Michael Abell

The Kings of Bowfishing

Michael Abell
The Kings of Bowfishing

Someday I might get caught up. There may come a day when I have turned all my handwritten notes, journals and memories into typewritten words to share with the world. I used to believe there would come a day when I would be too old and tired to keep going on adventures. I figured when that day came I would have time to sit at my desk and turn my journals into essays, a memoir or even a complete autobiography. Surely, there would come a day when I would quit my adventurous wild ways, put my feet up by the fire and sit still. Or, that is what I thought until I met Bill King. Bill is a Korean War Veteran and he’s 92. Bill also went on this adventure to the bayous of Louisiana with us. I could say a whole lot to describe Bill King after this adventure, but the thing I want to say most is that he’s a father and a grandfather. Certainly, there’s strength in his muscles and his bones, but there’s a willingness of spirit that seems to fuel him and his sense of humor permeates even the toughest exteriors men wear. I’m not sure what prevents him from giving in to the coming of the night, but whatever it is I like it.

I was not the leader on this adventure. For the first time in my adult life, I sat back and followed. I truly enjoyed it and I think that was because Scott King was in charge. Scott is a walking example of my “slow hunt philosophy.” In that, he has a serious passion in life that defines him as a person, in the context of being a dedicated husband and father. I believe everyone needs a passion outside of the daily grind of work and family to help them live a fulfilled life. I also believe, that in turn, this type of passion helps maintain one’s strength of character. You see, they pursue their passion to refuel their soul. Then they can pursue their life’s grander goals of family, career and God with clear eyes and a full heart. Scott’s passion is bowfishing for dinosaurs.

I cannot remember the exact date, but it was sometime in 2014 when Scott first asked me to go bowfishing with him. I responded, “Buddy when I am retired, you won’t have to twist my arm.” Well, I retired in August of 2017. So, when Scott asked me to join his crew for this trip I did not hesitate in thanking him and telling him to, “Sign me up.” The planning seemed to start and end abruptly. Obviously, our fearless leader had been considering this trip for some time. Scott decided we would fish the Louisiana bayou. We would rent a place in the town of Jean Lafitte and run his boat out of a local marina. So, Scott, his father Bill and I were on the team. We were joined by two very good bowfishermen. Scott’s son, Hunter King, is a seriously skilled bowfisherman. Hunter is also a recently anointed United States Marine, having earned that title in 2016. He is also well-mannered, tall and strong. Just the kind of young man you’d want on an adventure. The final member of our crew is also a damn fine bowfisherman and all-around outdoorsman, Jason Scannell. For reasons the reader will find out later, Jason henceforth will be known as “The Catfish Whisperer”.

On a very normal Sunday in March, the team departed Kentucky in Scott’s old Ford, pulling his big and very capable Sea Ark boat, appropriately tricked out for bowfishing. “We”, really Scott, drove straight through and we arrived late that night in Lafitte. Scott parked the boat and we went upstairs to the apartment and crashed. The place was on stilts and awful close to the water, so it was cool. It had everything you need for a fish camp: kitchen, bathroom, roof and mosquito proof walls. It was also a serious bargain. So, that made the humble abode that much prettier in my eyes.

The sun rose and so did we. We pushed through that weird “drove all day” hangover like feeling and headed out to forage for supplies at the local Piggly Wiggly. That challenge completed, we headed back to fish camp (the apartment). On the way back, Scott stopped to talk to the local Cajuns hanging out at an abandoned gas station. I wasn’t sure what he was up to, maybe asking where to fish, maybe offering a prayer for their souls, who knows. But I thought, “You know what? I don’t care, because I’m just along for the ride. If Scott wants to stop and talk to racoons and alligators, I’m good with that too.” After getting ourselves, our supplies and our gear in order, we had a planning session. We decided to use the remaining daylight and go looking for “clean water” to bowfish after sundown. If we had time we would quit the reconnaissance an hour or two before sunset and fish with traditional tackle. After sunset, we would bowfish until 2:00 or 3:00AM and then go back to camp, crash and get up and do it all again.

As we arrived at Nick’s Marina to put the boat in the bayou, Mother Nature decided to brew up a strong pot of black clouds. As we backed down the ramp, a local game warden was pulling his boat out of the water. He pointed about 20 miles across the bayou and said, “Y’all see dat’ doan cha?” Scott responded, “Yes sir. Thank you”. Then he shot me a look and said, “I’m dying to go look for clean water. I think we can beat it.” I sat back, smiled and looked at my rain gear sitting quietly in a stuff sack. We pulled out of the marina and made some purposeful runs to look at different lakes, canals, channels and flats that Scott had logged in his mind. I felt the free and easy feeling that comes with not being in charge. I trusted my friend to run the boat. I enjoyed the company of Hunter, Jason and Bill. I thanked God for us being here safely all the way from Kentucky. About an hour later, I was thanking God again. This time for the skill of our skipper, who had accomplished his reconnaissance mission, got the boat out of the water and got us all into the bait and tackle shop for a surprisingly good cup of coffee. While we sat inside sipping our coffee, we watched Mother Nature pour her brew all over the poor souls on the boats of lesser captains, trying to get their boats out in a deluge of rain. That was the good news. The bad news was that we didn’t find any clean water.

The next day we decided to run into New Orleans, get some breakfast and then hit some of the nicer bait and tackle shops. We had a great breakfast, complete with the mandatory beignets, and visited some of Scott’s friends who own archery shops in town, but we hustled back to Lafitte and stuck to the plan.

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We continued the search for clean water, you see you need clean water to see what you’re shooting at when bowfishing, without it, you’re sunk. It was tough. The water was turbid. It was also cold and windy. Spring should have sprung by now in Louisiana, but the cold front we escaped from the previous day brought another taste of old man winter to our palates. We were able to enjoy some traditional rod and reel fishing and caught some redfish, skates and catfish. We certainly tried to bowfish after dark, with Hunter and Jason shooting a few fish, but we were quickly pushed back to camp by the miserable conditions.

During the planning phase we had discussed taking an airboat charter out one night during the trip. It seemed like a fine idea at this point, because we couldn’t find clean water. Airboats can reach isolated pockets of clean water by crossing mudflats and grass that regular boats cannot. The charter would be cheap, split 5 ways, and we needed some help. Scott made some calls and we had a date with an airboat. The start of the charter was no different from any charter any where else in the world. That all changed when we got aboard, put on our earmuffs and they fired up that big block V8 Chevy motor. I’d never been on a high-performance airboat before, holy cow what a machine! Well after about a 45min ride we stopped in gin clear very “skinny” water. The smile on Bill’s face was from the airboat ride. The smile on Scott’s face was from finding clean water. Jason and Hunter didn’t take time to smile, they already had their bows in hand and were making ready. The next four hours were a form of controlled chaos I’ve not witnessed before and I’ve witnessed a bunch of chaos before in my life. The skipper let the mate drive the airboat, meanwhile he spotted fish and both crewmen barked out instructions. The five of us just kept shooting, yep even 92-year-old Bill was slinging arrows. By 2:00am we had put a limit of redfish and some assorted rough fish in the boat. Oh my Lord, what fun we had. I’m telling you Bill never missed a beat. I watched him and started to believe that there might not come a day when I’m too old to go on adventures. Back at the dock, we thanked the crew from Deep Delta Bowfishing and headed back to fish camp exhilarated and exhausted all at once.

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One of the cool things about bowfishing is that you don’t have to get up early. We crawled out of bed midmorning and planned to head to the fish cleaning table at Nick’s Marina. As we headed out of fish camp, we veered off our normal route to the marina. I looked at Scott, he must have known what I was thinking, because he said, “We’re going to find our friends across from the Piggly Wiggly.” Well we pulled up and our new Cajun friends, Keith and General Lee, greeted us warmly. Then Scott said, “You gentlemen sure you want all the rough fish we shot?” They said, “Aww yeah man, we wan dat, yeessser.” And at that point we began unloading all the carp and catfish we shot the night before. Keith and General Lee were so incredibly happy you’d have thought we were sharing a harvest of salmon, grouper and mahi. 

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Back in the truck and headed to the marina to clean the redfish, I quietly smiled and thanked God for Scott. He had the idea early on in this trip to talk to the locals. He did that to get advice maybe, but also to make sure we had someone to take the fish we don’t normally eat. To make sure that nothing went to waste and in the process, share the harvest. It was awesome and for me personally, it helped me be a better bowfisherman. See I really don’t ever shoot anything I’m not going to eat and I don’t eat carp or gar, but guess who does? And guess who loves to eat them? Cajuns. That’s right. So, now it was game on lights out, I would aggressively sling arrows at every fish I saw and ask questions later. I still would not be near as good as Hunter or Jason but feeling better about harvesting rough fish made the trip a little brighter and more enjoyable for me.

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Back at fish camp we learned that Hunter had invented a new dish, bacon pie. Yes, ladies and gentlemen it really does exist. Like bigfoot, Loch Ness and Chessie the mythical bacon pie is real. I’m not going to share Hunter’s super top-secret recipe, but I will say I’m glad we left him behind to work on breakfast. While everyone else participated in vacuum sealing the redfish, Bill and I walked across the street to the canal and fished. Well I fished, Bill sat in the sun and slept like an old barn cat happy with a mouse in his belly.

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Before too long, we were all asleep like too many barn cats in the hay loft. But the afternoon drew near and we all wandered outside one by one to the warming day to get our gear together and help Scott with anything he needed. The plan this afternoon was to make a very short run to a spot where the tide rips through a cut that the Corps of Engineers improved with rip rap and pilings. We would tie up and drift into the eddy created by the tide ripping through the cut and dunk some shrimp for sheepshead, redfish and catfish. After spending a couple hours rod and reel fishing, we would pack up and go look for clean water.

The Corps of Engineers cut was the spot! In short order we were catching sheepshead and a few reds.

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Jason was catching catfish, big ones. Have you ever fished right next to someone, used the same bait and watched them catch fish while you didn’t? Well that’s what it was like fishing next to “the Catfish Whisperer.” At one point or another, Scott, Hunter, Bill and I had our baits (the same baits) right next to Jason’s. Yet, he was pulling 10-15lb catfish one after another, while we were not. Granted, we were going to give the catfish away to Keith and General Lee, while we were going to eat the sheepshead and redfish, but damn Jason was tearing it up.

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As the sun began its daily ritual of hiding behind the horizon, we packed up the rods and reels and got out the bows and arrows. Did I say that Scott does a great job running the boat? Well if I did, I’m saying it again. We made some runs to different lakes and hit some canals in transition and generally did better bowfishing, but the water was still turbid, and it made it difficult. We were nearing the end of the evening when I learned just how generous Hunter King is. Our skipper was manning the bow at the helm of his trolling motor. Hunter was on the port side of the shooting deck and I was on the starboard.

Just then, Scott burst with the suddenness of birthday balloon, “Right there, there’s our fish, shooooooot himmmmm!”

Now folks, I’m new to this bowfishing thing and in full disclosure all I could see was a white blob, a very large white blob about 30 yards off the bow.

Hunter added, “You got ‘em Mike”…”Come on get ‘em Mike”

Scott now in a fury, “Shooooot Hiimmmmm!”

I was at full draw and simply couldn’t make out heads or tails of the blob. In my mind, Hunter was going to shoot any second. To my horror, that generous young man stayed at full draw, ready to back me up, and I simply couldn’t figure out where to put an arrow. We drifted within 20yds and the blob disappeared with one mighty beat of its tail.

Scott, dejected, took a knee and said almost to himself or in prayer, “That was our fish.”

Hunter responds, “Dang it. Oh well.”

Scott stands up and says, “Dang it that was the fish we came here for.”

I apologize and say, “Boys I’m sorry I couldn’t make heads or tails of that giant thing. Please don’t put this on me.”

Scott responded, “No I’m not putting it on you, but that was the giant gator gar we came here for and I sure wish you’d shot.”

We packed up and the ride back to camp was quiet.

The next day we started with more rod and reel fishing for sheepshead. Jason even let Bill catch a catfish, but then Jason followed that up with a big flathead, that caused some celebration on the boat. No kidding, no joking, no BS, Jason Scannell is, “The Catfish Whisperer.” He caught every catfish the entire trip, save the one that Bill caught. They were all at least ten pounds, with the largest pushing twenty. The rest of us were fishing within 10 yards of him the whole time, using the same bait. Something was going on that I cannot explain, but I digress. This being our last night, we had some extra bait and I started to throw the bait overboard when Bill stopped me. He said, “Boys we need to play baseball.” What? Excuse me? Without much hesitation, Hunter took the remaining bags of dead shrimp off the boat on to the jetty and began lobbing them back toward the boat. Scott grabbed the aluminum bat used to subdue giant fish and started batting practice. Every time a shrimp got hit, it exploded into chum midair and I’m sure as it drifted down into the water, the local fish found it to be manna from heaven. Batting practice over, we discovered that tonight would be different – Scott found clean water!

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I’m not sure which lake we were on in the bayou, nor which way we went after sundown. My faith in our skipper was absolute at this point. I was still carrying emergency gear and a first aid kit in my bag, I’m not stupid, but I was no longer paying any attention to direction and distance. My Ranger School Instructors would be so disappointed, but I was happy and content. Scott had it under control and I didn’t think otherwise. When we got to our spot the feeling on the boat was euphoric. For the first time in the trip we could see the bottom in three or four feet of water. We could identify fish and decide not to shoot. The amount of life we could see was amazing: gators, turtles, gar, carp, reds, cats, skates, you name it. Jason and Hunter proceeded to wear it out. If they missed that night, I certainly don’t remember it. Scott had the boat heading in the right direction and the wind kept the bugs off of us. It was the kind of night you look forward to all year. The first highlight of the night, really of the trip for me, was when Hunter shot the biggest gator gar we’d seen so far. Not a giant, but about a twenty-five pounder. It was not that Hunter shot it that was a highlight, it was the fact that without a second’s hesitation, his 92-year-old Grandfather, Bill, swung his bow and as clean as a whistle and put a back-up arrow into that fish. I was so impressed I could only smile and think, yep I’m going to keep going on adventures until I die. If I leave some stories unpublished in my journals, so be it.

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Little did I know; the night was going to get even funnier and even better. As we entered the mouth of a creek, henceforth to be known as “Stuck Arrow Broken Testicle Creek”, both Hunter and Jason missed a small carp. That was amazing enough, but it got better, I shot it. I’m the worst bowfisherman on the boat. I beamed with pride as I pulled that carp into the boat and got it off my arrow. When I was done, I watched in silent amazement as Hunter, Jason and Scott all took turns trying to pull their arrows out of the bottom. I asked what was going on and Scott told me that the Corps of Engineers puts down a type of erosion carpet in some locations and if you shoot through it, you’ll never get your arrow back. In my ignorance, I stepped forward and said, “Boy’s I’ll get those arrows for you.” Scott responded, “Mike, if the line breaks, you’ll fall down for four minutes.” Well, I seemed to remember that the bowfishing line was 400lb test or so I thought. I also know that it’s been 20 years since I was strong enough to deadlift 400lbs. So, either the arrows would pop out or they wouldn’t, there’s no way I would break the bowfishing line and “fall for four minutes.” There’s one problem, the bowfishing line is not 400lb test, it’s about half that, which I’m strong enough to break every day. So, when I set my hips and pulled hard it snapped. Not only did I fall for “four minutes” backward into the fish barrel. I took Scott testicles with me. Yes Sir, as my arms whipped back with the force it took to break 200lb test, the heal of my left hand caught Scott right in his family jewels. Now, I’m here to tell you. I’ve purposefully kicked and punched men in their testicles on more occasions than I care to divulge, but I’ve never purposefully hit someone as hard as I accidently hit Scott. As I climbed out of the fish barrel covered in fish slime and fish blood, apologizing to our prostrate dry heaving skipper I realized, he told me that was going to happen.

Twenty minutes later, Scott was done crying. I was done apologizing. Jason, Hunter and Bill were done laughing and we commenced to bowfish once again. Little did I know that on the last night in Louisiana, Scott wasn’t going to be the only member of our crew that got his ass kicked. We set out again, down the bank and in very short order both Jason and Hunter had put another fish in the boat. I stepped up on the starboard side of the shooting deck next to Scott, half way expecting him to push me in. Then everything changed…

Scott pointed with absolute focus and said, “There Mike, shooooooot it!”

Without thinking I drew and let fly at what appeared to be a white log floating under the surface about twenty yards away.

Jason had just climbed back on to the shooting deck on the port side.

I watched my arrow fly through the air in slow motion and strike the log.

The log erupted with giant tailbeats and my arrow danced across the water’s surface.

I do not exaggerate, that for an instant, in my mind, I was transported back into Melville’s maritime tragedy and felt as if I were Queequeg the valiant harpooner and Scott was Captain Ahab. Now, we were anchored to a great leviathan in an ancient struggle like the whale men of old.

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All that touchy-feely literature was erased from my mind by a violent eruption of pain.

See, ladies and gentlemen, I’m new to bowfishing. I am also stout for someone my size and I’d been wrapping my arm in my bowfishing line and arresting the run of all the fish I’d shot so far on this trip. Well, I’m here to tell you when you do that to a century class gator gar, they will drag you off your feet with their first two tailbeats and slam you to the deck in short order.

I found myself laying prostrate on the deck at Scott’s feet with Jason working to untangle me from Scott, my bow, the boat, the trolling motor and also deciding if he should ignore me and get a back-up arrow in the giant gar.

Scott was yelling, “Let go!”

I was yelling, “Get the hell off of me.”

Jason was saying calmly, “Calm down.”

In short, the shooting deck was a mess.

I took Scott’s advice and let go as I tried to stand up.

The problem was, Scott meant let go of the line, not the whole bow.

Yes, I let go of everything and the problem with that, is the gar was connected to the bow.

As I watched the bow start to be pulled overboard I threw myself back on to the shooting deck and by the grace of God, caught the bow before it went overboard.

Now, came the lesson in gator gar behavior. See they are so tough, after the arrow hits them, they make a run, but then they settle down and pretty much ignore the harpoon in their back.

By the time the gar calmed down, we all did too and started listening once again to our valiant skipper. Scott got us all moving in the right direction, literally and figuratively.

I was back on my feet reeling in line quietly.

Jason and Hunter were poised on the shooting deck to get back-up arrows in this beast.

Scott directed us into the fray and it went exactly as he said.

The giant gar laid still until we got within ten yards, just then Jason and Hunter put perfect follow up shots into the gar and Scott leapt, yes my friends he leapt, down from the deck grabbed all three lines and began to recover the boat to the gar or the gar to the boat, I’m not sure which.

Either way, we got the leviathan along the port rail and with great effort into the boat.

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I will spare you the details of how the next half hour went, but it was a slime filled giant toothy fish rodeo as we got all the lines, arrows and our limbs unspooled from this fish.

Then finally we figured a way to weigh him and get some pictures.

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In the end, due to the expertise of the skipper and the charity of his crew the most unlikely of bowfisherman shot the fish we’d come to Louisiana for – a century class gator gar.

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Maybe, also I saw an example of what never giving up and always chasing adventure looks like, thanks Bill.

 


Recipe –

This is a very good, simple and inexpensive recipe -

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – up to one week including travel, maybe less

____ Louisiana recreational fishing license including saltwater permit $90

____ Apartment rental $600

____ If you don’t already have it, you’ll need a bowfishing rig; boat, motor, assorted gear and bowfishing specific gear – if you don’t already own it, this trip is not the place to start, so we are going to assume you own it = price zero

____ Gas (KY to LA and back 750mi + some in/and around mileage 200mi = 950mi/15mi per gal = approximately 63 gal at $3 per gal = $190 in truck gas

____ Bait and Tackle - $120 for the whole week

____ Boat gas – 3 tanks = $240

____ Clothes –  you should already own it

____ First Aid Kit –  you should already own it

____ Food & Water – $250 per person for the week

____ Optional Charter Bowfishing Trip = add $1,000 + tip $200 = $1,200

Total Cost of this adventure: $1,490

Directions:

So, this is NOT a trip you should attempt alone. The Louisiana Bayou is a dangerous dark place. Please, do not take that to mean it is not unsafe. The bayou has a duality to it. If you were there alone and say you fell, hit yourself in the testicles and fell overboard – you could legitimately be eaten by alligators. They are everywhere. But honestly, if you had buddies there to shine lights and pull you back in the boat, you’re in no danger at all, because the gators run from boats. But if your boat stopped moving and you started floating, while holding your testicles, you might be gator food. It’s also a gorgeous wild place, it’s just not some place you want to go alone. I have bow hunted the Rockies for over a month on my own. I am an Airborne Ranger Combat Vet and I’m not going to bowfish at night in the Louisiana Bayou by myself – nuff said. So, the cost of the trip above it going to be split amongst friends. When you start splitting the $600 rental and food costs etc. you find yourself in the enviable position of having a very reasonable adventure cost. We split this adventure 5 ways and I’m telling you, that including the charter, I don’t think I spent $1,000, all in, all done. Think about that. For the adventure we had for a week, for the memories made, I didn’t spend a grand. If you and your friends bowfish, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not trying this trip for yourselves.