Redfish, speckled trout and flounder aren’t the only things that Dale Collins of Fish or Die Charters targets in the waters around Swansboro.
In fact, the word “target” takes on an entirely different meaning when Collins, who manages the fishing department at Dudley’s Marina, leaves his rods and reels behind and loads his boat with archery equipment — and not for a trip up a river somewhere to kill a whitetail deer.
Collins’ fiberglass arrows are attached to his Mathews Mission compound bow with a 25-yard length of 200-pound braided line, and the business end has a carbon tip with two stainless steel barbs. A fishing reel is attached to the bow’s frame and holds the other end of the braid.
He’s going fishing with a bow, or hunting things that swim beneath the surface.
“You’re actually mixing fishing and hunting,” said Collins, a long-time bowhunter from Stella, N.C., who picked up bowfishing about five years ago from Joey Thompson, a former official with the N.C. Bowhunters Association and a hunting buddy for years. “If you like shooting a bow, you’ll get a lot more opportunities to shoot one in one day in my boat than in plenty of deer seasons.”
A month ago, Collins was joined on the water by Tony Reaves of South Boston, Va., a partner in Chief AJ’s, an Illinois company that manufactures slingbows, a beefed-up version of a space-age slingshot that’s designed to shoot hunting arrows. Between the two of them, they got at least 30 shots at various species of stingrays, sticking more than a dozen and releasing all but three.
Clearly, two deer hunters aren’t often going to get 30 shots between them at whitetails, and there’s no chance of catch-and-release when a razor-tipped broadhead is involved.
Collins has shot sheepshead, flounder, barracuda and black drum from the bow of his boat, along with southern, atlantic, cownose and butterfly rays. He enters a bay, drops his trolling motor and eases along, maybe 20 feet of the bank, keeping a sharp eye out for the outline of a ray or flounder, although the latter will usually flush out of range.
“Rays will get right up against the grass and work the bottom with their wings, trying to churn it up,” Collins said. “They’ll eat crabs, scallops and fish. If you see holes that look dark, look hard, because those dark spots are beds where they sit. You might get to shoot one that isn’t moving, but more often you’ll shoot them moving. Once in a while, you’ll catch one off-guard and he won’t see you and will come straight up the edge of the grass at you. The more I do this, the better I can pick them out. Sometimes, all you see is the hump and their eyes.”
In both Carolinas, sportsmen using archery equipment to take fish must have the fishing license that’s required in the local area: freshwater license in freshwater, saltwater license in saltwater. Archers have long shot carp, gar and other “rough” freshwater fish with bows, arrows and fishing tips; saltwater options have only recently been exploited on a marketable level. North Carolina regulations treat bowfishing as gigging: you cannot take red drum, tarpon, striped bass, sharks or stone crabs. In South Carolina, bowfishermen must follow gigging regulations; they can’t take flounder in daylight hours, can’t take sharks, can’t take red drum and spotted seatrout from December through February, and can’t gig from the northern tip of North Island in Georgetown County to the northern tip of Magnolia Beach during daylight hours.
Many archery manufacturers have plenty of equipment available for bowfishing, including reels, points and arrows. The most-important piece of equipment is most likely a quality pair of polarized sunglasses to see through the surface glare to the bottom; Collins rarely shoots at rays at depths of more than 3 feet, and he likes an arrow rest that holds the arrow in place.
Bowfishing equipment can be tested in saltwater by rays up to 100 pounds. The biggest Collins has had in his boat is a 105-pounder; he said three species taken from his boat have held state bowfishing records.
Collins said rays usually show up in his home waters in May, and they’ll stay into November. Often, certain bays will be full of them — the edible butterfly rays in certain areas, other inedible species in others. If Collins shoots an inedible species, he’ll pin the ray’s tail down, grab the stinging barb with a pair of pliers and slices it off at the base with a knife so he can handle it safely when he pulls the arrow back out.
“You’ll find butterflies in some places, southerns in others, cownoses in others. I’m not sure why; it might have something to do with the bottom. But I think they get in a place they like and stay there,” he said. “I’ve shot the same ray two or three times in a year. You can see where I’ve cut the barb off, and you can see holes in the wings. If you shoot a ray in the wings, you can release him. You just loosen the tip and reverse the barbs, and the arrow will slide out.”
When he takes a ray through the vitals, Collins said commercial fishermen will take them and cut them up for crab-trap bait, and shark fishermen will use them for bait, so he’s not wasting anything. Butterfly rays, in fact, are tasty, he said.
“I’ll fillet the meat off the top of the wings, cut it in chunks, marinate it in Texas Pete for about 20 minutes, then bread it and fry it,” he said.
The best bowfishing will be early in the morning, when the calmest conditions are usually found; wind will put a chop on the surface that will make seeing rays on the bottom difficult. As for tides, Collins likes a low, rising tide.
The water’s surface also calls for a different sight-picture for archers. Refraction actually moves a fish’s image under the water.
“For every food he is under the water, you shoot a foot under him because of the refraction,” Collins said. “The only time you shoot right at him is when he’s right under your feet and you’re shooting straight down.
“If I’ve got a crossing shot at a ray, I’ll aim at the tip of the wing. If I’m shooting one going away, I’ll shoot at the top of its tail. It’s like you’ve got to lead him and shoot behind him at the same time. That’s why I tell a really good bowhunter when he gets in the boat, throw everything you know out the window.”