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As Bowmen Hunt, Surfers Feel Like Targets

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Published: November 19, 2002

There are 92 public piers along the California coast. Fishermen of all types inhabit them, but on only one, here in Imperial Beach, the last town before California succumbs to Mexico, is hunting fish with bow and arrow allowed.

On most days and nights, a handful of bow fishermen take up stations on the 1,500-foot-long pier, staring down with arrows ready for the telltale shadow or flash of scales of the corvina, or white sea bass, their most prized prey.

The ocean currents occasionally bring swimmers and surfers within the bowfishermen's range, setting off angry confrontations, although no humans have yet been impaled. But Imperial Beach officials, reflecting the town's rough-and-tumble character, have so far refused to ban the sport despite repeated protests from surfers and lifeguards.

Although the prime corvina feeding season had passed, Blake Jacobson was out recently with his bow watching for whatever might swim among the pilings. A school of mullet might occasionally pass, or a shovelnose shark, a stingray or a confused salmon too close to shore.

''Give me a big, fat, slow dumb guy, that's what I'm looking for,'' Mr. Jacobson said, his gaze never lifting from the water.

His friends call him Blake the Caveman, and it is not meant as an insult. His hands are thick with calluses, his legs covered in scabs and bruises. He wears a torn black tank top with a tarnished silver fishhook necklace around his sun-reddened neck. His face looks as if his beard got the better of his razor some days earlier. He makes a living as a hand on an sport fishing boat, using traditional tackle.

On this day, he is wielding a compound hunting bow, modified with an open spool holding 350 yards of 100-pound-test monofilament. The arrow attached to the line leaves the bow at 300 feet per second, and if a fish happens into its trajectory, the tip will run right through it unless deflected by fin or bone.

The presence of these weapons on the public pier makes some people uncomfortable in this rather threadbare beach town. The waters on both sides of the pier are popular with swimmers, surfers and boogie-boarders, except when an inconvenient current brings sewage and runoff from the mouth of the Tijuana River down the coast.

The bow fishermen are not supposed to aim more than 20 feet from the pier, but they consider their target zone to extend about 30 yards from it because, they say, they need the extra room to get a clean angle. Surfers occasionally find themselves staring up at a hunting arrow.

''Last week I had to yell at a guy who had his bow pointed right at me,'' said Serge Dedina, a surfer and former lifeguard here.

Mr. Dedina said the bow fishermen were a belligerent lot, with little concern for public safety. He has complained to lifeguards and police, but little has been done, he said.

''People in this town are terrified of these guys,'' said Mr. Dedina, who asked.

''Would you let a guy with a gun hunt on a Little League field?'' he asked. ''Someone's going to get shot.''

Bow fishing is popular in the upper Midwest and the South. Most states limit the take to rough fish like carp, gar, suckers and other bottom-feeders.

Bow fishing has encountered opposition in many places, particularly among other recreational users of the waters in which it is practiced, said Mark Ellenberg, president of the Bowfishing Association of America, which has about 500 members.

''People go kind of crazy when they see us pointing arrows,'' Mr. Ellenberg said. ''I call it the tree-hugger factor.'' He said some accidents had occurred, most involving bow fishermen shooting other bow fishermen. ''For the most part,'' he said, ''it's pretty safe.''

Imperial Beach tried to ban bow fishing five years ago, but the fishermen -- a boisterous group of about 20 devotees -- persuaded officials to let them continue under a licensing system. The city now requires bow fishermen to take a two-hour safety course for a permit. Bow fishing is not allowed during prime beach hours in the summer, but there are no limits the rest of the year.

''There was a group that was going around trying to get rid of it, like business owners and surfers who said that at nighttime there's some dangerous people out there,'' said Jeff Cox, a plumber who is considered the unofficial leader of the bowmen. ''I've seen no injuries in my 21 years. And, listen, this town needs every bit of help it can get, especially because of the sewage spills from Mexico.''

Imperial Beach's status as the only place in California permitting bow fishing from a pier is a peculiar distinction for an unusual town. It advertises itself as ''the southwesternmost city in the continental United States,'' and it has been the end of the line for drifters and small dreamers. In the Depression, thousands of refugees from the Dust Bowl settled here because land was cheaper than elsewhere on the California coast and work was available on the nearby farms and citrus groves. Only five miles from Tijuana and Baja California, Imperial Beach retains some frontier flavor.

''It's kind of a blue-collar town with a hard-core element of people who really don't like surfers,'' said Mr. Dedina, who grew up in Imperial Beach and who runs a small environmental organization called Wildcoast. ''A lot of people identify with the bowhunters.''

Despite sporadic efforts to spruce up the place, Imperial Beach, population 27,500, remains a poor cousin of more gentrified Southern California beach communities like Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Santa Monica. None of those places allow bow fishing from their piers.

Lifeguards have had run-ins with the bow fishermen, but no one has been arrested, said David Ott, who is in charge of public safety and is deputy city manager for Imperial Beach. Mr. Ott acknowledged some ''inherent incompatibilities'' between the recreational use of the waters and people with lethal weapons shooting into the surf. But he said he was supporting and enforcing the compromise with the bow fishermen.

Mr. Jacobson, about to give up the hunt after two fruitless hours peering into the empty ocean, said he had heard about problems between surfers and bow fishermen, but that things had been better lately.

''Everybody has really stuck to the safety rules this summer,'' he said. ''There have been no accidents, no close calls, even. It's very clear that you're looking for fish, not a surfer.''