For any casual archer who has ever considered giving bowfishing a try, you are encouraged to participate at your own risk.

Upon release of that first arrow - cowering over the front rail of the boat with bugs in your teeth, gas fumes in your nostrils, and the roar the generator ringing in your ears - odds are you'll miss the fish but stick the arrow deep into your own heart.

That's exactly what happened to Jay Iadonisi, a diehard bowhunter from St. Matthews, on his first bowfishing expedition many years ago.

These days, Iadonisi is a bowfishing guide on the Santee Cooper lakes and spends as many nights as possible prowling the backwaters of Lake Marion in search of "trash fish."

"Once you get somebody far enough into it to take that first shot, not many of them give it up," Iadonisi said. "Bowfishing is addictive, whether you're good at it or not. The more you do it, the better you get and the best way to get better is to keep doing it."

Nearly all bowfishing is done at night when carp, mudfish and gar can be found in extremely shallow water. Exceptions are made during the daylight hours during the spawn or when fish come out in the middle of the day to sun.

Iadonisi suggests staying in water no deeper than 4 feet. Deeper water is difficult to see through, and fish tend to hold closer to the bottom, so getting arrow penetration is unlikely.

But don't fear; Iadonisi said there is an abundance of shallow bays and backwaters on all sides of Lake Marion.

"The area out in front of Rock's Pond between Eutawville and the Diversion Canal, Jack's Creek across from the state park, the Cow Pasture on the Clarendon side and Eutaw Creek are all great places to bowfish at night," he said. "Not many people shoot up in the swamp, because there are no reference points in there, and it's tough to find your way around at night."

Iadonisi said environmental conditions can also play a big part on where to shoot. He said Lake Marion will get muddy after a big rain, which makes it hard to see and harder to bowfish. Strong winds can have a similar effects, and for a couple of weeks during the summer, mayflies can pose a problem.

"If it has rained hard, you can usually find places below the 95 bridge that hold clear water; it's the river above the bridge that gets it bad after a rain," he said. "On windy nights, it's better to fish on the lee side of the lake rather than have it pushing water on you. As far as the mayflies, there are nights that they'll black out your lights when they're swarming, but that's only a couple of weeks out of the year; the rest of the time you just learn to live with them. They don't bite or sting but you learn to keep your mouth closed."

Like most outdoor pursuits, bowfishing can be done at the simplest level, such as walking pond edges with a bow and a flashlight, or in the extreme - using specially designed airboats to access the hearts of the deep swamp to do battle with fish that weigh nearly as much as the shooter.

When it comes to equipment, the first thing you'll need is a bow. Many novice bowfishers start out with a used or outgrown hunting bow. Iadonisi said the choice of bows is a personal one.

"All kinds of bows can be used for bowfishing, he said. "People who like traditional archery can easily equip a recurve for fishing. A compound can also be a good set up, however, the range of draw weight is the key. I like about 40 to 45 pounds of draw weight for fishing here at Santee Cooper."

Several manufacturers offer specific models for bowfishing. The PSE Barracuda, AMS Fish Hawk, Darton Aquaforce, and the Oneida Osprey are some of the more popular ones. Unlike hunting bows, fishing bows are equipped with reels in order to retrieve the prey. Three types top the list: Hand wind, retriever or "bottle reels" and spincast (spinners).

Hand-wind systems are more traditional reels and can be dangerous if the shooter is not careful, especially with larger fish, hand lining a big fish is easier said than done. Bottle reels are popular but tend to put more drag on the shot. Spincast reels are very popular and see more widespread use, but can present a challenge for beginners. The Zebco 808, Muzzy XD and Shakespeare TI-20 are good choices for spinner reels.

Arrows and broadheads are next on the list. Arrow shafts are typically heavy fiberglass, though carbon and hybrid carbon/fiberglass shafts are gaining popularity. Broadheads are typically steel, screw onto the shaft and have a reversible dual barb to hold fish after the shot. Other pieces of typical archery gear are missing.

"Forget about using peep sights; this is instinctive shooting," Iadonisi said. "You still want to have solid anchor points like you use in any archery, but you have to remember your misses to help you determine where to aim. I often tell people to point the index finger of their bow hand at the fish to help them adjust their aim."

Once the bug hits, most bowfishers take to the water in a converted or specially designed boat. Propulsion methods break down into classes of airboats, electric trolling motors, gas motors or a combination of the above. Iadonisi has found that the auto-pilot function on his variable-speed trolling motor allows him to maneuver slowly along the edges of shallow grass flats and shoot using the "hands free" function of the trolling motor.

"A lot of grass or vegetation is rough on a trolling motor," he said. "I find it easier to work the edges of ditches or creeks where I can keep the boat in more open water and shoot the edges of the grass. Most of the bigger fish will be holding closer to deep water anyway."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHERE TO GO - Quality bowfishing can be found in every corner of the state. Any public lands or waters that allow fishing typically permit bowfishing of certain species. Special permits, seasons and conditions may apply, so it's best to call SCDNR or check regulations at www.dnr.sc.gov. Lake Marion, the 'upper lake' of the Santee Cooper reservoirs, has extensive shallow flats and bays that will hold 'rough fish' at night.

TACTICS/TACKLE - The majority of bowfishing takes place at night when carp, mudfish, and gar come out to feed in the shallows. Still backwaters can be hunted during the day when gar move out into the open to spawn. Early in the year carp, shad and shad will "roll" in the shallows during the spawn. Recurve or compound bows with reduced draw weights are typical "first bows" for bowfishing. A reel is attached to the bow and secured to a fiberglass shaft for bowfishing. Steel broadheads will both penetrate and secure fish that are shot. Aiming is done 'Robin Hood-style' by sighting down the arrow. Plenty of practice is required to get the feel of aiming based on light refraction in the water. Most beginners miss high until they get the hang of it.

GUIDES/INFO - Jay Iadonisi, Jay's Swamp Adventures, 803-707-3782; Jordan Patrick, Tail and Scale Outfitters, 803-664-0291, www.tailandscalesc.com; Bowfishing Association of America, www.bowfishingassociation.com; Bowfishing Country.com, http://bow.fishingcountry.com/forums/forum.php. See also Guides and Charters in Classification.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Rocks Pond Campground & Marina, 108 Campground Rd., Eutawville, 800-982-0271; Hill's Landing & Marina, 728 Hill's Landing Rd., Cross, 843-753-2731; Black's Fish Camp, 1370 Blacks Camp Rd., Cross, 843 753 2231; Canal Lakes Fish Camp, Cross, 843-753-2271; Santee Cooper Lakes Country Visitor's Bureau, 800-227-8510, www.santeecoopercountry.org.

MAPS - Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257 or www.kfmaps.com; S.C. Dept of Natural Resources, 803-734-3857. www.dnr.sc.gov; Delorme South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 www.delorme.com.