Freshwater Fishing: Catching Catfish, Bass, Crappie, Perch, Bluegill and Other Panfish

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"Everyone has to believe in something; I believe I'll go fishing." Henry David Thoreau
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Nothing beats a meal of freshly caught fish cooked over a campfire.
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A variety of artificial lures used for freshwater fishing.

Have you checked prices at the fish market lately?
Fresh-caught swordfish, halibut, salmon, and shrimp of
significant size cost the better part of 10 bucks a pound.
Even once-dirt-cheap ocean whitefish such as fillets of cod
or haddock go for double the price of red meat, and several
times the cost of poultry. And by all reports, prices will
continue to rise. Deep-sea fish stocks around the world
have been decimated by over-harvest, weather changes, and
pollution. And, belatedly–but better late than
never-the U.S. and Canadian government regulators are
reducing the catch further by closing major fishing
grounds so the huge factory ships with their otter trawls,
drift nets, electronic fish locators, and on-board
flash-freezers don’t gobble up the last of the breeding
stocks and make Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon truly
endangered species.

However, there is a wild fish resource that’s both
self-renewing and so abundant that the lack of exploitation
can be a problem. It is also free for the taking and easy
for anyone to catch.

I don’t mean “Government Fish”: hatchery-raised rainbows,
togue, or lake trout, nor do I mean lunker black bass,
landlocked salmon, or walleyes, tacklebustin’ Northern
pike, or muskies. These are all properly deemed
gamefish–a public natural resource that, like ducks,
deer, and other wildlife-is husbanded by sportsmen’s groups
such as Ducks Unlimited and B.A.S.S., and managed by
relatively beneficent government agencies for the benefit
of recreational sportsmen …who willingly underwrite their
friendly Fish & Game wardens, hatcheries, and stocking
programs through license fees, stamps, and taxes on bait
and tackle.

I refer to the abundant, easy to catch panfish that are
seldom sought for sport, but are left to kids with cane
poles and bent pins …if they’re fished for at all. An
intermediate link in the freshwater food chain, these
mostly foot-long-or-under species feed on bugs and minnows
and in turn are eaten by bigger game fish, raccoons, fish
eagles …and by you and me. Indeed, they got the name
“panfish” because they fit so well into a hot frying pan.

First come the bottom-dwelling catfish that can be caught
in any water: both the big blue channel cat (that prefer
faster moving rivers and clear lakes and can grow to almost
four feet and 60 pounds in big water) and ordinary mudcats
found in more sluggish waterways, and often called
bullhead, madtom, horned pout, yellerbelly, of whiskers,
and other regional names of gustatory affection. They all
shuck out of their skins into succulent fish sticks that
demand to be blackened with Cajun spices, or pan fried and
served up with hush puppies and Cole slaw Tom Sawyer-style.
Then there are the free-swimming schools of white and
yellow bass and crappie that are best caught in open water
from boats.

For shore fishing, the continent hosts more than 30 species
of brightly colored, slab-sided sunfish variously called
rock bass, cracker, pun’kinseed, bluegill, sunny, red-ear,
or green-ear. All of ’em are called bream (pronounced
brem) in the South. One or another can be found in
preternatural abundance along rocky shores, under docks,
overhanging trees, and undercut sod banks. . . and lurking
at the edges of shallow weed beds, under snags, and along
drop-offs in practically every lake, pond, deep puddle,
river, stream, creek, bayou, branch, ditch, slough, swamp,
marsh, bog, and backwater of the land.

And then there’s the best-eating of all: the
buttery-flavored yellow perch, a midsized member of a
family of long-bodied fish that includes walleyes and the
infamous snail darter. Remember that three-inch-long stream
minnow that became a hero of early environmentalism? Always
thinly distributed, it was problematically branded an
endangered species, and fostered a lawsuit that caught
public attention and halted construction of a TVA dam back
in ’77. Subsequent research found that creeks in valleys
all around teemed with snail darters, and they weren’t
endangered at all–but by then the media had lost
interest and Congress had quietly exempted that particular
chunk of pork barrel spending from the Endangered Species
Act.

Obtaining a Fishing License

On the inland waters of every state and province, any
angler over age 16 or so must carry a fishing license …or
be liable to a fine and confiscation of catch and tackle by
a game warden or local constable. Resident licenses don’t
cost much, so take your driver’s license or other proof of
residence to the courthouse or a tackle shop and get a
license.

Some jurisdictions require you to display the license
conspicuously while fishing so 01′ Smokey doesn’t have to
get off his/her duff to check licenses. Wearing the license
as a kind of grown-up Boy Scout badge, many hunters and
fishermen get a day-glo orange plastic carrier and display
it on the back of their hats all season long.

Kids don’t need licenses, and you can save the fee by
taking along a batch of youngsters on every trip. Tell the
Smokey Bears that you’re just there to bait hooks and lug
the huge stringer of fish. lust be sure there’s only one
fishing pole per kid and no extras.

With the license, you should get a brochure of fishing
regulations. Read and follow them. Get a fish-identifying
manual too if you can’t tell a coho salmon from a horsehead
sucker. Panfish are so hardy and prolific that there are no
longer any seasonal size or catch limits in most places.
But, if you load up the stringer with eight-inch hatchery
trout when the limit is 12 inches and two per day, your
claim that you thought they were yellow perch won’t wash
with Fish & Game.

If you are unfamiliar with local waters, get a fishing map
too. Every tackle or bait store and many service stations
and hardware stores carry them. A map will identify
restricted areas so you won’t get caught fishing with worms
in a dry-fly-only, catch & release trout stream. On the
positive side, it will locate all the legally fishable
streams, ponds, and impoundments, and indicate whether they
are cold-water bodies containing a relatively few trout or
warm-water that hosts the abundant bass/bluegill/catfish
populations you are after.

Release The Big Ones

Releasing all large-but-not-trophy-sized game fish is
becoming a ritual among knowledgeable anglers. It makes for
better sport in the long run, as fish are too dumb to
remember being caught; and if released unharmed but for a
hook prick in their bony jaw, they can thrill several
sportsmen a season for many years. The big fish are the
better spawners too …though, any fish that swallows a
hook or otherwise appears to be injured should be kept if
it is legal. (You can’t be penalized for catching
out-of-season or too-small fish just for keeping them.)
However, keeping every panfish you catch no matter when
caught or how small is actually recommended by many
authorities. The more small fry removed from a water body,
the more space is available to let the survivors grow
larger. (In other words, runty fish are more often the
result of too many fish in the pond due to too few
predators and too little fishing, rather than overfishing.)
The rule-of-possession for any fisherman is to keep no more
than you plan to eat. But, as we’ll see below, with a
production-line cleaning operation and modern flashfreezing
techniques, you can put by as many panfish as you can
harvest.

Fishing Gear

You can spend a small fortune on fishing gear, and many
high-end recreational anglers do. What with a $2,500
split-bamboo flyrod, a wallet of hand-tied flies, licenses,
and stream-fees and a wardrobe of L.L. Bean duds, an
eastern brook trout can cost more per pound than a Ferrari.

Of course, the objective of sport fishing is not food. When
it is, your gear requirements are minimal.

Fishing Poles

There is much to be said for the traditional “barefoot boy
with cheek…”style cane pole. Every spring you see sheaves
of them-some 12 to 16 feet long poking out of a trash bin
at the back of hardware stores and (for double the price)
at bait shops in fishing country. A long cane pole can
reach well into a pond and most of the way across many a
fiat land river. One problem is hauling those 16foot poles
in today’s 12-foot vehicles. For this use, they make cane
poles that break into sections that attach with
ferrules-brass plug-and-sleeve joints. A jointed genuine
bamboo pole, complete with a hank of line, a bobber, and
hook, costs less than $6.

It takes no skill and little effort to drown worms with a
cane pole. It is passive fishing, and a good excuse to
escape whatever you need to get away from on a hot summer
afternoon when the fish aren’t biting anyway. There are
more reasons than sport or supper to go fishing.

If you are experienced with casting reels, fiyrods, or
bail-equipped spinning rigs, use them. But for kids and
novices, the “spincasting” rig is best. Like a spinning
reel, the line is wound around a fixed spindle by a
revolving bail and when cast out, the line just loops off
with little resistance. The whole thing is enclosed, so
snags are harder to get. To cast with a spinning rod you
must hold and release the line with your forefinger. This
takes practice. So does a bait-caster that has a revolving
reel that can over-spin the line being cast out, producing
the famous backlash. In fly fishing you use a weighted line
to cast a tiny fly for great distances–also
snag-prone in any nearby brush, and requiring years of
experience.

Bait shops are fun, but you’ll save a good half by
shopping in the fishing department of any mall discounter. A
lightweight, good-quality spin-casting rig-rod, reel and
line-can be had for about $25. I use a lightweight
telescoping rod with an underslung lever-acting spin-casting
reel that cost less than $30 and that works marvelously. Even
the littlest kid will need his/her own rig, and surprisingly
well-made spin-casting rigs sell for about $10. Some Japanese
spinning reels come with a lot of bells and whistles and cost
plenty. For my money, the best spinning reel made is the
original French designed Mitchell at under $35, and to this
day, I can’t tell a discount store’s carbon fiber rod from a
sporting goods store’s best at 10 times the price.

The one improvement over the low-priced package rod/reel
combos that I recommend is line. They come standard with
six-pound-test monofilament that is liable to be set into
loops on the reel and snarl easily. Better is to peel off
and discard the top 30 feet of mono and replace it with one
of the new braided lines such as Spider Wire. Super-strong,
super-thin and lightweight-but “limp,” unlike mono it won’t
snarl or break unless you really try. Panfish can’t break
it, so the kids can just horse them out of the water.

Fishing Bait

Worms are a traditional fish bait and easy to catch.
Six-inch-long pink nightcrawlers burrow around, aerating,
tilling, and enriching the soil in every lawn and garden.
They emerge at night to deposit castings-digested
soil-above ground. They are so helpful in enriching your
soil that you wouldn’t want to catch them all if you could.
You can’t …but to lure a few out, water the soil in the
afternoon. Well after dark, put on soft shoes and take a
flashlight and coffee can containing a little moist soil
out to the yard. Walk softly. When you see a crawler half
out of its hole, approach slowly and silently, placing each
foot deliberately without thumping the ground. Grab quick,
hold firmly, and pull gently till it lets go …or you’ll
break it in half.

Red (manure) worms are smaller, much more wiggly and
brittle than crawlers, so they’re hard to put on a hook.
But, they are well suited to panfish. You’ll find them day
or night at the soil-line beneath old manure piles or
compost heaps. An even better source is a year-old pile of
newspapers or (uncomposted) leaves or grass clippings.
You’ll often find the bottom few inches of leaves or
clippings or the lower newspaper sheets layered like a
book, with red worms between each layer. Pick out the
larger ones and leave the small ones to grow up.

If you raise rabbits or poultry in cages, release a few red
worms in the dropping pile. Scatter leaves, grass
clippings, or garden scraps under the cages from time to
time, mix to aerate, and keep uniformly moist but not wet,
and shortly you’ll have a worm farm.

For some reason, medium-sized pink worms really like to
hang out under fiat rocks. I collect thin, fiat rocks and
use them for paths and a semi-permanent mulch in and around
the garden. Flipping one over, any time of day or night,
will show where worms have dug their burrows up to the flat
surface …so the top of the burrow is open once the rock
is removed. And, there are always one or more worms there.
I can harvest each flat rock several times a year. Short
lengths of board collect worms just as well, and sheets of
black plastic mulch work too, as well as bales of old hay.

You can buy red worms by mail, but they don’t all travel
well. Alabama worms aren’t acclimated to Minnesota winters,
and vice versa. It has something to do with the depth they
dig down for winter. I recommend harvesting local stock
from under flat rocks if you want to build up a good worm
herd.

To keep worms alive and squirming, punch tiny air holes
through bottoms and around sides of a coffee can and fill
with forest loam, compost, or peat moss. Keep cool, covered
(worms will all crawl out at night if you don’t), and moist
but not wet. Scatter cornmeal on top every few days and
worms will live happily between fishing trips.
Incidentally, you will lose more worms but catch more fish
if you hook them just once through the middle and let them
wiggle in the water.

Pork rind is a bait made when a hook is stuck through the
front end of a fork-tailed ribbon cut from the skin left
from a chunk of salt pork, fatback, or chunk bacon. Fish
are presumably attracted to the flapping of the rind
through the water, its meaty flavor, and the salt in it. A
good pork rind will last all day. But unless you raise your
own hogs, it’s hard to find genuine pigskin these days,
when meat all comes trimmed, precut, and sealed in plastic.

You can buy pork rinds in bottles. I make my own
approximation from the skins removed from fish. Catfish
hide is toughest, though flatfish skin will do. I split the
tubular catfish skins, trim fins and heads off all skins,
and lay them flat in a wood-slat box between layers of rock
salt. After a few weeks they shrink and toughen. Moistening
them if they’ve gotten brittle, I trim them into strips-two
to three inches long and a half-inch to an inch wide and
cut forks into some, divide the ends of others into four or
five strips or leave them intact, depending on shape of the
skin. They will keep forever and regain plasticity if
stored (in a cool place, out of the sun) in loosely covered
jars containing saturated salt solution (dissolve as much
salt as the water will accept). I add red and green food
coloring to the water to make the strips look less like
dead fish skins. I’m convinced that this helps attract
panfish.

You can also buy a modern approximation of old-time dough
bait …a kind of gumdrop-shaped blob …dyed in dayglo
colors …imbued with the artificial odor and flavor of
cheese, beef blood, or fish …and packed in plastic bags.
I make my own by adding a little salt and enough water to a
cup or two of flour to make a stiff dough. If it’s
available, I dose the water with meat blood, ripe cheese,
crushed garlic, a bouillon cube, or any other aromatic
edible that comes to hand. Then (just as when making
bread-flouring my hands to keep the dough from sticking) I
knead it until it is stiff and plastic with an oily sheen
on the outside. (This is more kneading than bread
wants-dough overworked like this would bake into a rock.)
Then I roll it out into half-inch-thick sausage-rolls, cut
it into half-inch lengths, and roll these into dough balls.
I flour them well to keep them “unstuck together,” and
freeze till the next fishing trip. Its best to use ’em all.
Left in a cupboard, refrigerator-or tackle box dough balls
are easily forgotten and will sprout a variety of colorful
molds that attract neither fish nor fishermen.

Artificial Lures

I have two gigantic tackle boxes holding two spinning rod
and reel combination, several tiny black-gnat dry flies, a
half dozen spinning lures, and assorted hooks, sinkers,
leaders, and floats-which is all the gear that I really
use. The rest, perhaps 30 pounds (at $4 per half ounce
lure), is proof if you need it that fishing tackle is
intended more to attract fishermen than fish.

To go panfishing from shore, each fisherperson needs: only
a spin-casting rod and reel with 30 feet of good line and
100 yards of backup in case Moby Dick bites; one each #2
and #4 snelled bait-holder hooks (with a loop-ended length
of clear monofilament attached and barbs on the shank as
well as the tip of the hook); splitshot weights; a
medium-sized bobber/casting float; a yard-long length of
leader with a black-gnat fly at one end and a loop at the
other …and bait. Take along a live fish basket and a
good-sized landing net with a long handle, some bug dope,
suntan cream, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch.

As indicated elsewhere, go where the fish are when they are
most likely to be biting. Cut off the end foot of line and
tie a loop by doubling over the end and making a granny
knot. Put the loop in the line through the looped end of
the snelled hook, pass the bait and snell through the loop
in the line, pull tight, and you have an unbreakable, but
easily released, square knot. Bait hook, put on one or two
split shot just above loops and a float about a foot
higher, and sling it out where the fish are dimpling the
water. If baits don’t work, affix the leader and fly to the
end of the line. Put a casting float about two feet from
the fly and use it to get the fly out to the fish. If
panfish don’t take black gnats, they aren’t eating
anything.

Strike back-jerk lightly to set the hook when the bobber
goes under. If you don’t catch a fish by jerking at the
first little bob, wait till the second …then the third
…then wait till you get a real strong bob …then two.
Finally, wait till the fish pulls the bait off a way and
stops. When the bobber starts to move again, strike hard
and be ready for fun because you’ve caught a black bass and
it may be a lunker. Keep the rod tip up, the line tight,
and let the fish run against the drag to tire it out. Crank
in, let it run, crank in, and so on till you or a helper
can net it.

Grasp a really big fish tight by the lower jaw or behind
the gills, remove the hook with pliers, and let it go if
you can bear to. If your eight-year-old hooked it and has
to show it to his friends, big fish make good eating too. A
whole, gutted bass is perfectly wholesome after several
days in the refrigerator (including repeated, if brief,
show-and-tells) or for a month in a water bath in the
freezer.

You may have to adjust height of bait off the bottom by
moving the float on the line. You may have to change baits.
You may have to change fishing spots, fishing water,
fishing times. But you will catch fish nearly every time
out. Once in a while you will fill the stringer twice over.

Where to Find Panfish

Don’t fish were you’d most like to swimdeep, cold lakes and
fast-moving streams with sparkling clear water, clean sandy
bottoms-and few, hard-to-locate, even harder-to-catch
roving (pelagic) fish. Look for panfish water: warm,
shallow, slow moving with a mud,bottom and murky, green
water that supports a lush growth of lily pads and pond
weeds, that teems with turtles and newts and hums and
buzzes and hops and pops on hot days with creepers and
crawlers. Muddy water is tine for catfish that grope the
bottom with barbels on their mouths, but the best fishin’
water for slab-sided fish is dark and clear but rich with
the algae that feed the small fry that feed your quarry.

Ponds and coves and backwaters in lakes can be your best
panfish source, especially if they are a good hike from any
road. Casual fishermen tend to wet a line in water they can
see from the car, and sport fishermen go for big water or
fastmoving streams. Farm ponds are good (but get
permission). But, be sure that any fishing water in farm
country is clean of agricultural chemicals. Any dangerously
poisoned water will be posted by the EPA or local
environmental agency, but I don’t fish in proximity to any
commercial farmland. A topo map will show you if a pond is
downhill (and downstream) of farm fields or large stock
lots.

Look for wide stretches of slow water in rivers-especially
the inside of wide bends where the flow slows to deposit
silt so pond weed and reeds can grow to offer fish some
cover. If your river runs through a small town, fish
upriver or no less than a mile downstream. If it runs
through an industrial city, don’t fish downstream at all. I
needn’t remind you that, as predators well up in the food
chain, panfish can accumulate chemical pollutants in their
fatty tissues. We’ve come a long way since every sewer and
factory dumped raw waste into the nearest water body. But
pollutants have sunk deep into the bottom sediments under
many water bodies and fish can be contaminated for decades
after direct pollution has been stopped. Truly dangerous
waters will be posted along popular swimming and fishing
beaches (but not at every country road-crossing). Look for
signs nailed to trees along the waterway.

When To Go Fishing

If there is a single rule to successful panfishing, it is
to go when the fish tend to be feeding most actively.
Seasonally, early spring is best-as fish are emerging from
winter’s lethargy and fueling up for the breeding season.
But in much of the country, that’s when bugs are biting,
weather is raw, and country roads muddy. Next best is the
fall, when the fish are fattening up for winter. Weather is
glorious, with no bugs, good roads, and when chilly
mornings offer a welcome break from the past summer’s heat.

Weather systems influence fish behavior as much as our own.
They are less cooperative in low pressure, and a gray or
rainy day. Steamy hot days warm the shallows, so they go
deep to find shade. Best is when a low is moving out and a
fresh high pressure system is moving in. Often, I’ve had
the fish begin biting just as the last rain clouds are
replaced by a bright sun and clearing sky. Also, vice
versa.

Most important is time of day. From an hour before sunrise
to an hour after is best. Fish are hungry and moving as
water temperatures and light conditions change. In the heat
of a late-summer day, fishlike sensible people-seek shade,
a ham mock, and a tall drink. They think of feeding again
in the evening-and the next best fishing times are the
hours before and after sunset. I find that night fishing
when the moon is big and bright can be phenomenal.

Where The Fish Are

As Richard Dreyfus’s character put it in the movie Jaws,
sharks (and sunfish) are interested in two things: eating
and making little fish. Real food items or clever
imitations are the best bait. Minnows, crayfish, water
nymphs (aquatic larvae of may flies and other insects), and
other “naturals” are best. Minnows are the most consistent
panfish catcher I know of. Don’t use bought minnows unless
they come from the water you’ll be fishing. Introducing
alien fish species-even minnows-can upset the ecology of a
pond, and it is illegal almost everywhere. You can make or
buy a minnow net (a sort of gauze-covered umbrella). Smear
the center with flour water paste, sink in the water and
pull up after a short wait. You’ll need a small bubbler or
a minnow bucket to keep the water aerated.

In Jaws, Dreyfus also introduced the notion of
territoriality. Even a bluegill will stake out a little
piece of turf for a feeding zone, a lair, or a nest site,
and will attack any intruders. They prefer to lurk in or
near cover where they can ambush prey or find quick escape
from larger predators. Look for what fishermen call
“structure”-sunken logs or snags, rock piles or beaver
houses especially along the shore. Weed beds are good cover
and fish will lurk along the edges and near clear holes in
the weed bed-the easier to spot prey.

Look for drop-offs where bars, flats, or ledges fall off
into deeper water-where the tops of underwater weeds or
light shallows suddenly change to deep water. Fish like to
lurk in the weeds or cruise the edge of the shoal, but have
deep water handy for their own escape from bigger fish that
are cruising the same pattern …but after them, not
minnows.

Sunfish will betray their presence by rising to the surface
to taste most any small critter that falls in the water;
indeed, “terrestrials”-land-dwelling insects, frogs and
such-are a favorite food, especially when they are most
abundant in late summer and early fall. You may see fish
making small dimples in the water. If not, catch a
grasshopper and flick it as far out as you can. Its kicking
should attract any nearby panfish.

Sex is a powerful attractant and though many fish stop
eating during the nesting season-you can catch panfish by
passing a lure over their nests. They see it as a danger to
their eggs and attack. Most panfish nest in the spring.
You’ll often see the nests just offshore: small dishes in
the bottom where a fish has dug out clay to expose clean
sand to host its eggs.

Cleaning Fish

Keep your catch alive and frisky in a wire mesh,
collapsible fish basket suspended in the eater rather than
hanging from a hole in the lower jaw or by the tender gills
off a cord or wire stringer. Pour water splashily (to
aerate it) into a big pail or garbage can to keep them
alive during the trip home.

In the backyard, set up a one- or two person cleaning
production line on a table covered with newspaper that you
can dispose of along with the fish blood and other yuck.

You need a very sharp, thin knife; a clipboard-style
cleaning board with a clamp at the top; and for catfish, a
set of fish cleaning or side-cutting pliers and a glove
with metal cleats or sand grains embedded in the palm to
grip the slippery critters.

To clean a catfish, bop it hard on the top of its flat head
with the tang of the knife, and cut shallowly just through
the leathery skin all around the head behind the gills. Put
the head in the clamp, cut off fins and tail, and, with the
pliers, loosen skin all around the cut and pull backwards.
It will come off in a sleeve, bringing most of the guts
with it. Snip out any innards remaining in the body cavity
and toss the drumstick in lightly salted water to remove
any muddy flavor. Heads and innards go in a bucket to be
buried (deep) under the corn, Indian style.

Don’t clean flatfish like my grandfather did-by scaling and
gutting them and forcing you to eat the skin and “tongue”
every bite for bones. Even small fish should be filleted
and skinned, which is really faster than the
gutting/scaling operation. Indeed, you never see the fish’s
plumbing at all.

Bonk a fish on the head and stick the head in the
cleaner-board clamp. With the filleting knife, cut through
skin and scales in a crescent just behind the gills and
down the back along the backbone to the tail. Insert the
knife into the backbone cut and gently separate the filet
from the bones. Turn the fish on the board and filet the
other side. Discard head, bones, tail, and innards. Clamp
each filet to the board, skin down, and, cutting at a very
shallow angle, slice meat from skin.

Wash meat nuggets in fresh water, save skins for fish bait,
and bury heals and the rest under squash hills or the bean
poles. Dig deep, stomp hard on the fill, and don’t leave so
much as a dribble of fish yuck on top of the ground, Or
night critters will exhume it.

Catfish hunt by tasting the water and are traditionally
caught with smelly bait–the stronger the smell, the
better a bait’s reputation …among fishermen at least. I
like to pre-bait hooks with hunks of meat or fish and leave
them in the sun for a day or two to develop a high odor. In
fact, catfish will eat anything, and will choose worms or a
fresh minnow as often as a smelly bait.

OI’ Whiskers

Most catfish lie low during the day and hunt at night.
During the day you can lure them out of hiding with a
strong-smelling bait, but fishing is most effective at
night. If you have a boat you can go “jug fishin’.” Save up
plastic milk or juice containers–the one-gallon kind
with handles are best. Cut a length of stout cord long
enough to reach the bottom, and then some. Tie one end to
the handle and fix a hook to the other. Be sure the jug is
watertight and the cap is on to stay. In the evening, crimp
a split shot or two above each hook, bait, and drop floats
along the edge of weed beds. Next morning, row out and
collect dinner.

Extracting Hooks

To get a badly stuck hook out of a fish’s gullet, always
carry a set of needle-nosed/side-cutting pliers, available
at any hardware store or (for double the price) at any
sporting goods counter. A good example of the right tool
for the job, the pliers can get hooks out with no harm to
the fish you want to release in cases where yanking or
trying to extract the hook without a tool would kill the
fish and/or get the hook’s barbed end stuck in your finger.

If a hook does get stuck in your hide deep enough that the
barb is all the way in, there is only one way to remove it
in the field: that’s to push it around and out through the
skin. Fortunately, most hooks get caught in fingers and are
easily removed …but if one snags anywhere near an eye,
get to the nearest emergency room. Any hook buried deep
also requires medical attention-both to remove the hook
with minimal tissue damage and to administer a tetanus shot
for the dangerous puncture wound.

Every tackle box should contain a small first aid kit.
First, douse the wound area and protruding shank of the
hook with disinfectant. To remove the hook, hold the stuck
member tight and grab the protruding shank of the hook with
the pliers. Pull the barb back and out as far as you can
(so back-pointing barb pulls against skin) so it is as
shallow in the skin as possible. Then-keeping the arc the
hook-end describes as it moves as tight as you can-rotate
shank around so the barb pushes up, through and out,
necessarily making a new hole through the skin. With the
wire cutters, snip off the barb and rotate the now barbless
hook back out. Encourage the wound to bleed out and it
should heal with no problem. Bandage and forget it.

This process sounds gruesome but is routine for experienced
fishermen. I find that kids accept the procedure with teary
bravado when it is explained carefully, when you praise
them for being really brave, get it done quickly, if they
don’t have to look till its over, and when the
alternative-an end to the fishing trip and a $250
expedition to an emergency room in town-is explained to
them. The wound will throb for a while, but the pain is
forgotten quickly if the fishing is good. If the wound is
more than barely noticeable the next day-especially if it
is hot, discolored and swollen badly-see a physician.

For fishing with small children, I recommend the little
barbless salmon-egg or fly hooks used to give trout an
edge. They don’t hold fish as readily as barbs-the kid must
maintain even pressure on the line-but they slip right out
of a small child’s finger, or more commonly, his pants or
your shirt or the dog’s foolish mouth-when your favorite
three-year-old feeds his worm to Yarpley. Don’t laugh, it
happened to me some years back-but with a barbed hook. The
dog in question persisted in attacking porcupines, so was
used to oral-pharyngeal surgery, but your hound may not be
so dumb and could resist hook extraction with full-toothed
canine vigor.