As darkness falls over the city of Pittsburgh, activity begins to pick up along the banks of the Allegheny River.
Boats fitted with floodlights set sail to cross the shore lines. On board each ship are fishermen who are interested in archery. They bowfish a variety of fish that have populated the waters for decades, including carp, suckers, and occasionally catfish.
Jordon Miller, 32, of Burgettstown operates the Nocturnal Fishing Addiction bowfisher. He is the captain of a three-boat charter operation that takes anglers out in search of the big fish. Every time he leaves, you can count on his two Dalmatians, Trigger and Bo, to be on board.
“I really love 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. bow and fishing.
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He has been a bow fisherman for half his life and has operated the charter service for about seven years. This writer was able to learn the hobby when Miller took his friend Jeremiah Weber from Clearfield County bowfishing. Weber owns Boondock Outdoors, a company that designs and sells bow fishing and predator hunting gear, and he also guides bow anglers near his home.
Miller prefers to fish at night because fish are easier to locate near the shorelines with the lights mounted around the boat.
“You can do good during the day,” he said of needing to bring together many things, such as weather, water clarity and other ship traffic issues. At night, he said the water and traffic calmed down. “You have a lot more opportunities.”
The light penetrates the water, allowing you to see the fish. “That’s why I came up with the name Nocturnal Addiction Bowfishing because, number one, it’s so addictive. Once you’ve done it, you want to do it again, and I’m pretty nocturnal at this point,” said he said of his overnight trips which last about five hours from early evening, he said they are usually back in dock around 12:30 p.m.
His company has two fishing boats and a larger party boat for smaller groups. “Most of my charters are in town, just because it’s a cool experience. It’s urban bow fishing. People come from out of town to use its services, and they find great places to eat, stay at area hotels, and maybe catch a baseball game.
Once people have tried the sport, he said it’s common for them to book another trip. People travel from multiple states, and even Canadians have booked bow fishing adventures. It averaged around 200 charters during the season which runs from March to November.
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The only thing a participant needs is a Pennsylvania fishing license. He provides the rest of the material.
Fishing bows are lightweight, low-weight bows (about 30 pounds) that are easy to pull multiple times for most people, but are still fast enough to penetrate fish. “It’s light enough (to) not wear you out,” he said of the many target fish in the waterway.
“On a really good night, you’re probably looking at over 100 snaps,” he said. “On a crazy night, maybe 200 shots.
Weber holds 13 patents on products that make bow fishing easier, including 3D-printed products that serve as quivers for your arrow, trigger adapters for fishing reels, and arrow rests. He helped Miller fine-tune his operation.
Bows used for target practice or deer hunting can be customized for bow fishing. You need a special heavy arrow that has a fishing tip with teeth to hold the fish while you reel 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 withstand the repeated punishment of pulling through the water. Realize that fish are heavy. Carp can weigh over 40 pounds.
“You really don’t need all that equipment. It just makes you more efficient, a bit faster. But you really don’t need all that fancy stuff to go out, have fun, and shoot some fish. A youth arc, a yard sale arc, whatever,” Miller said. Some of the youth bows have many adjustments that work well for getting into the sport.
Miller has spears, gigs, bows, and crossbows that can be used in place of a bow. He would like blowguns to be approved by the Fish and Boat Commission as they become popular in other parts of the country. Weber said the sport is nothing new. “I guarantee that human beings were shooting fish with a bow and arrow before catching them with a hook.”
Each bow angler is allowed a combined 50 fish per day. But it can be quite a challenge. Depending on the depth of the fish, the archer must remember the refraction of light that is involved. You have to aim about a foot lower and the fish move quickly. “The deeper the fish, the lower you need to aim,” Miller said.
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Fish race around the boat and participants must make quick decisions about where to place their shot. “It’s not easy,” Miller said of darting a moving target. “You don’t hit everything you aim for.”
Bows don’t have a sight and archers learn to shoot instinctively at the fish. Weber said, “It will humiliate you very quickly.”
Weber said they don’t just shoot everything. He said people should know that bow anglers are removing some of the invasive species like carp that are abundant.
The fish are taken advantage of.
“I love to eat fish. I try to find ways to make inedible fish more edible because I love them so much,” Miller said of eating certain varieties, including Buffalo sucker and buffalo sucker. channel catfish. He said it’s best to chop the meat and make it into patties. “I’m always trying to come up with new recipes.”
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Some of the fish that were brought back into the boat are used as cut bait for other anglers and the extra fish are donated to animal rehabilitation centers where the birds of prey can enjoy a piece of fresh meat.
Over the years, he said fish were plentiful and he was always able to locate schools of fish for his clients. “Every year I see more fish,” he said of the water becoming cleaner and healthier for growing fish in Pittsburgh.
Although you can bowfish in many streams throughout Pennsylvania, he prefers the rivers of Pittsburgh. It’s a scenic boat ride where you can see PNC Park where the pirates play and Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, as you leisurely float down the river in search of fish with illuminated skyscrapers in the background.
The city becomes a different atmosphere when the sun goes down. During the night, it is common to see coyotes, foxes and bobcats roaming the shores in search of a meal. Our adventure included seeing a gray fox sneaking by, probably looking for ducks and geese roosting along the waterway.
Once he saw an alligator on the river. He thinks it was a pet that someone released, but alligators can’t survive the winter temperatures of western Pennsylvania.
“It’s all about the experience,” Miller said of taking small groups to have fun trying their luck on the rivers of Steel City.
Visit fishandboat.com, nocturnaladdictionbowfishing.com and boondockoutdoors.myshopify.com for more sports information.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter via email on your website homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.