bowfishing on the Grand River
by: Cory Olsen
posted: 5 June 2014
OTTAWA COUNTY, MI — Floating along the Grand River on his sharply outfitted airboat, Standale resident Brian Gilson keeps his right hand on the rudder stick and left on his compound bow.
It’s well past midnight on a mild Michigan evening and Gilson’s eyes are set in hawk-like focus on the foot-deep water. He is searching for any signs of carp, long-nosed gar, dogfish and the like.
A bowfisherman since age 10, Gilson’s fishing setup has changed over the years, but his passion has remained the same.
He loves shooting fish.
“We started with a 14-foot V-bottom boat, one halogen light and a borrowed generator,” Gilson said of his early trips with his father, Dave and friends. “We didn’t have a trolling motor, no outboard and we used a stairway railing to push-pole each other around. We had a riot. We were out every single weekend. We were hooked.”
Bowfisherman Brian Gilson of Standale maneuvers his airboat through the bayous of the Grand River.
Bowfishing has grown in popularity thanks to the growth of bowhunting in general, Gilson said. With so many hunters looking to keep their skills tuned up through the summer months, hunting fish seemed the logical choice.
“I bowfish from ice-out until September, then I start chasing deer,” Gilson said. “As soon as November 15th hits (firearm deer season) it’s back to bow fishing. I don’t like being in the woods when the deer are being pushed around. I like them in their natural state.”
With thousands of bugs attracted to the 10 large LED lights mounted around the bow, Gilson maneuvers his boat through the shallows and backwaters of the Grand River. Occasionally his head darts to one side, his bow following, letting loose a quick “thwack” as he looses an arrow toward a fish.
“Got it!” he says, quickly shutting down the engine that powers the blades at the stern.
Gilson grabs the reel mounted to the bow and starts fighting the fish just like an angler; there’s just no fishing pole to pull against.
“So much of the time they’re up in this shallow water,” Gilson said. “You look up in these cattails in shallow water and you’ll see a carp with its back out of the water. They’re in their spawning.”
Saturday Gilson will compete in a tournament on the Grand called the Grand River Scum Classic Bowfishing Tournament.
Its name says something special about the water quality, event organizer Rob Rouwhorst said.
“That’s our home body of water. We shoot it all the time,” Rouwhorst said. “Dirty water is the Grand and we go somewhere else in the state and people are talking about how dirty the water is and we laugh because it’s never as dirty as the Grand.”
Rouwhorst said he and his friends, Nick Tulgestke, Nick Vanheest and Luke Walker, had been wanting to do a tournament on the Grand for years and finally made it happen last year.
“This is our second year and we went the extra mile,” Rouwhorst said. “We’ve got a ton of donations from local sporting good shops and even some of the major bow manufacturers for prizes. This year it’s grown quite a bit.”
As the night wore on, Gilson fired on fish after fish. Some shots hit their mark while others proved fortunate for the fish.
“It’s all about getting arrows in the water,” Gilson said. “If you don’t shoot, you’re not going to hit one.”
Gilson has shared his passion with daughters Salena, 17, and Ashley, 13.
“They love it,” he said. “They’re my fishing buddies. I take them to tournaments and out to shoot for fun.”
The girls will be competing in the Michigan Youth Bowfishing Championship Saturday, June 14 on Muskegon Lake, a youth-only event.
Much of the excitement surrounding the sport comes from the shooting but many question the fate of the fish.
“As a member of BAM (Bowfishing Association of Michigan), when we have tournaments we have a company that comes up from Indiana and they liquify them into fertilizer,” Gilson said of the bottom-feeder fish. “They have a big tank that heats them up, cooks them and liquifies them and turns them to mush. It’s a pretty cool process and it works for us.”
The long-nosed gar shooting is plentiful on this night and Gilson takes a moment to talk about the long, thin fish with a snout full of teeth.
“They’ve got some really tough alligator-like scales,” Gilson said. “If I get cut it’s usually from these scales. They’ve got some beautiful spots on them, they’re just a really pretty fish. Sometimes their fins are really orange. I love shooting gar.”