As darkness falls over the city of Pittsburgh, activity starts to pick up along the shorelines of the Allegheny River.
Boats equipped with floodlighting set sail to cruise the shore lines. Aboard each vessel are anglers who have an interest in archery. They are bowfishing for a variety of fish that have populated the waters over the past decades, including carp, suckers and occasionally catfish.
Jordon Miller, 32, of Burgettstown operates Nocturnal Fishing Addiction Bowfishing. He’s the captain of a three-boat charter operation that takes anglers out in search of the heavy fish. Each time he heads out, you can count on his two Dalmatians, Trigger and Bo, to be on board.
“I really like the excitement. There’s always a lot of action. I really love the outdoors. It really tied my two biggest passions together,” he said of archery and fishing.
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He’s been bowfishing for half of his life and has operated the charter service for about seven years. This writer was able to go along to learn about the hobby when Miller took his friend Jeremiah Weber of Clearfield County out of bowfishing. Weber owns Boondock Outdoors, a company that designs and sells bowfishing and predator hunting accessories, and he also guides bow fishermen near his home.
Miller prefers fishing at night as the fish are easier to locate near the shore lines with the flood lights mounted around the boat.
“You can do good during the day,” he said about needing many things to come together such as the weather, water clarity and other boat traffic being concerned. At night, he said the water and traffic has calmed down. “You get a lot more opportunities.”
The light penetrates in the water, enabling you to see fish. “That’s why I came up with the name Nocturnal Addiction Bowfishing because, one, it’s so addicting. Once you do it, you want to do it again, and I’m pretty much nocturnal at this point,” he said about his night-time trips that range about five hours starting in the early evening. He said they are usually back to dock by about 12:30 am
His company has two fishing boats and a larger party boat for small groups. “The majority of my charters are in the city, just because it’s a cool experience. It’s urban bowfishing.” People come in from out of town to use his services and they find good places to eat, stay in the area’s hotels and maybe catch a baseball game.
Once people try the sport, he said it’s common for them to book another trip. People travel from several states away, and even Canadians have booked bowfishing adventures. He’s been averaging about 200 charters in the season that runs March through November.
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The only thing a participant needs is a Pennsylvania fishing license. He provides the rest of the equipment.
The fishing bows are lightweight, low poundage bows (about 30 pounds) that are easy for most people to pull back many times, but are still fast enough to penetrate the fish. “It’s light enough (that) it’s not going to wear you out,” he said about seeing many target fish on the waterway.
“On a really good night, you’re looking at probably over 100 shots,” he said.
Weber holds 13 patents on products that making bowfishing easier, including 3-D printed products that serve as a quiver for your arrow, trigger adapters for fishing reels and arrow rests. He has helped Miller fine tune his operation.
Bows that are used for target practice or deer hunting can be customized for bowfishing. You need a special heavy arrow that has a fishing tip with prongs to hold the fish while you’re reeling them in and you need a special arrow rest to accommodate the larger shaft. The line used for the reels is a 250-pound test line that can handle the repeated punishment of shooting in the water. Realize the fish are heavy. Carp can weigh more than 40 pounds.
“You really don’t need all this equipment. It just makes you more efficient, a little bit faster. But you really don’t need all this fancy stuff to just go out, have fun and shoot fish. A youth bow, garage sale bow, it doesn’t matter,” Miller said. Some of the youth bows have many adjustments that work well to get started in the sport.
Miller has spears, gigs, bows and crossbows that can be used instead of a bow. He would like to see blowguns being approved by the Fish and Boat Commission as they are becoming popular in other parts of the country. Weber said the sport isn’t something new. “I guarantee human beings were shooting fish with a bow and arrow before they were catching them with a hook.”
Each bow angler is permitted 50 combined fish a day. But that can be quite a challenge. Depending on the depth of the fish, the archer needs to remember the light refraction that’s involved. You need to aim about a foot low, and the fish are moving quickly. “The deeper the fish are the lower you have to aim,” Miller said.
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The fish are darting around the boat and the participants have to make quick decisions about their shot placement. “It’s not easy,” Miller said about arrowing a moving target. “You don’t hit everything you aim at.”
The bows don’t have sights and the archers learn to shoot instinctively toward the fish. Weber said, “It will humble you real quick.”
Weber said they are not out just shooting everything. He said people should know the bow anglers are taking out some of the invasive species like carp that are plentiful.
The fish are put to good use.
“I love eating fish. I’m trying to come up with ways to make inedible fish more edible because I like it so much,” Miller said about eating some of the varieties, including the Buffalo sucker and channel catfish. He said grinding the meat and preparing it as patties is preferred. “I’m always trying to come up with new recipes.”
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Some of the fish that have been reeled into the boat are used as cut bait for other fishermen and the extra fish are donated to animal rehabilitation centers where birds of prey can enjoy a fresh piece of meat.
Over the years, he said the fish have been plentiful, and he’s always been able to locate schools of fish for his customers. “Every year I’m seeing more fish,” he said about the water becoming cleaner and healthier for fish to grow in Pittsburgh.
While you can bow fish in many streams across Pennsylvania, he prefers the rivers in Pittsburgh. It’s a scenic boat ride where you can see PNC Park where the Pirates play and Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, while you’re out quietly floating down the river looking for fish with illuminated skyscrapers in the background.
The city becomes a different atmosphere when the sun goes down. During the night time, it’s common to see coyotes, fox and bobcats roaming the shorelines looking for a meal. Our adventure included seeing a gray fox that was sneaking along, probably looking for ducks and geese that were roosting along the waterway.
One time he saw an alligator on the river. He believes it was a pet someone released, but alligators cannot survive the winter temperatures of western Pennsylvania.
“It’s all about the experience,” Miller said about taking small groups out to have fun trying their luck on the rivers of the Steel City.
Visit fishandboat.com, nocturnaladdictionbowfishing.com and boondockoutdoors.myshopify.com for more information about the sport.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.