“Bowfishing the Heart of Dixie”
By Bryan Hughes
Growing up around the waters of north Alabama, I never realized the bowfishing potential these backwaters would have. As a child, my dad and grandparents would take me bream and crappie all the time. My grandparents had a houseboat we would stay the night on and my dad had a flat bottom we would fish out of. The pan fishing was always phenomenal and was something I really enjoyed as a child. As I grew older, I came to enjoy bass fishing also. I became heavily involved in it and we usually had good success with it also. The lakes of north Alabama had a significant growth of aquatic vegetation. Two forms of vegetation are profound in the Tennessee River system, milfoil and hydrilla. This aquatic vegetation made the angling spectacular on the area lakes and rivers. Little did I know at the time, what amazing bowfishing opportunities it would present later on. I also got into deer hunting as I matured, specifically archery deer hunting. I did this for many years and continued to rod and reel fish. One summer I had a couple of friends start telling me about bowfishing. The combination of fishing and hunting intrigued me. I always enjoyed catching big fish, no matter what they were, so this sounded right down my alley. I used some of their equipment and eventually got my own. I started with a retriever reel and a 70 lb. Bear compound bow. We eventually started taking the bass boat with a spotlight, and then got another boat, generator, and the rest was history.
We started fishing the lakes of north Alabama at night and realized we were on to something good. I was amazed at how many fish there were and it seemed like they were everywhere you went. We immediately began to go out and have lots of shooting opportunities. The spotted gar were numerous and eventually we learned to locate the common carp too. We began to put some large numbers of fish in the boat. Over the next couple years, we learned about how to find and pattern the trophy grass carp and the seasonal habits of the buffalo. As we’ve fished more over the past few years, we’ve discovered what great bowfishing the Tennessee River system of north Alabama offers.
Guntersville Lake really offers some of the premier bowfishing in all of the United States. Growing up here and even bowfishing it for several years, I never even realized this. I began to travel to shoot tournaments and fish other lakes; only then did I realize what a gold mine I had right in my own backyard. I’ve fished some of the top bowfishing lakes in the country, but have yet to find one to top the lake twenty minutes from my house. This doesn’t include brackish water opportunities like Louisiana or alligator gar country like south Texas, but for shooting common freshwater fish like carp, buffalo, grass carp, and smaller gar I haven’t found anywhere to beat it.
Guntersville offers good bowfishing almost year round. The winter months offer common carp shooting, although not as good as the spring or summer, it does present an opportunity if you’ve got the itch to bowfish. Once March rolls around the temperatures warm, the lake comes alive and you are in for some great bowfishing. This is the pre-spawn period for the common carp, they are found commonly in the twenty-pound range this time of year. The grass carp have also began to come up and can be found. By the middle of April, the carp are usually spawning, and if you can locate them you can pretty much shoot all you want, Guntersville is loaded with common carp. The month of May is probably my favorite. The grass carp are out in full force and the vegetation hasn’t gotten too thick by then. This is your best time to take a record book grass carp.
Guntersville holds the world record grass carp currently at 82 lbs. The world record drum, world record flathead catfish, state record longnose gar and buffalo also have come from these waters. It also holds the world record for bighead carp at 85 lbs, although these are still rare in the area. We expect within several years they will be more plentiful. This is a bad thing for the ecosystem but good for the bowfishing. The grass carp in the lake were placed there in the early 1990’s. There were about 300,000 grass carp stocked and they were all supposed to be triploid (sterile), but we have seen evidence that some are reproducing. The fish have really reached trophy class now with the overabundance of vegetation, although we don’t see quite the numbers we have in years past. I expect in a few years that the bighead carp will replace the grass carp as the trophy fish for the lake.
As June rolls around, the appearance and accessibility to Guntersville begins to change. The milfoil and hydrilla has now taken over many areas and the patterns of the fish have changed. This is when an air fan almost becomes a must on the lake. You can get by with a trolling motor or kicker type motor, but you are at a handicap and it becomes a major hassle with all the grass that is present now. Plenty of fish are still available and the spotted gar really begin to come on strong for those who enjoy numbers shooting. Another major milestone for June is the buffalo moving up into the shallows. The large buffalo begin to move up into the milfoil to feed and the fishing for them only gets better through the summer. I took my 45 lb. State record buffalo in August. The fishing remains good for the rest of the summer and on into the fall, where as the cold temperatures arrive in October and November, the fishing begins to slow.
Grass beds, islands, sand bars, and coves represent your best opportunities for most species. The grass carp seem to prefer coves with deep water access and cuts between islands also. Many times during the day you can see them sunning on top of the grass. Buffalo seem to prefer the grass lines with deep water near also. The common carp and gar seem to be most anywhere on the lake.
Wheeler Lake is one dam west from Guntersville Lake. It is the other lake I spend much of my time fishing. Although I wouldn’t say the quality is quite as good as Guntersville, it’s still one of the better lakes I’ve ever fished on. It’s also quite a bit different to fish than Guntersville. The vegetation is quite different. There is some limited milfoil and lots of small standing weed beds, but nothing near what is on Guntersville. This makes it a favorite for trolling motor boats on into the summer, when Guntersville is nearly unfishable for them. The lake also holds large grass carp, large buffalo, and lots of other species. I actually like it better for buffalo than Guntersville. This lake also offers good bowfishing most of the year.
To conclude, northern Alabama is a wonderful place to bowfish if you ever get the opportunity. Both Guntersville and Wheeler Lakes have bowfishing like most people have never experienced. There are multiple tournaments on each lake every year, including the Muzzy Classic on Guntersville, which is the premier bowfishing tournament in the country. If you ever get the opportunity to fish there, take advantage of it, this could be that trip of a lifetime you’ve always dreamed of.