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Where These Fish Are Jumpin', Arrows Are Aimed


Published: October 13, 2009
BARTONVILLE, Ill. - The sound and vibration of a boat engine make the fish fly.

The Illinois River and other waterways flowing into the Mississippi have become infested with invasive Asian fish species, commonly called silver carp, which can turn a leisurely ride on a johnboat into the aquatic version of the running of the bulls. The carp jump out of the water by the hundreds, sometimes soaring 10 feet in the air and often landing in the boat. They have loosened fishermen's teeth, broken their jaws and left them scarred.

This unlikely and often violent meeting of quaint pastime and airborne fish is a problem for wildlife officials. For Chris Brackett, a guide on the Illinois River, it is a business opportunity.

Brackett, 32, has devised a sport he calls extreme aerial bowfishing. The equipment: a 20-foot johnboat; a compound bow; and an arrow, rigged with colored line and spooled on a crank reel that is mounted to the bow. The fish take flight and the bowfisher aims, shoots and reels in a carp, which often weigh more than 15 pounds.

For $1,000, Brackett takes groups of four on extreme aerial bowfishing trips on the Illinois River. A small aluminum baseball bat is kept on the deck for any unruly silver carp that invade the boat.

"You're going to get slimed," he said, referring to the carp's protective mucous coating, after trying to catch one and fumbling it as if it were a greased football.

Troy Green, 29, an anesthesiologist and longtime hunting partner of Brackett's, took the helm as Brackett positioned himself on a swivel seat mounted at the stern. He drew back the bowstring and prepared to take a shot at any fish within 25 yards.

"Run it a little hot, Troy, and then slow it down over by the barge," Brackett said as the towboat Pat Pickett slogged by. One of Brackett's strategies is to let the massive barges push the fish to the center of the current, then weave in, gently gunning the boat motor to drive the displaced carp into an airborne frenzy.

The technique worked to perfection, and hundreds of carp took flight. Shooting a small one, Brackett said, is "like catching a bluegill in a bass-fishing tournament." The largest silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) on record weighed 110 pounds. He considers any silver carp over 15 pounds taken with an arrow as a respectable trophy.

Bowfishing has been practiced for centuries by stalking and shooting at fish in shallow water. Hitting moving targets, like pheasants or geese, with a bow and a flu-flu arrow is considered a spectacular archery feat. Brackett put the two ideas together in the summer of 2005, when he used an arrow to take his first airborne silver carp. He shot it at just the right time - in midair, and at a time when Midwestern rivers need all the help they can get.

The prolific carp devour vast amounts of plankton that would normally be eaten by juvenile native fish. Starting from the lower Mississippi watershed, they have permeated the river's tributaries and now threaten to move into the Great Lakes. Only an underwater electric fence near Chicago keeps them back.

"For the foreseeable future, there is still an opportunity for virtually unlimited shooting and harvest of Asian carps by bowfishers, in many parts of the invaded range," said Duane Chapman, a research fisheries biologist for the United States Geological Survey. "Recreational fishers and bowfishers should not feel bad about killing all the Asian carp they want to kill. Every little bit helps."

Silver carp are hard to remove from the rivers. As plankton eaters, the toothless fish ignore flies, lures and worm-gobbed hooks. (They may be accidentally snagged in the mouth sometimes, leading anglers to think the fish were "caught.") Few anglers desire to catch them because they are bony and poor tasting, and presumed to be contaminated with mercury and PCB's. And silver carp can ruin the nets of commercial fishermen.

Hunting laws, however, forbid shooting firearms from a moving boat. Once the fish become adults, they have no natural predators.

"The invasives really do present a guilt-free pleasure for those who bowfish," said Robert Rice of Carpbusters, an organization that promotes the removal of invasive fish by arrow or hook. "The common carp, silver carp and now-emerging snakeheads provide plenty of quarry for most people in the country."

For Brackett, the infestation of the silver carp has a silver lining. He has guided archers on the murky Illinois River as a seasonal business. He filmed his carp-shooting exploits and sold thousands of DVDs, then used that publicity to produce "Arrow Affliction," a bowhunting television program.

Having witnessed his hometown river become slowly strangled by silver carp, Brackett sees it as making lemonade from lemons. He shot his first airborne carp in what used to be his favorite fishing spot for white bass. The bass are long gone, crowded out by silver carp. Brackett shrugs off any criticism people may have of his new shooting sport.

"Anyone who would give us a hard time does not live where we live," he said. "I foresee it being a problem for some folks, but they have yet to see the damage they do here."
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