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How To Pick A Bowfishing Reel: The Ultimate Guide

Whatever form of fishing you do, having the right equipment helps you get the most out of your trip. Bowfishing is no different. This unique form of fishing uses a bow to shoot and retrieve fish. As with more traditional forms of fishing, bowfishing requires a reel that is attached to the bow.

Picking a bowfishing reel depends on factors including price, gear ratio, durability, usability, line length and safety. There are three types of reel used in bowfishing. These are drum reels, bottle reels, and spincast reels, and it’s important to pick the right one based on your own situation.

Choosing a reel from the different options can seem overwhelming at first. But below, we’ll explain what bowfishing is and which fish are commonly hunted, before providing a guide to selecting a reel, so that you can easily make the right choice.

What Is Bowfishing?

The name bowfishing very aptly describes the concept of this style of fishing. It combines bow hunting with angling to shoot and catch fish. In bowfishing, your targets within the water are at a much closer distance than you would expect when hunting with a bow on land.

However, the closer proximity of the target does not automatically equate to easier hunting. The refraction of light within the water distorts the position of the fish, requiring you to generally aim below the target to secure a hit. This is a skill which can take some learning and is why shallow pools are a good place to start as a beginner.

Shallow and transparent waters are the optimal conditions for bowfishing as you will need to sight your target and not rely on bait alone. Lakes, ponds, reservoirs, streams and smaller rivers are good spots for bowfishing, but it does not necessarily have to be freshwater. Shallow estuaries and bays can provide good saltwater bowfishing.

Which Fish Can You Catch When Bowfishing?

Before heading out, you need to be aware of any local regulations concerning bowfishing, and which fish are protected and therefore off-limits. Many US states prohibit the shooting of game fish, while it can also be illegal to bowfish for certain species and certain sizes of fish.

Therefore, before you set out to go bowfishing you need to ensure you are not only armed with your bow, but with the relevant local knowledge to prevent you from fishing illegally.

When people first start bowfishing, carp is one of the most popular targets, particularly common carp. Other species frequently hunted when bowfishing include:

  • Catfish
  • Garfish
  • Suckerfish
  • Flounder
  • Sheepshead
  • Bowfin

3 Different Types Of Bowfishing Reel

1. Drum Reels

These are the most basic of the bowfishing reels, one which has no moving parts. Also called a hand reel, they are simple to operate and have been used for many years. The drum reel is in essence a spool around which your fishing line is wrapped, with a bolt to screw into the riser on the bow.

There is nothing remotely high-tech in the working of this reel, which is why it is particularly popular with beginners. Once the arrow is shot it pulls the line off the drum reel with it. The line is retrieved by hand, manually wrapping it back around the drum reel.

You will want to have a decent pair of gloves with you, otherwise retrieving the line by hand can be quite strenuous and even sore, particularly if you are landing a decent sized fish. However, without any moving parts, there is nothing on the reel which can break as you bring in the line.

Drum reels can come in two different types, depending on the type of bow you are using. A screw-on drum reel is mounted on the front of the bow, usually threading through the front stabilizer hole. Alternatively, there is the strap/tape on drum reel, which tends to be used with traditional, one piece bows.

With a drum reel you will want to hit your target on the first attempt if possible, as the slow method of reeling in the line means you are unlikely to get a second shot at the fish. However, for sheer simplicity and ease of use a drum reel fits the bill, allowing you to focus solely on your target fish.

PROS:

  • Simple and easy to use
  • Good for beginners
  • Budget friendly
  • No moving parts to break
  • Easy to clean
  • Will last for a long time

CONS:

  • Pulling in a heavy fish by hand can take its toll on bare hands, making gloves a must
  • Slow to reel in for a follow up shot
  • Uses heavier line which can limit distance, particularly with a traditional bow

2. Bottle Reels

Bottle reels are probably the most popular of the three reel types, especially for those with more experience and who are bowfishing to a good level. The bottle reel retains the simplicity and ease of use of the drum reel, but adds a handle to winch in the line.

The bottle reel is also known as the retriever reel, a name which no doubt helps boost interest from those looking to ease the line retrieval process. With bottle reels there is no retrieving the line by hand. The line is housed within the bottle and the handle on the side is turned to winch in the line.

This is a reliable, low-maintenance bowfishing reel which is easy to understand and just as easy to use as a drum reel. Like the drum reel it requires a heavy line and is best used when targeting small to medium sized fish.

Typically, the bottle reel is mounted using the holes where the bow sight would be located. Whereas a sight is important when hunting with a bow on land, it is not necessary when bowfishing. For larger fish the handle can struggle to provide the drag required to retrieve the line.

Although bottle reels have a few more moving parts than drum reels, once you become used to how they work they are easy to use. They are often the reel choice of experienced bowfishermen as they are low maintenance and less likely to entangle the line. Once you shoot the arrow the line flows from the bottle with little resistance and is then retrieved using the crank style handle.

PROS:

  • Easy to use
  • Good for beginners
  • Reliable
  • Has a handle to retrieve the line
  • Sturdy
  • Enclosed line is less like to tangle
  • Withstands mud, dirt and sand

CONS:

  • Not ideal for catching big fish
  • Heavier line required can limit shot distance and accuracy
  • Slower than a spincast reel in retrieving the line

3. Spincast Reels

This type of bowfishing reel will feel the most familiar to those used to traditional fishing reels.  A spincast reel houses a spool for the line and a handle for quick retrieval. The reel is mounted onto the bow by a reel seat.

Spincast reels achieve faster line retrieval compared to drum and bottle reels by using a drag mechanism. This allows you to target bigger fish with a spincast reel, as when the fish pulls hard the reel rotates in reverse to allow more line to be released. This prevents tension on the line which could otherwise see it break.

You will often need to press a release button on a spincast reel before shooting the arrow, just as you would with a traditional fishing reel. Without pressing the button there will be tension on the line which can see it snap, and in the worst case scenario send the arrow back towards you.

You can buy trigger style spincast reels which can remove some of this worry, as it removes the need to remember to press the button each time you shoot the arrow. This type of reel made for bowfishing allows the line to fly freely off the reel, with the trigger used to engage drag.

PROS:

  • Quick retrieval of the line
  • Thinner line allows for longer shots and greater accuracy
  • Can play the fish with the reel
  • Drag mechanism
  • Familiar if you have previously used a traditional fishing reel
  • Easy to clean when using with a reel seat.

CONS:

  • Forget to press the button and the arrow can quickly come back toward you
  • Line can twist in reel and snag
  • Thinner line needs more frequent checking to ensure it is not frayed
  • Can be expensive

How To Pick A Bowfishing Reel

Although you can have a successful day bowfishing with any of the three different reel types, choosing the right reel for you and the waters you are fishing will heighten your chances of catching. The following are a few factors to consider when choosing a bowfishing reel.

Usability

Finding a reel that is easy to use and intuitive is probably the most important consideration. Unless you are comfortable with the way the reel flows and retrieves you are not likely to enjoy your fishing.

The low-tech drum reel is a favorite for beginners as it has no moving parts and is easy to understand when you’re using it. Although they are the slowest reel to retrieve, speed is not usually relevant when first learning to bowfish. Once you have gained some experience you will most likely look to progress to one of the other two bowfishing reel types.

Price

For most people, budget is one of the prime considerations when making any purchase. Reels vary in line length, gear ratio, materials and so forth, and therefore prices vary too. However, a basic entry level drum reel can cost less than $20, whereas a bottle or spincast reel aimed at a more experienced user may cost between $100 and $200.

Entry level reels are ideal for getting started. There is little point in splashing out on a high-end reel when first starting to fish with a bow. It is better to start at the lower end of the market while you learn the skills required, upgrading the reel when you feel you need quicker line retrieval and better performance.

Durability And Performance

You do not want to spend your hard earned cash on a reel which is not designed to last. If you intend to bowfish often and want to fish to a decent standard, you should look for a reel made from good quality materials

The reliability and performance requirements of reels also varies according to the level of experience of the user. While drum reels are reliable, the lack of speed in the line retrieval means the performance is not suited to those who are more experienced and need a reel that can retrieve the arrow quickly without snagging.

Line Length

Bowfishing reels usually come with different lengths of line. How much line you need can depend on your level of experience and the waters you are fishing. Beginners will generally be bowfishing for close targets and will not need a reel with as much line length as someone who has more experience and can target fish at a greater distance.

Top level bowfishermen will want a reel with a much longer line length. Although you can always swap out the line from a reel for a more suitable option, the reel size may limit the length of line it can house.

Gear Ratio

The gear ratio denotes how fast or slow a reel retrieves the fishing line and is the most important technical specification for more experienced bowfishermen. The average gear ratio for a bowfishing reel is 4.3:1. This simply means that the reel will rotate 4.3 times for each complete turn of the crank handle.

Gear ratios apply to bottle reels and spincast reels, and therefore is not an initial concern for a beginner opting for a drum reel. However, as you improve your bowfishing skills the gear ratio will become more important as you look for more speed to shoot the arrow and retrieve the line.

Familiarity

Sometimes we like to stick to what we know. A spincast reel will feel familiar to anyone used to a traditional fishing reel, including a spool for the line as well as a crank handle for line retrieval.

While a bottle reel can be a little easier to set back up and a little less inclined to snag, if you have fished for years with a traditional fishing reel you may well feel more at home with a spincast reel when you first start bowfishing.

Safety

Beginners to bowfishing often prefer the simplicity of a drum reel as there are no moving parts and it therefore feels a safer option. With that said, the line needs to be retrieved by hand, so gloves are necessary to avoid potentially damaging your bare hands.

Bowfishing reels that require a button to be pressed prior to the shot have more safety issues. If you forget to press the button, tension is introduced into the line which can result in the line snapping or the arrow heading back toward you.

Standard fishing reels require a button to be pressed prior to casting, so this may be something already ingrained into your technique. However, this is an important safety element to consider when choosing a reel, particularly for beginners.

A safety slide is certainly worth considering regardless of reel type. This is a simple device which moves down along the arrow shaft in order to bring the line to the front of the bow. The purpose of this is to reduce the risk of the line tangling in the reel or the bow, thereby reducing the risk of the arrow snapping back at you when shot.

Final Thoughts

When picking a bowfishing reel, you ideally want to look for a reel which best suits your level of experience, as well as one which fits your budget. As you fish with a bow more often, you will build up a better appreciation of which reel is best suited for you.