We were cruising up the Illinois River, compound bows drawn and waiting for the appearance of our prey, the Asian silver carp. The sun was shining, sweat pouring in the sticky 33 C heat. Suddenly, the water erupted as our prey began to propel themselves out of the river, flying through the air as high as three metres through our sights.
“Jesus Christ!” someone hollered as one of these beasts glanced off their shoulder and into the boat. Our guide laughed and whooped as the carp threw itself about the inside of the craft, splashing blood everywhere until he threw it back into the river.
I took aim amidst the melee, but quickly became overwhelmed at the number of fish popping up and into the air, firing a shot that went above my target. Quickly, I set the bow to my shoulder and began to reel the arrow in as fast as possible.
Amidst the laughs, the whoops and the splashes, I heard Squirrelman on the other boat cry out, “This is the fucking best!” Sweating, stinking of fish and blood, I couldn’t argue with him on that one. Extreme aerial bowfishing was, indeed, the fucking best.
Extreme aerial bowfishing is a sport developed by Chris Brackett of Brackett Outdoors to take advantage of the rapidly developing environmental and social problems caused by the spread of Asian silver carp, an invasive species of fish who have been in the Illinois River since 1993. These fish, which were introduced to North America in the early 20th century to replace diminished fish stocks in some lakes, quickly spread into the river systems of the Southern and Midwestern United States.
The federal and state governments are spending big money in an attempt to keep the scourge from entering the Great Lakes. Our guide, however, was not nearly as optimistic as the government officials. “There’s no way you can stop these goddamn things,” he told us as we trolled the murky water, untangling our lines after an unsuccessful run through the bastards.
The man who sold us our out-of-state fishing licenses shared the sentiment. “The state oughta be paying you guys to kill these buggers,” he said, “not the other way around.”
Our guide explained that, initially, the fish weren’t considered a problem, as their size and numbers were relatively small. That all changed “five or six years ago” when both the size of the individual fish and their numbers began increasing exponentially, to the point where you can now easily shoot huge specimens out of the air with relative ease.
When our group first discovered extreme aerial bowfishing — via YouTube.com — in the dead of winter, we immediately booked an outing for June 21. At that point, none of us had fired a bow, let alone at an animal. We began frequenting the Silver Heights Archery Range to hone up our non-existent skills. By June, we were able to hit a target most of the time and with that confidence, we set out for Peoria, Illinois — a 20-hour drive from Winnipeg.
We hit the river at noon, in sweltering heat, taking a run through the jumping fish almost immediately. During the first run, one carp blindsided me with such force that my hat was thrown into the Illinois and my sunglasses knocked back into the boat. On the second pass, my buddy Chips lost a lens to his newly purchased shades in a similar incident.
Before long, we were all covered in slime from the jumping carp. Dozens jumped into the boat, while far more broke the water about us. Woodtick bagged the first beauty, a specimen about 46 centimetres long and about nine kilograms, putting an arrow right through its head.
After removing the barb from the arrow and taking a photo with the catch, we asked our guide, “What do you do with these things?”
“Shit,” he said, taking the fish from Woodtick and tossing it over board, “we just throw them back into the river.”
Our fishing experience, as the day progressed, was unreal but not quite as intense as the videos we’d seen made out.
“Just you wait,” our guide told us, grinning. “Once the sun starts setting, it’ll get real crazy.”
He wasn’t shitting us. The final few passes we made, late in the day, were downright dangerous. At more than one point, the water erupted, spewing carp up and around us like popcorn kernels on a hot skillet. It was almost impossible to get a shot off — the sheer number of fish in the air at one time was shocking. As soon as I’d nock an arrow, or draw back the bow, a fish would belt me from behind, from the side, or straight on and I’d lose it and have to start all over again. At one point, six fish jumped straight into our boat in less than three minutes of trolling down a shallow creek just off the Illinois, as no less than 30 fish were in the air at any time.
As we pulled the boats back into shore at the day’s end, our guide couldn’t stop chuckling. “I can guarantee you one thing right now,” he said. “If you all don’t take up hunting or anything after this over the winter, I’ll bet come next year, you’ll be back down here anyhow.”
“Sure as shit we will,” I said. There wasn’t a doubt in any one of us; extreme aerial bowfishing fucking rules.