Pale, leathery tail fins waved above tea-colored water. Shoreline vegetation trembled; floating debris bobbed and parted under the assault of a hundred carp. "Looks like a carp hunters paradise," I said to my son, Adam, as we gazed out over a two-acre stretch of Michigan's St. John's Marsh, near Lake St. Clair. Heavy rain had swollen the marsh and spilled its waters into a neighboring field that was dry a few days before the rain. Fluffy swatches of cottonwood seed gently drifted down and settled on the marsh's murky surface. This accumulation created a floating, downy mat that was being disturbed constantly by rubbery lips. We had to chuckle at the symphony of sucking and gulping sounds, but it was the kind of activity that makes a rough fish hunters pulse race.
The relentless humidity was high enough to stifle an alligator, and the mosquitoes didn't hesitate to intimately introduce themselves. Despite the inhospitable vermin, we were eager to get started. This carp hunt would be nothing less than fantastic. For years we've enjoyed the great bowfishing potential that the St. John's Marsh has offered. This time, however, we had left our longbows at home and were hunting the rough fish with our atlatls, and harpoon darts.
To those not familiar with the atlatl, (pronounced AT-LAT-TAL, which means spearthrower.) The roots of archery and bowhunting began thousands of years ago, when prehistoric man found that by taking a stick with a hook on the end and fitting a five to six foot light spear, (called a dart by archaeologists), that he could increase his power and accuracy by over 100 times - compared to throwing a spear by hand.
The atlatl was used in all parts of the world, especially North America. Prehistoric Indians were using atlatls to hunt mammoths and wide-horned bison along with other game 20,000 years before the bow and arrow was even invented. In a previous article, I related how I had used my atlatl to harvest a large boar on a hunting preserve in Georgia. This initial story sparked a lot of new interest in the atlatl and its many uses.
As Adam and I walked along a high bank, next to a creek that emptied into the expanding marsh, we could see several large carp rolling and jumping just ahead of us. Adam took a throw at a large female carp. His six-foot dart just grazed the top fin of the carp and it took off through the weeds like a tank. As Adam reeled in his dart, I walked ahead and waited about a minute before another large carp surfaced enough to see the dorsal fin on top of the water. I took a quick throw, remembering that the water refraction makes the fish appear higher than they really are. Just as in bowfishing, you must aim lower than you might think. The dart hit the carp just about in the middle. The water exploded as the big carp tried unsuccessfully to swim away with the six-foot harpoon dart.
On a good solid throw, these darts came off the thrower about 100 miles per hour. Another factor is the weight of the dart. The average hunting/fishing arrow weighs 600 to 900 grains. My harpoon darts weigh about 3,000 grains. The penetration is more than surprising.
The dart had penetrated the fish and stuck in the muddy bottom about six inches. After a few quick tugs, I was able to free the dart from the muddy bottom and retrieve my prize. While I was just finishing this, Adam had taken another throw at a gar pike and scored a nice hit. Since gar pike are about one fourth the width of a carp, I was more than proud of his skill with the atlatl.
As the afternoon progressed, we both had taken about ten more throws, scoring about six more hits apiece. Just like the longbow, anyone who will practice can become very accurate with ancient atlatl.
When using the atlatl for rough fish, I have had more luck throwing darts from high banks over the water or using waders in shallow water, rather than using a boat. Adam and I had used a canoe one time and just as I threw my dart at a fish, I lost my balance and we both took a cold bath in the marshy waters of the St. John. In remote areas of Alaska, Eskimo hunters still use kayaks and atlatls to harvest seals and large fish. Myself, I'll stick to throwing darts from high banks and wading in the shallows every time.
After about five hours we had a total of fourteen fish. The large female carp, with eggs, would be used for garden fertilizer. The fresh, firm fish would be smoked; with a little work, they make very good eating. As we walked back to our vehicle with a string of fish, a guy in a pickup truck pulled in and said, "Whose arrows are those, the Jolly Green Giant's?" (referring to our six foot atlatl darts).
Instead of giving him the 15 minute history lesson, I handed him one of my flyers on "The Amazing Atlatl." I said, "Read this, it will explain everything about our atlatls and darts." An interesting thing to me is, as the atlatl sport continues to grow, I find myself not having to explain how the atlatl works and how it relates to the history of archery and bowhunting as much as I did five or six years ago.
Adapting the atlatl for harvesting rough fish is quite simple. You can use the same atlatl you use for target and/or regular hunting. The only real equipment change would be in the darts. Although I prefer wood darts over any other material, I have found that if you do a lot of fish hunting, darts made of fiberglass tubing work and last a lot longer. Wood darts tend to warp if they are constantly emerged in water. Also, fiberglass darts penetrate the water better than wood darts.
Another equipment change would be replacing the target or hunting head with a good quality fishing head like the "Sting-A-Ree" or "Aqua-Killer" point. These are quality fish-hunting heads, that work well. I have also had good luck with a heavy-duty three-prong fishing head called a "Hell Diver".
Rigging a reel for your dart is also quite simple. Unlike bowfishing, where the reel is attached to the bow, when using the atlatl, I use a specially made reel, which is held in my left hand, while the dart is thrown using my right arm. The line is attached to the end of the six foot harpoon dart. I've also found that if I'm hunting rough fish in shallow water, a reel is not necessary, as the six foot darts are easy to retrieve as long as you're wearing waders.
SPICY FISH BATTER
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1_ cups flour
1 cup milk
3 Tablespoons baking powder
1 Teaspoon garlic salt
2 Teaspoons horseradish mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
(a pinch of cayenne pepper to taste, if desired)
Beat eggs and mix in milk, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.
Add dry ingredients, beat only until smooth. Deep fry until flesh is flaky, but don't overcook.
FOR THE DINNER PLATE
For many, the only way to cook fish is deep frying. And if there is any "secret" to preparing truly tasty fried fish, it lies in the batter. Here are a few points to keep in mind for excellent batters:
1. Always make sure to pat the fish dry before coating fillets with batter
2. Always mix batter just enough until the ingredients are combined. Too much mixture kills
the baking powder action.
3. To create a better flavor, marinate fish in citrus juice before batter coating.
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