A Beginner’s Guide: How to Start Fishing

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Though the term sounds imposing (and you'll be hoping your gear does prove terminal to a dinner's worth of fillets), terminal tackle simply means the hooks, sinkers, bobbers and artificial lures that you'll be fastening to the end of your line before you cast in search of fish
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1. With the rod in your hand as shown, hook the line, above the reel, with your finger and pinch it against the rod handle. 2. Open the bail on the reel (the wire ring that keeps the line from coming out). Now, face in the direction you want to cast with the rod in front of you and the sinker (or lure, etc.) just inches below its tip. 3. Lift the rod sharply until the tip is just behind your head. The weight of the sinker will bow the rod and add to the power of the cast. 4. Snap the rod forward to just past vertical (about 1 o'clock on an imaginary watch face). As the sinker starts moving forward, release the line held by your index finger, and the line should uncoil smoothly from the reel.
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The spinning reel put range and accuracy within any angler's grasp.
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YELLOW PERCH Perca flavescens. Habitat: Ponds, lakes. Bait: Night crawlers, red worms, small minnows.
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BASS Micropterus species. Includes largemouth and smallmouth bass.Habitat: Ponds, lakes, rivers. Bait: Night crawlers, red worms, larger minnows, frogs, salamanders, mid-sized artificial lures.
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If, however, a while passes with your bobber doing little more than serving as an aircraft carrier for tired dragonflies, reel it in, check the bait to make sure you weren't dozing or distracted when a fish hit and try another spot on the pond.
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SUNFISH Lepomis species. Includes the bluegill. Habitat: Ponds, lakes, rivers. Bait: Night crawlers, red worms, small minnows, crickets, small spinners, artificial flies.
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2. The Jitterbug is also worked slowly, but waddles its way across the surface. At times, you might simply "pop" the plug in by jerking the rod then waiting till any ripples fade. At other times, a steady retrieve works best.
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CATFISH Ictalurus species. Includes the bullheads.Habitat: Ponds, rivers, lakes.Bait: Night crawlers, red worms, minnows, "stink baits."
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TROUT Salmo species. Includes brown and rainbow trout.Habitat: Stocked ponds, rivers, streams. Bait: Red worms, small minnows, canned corn, salmon eggs, small artificial lures.
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3. Spinners and spoons provide their own action. Vary the depth and speed of the retrieve, and also try letting them "scallop" their way in, in a faster version of the plastic worm retrieve.
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1. The classic method of fishing a plastic worm is to walk it along the bottom by raising the rod tip then reeling as it's lowered. Work slowly; try to feel the surface that the worm crawls along.

In my young days, I spent far more time staring at red and white bobbers than watching TV when I was being taught how to start fishing. Well, not just bobbers. I also watched the tips of propped-up rods in the white glare of Coleman lamps while bottom-fishing at night. I stared at trolling rods bent with the rhythmic, wobbling pull of a Dardevle spoon. And I followed surface plugs dimpling the skin of evening-smoothed ponds. In short, I kept my eyes on just about anything that involved the pursuit of fish.

I was lucky to grow up guided by a grandfather who had long decades of outdoor living to call upon, and who seemingly couldn’t think of anything better to do with his free time than spend it on the water with a fish crazy kid and teach him how to start fishing. Most of what angling skills I have, I picked up more or less by osmosis. A lot of people haven’t had that kind of childhood, though, and–especially after moving to the country–find themselves hungry to learn the joys of open-air sport but unable to find a teacher.

There’s no way that anything I say will take the place of the patience and love of a grandfather, but here’s my best effort at passing on as much basic fishing information as I can call to foggy mind, without making it seem more complicated, or less magical, than it really is. Whether your aim is to catch a panful of small bream for a family meal, or to eventually pursue the more challenging course of trophy fishing, sit back, glass in hand and gleam in eye, and let’s talk fishing. (See the fishing diagrams and guide in the image gallery).

A Beginner’s Guide: How to Start Fishing

Gearing Up

All sports attract their share of equipment freaks, but, for my money, it’s hard to imagine one that befuddles the beginner with a wider range of gimmicks and doodads than fishing. It’s possible to buy a separate rod and reel combination for just about any stretch of water that you’re ever likely to fish, artificial lures for any possible combination of quarry and water conditions and everything else from self-warming streamside seats to electric hook sharpeners. And, as your pursuit of flashing fins takes you down differing trails, a lot of those things might well become must-haves. For now, though, I’m going to try to set you up with a versatile, do-most-anything rig, without slashing too deeply into your food budget.

The core of your outfit, of course, will be the rod and reel. And, since we’re trying to pick out a simple, versatile, more or less foolproof rig, your best bets are probably 1) a bait casting outfit, 2) a spin-casting set or 3) an open-faced spinning reel and matching rod. There are enthusiastic fans of each option, and any of the choices would do the job, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you buy a medium-sized, open-faced spinning reel (one suitable for line in the sixto 10-pound test range; have the salesperson load it with as much as it will hold when you buy it) and a medium action, six- to seven-foot fiberglass spinning rod. (The action, sometimes called power, should appear on a label somewhere on the rod.) With this rig, a few lures and a selection of hooks and sinkers, which will be described below, you should be able to go for most freshwater fish, in most types of water, and even catch smaller saltwater species.

Though many recommend a closed-faced, or spin-casting, reel for the beginner, I prefer the open-faced because it’s simple to operate and, well, open. When the line tangles during a cast (it will), you’ll be able to get at that bird’s nest without disassembling the reel itself. And, though an open-faced spinning outfit may take a little more practice than the closed-faced variety, I think it ultimately offers more casting distance and control.

Of course, you will have to practice. Fortunately, all you need to complete your training are an open field or large back yard and a small (1/4- to 1/2-ounce) lead sinker. Just tie the weight to the end of your line and follow the instructions in the accompanying sidebar. Don’t be discouraged when your first attempts at casting misfire. The correct rhythm and touch will come quickly, and in a short time you should develop enough casting range and accuracy to allow you to continue to perfect your skills while you’re fishing!

Terminal Tackle

Though the term sounds imposing (and you’ll be hoping your gear does prove terminal to a dinner’s worth of fillets), terminal tackle simply means the hooks, sinkers, bobbers and artificial lures that you’ll be fastening to the end of your line before you cast in search of fish. Once again, the choices are wide enough to be overwhelming, but a few basic purchases should get you underway.

The accompanying photograph includes, I think, everything you’ll need to stock a “barebones” tackle box. (See the fishing tackle guide in the image gallery).

A Bit About Bait

Artificial lures catch fish and don’t smell when you leave them in the refrigerator too long, but in many instances it’s hard to beat live bait. For freshwater fishing, there’s no more versatile bait than the earthworm (it ain’t called angleworm for nothing). Other good choices are minnows (make sure the ones you use are native to the water you’re fishing . . . “imports” may catch fish, but they may also disturb the environmental balance if several escape). Crayfish (also called crawdads) are effective, too, particularly in the spring and early summer, when they’ve shed one exoskeleton and not yet fully formed another. (“Softshells” are one of the all-time best baits for smallmouth bass.) Other choices for fresh water include, but aren’t limited to, frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, various salamanders, hellgrammites and anything else that fish routinely eat.

Saltwater baits also come in a wide variety. If you decide to do ocean angling, ask around at your local bait shop or pier and find out what’s hot and what’s not. (Cut mullet, sandworms, bloodworms, squid and shrimp are a few favorites.)

Wetting the Line

The fishing tactics you’ll use will vary with the water you’re angling in and the species you hope to catch. I’ll deal, therefore, with specific strategies and techniques in a series of situations. Just choose the one that’s closest to the setting in which you’ll be fishing, and the advice should provide a reliable starting point. But don’t let anyone’s advice keep you from watching and learning from the fisherfolk around you. Every lake, stream, pond and river has its own idiosyncracies. You could fish one area for a lifetime and not uncover all of its secrets . . . so you’re certainly not going to pick up everything you need to know here.

The Farm Pond

It’s hard to imagine a more congenial setting for “jist sittin’ an’ fishin’.” The air will probably carry the aroma of tilled soil and wildflowers (along with, perhaps, a hint of cow). Swallows will spin their hunting dances overhead, and the surface of the water may swell occasionally with the magical bulge of a surfacing turtle. Better still, farm ponds can be rich with fish. You’ll commonly find bream, catfish of one sort or another, largemouth bass and such “trash” fish as carp or suckers. If the pond is deep enough to stay cold and oxygen-rich year-round, it may even be stocked with trout. (It goes without saying that you’d better get permission before fishing anyone else’s pond. A well-maintained, stocked pond represents a big investment in time, money and work, and the trespasser is as likely to catch a load of birdshot as a string of bream.)

The most common way to fish a farm pond, or any other small, still body of water, is with a bobber, hook, worms (either red worms or night crawlers) and a small splitshot sinker. Keep in mind that, as my grandfather used to say, “You can catch a big fish on a small hook easier than you can catch a small fish on a big one.” I suggest starting with a number six or eight. Now simply thread the worm on the hook–leave enough hanging loose to get an enticing wiggle, but make sure the point of the hook is covered–clamp the split-shot a few inches to a foot or so above the bait, fix the bobber to the line at a point where it will float the worm just above the bottom or over any underwater foliage and flip the assembly into a likely looking spot. It’s a good bet to fish near cover of some sort: a dock, lily pads, etc.

Keep the line relatively tight, but not enough to drag the bobber along. An interested fish will probably first show itself by “nibbling,” causing the float to tremble, jerk back and forth, or bob up and down. That’s your signal to pay attention. But don’t do anything yet. When the fish drags the bobber along the surface of the water with determination or pulls it under, give a short, sharp jerk of the rod to set the hook, and reel your prize on in.

If you plan to release the fish, wet your hands before touching it, and handle it gently. (In fact, if you’re planning to release your day’s catch, it’s best to bend down the barbs on your hooks with a pair of pliers, to make hook removal easy.) Whether you aim to let the fish go or not, take a few seconds to savor its delicacy of color and beauty of line. Few things look as alive as a living fish, and appreciating that beauty is one of your rewards for skillful angling. Enjoy it.

Then, after unhooking the fish and putting it on a stringer or in a water-filled pail, rebait and cast back to the same spot. Chances are there are more where that one came from.

If, however, a while passes with your bobber doing little more than serving as an aircraft carrier for tired dragonflies, reel it in, check the bait to make sure you weren’t dozing or distracted when a fish hit and try another spot on the pond. Or vary the depth of your bait by moving the bobber up or down. You might even make a relatively long cast and move the float a foot or so every minute or two until you find fish. In a reasonably productive pond, a few hours of this sort of rest and relaxation ought to pro vide you with the makings of a nice family dinner.

There are, of course, less passive ways to tackle the same body of water. And, though bobber fishing can yield some huge fish, the techniques described above are far more likely to bring you bream than hefty bass or trout.

If largemouth bass are what you’re after, you’ll probably do well with a variation of the bobber technique. Just try a bigger float and a bigger hook (size two or larger) and a two-inch-long (or longer) minnow or shiner, hooked either through the lips or just under the back (dorsal) fin so it can swim freely. The small baitfish will pull the bobber around, but you shouldn’t have any trouble spotting the difference in the action of the float when a bass grabs the bait and tries to make off with it.

With that “hawg” (bass-fishin’ talk for a big one) in mind, this is probably a good time to talk about drag. Either on top of your reel’s spool or by the handle (see the owner’s manual) will be a dial you can loosen or tighten to make it easier or harder to pull line off the closed spool. Set this to allow line to be taken when the pull is just over half the line’s breaking strength (you can guesstimate accurately enough). Then, when a real hawg takes of on a run, he’ll simply pull off line against the drag, tiring himself all the while, instead of breaking free. Once you have him on and fighting, keep the rod tip high. Only try to reel when the fish isn’t pulling against the drag. If the bass explodes upward in a rainbow-spraying leap, drop the rod tip a foot or so each time the fish breaks water. Try to make your movements smooth, gradual but relentless. With a little luck, you’ll soon grab the bass’s lower lip (watch that hook) and hoist your prize ashore.

You can also go after pond bass (or trout) with any of the lures I recommended. Just cast the spoons and weighted spinners toward a likely looking spot and reel in. Vary the depth of your retrieve by letting the lure sink to different depths before you begin to reel. Try fast, slow and jerky retrieves. Again, pay special attention to possible cover, and fish as close to it as you can. You’ll lose a few lures to snags this way, but, to quote Granddad again, “If you aren’t getting hung up, you probably aren’t catching anything.”

There are many ways to fish plastic worms (in fact, there are books on the subject). One of the easiest and most effective is to rig the worm with a large hook and egg or bullet sinker, cast it out and bounce it across the bottom by raising and lowering the rod tip while reeling slowly. Try to develop a feel for what the worm is doing. A strike may not be violent. Often, a bass will simply take a worm in its mouth as the bait is dropping (when you lower your rod tip) and hold it. Whenever the lure seems to stop unnaturally, respond by lifting the rod tip sharply to set the hook.

The Jitterbug is a surface lure, and probably most effective at dusk, or even after dark. Cast it near cover, let it sit till the ripples caused by its splashing-down disappear and try different rates of retrieval. It’s often effective just to “pop” the ‘bug in with short jerks of the rod, letting the bait rest after each hop. A striking fish will usually hook itself. Just raise the rod tip when you feel the hit, and fight the lunker to shore.

Lakes, Slow Rivers and Ocean Shores

Any tactics that work in a farm pond will work in larger bodies of water–if the artificial lures are suited to the fish available or if you use an appropriate bait. There’s another form of still-fishing commonly used on big water, though, and it can be very effective. Known as bottom fishing, it calls for a heavier sinker and one or more hooks to hold the bait on, or just above, the bottom following a (usually) long cast.

Bottom fishing typically calls for live bait and one of the terminal rigs illustrated here. Watch what other fisherfolk, especially the successful ones, are using. In general, it’s best to keep a tight line so you can see the sharp rapping on the rod tip that signals a feeding fish, or feel that electric jerking on a fingertip. (To do so, pinch the line, just above the reel, between your thumb and index finger.)

If you have access to a boat, you can cover a lot of water by trolling an artificial lure behind the moving craft. Match the boat’s speed to the “action” (flash, spin or wobble) of your lure (usually a comfortable rowing speed or very slow motoring will do). Let out some line (say, 20 yards), and wait for the action. Once you have a strike, you can anchor in the spot and cast lures, or try live bait, or troll back and forth over the area a few more times to see if your first catch was part of a school.

Streams and Fast Rivers

All sorts of fish abound in streams and rapidly moving rivers, but when this kind of water comes to mind, we think trout. And, frankly, when trout come to mind, most anglers think fly-fishing, a wonderful and artful sport that’s beyond the scope of this basic article. Should your fishing yen move in this direction, there are any number of fine books on the subject. (An article on beginning fly-fishing will also appear in the third issue of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS companion publication, AMERICAN COUNTRY, which should be on your newsstand by early June.) You can, however, experiment with dry (floating) and wet (sinking) flies with your spinning outfit. To do so, just buy a “casting bubble,” which is a clear bobber that provides the mass necessary to flip a nearly weightless fly on spinning tackle, then fish the water as you would with live bait, a technique that is within the scope of this piece.

When trout are the quarry, the worm is the most commonly used live bait. In fact, a great many trout are caught by still-fishing–either on the bottom or with a bobber, in the deep, slow-moving pools of streams and rivers. Night crawlers are the common still-fishing bait, but–for my money–a healthy gardendug red worm will outperform a crawler in still-fishing, and is almost a must if you want to “work” a stream like a fly-fisherman.

For this technique, a proven fish catcher as well as a wonderful excuse to explore the tumbling, shade- and sunlight-dappled staircases of a mountain stream, you’ll need your smallest hooks, a few tiny split-shot sinkers and a leader. Simply a length of line of different strength from what’s on the reel’s spool, a leader–for our purposes here–consists of a four- to six-foot section of two- to four-pound test line that will be less visible to trout in gin-clear water than the “working” line on the reel. Tie this leader on, then, with the small hook and a worm in place (hook the worm only through the head, so most of its length dangles freely), experiment with different weights of split shot by dropping the worm, with the weight fixed six inches above it, into the current in front of you. Your aim is to pick a weight that will allow the worm to sink against the current at about a 45 degree angle, then let it roll along the bottom naturally.

Once your rig is correct, proceed upstream, walking in the water (blue jeans and sneakers should suffice in all but the coldest streams), flipping the bait ahead of you, usually at an angle toward the bank, in such a way that it will drift beneath undercut banks, into the whirlpool washes formed by boulders, under tree limbs projecting into the stream and–in general–anyplace the combination of current-supplied food and slower-than-normal water presents a logical resting place for a hungry trout. This will all take practice, of course. Keep in mind that the water around you is clear, and that trout are flighty. Move slowly. Wait a minute or more after getting into position before flipping your bait to a promising spot, and–as when fishing lakes with plastic worms–consider any unnatural hesitation in the drift of your bait to be a striking fish.

On waters big enough to allow longer casting, your weighted spinners can also be effective. Again, work from a position in the stream itself, either casting upstream, past promising hiding places, then reeling fast enough to move the lure ahead of the current, or downstream, casting toward the bank at an angle so the moving water sweeps the lure out toward midstream as you reel. In either case, remember where strikes occur, and be observant. The key to stream fishing is developing a sense of what’s going on under the water by watching its surface.

The End of the Line

There are an infinite number of challenges to confront the enthusiastic angler, and an equal (or greater) number of ways to deal with them. I hope, though, that the information here, and in the accompanying charts, illustrations and sidebars, is enough to start you through the first few passages into the ever-demanding, ever-rewarding maze that is fishing. If I’ve accomplished that, you’ll probably plunge far enough into the labyrinth of this sport to assure that you’ll never escape. Take it from me: Being caught up in fishing is the one imprisonment that can free the mind, body and soul.