WATSON – Chuck Ellingson makes it his business at the Watson Hunting Camp to introduce hunters to some of the best opportunities that western Minnesota has to offer.
So what do you offer those looking for the thrill of the hunt when there isn’t an open season?
Bowfishing is the answer provided by Sam Thompson, a guide at the camp. He spent much of the early spring chasing light geese on their northward migration. The last few weeks, Thompson and friend Leah Holloway estimate they’ve made 50 or more bowfishing excursions on the backwaters of Lac qui Parle Lake, some of them as guides for clients of the hunting camp.
“It’s fun,’’ is the simple explanation Thompson offered.
And a little over two hours later, with a 100-gallon tub packed full of carp and bigmouth buffalo fish, his point was more than made.
The tub held more than 50 fish. Most weighed in the 10- to 12-pound range. That’s the norm, according to Thompson. He really doesn’t get excited until he can arrow a 20-pound carp, which he terms a “nice’’ size. The 25 to 30-pounders are “big.’’
A 40-pounder is “don’t miss it,’’ he said.
Miss it you might. Bowfishing is not a difficult sport to take up, but traditional archers who have the mechanics down of placing their bow’s sights on a target have to make some adjustments.
Water bends light, and to compensate for the refraction a bowfisher must aim instinctively below the fish. The deeper or farther away the fish is, the lower you aim, Thompson explained as this writer missed his first, second, and then third target.
Not to worry: There were many more fish waiting, as Thompson guided us through a flooded backwater teeming with fish.
Thompson operated an electric trolling motor and we cruised along, our eyes probing the waters for the telltale shape or movement that betrays a fish.
Bowfishers are allowed to take any rough fish, but take them they must. The harvested fish cannot be returned to the waters or dumped on shorelines or lake accesses.
There are those who pursue some of the fish, such as sheepshead, buffalohead, dogfish (bowfin), or bullheads, to put in the smoker or even a frying pan.
The Watson Hunting Camp has an agreement with an area farmer. The harvested fish are used as fertilizer.
There are plenty of roughfish in our waters. Chris Domeier, area fisheries supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources in Ortonville, said he doesn’t believe bowfishers could harvest enough carp in Lac qui Parle Lake to have any impact on the population.
Overall, Domeier believes that bowfishing activity on the lake is light. In the 1990’s, commercial fishermen harvested some of the rough fish from the lake, but it hasn’t been profitable for them to do so in recent years, according to the fisheries supervisor.
Bowfishing is all about the challenge and excitement, and something more. Thompson said he enjoys the time spent on the water as much as anything. We watched pelicans gliding overhead in a blue sky. A few dropped into the backwater, seemingly watching us with envy as we boated fish at an active clip.
In the murky water, we caught glimpses of turtles, minnows and a crappie or two swimming amidst our targeted fish.
It’s an altogether different experience at night, according to Thompson. Using lights mounted on the boat and powered by a small generator, he cruises along the backwaters and shorelines in search of rough fish. He said bowfishers enjoys an aquarium like view of the waters while searching for their prey.
Thompson, 24, was introduced to bowfishing when he was 17 years old and growing up north of Pennock in Kandiyohi County. He and his buddies would find spots along a local creek to take aim at carp. He said he was hooked on the sport after only his first try.
He landed at the Watson Hunting Camp last year after a chance encounter with Chuck Ellingson at the Anoka Game Fair. He learned that Ellingson was looking for a guide. Thompson said he decided to follow his passion, and quit a good job with a local construction crew for the chance to guide.
He has no regrets. Last autumn was a whirlwind of excitement and short nights as he guided hunters from all over the Midwest and beyond in pursuit of ducks and geese.
In the winter, he helps Ellingson lead anglers to the crappies and walleyes that Lac qui Parle holds.
Come late spring, and the choice is easy for him. He takes to the water with bow and arrow. Thompson said he loves to fish. But given a choice between fishing or bowfishing, he prefers the latter.