I’m turning over a new leaf, at least for a while, and writing a series on the basics – how to get started outdoors from square one, from venturing out your back door to pursuing fish to survival. My hope is that this will be of benefit to some who’ve dreamed for years of getting out of the urban/online lifestyle so prevalent nowadays or maybe to simply inspire some young people to run wild a bit more. My hope is also that it will be a joy to share all this – drawing on much from my younger days and perhaps helping the author to recapture the sheer joy of exploration, of finding trails and diverging from the highways for a bit.
I know the woods of western Pennsylvania better than I know anywhere else so I’m going to write all of this as though I’m talking to people who live here in Pennsylvania. Most of this material, by far, will apply equally well to the rest of the eastern forest, some of it to the western forests and maybe even some to the broad plains in between.
Fishing is as natural as walking or reading for me, something I can hardly find an origin for; I just know I’ve always done it. Throughout the year I feel an impulse to ice-fish, then to fly-fish, then maybe to set out lines at night for catfish. I can rationalize these habits in many ways, including the desire for fresh “sea food,” but they’re just post hoc ways to justify what I most want to go out and do.
This is not the same for everyone and many people, maybe most people, didn’t grow up with lines in the water as often as possible. Still others did but deviated in other directions during the teen and college years, never returning to shady riversides, clicking reels and shallow pools alive with spring minnows. I’d like to write something today for those people, people who need a primer, just the basics, on the pursuit of fish with hook and line.
WHERE TO FISH
Start learning to fish by finding places to fish, maybe even before finding a pole and line. Make use of maps first, just letting your eyes rove around to admire all the blue places, whether they’re erratic lines (streams) or blotches (ponds). Fish will live almost anywhere there’s water and this is why your initial search should be broad. Don’t rule anything out too soon.
Starting with the places closest to your home will probably result in more fishing, more often for you and nearby waters also just seem like logical places to start if almost all waters hold fish. These waters may be lakes known for their angler access areas and stocked “sportfishes” but may also include ditches, swamps or canals. All of these have produced fish for me and sometimes really fine fish.
No need to involve a boat too soon, if at all. When learning to fish, do so from shore first or, better yet, expect to get in the water and wade. Through most of the year, waders are unnecessary – just wear pants or shorts which can always dry out later. I grew up knowing nothing other than wading in blue jeans but I’ve since learned of synthetic materials which are more comfortable in the water, lighter weight and dry much faster.
Remember from the outset that fish are on the move through any given year. Don’t give up on a place too soon just because you caught nothing there the first time.
Now, you could jump right into swinging a line out and waiting for the bobber to plunge but I suggest you learn something about fish first. When you have that wriggling five ounces of muscle and scales on the end of the line, how will you know what to do with it if you don’t know what it is? “Can I eat this?” “Will those spines impale me?” “Is this a rare, protected species?” Alternatively, you can rely on the notions of uncle Jed to tell you all you need to know about them fishes but suggest books as a more comprehensive starting point. Like many other things in life, some solid book learning alongside ongoing new angling experiences will swell your brain with know-how and prompt the questions and curiosity that inspire learning. “Why were these little yellow catfish here in the shallows so early this spring?” “Can any fish at all live in such a polluted creek?” “Why do I find walleye right here but not fifty yards downstream?”
In reference to books for the beginning angler, I’d start with a book on the fishes themselves rather than one on tackle and techniques. There’s a place for this but start at the start – the fish.
Learning about fish will guide you as you refine your search of nearby waters. You’ll soon be able to make better guesses as to where you’ll find particular species at particular times. Learning about fish will simply enable you to identify your catch. Knowing your fishes will help you greatly refine your tactics and bait. Carp don’t often eat the same things as walleye. You might fish with a fresh-made doughball for one but never the other. Finally, knowing your fish will enable you to fish legally, especially if you like to put some on the stringer. You won’t need to nervously watch over your shoulder for the warden.
Eventually though, you’ll have a creek in mind near your home, you’ll have dreams of some particular fishes in mind and you’ll need a pole or rod and some line too. Here, I want to pause for a very basic distinction too many fishing instructors miss, I think: A pole requires no reel – there’s just a fixed length of line while a rod is couples with a reel and enables you to cast, potentially reaching more water more quickly. You should start with a pole.
Poles force you to focus on the fundamentals. They restrict your scope, forcing you to think very carefully about the water within about twenty feet of you (assuming a ten foot pole). Poles eliminate some needless complexity from your first days on the water. Even as an advanced angler, you may one day find that poles offer an element of sport to all kinds of run-of-the-mill fishing situations.
Another Post of Mine on Pole Fishing
Starting with a line just a little shorter than the pole itself seems a good starting length for most situations. Line can either be tied directly to the terminal guide or a line twice as long can be attached near the pole handle and run through the pole or just out through the terminal guide. Old fashioned cane poles are fine but the modern telescoping poles generally prove more practical.
I could run on quite a bit beyond this point but it’s not my intention to be thorough today. Hooks are essential as is some kind of bait, easily enough figured out through trial and error. Worms are a good starting point, desirable to almost all fishes. Also be sure to try corn, hot dog pieces, grasshoppers and minnows. The most basic two things to add to your line beyond a hook are a sinker and/or a float. Keep these minimal to keep your presentation as natural as possible.
Hopefully, this simplistic explanation of the art to angling will enhance someone’s 2023, maybe just encouraging that someone to open the back door, pole in hand, and make for the crik down the hill. You may be amazed at what’s waiting for you.