said. "They reproduce in huge numbers and can take over a body of water if they are not controlled."
Idaho Fish and Game state fisheries coordinator Dave Parrish explained why carp can be so damaging to a river's ecology.
"Carp like the shallow areas," Parrish said. "They root around in the mud, and this affects water quality. That impact is hard on the native fish populations because it inhibits the growth of phytoplankton and zooplankton. They basically affect the whole food chain in a river."
Carp are drawn to warmer waters and are prolific springtime spawners in the shallow waters along river banks and on reservoir shores during early summer. And it's at this time when most bow fishermen strike.
"During this time of year, they are cruising the shorelines and are often swimming shallower than normal, making them more visible to the human eye," said Jeff Fealko, chapter president of Idaho Traditional Bowhunters, (a group I am a member of). "On a good day, you would be able to feed an entire block--some days you can easily shoot up to a dozen carp in a few hours."
But nobody, especially not an entire block, is eating carp.
"I don't eat the carp, and I never have," Pokorney said. "We have people that take the carp for animal food, as well as fertilizer. Sometimes we just bury them to dispose of them. We don't ever put them back in the water to rot."
About 15 yards from the bank below Swan Falls Dam, as I sneaked from rock to rock, pressing closer to the waters of the Snake River, I spotted a carp cresting. I pulled my bow back and shot. The arrow flew strangely with the string attached to it. I watched as it plummeted into the water about two inches in front of the fish, but the arrow didn't sink. Instead, it and the attached fish started to swim rapidly up stream, nearly tugging my bow from my hand.
I started wrapping the string around the reel attached to my bow.
The fight was on. The more I tugged, the harder the fish swam. Slowly, I pulled the carp closer. Just as the fish was at the shore, my arrow came loose from his skin and the fish started flopping its way back to the water. I grabbed it by the tail and hoisted my 10-pound trophy into the air.
Back at camp, I gutted the fish and filled it full of onions. Then I wrapped it in foil and tossed it into the fire. About 30 minutes later, I was having a hard time convincing the rest of camp to eat the fish; it was a carp, after all.
I have eaten carp a number of times. Many years ago, I even ate one in desperation for food. It's not a bad-tasting fish, but it does lack in the texture department. Carp is a little soft on the bite, kind of like pollock. And the rumors that carp are full of bones are entirely true. They're riddled with them. The best bet for avoiding the bones is proper filleting, but even then, there are no guarantees.
I would guess that most bow fishermen are like me: not exclusively bow fishermen. Most are bow hunters who are also fishermen. They like to have fun and get rid of a pest at the same time.
"Hour for hour spent on the water, I don't know if I have done any fishing that is as fun and entertaining as bowfishing," Fealko said. "Watching an arrow arc through the air and into the water at a 20-pound carp is priceless, especially when you connect."
And as a friend of mine often says: "Bowfishing is so much fun, it should be illegal ... but it's not."