One of the trips that I advertise and one of my favorite adventures that I do without clients, is bowfishing for tilapia. I love the challenge of this sport, which combines the needed stealth of stalking fish, much like flats fishing, with the ability to shoot a bow accurately and the mental ability to compensate for all of the variations you face; wind, current, water depth, distance of the shot, and angle of the fish, It is truly challenging and very rewarding when you are successful. I do not bowfish anything other than tilapia, I have ethical issues with bowfishing targets that have minimum and maximum size limits since you cannot verify their size before shooting them. In addition, tilapia are considered an invasive species and the state is trying to remove as many of them as possible. I find this a little amusing, since it was the state that brought them into Florida originally, to help with aquatic vegetation control. Once again, an oops on the part of the people that are in charge of maintaining things. This seems to be a common occurrence when they try to change nature. Still, it gives me something to bowfish and an activity that I love doing.
My season for tilapia is primarily focused during their spawning time. This is when the fish are easier to locate, stalk and successfully shoot. During this time, many of the fish will transform from their brown, black and green colors (which make them almost impossible to see against the bottom of the areas we fish) to their mating colors of blue, gold, white, silver and a mixture of them all. In addition, when they start spawning, they will hold to the beds, staying there as long as they can and giving the angler a non-moving shot. The season start up depends on the winter conditions we have. In fact, as I write this, I am waiting for the sun to get higher in the sky, so I can go out today. It's a few weeks earlier than the last couple of years, but we've had a relatively mild winter and the fish appear to be starting early. The season can last for a month or two, and at times it has lasted into May. Needless to say, when the season approaches, I start advertising it more. This is where things can get a little weird.
Every year I have a few people contact me and they are shocked that I would target these fish and even more shocked that I would promote eating them. These people have made comments that the fish are deadly poisonous,
full of chemicals, and even some that have claimed the fish are genetically engineered, without scales or bones. I can understand some of their confusion, as there have been several negative articles about tilapia in newspapers and other internet articles. However, all of these articles are written about farm-raised tilapia; specifically, they are about the fish that are farm-raised overseas and then sent to the United States. I would never eat anything farm-raised in country other than the United States or perhaps Canada. Simply put, I don't trust what third world countries use to raise their fish. The fish I target are not the same. They are wild, free swimming fish that feed on an omnivorous diet of grasses, insects and small fish. These fish are just as safe to eat as any bream, catfish, crappie, bass, mullet or shad that you can catch in the St John's River. Now, I will admit that I would not eat them from runoff ponds or golf course ponds, two areas they are also bountiful. This has more to do with what is in the water than fish itself.
As far as the comments about the fish being genetically engineered and not having scales or bones? Well, it is obvious that whoever started that rumor has never held a tilapia or tried to clean one. Like many fish, they are covered in thick, dense scales. These scales can dull a knife in a hurry and there is a trick to cleaning them without destroying the blade: get the blade under the scales and cut at an angle toward the front of the fish, for you initial cut. Then comes the fun part. Tilapia dorsal fins are very sharp and have spines almost their entire length. It is rare that I don't wind up pricking my hand at least once when cleaning a bunch of fish. Once you get past the scales and the dorsal spines, the only other difficult part is getting around the rib cage. The rib cage extends out quite a bit and takes up a large portion of the fillet bottom. I pull the fillet away from the ribs, almost peeling the meat back, while gently using the knife point to cut it. One tip I will give you is that they are much easier to clean after they sit on ice for about a day. Once you clean a tilapia, you will realize why they are such powerful, agile swimmers.
Perhaps one other part of the tilapia that makes people question whether or not they are real is how tough the fish is. We jokingly refer to them as Zombie Fish. These fish have adapted to survive temperatures that are usually far too cold for them and an environment that has a ton of competition: bass, gar, turtles, alligators, eagles, ospreys, otters, bears, hogs, snakes, and more. All of these other animals are quite happy to eat tilapia. Yet, the tilapia not only survives, it thrives. I have witnessed the fish take a headshot from a bow that is shooting an arrow over 350 fps, and never miss a heartbeat. Numerous times, we have placed fish on a stringer, thinking they were dead from the shot, only to find out they were knocked out and not dead, when they start swimming around you a few minutes later. Place them in a cooler, without water, and they will survive for hours on end. This is one more reason I put them on ice for a day before cleaning them. A friend that raised them in a pond here, said that he found one a bird had dropped, on his front driveway one morning. He said the fish was dry and beat up, but that when he took him back to the pond, he began swimming. That fish was still alive, with visible scars, when he sold the house a few years later. Personally, I've had some extremely large fish swim off with an arrow stuck in them, never to be seen again.
The physical toughness of these fish is pretty amazing, but the meat is far from tough. It is firm, flaky, and a fish that can be vacuum sealed and frozen without it becoming a mushy pile of bleh. The fish is wonderful fried, grilled or broiled, and can be marinated with your favorite blend of seasonings for added flavor. I don't usually add much, just a little salt and pepper if I fry them, and maybe a little lime juice and garlic if we grill or broil them. They are mild tasting as long as you remove the blood line. If you don't remove it, they do have a stronger fish taste, which some people prefer. I make my decision based on the size of the fish. The smaller ones, under about 4 pounds, don't usually need the blood line removed. I always remove it on the bigger ones, as the blood line gets rather large. The average fish we get is 4-8 pounds, but we get a few every year in the 10 pound range and we have seen some even bigger. How big do they get? I have no idea. I guess that remains to be seen as their territory grows and their ability to get larger increases.
If you have the opportunity to try wild tilapia, I urge you to give it a shot. If you like fish, you'll enjoy it. Don't worry about all of the misinformation and garbage on the internet; unless you happen to be buying tilapia form somewhere that imports it from overseas; then choose something else! There are places here in Florida that sell the wild fish, as they are targeted by netters and routinely sold to fish markets. They can also be caught conventional tackle, where they wil really show their brute force to you.