When it takes four guys to lift a barrel containing your catch, you know you’ve had a good night of fishing.
Take it from John Hood, Brian Ellenburg and Greg Campbell of Georgia, who won the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open Bowfishing Championship at Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes last weekend.
The two Ozarks reservoirs may be better known for their bass fishing, but they’re also filled with gigantic grass carp, common carp and gar. If you have doubts, you should have seen the catch brought in.
After fishing all night, they rolled up to the weigh-in stand and with a little help, hoisted a barrel filled with 20 huge rough fish onto a conveyer belt. Once the barrel reached the scale, the readout hit 376 pounds. Included in their catch were grass carp weighing 38 and 32 pounds.
“When it comes to bow fishing, we’re stone-cold killers’ ” said Hood, who lives in Dillard, Ga. “We don’t let many big ones get by us.”
Their catch was good for first place and a check for $10,000. But just as important, it put them in the spotlight of a rapidly growing craze in fishing.
Don’t think that this was just a weekend get-together of a few good ol’ boys. By the time the tournament began May 3, there were more than 900 fishermen from 27 states competing.
They started by gathering at the new Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Academy, where a festival celebrating the sport was held. Huge, souped-up fanboats were on display, bow manufacturers showed off their latest innovations and live music blared through loudspeakers.
The bow fishermen parked their boats in a grass field and awaited takeoff at 7 p.m. Some of the boats had colorful wraps and were adorned with clever team names. Carp Commander, Team Backpain, Garzilla, Sticky Business, Shallow Water Investigators, Midnight Mafia — they were all there.
As the starting time arrived, vehicles towing boats streamed out of the parking area, one by one according to their starting position. The fishermen honked their horns as they rolled by a large crowd, headed to the launch sites of their choosing on Table Rock or Bull Shoals lake.
They were restricted to rough fish such as carp or gar. Bass and catfish were safe for the night.
The fishermen were under a time limit. They had to be back at the weigh-in site by 7 a.m.
Soon, parts of the lakes were sparkling with the banks of lights mounted at the bow of the boats. Fishermen stood on platforms, scanning the clear water that was illuminated by the lights.
When a big fish would appear, they launched an arrow with their bows. When they would hit their target, they tugged on the heavy line to bring their catch to the boat.
For Hood, Ellenburg and Campbell, most of the action came in the dead of night. As the generators powering their light source hummed, they trolled through the shallows until they found the mother lode.
From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., they filled their barrel with monstrous fish, and they knew they would be in the running.
“We don’t see this clear water where we’re from,” Campbell said. “There are some good-sized fish living here, but they can spook easily when you come up on them.
“You’d better shoot fast or they’re gone.”
These Georgia bow fishermen are serious about their passion. They would have to be to travel 750 miles to compete in a tournament.
Hood and Ellenburg have bow fished together for almost 20 years, and they’ve shot some monstrous fish over that time. They remember the time when they shot simultaneously at a huge fish and ended up landing a 100-pound alligator gar.
They and Campbell have won 13 state championships, and have placed high in national and world bow-fishing tournaments.
Even they had never seen anything like the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open Championship. The tournament was the brainchild of John Paul Morris, the son of Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO John Morris.
John Paul Morris, an avid bow fisherman himself, noticed the swelling interest in bow fishing and wanted to create a showcase event. With his father’s backing, he came up with the U.S. Open.
It debuted last year and attracted 127 boats. This year that number climbed to 236 boats, many filled with four archers.
Weighing the catch of that many teams took some planning. Mike Webb, a longtime pro staff member for Bass Pro Shops and the tournament director of the U.S. Open, said he allowed 35 seconds to weigh each team’s catch.
By the time the weigh-in had finished, about 40,000 pounds of rough fish had been removed from Table Rock and Bull Shoals. A truck from a company in Illinois was on site to collect the fish, which will be used to produce an environmentally friendly fertilizer.
Webb and others with Bass Pro viewed the tournament as a win-win for Table Rock and Bull Shoals. It provided a showcase event for the rapidly growing sport of bow fishing, and it also thinned the population of rough fish, which compete with gamefish for food and habitat.
“We’re just amazed at how bow fishermen have taken to this event,” Webb said. “We thought we really had something last year when we had our first tournament. We had 127 boats and we thought that was huge.
“This year we almost doubled that. That shows how much interest there is in bow fishing these days.”