Water Sports

How to Fish: The Ultimate Guide

Do you love being out on or near the water, but didn’t grow up learning how to fish? Then this guide is for you! We will go over the basics of where to start, what gear to buy, how to put all the gear together to be able to catch something, and a variety of other questions you might have along the way. When we are done, you will have the information to go out and start fishing on your own.

Table of Contents

Purchase a License

First of all, you want to fish legally. You purchase licenses depending on which state you live in, or wish to fish within. Generally, licenses are cheaper if you are fishing within the state you currently reside in, but if you are in another state on a vacation, it’s worth it to pay a higher license fee than risk paying the fine. Look online for your specific states Department of Fish and Wildlife website or on your states Department of Natural Resources website. Here you will find information on whether you need one specific license (only fishing in freshwater, or only in saltwater), or if you need a location specific license for a certain body of water. If you bring children with you, often times they don’t need a license if they are under the age of 16, but it varies from state to state, so don’t forget to check! You can also get a license at most sporting goods stores, in the sporting section of Walmart (for convenience), or even online (license will either be emailed or mailed to you).

Equipment: what to buy

Here’s where you might be overwhelmed by the plethora of fishing accessories and equipment out on the market today. It might be helpful to head to a sporting goods store, and ask an employee what type of gear you will need. But it’s good to have an idea of what you’ll require before you head to the store.

Basic gear

  • Rod
  • Reel
  • Line
  • Hooks
  • Lures
  • Weights/Sinkers
  • Bait
  • Net
  • Fileting knife (for cleaning the fish)

Rod

It may seem obvious, but you definitely will need to purchase a rod to fish with. Be aware of terminology, a fishing rod is a pole that has guides (for the line) and you can attach a reel to the pole. A fishing pole is simply a long cane stick, with no guides, no reel, and the line is free and hanging, only attached at the end. You will want a rod that is no taller than yourself, or might be just a little shorter than your height. Rods come in varying stiffness: the looser the rod, the less likely you are to break the line for an average sized fish. When the rod is looser (bends easier), you can ‘feel’ the fish when it strikes on the line. If you are fishing for large ocean-going fish, a stiffer rod would be the way to go. If you are just learning, don’t buy the most expensive rod; opt for a cheaper version, just in case you break it while you are still getting the hang of fishing.

Reels

Depending on the rod that you purchase, the reel may or may not come with the rod. If it doesn’t come with the rod, you will need to pick one out separately. This popular website has an article that gives instruction on how to pick out the perfect reel for you: Finding the perfect reel , which might prove helpful for the beginning fisherman. There are three basic types of reels: bait casting, spinning and spin cast. Spin cast is the type of reel you would find on a children’s rod. The entire assembly is enclosed, and to cast you press a button to release the line, and after casting you release the button. It is very simple and easy for anyone to use. A spinning reel is the type you will find on most rods, and is the most common type of reel. It is open faced (you can see the line), and has a large amount of space for the line to spool on the reel. It is also very simple to use. Usually there is a lever that you turn one way when you cast, and then you flip it back to keep the line from free spooling out. This would be the type recommended for beginners (unless they are children), as it takes a small amount of coordination and skill to cast and use this reel. The third type is bait casting, and is the most difficult type of reel to use. The spool turns when you cast, so you must keep tension (by pressing a finger) on the line as you cast. This can be a bit tricky to do, and when you mess up, the line on the reel spools up into a rat’s nest…. which is no fun to untangle. This type of reel works well with heavier line, and once you get the hang of casting it, it is incredibly accurate.

Line

Choosing the line shouldn’t be the hardest part of this shopping trip. There are really only a few different types of line: braided nylon or Dacron, monofilament, and fly line (for fly fishing). For the beginner fisherman, you will only be interested in monofilament line. Braided nylon is for stronger fish, or if you are fishing somewhere where the line tends to get caught or cut on things. Fly line is a very light floating line that is only used when fly fishing. The strength of the monofilament line is listed on the spool as pound (lb. or #) test. Which one you choose will be determined by the size of the fish you want to catch. Usually line comes in 4, 6, 8, and 10 lb. test: anything more than that will be for the advanced fisherman. Keep in mind that the looser the pole, the lighter the gauge of line that you want, so that you will be able to ‘feel’ the fish when it strikes on your line. Your reel may come with line already on it, but if it does, it is more likely to be a very low (and cheap) lb. test, so you may wish to purchase a higher lb. test line and re-spool the line on the reel. There’s nothing worse than knowing you have a large fish on the line, and then the line breaks.

Hooks

Hooks are a relatively simple thing to pick out: there are lots of choices, but just go with a simple design for starting. Hooks generally come with a barb on the end (to keep the fish from falling off the hook), but make sure where you are fishing barbs are allowed. In some locations barbs must be clipped off the hooks to ensure the fish are not injured during catch and release methods. There are some hooks which ‘set’ themselves, and some where you have to ‘set’ (jerk) the hook into the fishes mouth, but you can always buy a few of each kind and see what works for you. Hooks aren’t generally too expensive, so make sure you have extra, just in case you lose the hook or it gets swallowed by the fish.

Lures

Lures can be a bit daunting to pick out: there are many different types and they all come in a variety of colors. You can purchase an assortment of different lures online: PLUSINNO Fishing Lures Baits Tackle , that way you can see what works for you. Check out this video to see an in depth explanation of how to choose the right lure: . There are seven types of lures:

  1. Jigs: these are the most versatile in the lure category. They are inexpensive, and are essentially a weighted lead head with a ‘skirt’ of feathers, hair, a grub, or even just bait on a hook. When you use a jig, you cast the line out, let the lure drop to the bottom, and then jerk the line up in a series of pulls until the lure makes it back to the surface.
  2. Spinners: these have a metal shaft with a spinning blade on the end. These can be used in multiple situations, and are fairly easy to use. You just cast the line, and then slowly reel it back in. The spinner ‘spins’, and as it moves the metal will be flashy in the water and make noises. This will attract the fish (hopefully), and result in an excellent fish dinner.
  3. Spoons: these are essentially just that: a curved metal spoon. The first spoons were the bowl of the spoon with the handle cut off, but modern day spoons can be any color and come in a multitude of spoon-like shapes. They can also be used in many situations, and are very simple to use. Cast the line, and then slowly reel it back in. The shape of the spoon allows it to wobble from side to side, thus creating some movement in the water, and mimicking an injured fish (easy prey).
  4. Soft plastic baits: these are lures molded from soft plastic that can be made to look like anything. There are worms, fish, shrimp, and crabs: all molded from soft plastic (almost the texture of a gummy worm). These can be used instead of an artificial bait, as the soft plastic helps the fish to hang on a little bit longer before it will spit it out, giving you time to ‘set’ the hook.
  5. Plugs: these are hollow plastic or wooden bait fish or frogs, which usually come with 2-3 treble hooks on the end. These can be used for a multitude of uses, depending on what you are fishing for, and some of these plugs will come with a diving nose on the plug. The diving nose will allow the plug to sink down in the water and stay there at a certain depth while you are reeling the line in.
  6. Spinner baits: these are strange looking lures, composed of a wire attached to a lead body, with a rubber skirt or multiple spinners attached to the body of the lure. They are also simple to use, just a routine cast and retrieve.
  7. Flies: these are primarily used during fly fishing, although if a clear bubble float is added, they can be used on traditional spinning gear as well. Flies are generally light weight lures that imitate various types of bugs, and can be used with a simple cast and release method.

If you are planning on going bass fishing, look here for more information on using the right lure for your location.

Weights/Sinkers

Weights are generally made of lead, and come in varying sizes. If you are fishing out on a lake, you only need to purchase the smaller ones, as you don’t need the hook to sink that far below the surface. There are weights made of tin, steel, bismuth and tungsten-nickel alloy, but these are generally more expensive alternatives. Some weights tie directly onto the line, while others are split down the center, and are pressed onto the line. Either way, they tend to be spendy, so make sure you attach them correctly, and try not to lose them!

Bait

There are two types of bait: natural and artificial. Natural bait tends to be things you can collect yourself: worms, maggots, grasshoppers, salmon eggs, shrimp, liver, live baitfish or bugs of any kind. You can also purchase these at many sporting stores, and at some convenience stores and marinas. Artificial bait is something you can purchase and it will generally last longer, and can have a stronger smell that will attract the fish. A type of artificial bait is power (dough) bait, which is a scented floating putty in a variety of colors that comes in a small glass jar. This type of bait can be used when fishing for trout, but make sure you have the correct hooks that will work with dough bait. You can purchase hooks or wrap wire around an existing hook, and then squish the bait into the wire, to keep it in place on the hook.

Net

A net is extremely useful to have at your disposal, especially if you catch a fish that is thrashing around quite a bit. Instead of lifting the fish out of the water on the line, you (or a fellow fisherman) can use the net to scoop up the fish, thus making sure it will not fall off the line once the water isn’t supporting the fishes weight. It doesn’t have to be a huge net, although if you are on a boat fishing, you might want to get a net with a longer handle, so it can reach down into the water from a higher position.

Fillet knife

What type of fillet knife you choose will likely come from personal preference and experience. Every fisherman has a knife that they swear by. You could try the Bubba Blade, or perhaps the Rapala Fish’n Fillet Knife . Whatever you end up choosing, make sure you keep the blade sharp, and are careful while using it. A dull blade will shred a fillet, and make it that much more difficult to get a nice end product.

Where to fish?

Now that you have all the necessary equipment, it’s time to get out there and start fishing! But where should you go?

  • Check local parks and lakes: many of these locations stock their rivers and ponds with fish. Some are only open for fishing at specific times during the year, so make sure and read the rules before you cast a line.
  • Drive around to your nearby ponds or levees: these are excellent places to fish and to catch some local trout or bass.
  • If you are lucky enough to live near an ocean, you might want to try fishing right from the beach into the surf. If you are fishing saltwater fish, you might need a separate license, as well as different lures or gear, so make sure and check your state laws before you fish.
  • Read your local newspaper or fishing magazines: quite often fishing reports will be posted. These could include where the fish are being caught, what species of fish are biting, what type of bait the fish are striking at, and what fish are in season at the moment.
  • Look for local places where deep water meets shallow water in a lake or river. Big fish prefer to spend the day in deep water, and come into the shallow water to feed, so those are ideal locations for catching the ‘big one’.
  • Be aware that freshwater fish are crepuscular feeders, meaning they only feed at dusk and dawn. You might be in the perfect location, but simply at the wrong time. Set your alarm and get out there before the sun comes up in anticipation of catching your fish.
  • Check out your state’s Department of Natural Resources website to make sure the water you are fishing in is clean. Some locations have been polluted, for various reasons, and you wouldn’t want to eat a fish from those waters. If the water is polluted, simply practice catch and release: don’t bother saving the fish for your supper.

Let’s go fishing!

Now that you have the gear, and hopefully have a location to go fishing, let’s put all the gear together and head out to the lake (or river… or stream… or pond). If your pole didn’t come with line on it, make sure and take the time to fill the reel with line. You will need to use an arbor knot to tie the line onto the reel. It is fairly simple, and is an extremely handy knot to know.

Arbor Knot

  1. Wrap the line around the reel.
  2. Tie an overhand knot with the loose end around the standing end (one with all the line attached to it).
  3. Tie another overhand knot at the very end of the loose end.
  4. Slowly tighten the line, snug down the knots around the reel.

Make sure you fill up the reel with all the line that it will hold, and then feed the line through the guides on the pole, and you are ready to attach the hook. To attach the hook there are several different knots you could use. The most common is the cinch knot. Check out this video to see several other knots that you might want to use out on the water: .

Cinch knot

  1. Pass the line through the eye of the hook and wrap the loose end around the standing line five times.
  2. Bring the loose end back and pass it through the loop you just made above the eye.
  3. Pass the end back through the big loop.
  4. Slowly tighten the knot down on itself.
  5. Clip off the excess from the loose end.

If you need weights/sinkers on your line, now would be the time to attach them to the line above the hook: a few inches above the hook will work just fine. If you are already out fishing, put on your bait and you are good to go! When you put your bait on, make sure and have the hook go through the bait at least twice: that way your bait won’t get torn off as easily when the fish strikes it.

Drag

If you haven’t set your drag on the reel, this would be the time to check it. The drag is a knob on the reel that lets you set how much resistance will be on the line. The tighter the drag, the more resistance the fish feels. When you are casting, and before a fish gets on the line, you want the drag not to be too tight: that way the fish won’t break the line when it gets hooked and swims away, but it’s still tight enough that you can feel the fish on the line. Once you hook a fish on the line, you can then tighten the drag a little bit, so that it wears the fish out more. But don’t tighten it all the way, or there will be no give in the line. If it’s too tight, the fish could break the line when it gets hooked and tries to swim away quickly. After catching a few fish, you will start to know how much to tighten the drag, and realize it isn’t too difficult to learn.

Casting

Now you are ready to cast the line out. Most people hold the rod at a 45 degree angle and cast it out sideways. You will need to either push a button or hold a lever up on the reel to let the line out. Do that while keeping a finger on the line on the rod (to keep it from spooling out from the weight of the hook and sinker), and then angle the pole back and cast the line out. Once the hook has hit the water, wait a few seconds for the hook to sink down, and then flip the button or lever on the reel back so the line won’t keep spooling out. Then, depending on which hook or lure you have, start to slowly reel your line back in. Make sure you aren’t reeling the line in too quickly, or else the fish may not see it or have a chance to bite at it. Then it’s just a waiting game: which is probably why they call it fishing and not catching.

Reeling in a fish

You need to be alert and ready at any time while fishing, because when a fish strikes the bait, sometimes they don’t always hook themselves on the hook, so you will need to ‘set’ the hook. To see a detailed explanation on how to do this, watch this video: . With a looser rod, you will be able to feel when the fish has struck the bait, and the line will start to pull out of the reel. You will need to jerk back on the rod, so that the hook will thoroughly embed itself in the fish’s mouth. There are some hooks which set themselves, so jerking on the line won’t make any difference, but check what type of hooks you will be using before you try this method. Once the fish is set, you will now need to work on reeling the fish in. This could be fairly easy, but if you happen to catch a large fish on a small test (lb.) line, it might take a bit of a fight to get the fish back to shore. If the reel is making a whirring sound: meaning that the fish is running away from you, and the line is coming out of the reel so fast it is making a loud noise, don’t try to reel the fish in. Let the fish run. Don’t forget: if you have the drag set really loose, this would be the time to tighten it up a little bit so it will wear the fish out faster. When the fish stops running (reel stops making a noise), then you can start bringing the fish in. Take the rod and point up at a 90 degree angle in front of you, then as you bring the rod back down (creating slack in the line), you can reel in the line and extra slack. Continue to do this until the fish is at the water’s edge. At this point, if it is a small fish, you can take your chances and just bring it completely out of the water. If the fish is larger, you will want to get your net ready (or have a friend get the net ready). By using the net, you eliminate the chance of losing the fish as it becomes heavy when you lift it out of the water.

How to handle the fish

Once you have the fish on shore, you will now need to take the hook out of its mouth. Pliers work the best, but in a pinch you can hold the fish with one hand, and then use your other hand to carefully pull the hook out. If the fish has swallowed the hook, you will either need to use pliers to hold onto the line and pull it out, or you will just have to break off the line and not get that hook back. If you are planning on ‘catch and release’ of the fish, try to handle the fish as carefully as possible, so you don’t injure it, and it can be released back into the water and will not die. You will also want to know how to identify the fish species, so purchasing some type of fish guide for your area will be helpful in the long run. Books like this are very reasonable, you just need to locate one for your area, such as this one for the lakes and rivers in Colorado: Fish of Colorado Field Guide (Fish Identification Guides) . Once you have identified the fish, you will then know if that species is legal to keep or if you will have to throw it back. Some fish you can only keep if they are a certain size, so it might be helpful to have a ruler of some sort with you, so you can measure the fish and know if it’s legal to keep. If you will be keeping the fish, either kill and gut the fish right away, or you can use a stringer, such as this one: Eagle Claw 04300-005 Invincible Chain Stringer . Use the clip like attachments on the line, and put it through the gill plate and the mouth of the fish, and then attach one end on land somewhere (or a dock), and make sure the other end is in the water. This way, the fish will be kept alive for as long as you wish, so that you can clean all the fish at the same time.

Tips while fishing

Fishing may seem very simple, and while the basic principle is just casting a line into the water, here are some tips that might help you when you head out.

  • If you are planning on wearing sunscreen while out on the water (which is a good idea anyway), be careful about putting on sunscreen and then directly baiting your hook. The fish will be able to smell the scent of the sunscreen, and it will probably deter them from biting on the bait.
  • Also make sure and never to throw used line overboard. It may seem relatively harmless, but it will never disintegrate, and can get caught on a fish’s body, and there is no way they will be able to get it untied. Fish might also eat the line, which they can’t digest, and it could end up blocking their intestines, resulting in the death of the fish. Always store used line on board your boat, or in a secure place on the shore until you can properly throw it in the garbage.
  • If you are using soft plastic lures, use a sharpie to draw lines on the side of the lure, which will soak into the plastic and make the lure look more realistic.
  • If you are fishing with treble (multiple) hooks on one lure, and you decide you want to only use a single hook, but don’t have any with you, there is a simple solution. Just use a pair of wire cutters (on the back of your pliers) and cut off the hooks until you just have one left. This will keep the lure from wobbling in the water, and give you the action of a single hook.
  • If you are fishing somewhere where you keep catching eels, pack a few green kitchen scrubbies to handle the eel. They will give your hands the traction they need to hold onto the eel while you take the hook out, and the scrubbie can be washed in the dishwater at the end of the day and reused.

Cleaning your fish

After the day is done, and you have filled your stringer with fish, now is the time to clean your fish. If you wish to make your significant other happy, it might be a good idea to clean the fish before you get back home, so they won’t have to deal with the mess or the cleanup. Some fishing locations have fish cleaning stations, which consist of a table of some sort, with a hose to rinse it down. Depending on where you are fishing, you might be able to throw the innards and waste from the fish back into the water, but most locations you will need to throw in into the trash. Check on your local rules and regulations, so you don’t get fined! Make sure you have your fillet knife handy, and get ready to clean your fish!

  • If the fish is still alive, you can slice its throat, thus allowing the fish to bleed out and die quickly.
  • Insert the knife in the anus, and cut all the way forward along the belly until you get to the head. This exposes the innards of the fish.
  • Try not to cut too deep when you open up the belly, so you won’t end up puncturing the intestines, and making even more of a mess.
  • Spread out the two flaps of skin on either side of the belly, and take out all of the innards.
  • Some fish have a kidney near the backbone. You can scrape this out by using a spoon or your thumb.
  • Rinse out the inside of the fish with fresh water (or lake water… whatever you have handy), to get rid of all the blood that is clotting and any lining that is around the abdominal cavity.
  • Cut off the head if you are planning on cooking the fish whole. If not, leave the head on, as it’s easier to fillet the fish if you have something to hang onto.

Now that you have cleaned the fish, let’s go over how to fillet it (if you wish to do that).

  • First of all, make sure your fillet knife is sharp. That being said, always cut away from you, just in case you slip, so you don’t end up filleting your hand.
  • Make a cut behind the gills and pectoral fin, all the way down to the backbone. (You will be able to feel when you hit the backbone, just be careful not to cut through it).
  • Turn the knife horizontally, and slowly guide the knife down the backbone towards the tail.
  • Flip the fish over, and repeat the last step on the other side.
  • If you want to take the skin off (not grilling it on a grill), lay the fillet skin down on your cutting board. Make a cut about half an inch from where the tail was in the fillet, and then hold onto the end, and slowly (working the knife back and forth), slide the knife between the fillet and the skin all the way until they are separated.
  • Use your fingers to feel down the fillet, and check for pin bones that might still be there. When you find one, use tweezers (or your fingers if the bones are big enough), and pull them out. No one wants to find bones when they are enjoying their fish.
  • That’s it! Super easy: just put the fillets in plastic bags and keep in the fridge or freezer until you wish to eat them.

Summary

There you have it: how to fish for the beginner fisherman! It may seem overwhelming at first, but if you can get to a store and pick up the basic gear needed to fish, then you’ve already got past the hardest part. Now just take that gear and go fishing. All it takes is practice, so you just need to keep casting your line, and eventually you will catch a fish. It might be helpful to join an online community if you have further questions, and you will be able to gain more knowledge from others experience. Join a fishermen’s forum here at Online Forums. Learn what you can from fellow fisherman, and just go out there and do it!

Leave a Comment

2 Comments

  • Thanks Jen, this is a really outstanding resource for any anglers looking for an overview of fishing! One thing I noticed that didn’t really get much mention is what states and what times of year are best for certain varieties of fish. There is a great resource now which presents this data in easy to read charts for some of the best fishing states, I highly suggest you give it a look! http://fishingseasons.org/

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