Photographs and video By Adam Gerik
Shooting carp in the dark
At first glance the pontoon boat covered with netting looked almost silly.
That thought didn’t last, though. Not after hearing Asian carp slam into those taut nets while standing in the dark with a bow at full draw, waiting for the perfect shot.
“With the netting you don’t get blind-sided,” said Bill Ludolph of Edwards, owner of the oddly rigged boat.
“We got tired of getting drilled when we were shooting,” added Jon Sarver, Ludolph’s partner in a new venture called Elite Aerial Bowfishing.
While shooting the Illinois River’s abundant flying carp is not a new idea, there is novelty in bowfishing at night behind the safety of a net. Leave it to a few river rats to come up with that twist.
Actually, Ludolph is not much of a river rat, unless you count growing up near Kickapoo Creek. Sarver’s got a true river pedigree. He dabbles in duck decoys, has a brother who pushes at a duck club and has spent most of his life on or along the Illinois River.
When Asian carp moved in, he and Ludolph started shooting at the flying fish with their bows.
“It’s great practice when there’s nothing else to do in the summer unless you like to watch a bobber go up and down,” Ludolph said.
Eventually they decided to shoot at night.
“For some reason we got more big fish jumping at night than we did in the day,” Sarver said. “I don’t know if the big fish go into the shallows at night or what, but there are sure more of them jumping.”
The main problem with shooting at night — aside from swarms of insects — is that you can’t see carp coming until it’s too late. Believe me, the thrill of getting blasted in the head by a 16-pound carp wears thin very quickly.
So Ludolph bought an older pontoon boat with a tarp roof and then rigged netting along the front and sides. The only open area is in the back, where shooters fling arrows under the light of two spotlights.
The set-up is pretty slick, as I learned after spending an evening with Sarver and Ludolph a few weeks ago. Motoring just north and south of Chillicothe we saw thousands of silver carp before the sun set. But more trophy carp started jumping after dark — enough that even I managed to shoot a 16-pounder through the head (yes, I had to pucker up at the nasty fish).
For me the experience of shooting at night was even more enjoyable than my previous outings during the day. Either form of bowfishing is a blast. But at night the carp stand out brilliantly under the lights and it’s easier to focus on the fish.
“Plus there’s less river traffic,” Sarver said. “And being out in the sun all day just drains you. It’s not so bad at night.”
So far this summer Sarver and Ludolph have guided clients from Tennessee and Missouri as well as several Illinoisans. Night trips typically run 8-11 p.m. Day trips are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (309) 264-5397 or 369-2685.
“People have been getting all the shots they can handle,” Sarver said.
That’s one upside to the Asian carp invasion on the Illinois. There’s truly no limit of targets. Miss one fish and you’re assured another chance, often seconds later. After several hours of holding a bow at full draw — even just a youth model with a draw weight of 30 pounds — your arms scream for mercy.
“It gets your muscles ready for deer season,” Sarver said.
Just don’t believe him if he says you won’t get hit. Flopping carp slimed me at least a dozen times during our trip. But those collisions were relatively minor, most coming as I reeled in an arrow after a miss.
Now and then when a carp bounced onto the boat, Ludolph or someone else dispatched the slippery invader with a pitchfork.
Mostly, though, we were relieved to hear carp pounding into the hull or bouncing off that protective netting and flopping back into the dark water.