Tell a fisherman how to fish in some settings and you’re likely to be tossed in a river or have your ears assaulted by some colorful compound curse words that begin with the same letter as fish.Fishing is a pastime as sacred (or more so) than baseball and NASCAR. Fishermen tend to be very loyal to their tackle, their rods and reels, and their techniques. Ask a local where the fish are biting and you are going to chance fate. Challenge their means or methods and you open the floodgates. Just as recreational fishing has its absolutes, its prophets and its traditions, survival fishing kits can be controversial as well. Popular authors, YouTube videos and varying schools of thought have created beliefs and opinions that run headstrong against fact. It’s AF’s goal to dismiss the hype and bring you what works. Argue with these ideas if you want, but don’t deny the results they yield.


The idea of catching fish in an emergency situation, while tempting, may not be your top priority. While there is no such thing as a set order of priorities applicable to all emergencies, finding food is almost always lower than finding shelter or water. How does this factor into your preparation? Should you omit fishing equipment in lieu of extra water purification tablets or an extra space blanket? I believe fishing offers benefits other than providing food on your plate. Fishing can ease your mind. The last thing you want to do in an emergency situation is lose control of your emotions or your sense of control. Fishing is psychologically rewarding and provides a temporary escape from your reality. Even if you catch the smallest fish, you prove to your mind you have the ability to feed yourself. When you feel like you have nothing, achieving anything helps you win a little victory in the battle for your life. A small length of fishing line and a few hooks weighs less than a single .22 round, less than a few petroleum cotton balls, less than a foot of paracord and generally less than the excess gear you have on you at any given moment. There is no excuse to be without the most basic fishing gear.

Know Your Prey 

The first step in catching fish is to know your prey. A large hook can catch a large fish, but a quality small hook can catch small to large fish. Also, smaller hooks are needed in clear water where a fish may inspect the bait more closely. Speaking of larger hooks, a longer hook shaft acts as a lever when a fish is fighting to spit the hook. There is no sense in carrying what you can’t use. Far too often I see guys with gear in their kits that is only optimized by traditional fishing rods and reels.

Part of knowing your prey includes knowing where you will be traveling. Bass tend to feed on lures that stand out and aggravate them. A trout’s diet is primarily subsurface and consists of nymphs. Underwater flies are better to pack than top-water dry flies. Above all, we all know live bait works best. Overturn underwater rocks to find the small invertebrates that fish love to chomp. Also, the bugs you find under rocks are specific to that body of water and are already part of the fish’s diet.

Knowing what your prey feeds on is only part of the catching equation. Knowing where they live is another. Depending on the species you are trying to catch, you need to know if you should carry equipment meant to hug the bottom or float with the current. Knowing your prey will dictate what you carry.


Get Your Sneak On

Tommy Baranowski of CT Fish Guides says the best way to catch fish in small, rarely visited creeks is to sneak up on them. The angler needs to stay low to the ground and avoid making any loud noises or heavy footsteps. Also, the angler should be careful not to throw any tackle into the water that will create too large of a splash. Whenever possible, use the lightest weights and avoid snagging any branches or debris that will disrupt the water as the line is retrieved. Ask any fisherman if fluorocarbon leader actually makes a difference and watch the look on their face. Monofilament line, regardless of diameter, can be seen while fluorocarbon seemingly disappears. Tommy stresses that you need to realize your presence in and out of the water will impact your success. Make sure to securely tie your lines together, and consider using barrel swivels to prevent unnecessary twisting. 

Justifiable Rule Breaking

Fishing is a sport. For those who make a living from it, it is an occupation. For those who may require the nutrition the fish provides, fishing is life. While sportsmen and commercial fisherman are governed by rules and regs, in a survival scenario all of these become irrelevant. Since there is a direct correlation between what is illegal and what is effective, look at the methods poachers use to improve your survival fishing return. Multiple barbs (double and treble hooks) can be weighted close to their eye and used to snag. Long lines involve rigging a single line with multiple hooks spread out on individual, drop-weighted leaders and leaving it unattended. Multiple species can be caught with this, and foul hooking is likely. Catch small fish and use them as bait (even if bait fishing is illegal). One of the best options for catching fish is gill netting. Nets can be created out of paracord, mosquito netting or just about any mesh. Be careful your net gauge (i.e., the size of the opening) is smaller than the fish you wish to catch. 

Even shooting fish can yield results. My father told me of a story of a laborer who worked the fields in the Philippines who took an air rifle to the head of a catfish in a muddy creek. What I’m trying to convey is, your survival is your priority. In a true survival situation, obeying the law is an afterthought. Besides, in cases of survival, the court turns a blind eye to “poaching” means.

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Primitive Means

Primitive curved hooks are not easy to make, and when they are made well, they work only on fish with mouths large enough to swallow the glued or tied-on barb. Face it, there is nothing like a quality, modern fishhook. The only primitive fishhooks worth a darn are gouge/gorge hooks. These double-pointed hooks enter the fish’s mouth, are swallowed, and then are turned sideways with a tug. If you decide to make primitive hooks, or wish to bend a nail into one, at least pack what works as a reliable backup. Ask yourself this question, is it more important to carry makeshift hooks or know how to make them? If you’re relying on makeshift hooks in your emergency kit, aren’t you deliberately handicapping yourself? While you are at it, don’t carry a tarp and hope for no rain. Hope isn’t a plan.

Primitive traps can also be created. Funnel traps are popular around the globe as they can catch fish, crawfish and other crustaceans. Illustrations in books make it seem easy to drive vertical stakes into a riverbed. Two problems exist here: Many riverbeds are stone and staking them is difficult to impossible. Also, many pan fish are tall and thin. They fit between vertical stakes. Here is the solution—use rocks when possible, and if you can drive vertical stakes, weave horizontal branches between them as well. Primitive trap knowledge is important in case you lose your kit.

Lighten Your Load

Part of knowing how much gear is too much is knowing what works and what doesn’t. Carry proven equipment. Survival fishing techniques can be extremely illegal. Use a hand line or certain automatic fisherman reels (Yo-Yos) in some jurisdictions and you are likely to face a fine. On the other hand, use the same lure or bait with a conventional fishing rod and you’re well within the law. Automatic fishermen are a great option to carry since they work well in all seasons, and even underwater in the winter. When rigged properly, they can even catch birds and small mammals. The most common culprit of space and weight are floats and sinkers, respectively. It is easier to create a bobber in the outdoors than it is a lead sinker. While it is a good idea to carry some of each, you don’t need too many. Generally, your leader is more likely to break than your main line. With quality line and a proper leader, you will not run the risk of losing your rig if they’re attached to heavy line. If you find you have lures and tackle for game fish you aren’t likely to catch, you’re carrying too much.

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wooley bugger
Another example of a Wooley Bugger

Estela’s Top Tackle

LINE & HOOKS: Carry 50-pound braided line, a small length of leader material and heavier line to maximize your return. Few freshwater fish will likely break 50-pound line. Also, buy the best hooks you can afford. I personally like Gamakatsu Octopus Circle and Tru-Turn hooks. Both tend to mouth hook more than traditional straight shank hooks, which tend to gut hook. Make sure to carry some smaller size 20 hooks (stouter nymph hooks, preferably) to catch even the smallest fish. Carry a dedicated hand line, a Cuban Yo-Yo, a multi-section rod or the means to make a rod out in the field. A single large sinker will also help you cast farther out if you are limited to hand lining.

LURES: Carry bass poppers and nymphs if you are operating near streams and ponds. Spoons are great to carry in boats as you can troll with them. Lead head jigs, like Wooly Buggers, are universally good for most fish species, and black, green and gray are my top color choices. As previously mentioned, you can never discredit tossing in a good ole’ worm or any other live bait like crickets, worms or flies.

THE GAFF: Don’t bother with a full-size framed net or with hemostats. If you are going to pack something to help land your fish, carry a large saltwater hook you can attach to a pole to create a gaff. Sometimes you cannot safely pull a fish out the water without risking unhooking it. Gaff it through the belly. Also, if you do land a fish in an emergency, it will likely swallow the hook. You need a knife and the means to get your hook out.

My ultimate recommendation is to get out there and practice. Fishing is fun, and as the old adage goes, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work.”             

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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