Captain Jason Peters stands on the bow of his airboat and scans the clear, shallow bottom of an airboat trail with the beam of his headlamp as I steer us slowly east. Suddenly, he raises his longbow — arrow already nocked — and shoots at a small, brown cigarillo-shaped thing moseying beneath the surface.
“Got him! Turn left,” Peters directs me.
I pull back hard on the tiller, or whatever you call the thing that steers the airboat, and it slowly circles back in the direction of the line that stretches from the arrow shaft back to a reel on the longbow. Peters is pulling the line in hand over hand and he is struggling. His impaled quarry is splashing, diving and jumping, but I can’t see it clearly.
This is kind of spooky.
Eventually, Peters wins the tug of war and flings a wide-bodied, grayish-blue fish that looks to be about five pounds into a plastic barrel. Reversible barbs on the arrow allow him to shake it off.
“They don’t look like much in the water, like little brown pollywogs,” he said. “Then you bring them up and whoa ….”
Peters, owner/operator of Hollywood-based JP Outfitters, has just bagged a blue tilapia — one of about 10 he got Tuesday night along with another 20 brown bullhead catfish. The haul will make a bountiful meal for friends and neighbors. The guide says wild tilapia taste much better than the farm-raised species sold in grocery stores and, increasingly, on restaurant menus.
“Wild tilapia are a mild fish; the texture is more like a saltwater fish,” he said. “Farm-raised are kind of mushy.”
Peters doesn’t just shoot fish to take home; he guides small parties on nighttime bow fishing excursions in the Everglades so they can harvest dinner themselves. The months of December through March are prime time because dropping water levels force fish out of shallow marshes and concentrate them in deeper, open sloughs for easy picking.
A bow-and-arrow or a gig are about the only weapons you can rely on to bag tilapia. Eaters of algae and other organisms that grow on water plants, they usually are not amenable to taking baits on hook-and-line. Some anglers have gotten lucky by dragging a jig or some other lure slowly across their spawning beds, which look like small moon craters in the shallows. That spurs the fish to try to pick the invader up and move it out of the nest and that’s when to set the hook — a tricky operation.
Peters prefers to stalk the fish at night on the flats near Sawgrass Recreation Area in west Broward when they are less wary.
“The later it gets, the stupider they get,” he said. “Sometimes they get blinded by the light and lay over. We call them sleepers. During the daytime, they’re like rocket ships.”
To kill a tilapia with bow-and-arrow takes practice.
“You don’t shoot directly at them,” Peters said. “Shoot way under them because of the refraction of the water. The deeper it is, the lower you aim. Think of it like this: when you stick your fishing rod in the water, it looks like it’s bent. That’s refraction.”
Peters says an average bow fisher will miss most of his or her targets, but the lower the water levels, the easier the sport becomes.
“Usually, March is the best time. You shut down the boat and it’s like cattle running from you. You don’t know which ones to shoot,” he said. “When the water’s real low, you can find them in the main canal. You can get them from a bass boat.”
And whatever fish the archer misses can sometimes be harvested with a four-pronged gig, like those used for frogging. Tilapia sitting on their beds are the easiest targets.
Blue tilapia are not native to Florida; they originate in North Africa and the Middle East. The species was brought here in the 1960s as an experiment in sport angling and to help control the spread of some aquatic plants. But those plans went awry when some “bandit” anglers took the fish from their inland enclosure and released them into the wild where they became widespread in South and Central Florida. The largest ever caught here weighed 10 pounds, and fish in the two-to-four-pound range are common.
Unlike black or peacock bass, blue tilapia are not deemed a gamefish by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Hence, there are no bag or size limits and there is no closed season. Taking them by bow or gig is perfectly legal.
Kelly Gestring, a non-native fisheries biologist with the FWC, says there have been concerns that the exotics might out-compete native black bass for food or habitat. But so far, he said, that hasn’t happened.
“We have not been able to detect blue tilapia having a measurable negative impact on native fish,” Gestring said. “Some of them are beneficial because bass will eat them. They are in all of our popular bass lakes, like Istokpoga and Okeechobee, and the bass fishing continues to be phenomenal despite their presence.”
Gestring encourages fishers to target blue tilapia and appreciates that Peters showed them how it’s done.
“We encourage people to catch and eat as many as they can,” he said. “That’s a neat thing that he takes people bow fishing.
“It gets people into the outdoors utilizing an unwanted and available resource.”
If you go
To book a bow fishing trip with captain Jason Peters of JP Outfiiters, visit jpoutfittersinc.com or call 954-496-6588.