It was the height of summer, in the middle of the recent drought that devastated inland NSW. Anyone else who was robbed of the coastline during this time will attest to the grim scene. We faced a Mad-Max like dystopia of scorched earth, dry rivers, and dusty faced Aussies, afraid to leave the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicles or else be permanently stuck to the pavement by the melted rubber of their boots. It was the kind of scene that would make Mel Gibson nostalgic.
The stale heat from a harsh sun made very short work of my 1920s timber clad house. It was the kind of heat that was inescapable. A cold shower would only serve as a brief respite from the relentlessly suffocating grip. Sleepless nights would be suffered through nocturnal applications of a damp sheet to keep cool. By early morning I would reserve myself to fate. I would either spend the day draped in a wet towel in front of the pedestal fan, broiling in my own juices like a chicken roasting in a fan forced oven, or I would seek the temporary comfort of a swim in the local river.
My local river was the Hunter River in NSW, rising from the Liverpool Range in the North down South and then East to the sea at Newcastle. On this journey, the river stumbles through livestock and lucerne farms, past many mines and townships, each taking a drink from the waters before it deposits into the salty estuary. The flow of the river is mostly regulated by a large dam, and it was running very low this summer. This left only a few deep pools that were easy to access for the weary swimmer, mostly adjacent to road or rail bridges or along council managed parkland. As I am sure many can attest, the great sadness of these limited access points in public areas is the rubbish and filth that accumulates. I have never quite understood how someone could take so much joy and relief out of swimming in a cool river on a hot day, yet think it is made better by leaving behind their energy drink containers and fast-food wrappings. I am not a fan of needless whinging without first acting myself, but I draw the line at picking up the discarded nappies from other people’s children.
The same people with the reckless disregard for public swimming holes may also possess the lack of brain cells to risk climbing along a rail bridge and fix a towing rope to the steel girders. For this they should be celebrated, as there is nothing better than swinging over water gripping onto a bike handlebar fixed to this rope before releasing mid-river and plunging into the current. Unfortunately, on this swimming trip I was saddened to see that the river was very low as the drought had drastically impacted the region's water supply and led to reduced water release from the dam. The water level was so low, that I was curious if the freshwater fish would survive. In some sections, the flow peeled over the smooth river gravel and was barely ankle deep, not leaving much room for a migratory freshwater fish to pass.
I reserved myself to a splash around in the shallow water, like an adult in a kiddy pool. Only the river was flowing and wasn’t full of piss (I hope). I caught some movement further upriver in the shade of a willow tree, so I decided to take a little stroll upstream to check it out. As I got closer, I saw the tell-tale signs of feeding Carp; small rubbery lips sucking the foamy surface sludge off an eddy. I stood there watching half a dozen oversized goldfish continually surfacing to feast on the foam. I then noticed a few more of these Pond Pigs further upstream in the shallows, slowly swaying their bodies against the current. They were so big, and the water so thin, that the Carp’s dorsal fins and even some of their body was above the surface as they eagerly awaited an easy meal from upstream. I slowly stalked up to within metres of these insatiable mud-suckers before eventually they spooked and shot off to the safety of slightly deeper water. I was equally amazed and disgusted at the sight of these introduced fish thriving in such hostile conditions. It seemed that despite the devastating effects that the drought was having on our inland water systems, it was barely phasing the Carp. The humble River Rabbit appeared to be indestructible.
True to my nature, I became slightly fascinated with Carp and started to do some research. It wasn’t long before I found evidence of the burden that these Suburban Salmon are having on our freshwater environment. I wanted to become part of the solution to somehow reducing their numbers. So logically I started fishing for them, dreaming of all the fish cakes and fertilizer I was about to suddenly inherit. After becoming a hunter in my adult life, I relished the task of helping to control invasive species to my own ultimate gain. There is nothing smugger than hunting, killing, processing, and cooking your own food, so why shouldn’t this same theory be applicable to this golden garbage-fish. Given the ease at which the Carp went about feeding at all times of the day, I grabbed a spin rod and lazily flicked a small lure upstream of them. The lure passed them multiple times without even the slightest acknowledgement. I tried a bunch of other lures and soft plastics, but after an hour or so of fishing I had come up empty. Any fisherman will tell you of the frustrations of an entire day not catching fish, but this disappointment is easily satiated by external factors. The tide was wrong, the fish weren’t out feeding, it was too late or too early in the day, I forgot to bring my lucky rod and so on. This pales in comparison to spending an entire morning in the ripping hot sun and not catching a single fish despite knowing exactly where they were and watching them in the direct act of feeding. I put most of my failure to not understanding my prey and how to best appeal to its basal instincts.
I went back to the drawing board, Google, and did some more research. In order to truly become a stone-cold Koi killer, you must first burley the water with canned corn, laced with red jelly powder. Then you should attach a kernel of corn to a small hook and your uncle Bob and you will be feasting on Ghetto Trout for days. It turns out that this method wasn’t too effective in fast flowing, shallow river water. After another morning wasted, I went home to make some lunch, which did not include any corn or jelly. Surely there was an efficient way to catch these scum-suckers in rivers.
Many of you reading would be thinking right now that it isn’t that hard to catch Carp and you have caught plenty of them quite easily in the past. Probably accidentally while targeting a game fish more worthy, like Bass or Perch. But you must understand that I am terrible at fishing. This is combined with the fact that I am from a generation that doesn’t have the time or patience to commit to anything, before moving on to the next flashy thing that catches our eye. That flashy thing was Bowfishing.
On one particularly scorching day, I was mindlessly trawling through Youtube trying to stave off the doldrums of an Australian summer heatwave. Whether by chance, or by perfectly designed algorithms programmed to expose my deep and dark desires, I stumbled on a video of some blokes in the US bowfishing for Carp. They were racking the fish up, filling an entire esky full of Fertilizer Fish within what appeared to be minutes (the joys of edited reality). I was almost certain to have seen this type of fishing method before in my aggressive digestion of hunting media, but I must put my lack of awareness of Bowfishing down to ignorance. We pay much more attention to the new things we have just learnt about, as our mind illuminates these things more readily. This is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and after learning about deer hunting for the first time, I was effectively blinkered to anything else hunting or fishing related for quite some time.
I was keen to get my hands on a bowfishing rig and get stuck into some Sewer Bass. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen anybody else around my area doing it. Maybe I would be the first, a trend setter in outdoor recreation and conservation in NSW. Nope. It turns out that Bowfishing in inland waters in NSW was illegal, even despite a successful 18-month trial in which many of the humble Pond Trout were harvested without any accidental killing of other species. Surely that was evidence enough to decide, but it turns out that the government organisations directly responsible also need to consider how to best rule and regulate a potentially lethal activity to ensure it is conducted safely and sustainably. Like all bureaucracy, it takes time and much encouragement for logical decisions to be made, and what is more sensible than allowing the average New South Welshman to chase after the mighty Carpus Maximus with highly advanced bow and arrow technology...
So, typical of my generation, I took to the assumption that everything I said or did held some sort of magical power. That all it would take would be a few social media posts to my couple of dozen followers and the legalisation of bowfishing would gain traction. It did not, but luckily, I also decided to craft up a few letters and emails to prominent ministers and governmental departments in a fit of energetic angst. I was politely surprised to receive some quick responses, some of which were properly researched and considered responses. However, many responses were deflections of my correspondence to other ministers or agencies. The matter seemed to go quiet until I was reaffirmed by a response that finally pinned down the minister who was able to do something with the issue, Adam Marshall. As the member for Northern Tablelands, Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Western NSW, Adam was the man for the job. Having spent his whole life in inland NSW, I daresay that Adam was well across the issue of uncontrolled populations of these River Rabbits in our freshwater systems.
It wasn’t long after this correspondence that the Department of Primary Industries NSW opened a consultation period to allow the public to provide their own opinions on Bowfishing for Carp. I can only assume that the hunting and fishing community backed the idea, as an announcement was made in early October that Bowfishing was now legal in NSW, with conditions. The pride I felt when hearing about this was second only to the birth of my daughter, just. I couldn’t help but feel that I played an instrumental part in the legalisation of Bowfishing in NSW. In reality, the hard work and action on this can be attributed to the ministers and government agencies involved. My role in this is akin to telling someone that their shoe is untied. They still own the shoe and had to kneel to re-tie it. Let’s just hope that they tied a decent knot, like a double slip, or my personal favourite a bunny rabbit with an extra granny knot.
Given my previous experience with fishing for Carp with standard rod and reel techniques, it can only be assumed that my take up of this activity will not be great. Before I label myself as a ‘bow fisher’ there are a few things I must do. Firstly, I will need a bowfishing setup. Luckily for me, I suffer badly from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and will take to this task efficiently. Secondly, I need to learn how to shoot a bow. Specifically, how to shoot a bowfishing bow, which involves a special arrow, coiled line and consideration of water refraction. How hard could it be? Lastly, I should probably spend some time understanding the rules and regulations surrounding the sport. As a hobby-sick outdoor enthusiast, this will be the hardest step for me as I find myself already longing to go and get stuck into the golden sludge munchers.
So, as my last public service to bowfishing I have summarised the key rules and considerations below, which have been extracted from the DPI guidelines.
What is required?
- A valid NSW Recreational Fishing License is required to Bow fish.
- A bow specifically setup for bowfishing (extra info in the guide).
- You must not have any bowhunting equipment with you or attempt to hunt game or feral animals on any public waterways while bowfishing.
- It is recommended to complete the ‘Hunting with bows’ module of the NSW R-Licence.
- Most inland waterways across the state, except declared trout waters.
- Bowfishing is prohibited in tidal waters, entrances to rivers and lakes, coastal lagoons, all offshore waters and estuaries and all beaches across the state.
- You have a legal right to fish from a boat or while walking within the bed of a river or stream, even if the bed is not public land. This law does not apply to some lakes within fisheries closures or declared special areas (such as National Parks).
- For safety, bowfishing cannot be conducted within 50 metres of a person, or vehicle not part of the fishing party, or within 100 metres of a dwelling, picnic area or campsite.
- You can only target Carp.
- You cannot bow fish outside of 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset.
- You cannot bow fish under the aid of lights.
The distribution of Killer Koi in NSW includes most of the Murray-Darling Basin and many coastal river systems, particularly in the central section of NSW from the Hunter in the north to the Shoalhaven (including the Southern Highlands and Tablelands) in the south. They are now the most abundant fish species in many NSW rivers, accounting for up to 90 per cent of fish caught in areas of the Murray-Darling Basin. They have a greater tolerance than native fish for low oxygen levels and polluted waters, including stagnant waters. As an omnivorous fish, their diet is based on whatever is available, worms, insects, crustaceans, algae, plant material and other organic matter. They are prolific breeders, with females producing up to 1.5 million eggs. They migrate to and from breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of kilometres if needed.
We are fighting an uphill battle against these river monsters, or should I say, an upstream paddle. The legalisation of bowfishing has offered us an opportunity to be a big part of the solution to the Carp problem. As hunters, fisherman and dare I say conservationists, we have now officially been called to action by the NSW Government. As firm believers in being a participant of nature, and not just a bystander, it is our responsibility to get after these insatiable freshwater destroyers. I can think of worse ways of spending my time, while also helping balance delicate ecosystems and put food on my table. There is little left to do but to Carpe Diem and seize the fish!
Rob Baldinger, AKA The Venison Diplomat
Eamon Waddington - Broadside Hunting