Bowfishing Season Approaching Fast
March begins one of my favorite seasons in Central Florida: bowfishing for tilapia. Now, before you turn your nose up at the target, allow me to explain a couple of things first. Despite what you may have read on the internet or Facebook, tilapia are real fish. They are not a made up in a scientific lab, boneless aberrations. While the fish were originally found in Asia, they were brought to Florida for the aquarium trade, as well as aquatic vegetation control. What they didn't realize is that the fish would be as prolific as they are and that Florida would have perfect living conditions; they believed the cold winters would keep the fish to South Florida canals. Well, we all know how natures adapts and the tilapia did the same thing. They adapted to cooler winters, learned to survive, and like every other cichlid, they bred and spread. Tilapia are now wild, free roaming fish throughout Florida, from the southern tip of the peninsula all the way to St. Augustine. These wild tilapia feed on many of the same things that bream feed on: vegetation, small insects, and even small minnows. While these fish can be located year round, I prefer to target them during spawning season.
Their spawning season usually begins sometime in March; in warm years it may begin sooner and in cooler years, it may be toward the end of March. As the waters warm, the fish will be observed entering the shallow shorelines around the St. John's River, lakes and ponds. Here, they work diligently to make perfectly round beds in the sand. They prefer harder bottoms, although they will clear out muddy areas until they reach a sandy, hard bottom below it. Then the courtship begins. Tilapia vary in colors, but during courtship, those colors really show. You can find fish that are brown, blue, white, gold, silver, yellow, and a mix of all of these colors. When trying to attract a mate, the colors almost glow; it really is spectacular. Once mating is complete, the eggs are deposited at the bottom of the bed. During this time, and right after the eggs hatch, the fish become fierce defenders of the bed. They rarely leave and when they do, they return within minutes. This is the perfect time to target them.
Unlike many bowfishing adventures, I do not chase the fish at night, with lights. Instead, we stalk them during the day, wading the waters on foot. Now, this may sound easy, but I assure you these fish are as wary as any other in the world. Since they are so protective of their beds, they watch and feel for anything that is out of the ordinary. You must move cautiously, to avoid sending any pressure wakes their way. If they feel a pressure wake, they will rocket off the bed and only return when they feel it is safe. Keen eyesight is a must, as the fish will change their colors, while sitting on the beds, to blend in with their surroundings. You might not believe it, but a 10 pound tilapia can be almost invisible in a foot of water; their "googly" eyes are what gives them away a lot of the time. Proper stalking will give you a target, but that doesn't mean you will be successful.
If you are unfamiliar with bowfishing, locating the target is just the beginning. Next comes the more challenging part of actually hitting the target. While many archers are very successful when shooting through the air, water adds a whole new dimension. The archer must take into account the refraction angle once the arrow enters the water. The refraction angle with vary greatly depending on many factors: depth of the water, depth of the fish in the water, distance of the shot, height of the shooter, type of bow, wind, and even water density. This type of archery becomes more instinctual the more it is done. Many people spend the first dozen or so shots trying to calculate all of this and missing. I have a simple rule when I take people out: I rarely miss low.
This type of adventure combines all of the skills of traditional bow hunting with all of the skills of fishing. It is extremely challenging and rewarding at the same time. The areas we fish in are visually stunning and it is a great opportunity to leave the regular world behind and get lost in nature. Of course, I always get asked about alligators. Yes, they are around us. No, I have never had an alligator get aggressive with us. Yes, I do take precautions and give the gators the utmost respect; if they claim an area first, they can have it. No, gators are not like Hollywood would have you believe; they are cautious creatures who only want to kill something if it is food and they have no desire to get hurt while trying to eat.
Check out the video from last year. This was single day of bowfishing that provided my customer with plenty of action and reward. These fish are very safe to eat and they are wonderful tasting. Their meat is firm and can be baked, grilled or fried. It readily accepts marinades and flavoring for your liking. This is not the farm-raised junk that you find for sale from Asia; personally, I would never eat anything farm-raised over there. These are wild fish and they taste better than a lot of other wild fish. One tip for cleaning them: remove the blood line unless you like that stronger fish taste.