A young bow fisherman scans the water on the Red River. (Photo provided by Phil Reno)
Stephen Banaszak loves to hunt for fish with a bow.
The Denison, Texas, resident holds state bowfishing records in Oklahoma and Texas. He guides customers on trips along the Red River and Lake Texoma, introducing them to the exciting and fast-paced action of bowfishing.
Last month a group from Canada came to Oklahoma to go bowfishing with Banaszak, who makes YouTube videos of his fishing adventures.
“You will never have more fun on the water than bowfishing,” he said. “It’s great for the family. It’s non-stop excitement.”
However, Banaszak fears the sport will be crippled by an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation proposed rule change that would establish a 10-fish aggregate bag limit for native nongame species.
Except for special harvest restrictions on paddlefish, alligator gar and the black buffalo that already exist, there are currently no limits in Oklahoma on how many native nongame fish can be shot by bow anglers in a day.
Estimates indicate there are over 87,800 licensed resident bow anglers, according to the Wildlife Department.
State wildlife officials say they want to place some “reasonable limitations” on bowfishing to better protect fish species that are important to the ecosystem.
“They are simply shot for sport,” said Jason Schooley, senior fisheries biologist for the state agency of native nongame fish. “They are not used for anything. They are not consumed.”
In Oklahoma, fish are designated as game fish or nongame fish. Game fish or sport fish, such as bass and crappie in Oklahoma, are the kind of fish that most anglers pursue. The Wildlife Department is the agency responsible for setting limits on the number of fish anglers can keep, and in some cases, length limits, to ensure populations are sustainable for years to come.
Over the years, native nongame fish have been considered by many anglers as “trash” or “rough” fish with little or no value. Even wildlife agencies have considered the fish to be less desirable, Schooley said. In recent years, however, scientists have learned these fish are long-lived and have high conservation value, he said.
“They are playing a role in the fisheries community, so therefore we shouldn’t allow them to be harvested indiscriminately,” he said.
Native nongame fish have been understudied, underappreciated and undermanaged by wildlife agencies over the years, Schooley said. Other states are now placing restrictions on bowfishing to better protect the species, he said.
Since native nongame fish are pursued recreationally by bow anglers, “they are de facto a sport fish,” Schooley said.
In addition to the 10-fish per day, per person aggregate limit on native nongame species, state wildlife officials want to end the practice of shoot and release by bow anglers. All fish would have to be kept and legally disposed of under the regulations established by the Wildlife Department.
Surveys of bow anglers by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation show that the vast majority — 87 percent — don’t shoot more than 10 native, nongame fish per day on average, Schooley said.
“We are really trying to minimize the impact you have on your average person, but at the same time putting what we feel like is a reasonable limitation on people who find themselves in an opportunity to shoot a bunch of fish in one day,” Schooley said. “And when that does happen, typically those fish are wasted.”
Schooley also said the regulation change would still allow bow anglers to shoot unlimited numbers of invasive species, fish that are not native to Oklahoma but have found themselves transplanted into state waters, such as the different species of Asian carp.
“Opportunities do exist for the fast-paced, kill a bunch of fish,” Schooley said. “We just hope to direct the harvest power at the harmful, invasive species rather than our native nongame fishes.”
Banaszak contends there are very few places in Oklahoma with invasive species so those opportunities are limited. The population of native nongame fish, like gar and buffalo, however, is robust and a 10-fish aggregate limit per person is unnecessary and “pretty absurd,” he said.
“There are plenty of nights I see more of these fish in one night than I will ever shoot in my entire life,” Banaszak said. “I just don’t see where it is necessary to propose such strict regulations.”
Limiting the number of native nongame fish to 10 “would make them way more regulated than game fish, even though there is only a fraction of the amount of people that fish for these fish versus game fish,” he said.
Banaszak believes bow anglers are being cast as villains and the proposed regulations are driven not by science but by an animosity to bowfishing. No one cares for native nongame species more than bow anglers, and if they were seeing a decline in their population, they would be the first to call for protections such as bag limits, he said.
He thinks if the proposed regulation becomes law, it will end tournament bowfishing in Oklahoma and drive people from the sport. A 10-fish native, nongame limit would not be worth the time and money to most bow anglers, he said.
Customers would not pay for guided trips if they can’t shoot many fish, Banaszak said.
“Bowfishing is a very expensive sport,” Banaszak said. “I can’t justify keeping a boat when I can only fish for five minutes.”
Schooley though said state wildlife officials are trying to show that these fish have value.
“The best way to do that is put a bag limit on them rather than to say you can kill as many as you want, 365 days of the year,” he said. “If we have no bag limits and we allow people to simply shoot them and throw them back, we can’t even do an effective creel study to understand what people are taking.
“So, we have to have some sort of baseline rules in place in order to generate better information about how to manage these on a species or on a population level.”
A public comment period is now open on the proposed rule change. It runs through Dec. 8. A public hearing is set Dec. 7 in Oklahoma City at the headquarters of the Wildlife Department, 1801 N. Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the Wildlife Department is sponsoring gar week Nov. 6-10 on its social media platforms. Trivia, videos and other information will be posted daily to raise public awareness about gar in Oklahoma.
“We are trying to change the narrative a little bit about how people feel about these fish that have been here for years and years and years,” said Sarah Southerland, social media specialist for the Wildlife Department.
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