Published June 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Ready, set, fish: St. Louis River offers good bowfishing for carp, attracting a small but growing number of bowfishers

The carp materializes like a brass dirigible, suspended in the murky backwaters of the St. Louis River near Duluth, Minn.

By: By Sam Cook, INFORUM

The carp materializes like a brass dirigible, suspended in the murky backwaters of the St. Louis River near Duluth, Minn.

That’s all bowfisherman Ken Alto needs to see. In less than two seconds, his bow is up and drawn. The arrow flies.

“That’s a good one,” Alto says.

The arrow has connected, and 30 pounds of carp thrashes in the weedy shallows. Alto, of Britt, Minn., begins to retrieve line hand over hand. The fish puts up a brief fight but is soon alongside the boat.

Alto, 54, is one of a small but growing number of bowfishers in Minnesota. In its recent session, the Minnesota Legislature expanded bowfishing opportunities in the state, making night bowfishing legal on Minnesota waters May 1 through the last Sunday in February (starting Aug. 1 this year).

On this June morning, Alto has made his first trip of the year to the St. Louis River.

Alto tosses the 30-pound carp in a barrel he keeps on board his 20-foot modified john-boat. Up front, he has custom-built a shooting platform, and he takes up his stance again, one foot on his trolling-motor controls, bow ready in his left hand. He scans the water through polarized sunglasses, looking for brass dirigibles.

His bow is a well-used Oneida Eagle, customized with a Zebco 808 fishing reel mounted on a bracket. The reel is spooled with 150-pound-test line, which is tied to the shaft of his arrow. The arrow is fitted with a bowfishing point with four large barbs.

Lights mounted all around the bow deck allow Alto to fish at night when necessary.

Alto has been bowfishing for 20 years, seriously for the past 12, he says. Very seriously. He has bowfished in Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.

Seven times, he has won Duluth’s annual “fun shoot” for carp on the St. Louis River, in which about 10 boats compete. He has competed three times in bowfishing’s World Shoot, placing as high as fifth among 40 to 60 boats.

Bowfishing is an extension of Alto’s bowhunting, he said. He has bowhunted for deer, bear, elk and caribou.

“I kind of live for bowhunting,” he says.

Alto is at the top of his game, said Duluth’s Tom Pfister, who has bowfished with Alto twice and competed against him in Duluth’s fun shoot.

“I give him a lot of credit for the knowledge he has shared with me at the boat landings,” Pfister said. “I’m just trying to keep up with him.”

In Minnesota, bowfishing typically means carp. In Texas, Alto has shot alligator gar, a prehistoric-looking fish, up to 110 pounds. A friend shot one that weighed 180 pounds.

“You want to see some chaos, you get a ‘gator gar on,” Alto says. “They got quite a hide on ‘em. You gotta cut it with a Sawzall. It’s pretty good meat. White, boneless.”

Alto cruises the river, searching for shapes. The fish aren’t in spawning mode, and he isn’t seeing as many as he often does.

“Normally, I’ll get a dozen to 20,” he says. “I’ve actually shot 100.”

Carp on the St. Louis River run big. Ten-pounders are common. Thirty-pounders are not uncommon, and Alto shoots the occasional 40-pounder. Carp in southern states often aren’t that large.

“You tell those guys we shoot 30-pound carp, and they drool,” Alto says.

Alto will shoot five on this early outing, with a total weight of more than 80 pounds. The smallest in the barrel will go 12 pounds.

As easy as Alto makes bowfishing look, it’s a challenge. He misses four shots during his day on the river. Sometimes fish spook and swim away just as he shoots. Sometimes he just misses.

Shooting from a moving platform at a moving target is not a simple thing. Most shots are close – within 7 or 8 yards. And on the river, where the water is stained or murky, most shots are at fish less than 2 feet deep.

Many times, fish spook before Alto can get a shot. All he sees is a cloud of silt, indicating the fish has left quickly.

“It’s a lot more like hunting than fishing,” he says.

As an invasive species, carp are unwelcome in Minnesota waters. They uproot submergent vegetation and alter lake ecosystems. Bowfishers are usually welcome on lakes or rivers, and residents often tell Alto where he can find carp, he said.

Obviously, bowfishing isn’t a catch-and-release thing. And few, if any, bowfishers eat carp. Rules specifically prohibit leaving fish on lakeshores or riverbanks. Alto hauls his home and uses them in a food plot he plants to attract white-tailed deer.

“I disk them into the field for fertilizer,” he says.

At mid-afternoon, his boat glides through weeds in a quiet bay.

“There’s one,” he says.

The fish bolts, leaving clouds of dust in its wake. Alto is on him fast. The arrow flies. It catches up with the carp, hitting the fish just ahead of the tail.

Alto hauls the fish, a 12- or 13-pounder, back to the boat. He’s a happy man.

“That was fun,” he says. “That’s the kind of shooting I enjoy, where they run like that.”

He reclaims his arrow. He drops the chunky fish onto 70 pounds of carp already in the barrel. Soon, it will grow whitetails.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, a Forum Communications newspaper