Wade Oehmichen of Mayville, Wis., prepares to let an arrow fly during a recent excursion of Peoria Carp Hunters. The new business makes charter trips on the Illinois River to bowfish Asian carp. Photo by Phil Luciano.
Phil Luciano: Carpe diem
Nearly 200 miles from home and 15 years since he last handled a bow, Bobby Svadlenak stared at the dark river and prepared to take aim at the mysterious creatures.
Arrow pulled back, he spotted nothing in the water. He waited and waited and ... SPLASH. A flash of silver sprang out of the river.
SPLASH. SPLASH. Another and another. It was an airborne explosion of Asian carp, the scourge of the Illinois River - and the target of Svadlenak’s bow.
Svadlenak let loose an arrow. Missed. No biggie. His fellow pals from Wisconsin had missed plenty all day, and they fish all the time.
But not like this. Not with haphazard arrows desperately whizzing toward flying fish.
As the carp and river calmed down again, the 25-year-old chemical salesman reeled in his arrow, jammed it back into his bow and steeled himself. The boat puttered along until the motor’s vibration prompted another school of carp to fling themselves above the surface.
Svadlenak unleashed an arrow. Pause. Smile.
“FISH ON!” he cried.
That’s the code word for success among bowfishers with Peoria Carp Hunters, a new charter company - one man, one boat - that offers carp-killing excursions for fun-lovers of any outdoors skill. At the announcement of the fish hit, Capt. Nathan Wallick cut the engine and helped Svadlenak - who rarely fishes and never hunts - reel in his slimy prize.
Svadlenak laughed and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
For Wallick, that’s what it’s all about: fewer invasive fish in the river, and more smiles for his customers.
“With some (conventional) fishing and hunting, people get so serious,” the 27-year-old says. “But with this, they mostly come for a good time. They laugh and have fun.”
A few years back, some adventuresome anglers brought arrows into the battle against the disgusting fish, which are eating and choking the life out of the Illinois River. Wallick, a Chicago-area native who began hunting in his youth, took to bowfishing a few years ago, after taking a job as an EMT with the Peoria Fire Department. He and some river-rat buddies grew to love the silliness of hitting the lurching, wiggling targets, so Wallick decided to turn his hobby into a money-maker.
He started Peoria Carp Hunters late last summer, but didn’t have enough time to get much business traction. But he and his pals cranked out two wacky YouTube videos - “Peoria Carp Hunters” and a sequel - in which they tear along the river on water skis, clad in football helmets, garbage cans and other (allegedly) protective gear while battling the flying beasties with swords, trident spears, spiked ball bats and other weird weaponry. Each video has garnered nearly a half-million hits, plus added attention to Wallick’s website, peoriacarphunters.com.
WARNING!” the site warns. “Side effects from carp hunting may include aching arms from excessive shooting and sore abs from continuous laughter.”
The bizarre merriment has drawn the curiosity of “Nightline” and The Animal Planet, which plan to do segments on Peoria Carp Hunters, Wallick says. Still, from a business perspective, it’s not all fun and games.
The U.S. Coast Guard requires charter companies of any type to employ licensed captains. The licensing process involves screening and classes, and obtaining all required federal and state permits cost Wallick about $3,000.
Though some carp-shooting guides ply the river, the number is uncertain. Ed Devries, president of the Bowfishing Association of Illinois, says the licensing process and cost prompted a quick end to some start-up ventures.
“A lot of people who were interested dropped it,” he says.
Plus, there’s the investment in a boat - but not just any boat, Wallick says. He got a $10,000 deck boat, with a hull not of plastic but aluminum. That metal, combined with a two-stroke motor, creates the best vibration and noise that spark Asian carp to flip upwards of 10 feet skyward. No one is sure why the fish do that, or why they’re prone to school around bridge pylons or riverbanks. But Wallick has an eye for hot spots along the river where carp - some as massive as 40 pounds - pop up like popcorn.
That’s why he has surrounded his craft with a protective volleyball net, to keep the critters from whacking passengers in the head or flopping into the boat.
“They slime, crap and bleed when they land in your boat,” he says.
All catches get tossed into an on-board metal trash can. Though many anglers don’t like to clean and prepare the bony fish, Wallick says he has found ways to make much of the carp edible. Often, though, he uses them as fertilizer for a wide garden on his dad’s land in Woodford County.
Charter trips cost $120 per hour, regardless of the number in a group. Wallick can take up to six passengers at a time, but anyone who wants to shoot carp must have an Illinois fishing license.
But that doesn’t mean the sport is aimed only at outdoorsmen - or just men, for that matter, though no ladies yet have come aboard. Rather, Wallick stresses a jovial atmosphere.
“It’s as much of a spectator sport as anything,” Wallick says. ” . . . “Most guys who come out here haven’t shot a bow since they were kids.”
That describes Svadlenak, the Wisconsinite who bagged a carp on his second shot - and who learned of Peoria Carp Hunters from the web videos. He came down to Peoria with three other chemical salesmen: Wade Oehmichen, 31, of Mayville, Wis.; Sam Burgess, 26, of Menominee, Wis., and Mike Tuss, 57, of Waupaca.
The latter three are avid anglers and hunters. But they’d never seen Asian carp before last week. On a sunny afternoon with slight breeze, Wallick puttered the group away from Peoria’s municipal dock.
A minute later, they saw their first fish jump out of the water. Two more minutes, and dozens of carp began to hurtle through the air. Oehmichen and Burgess began frantically firing arrows, laughing all the way.
“This is a freaking riot!” Oehmichen yipped.
Wallick had no precise advice, as the appearance and trajectory of an Asian carp is unpredictable. But, he suggested, don’t wait for a perfect shot: “Shoot as much as possible.”
Burgess was the first to nail a carp. After reeling it in, he peered at the slime-slathered fish.
“They are goofy looking,” Burgess said with a wide grin.
Moments later, the boat pushed further along the river. Oehmichen and Burgess pondered their considerable hunting and fishing experience, yet couldn’t think of any other prey that offers the unique challenge of the capricious, unpredictable carp.
“Maybe a grouse or a pheasant,” Oehmichen said. “But to have to use a quick draw with a bow to get (Asian carp), I’ve never done anything like this.”