Fishing For Survival, by M.K.

I have spent a decent amount of time fishing with my two sons (ages 7 and 9) recently. Watching them learn to go after a stringer of fish has been a real joy. You have all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” That thought came to my mind as I was talking my boys through our plan of attack on the little lake near our house. As they continued to cast and reel without bringing anything in, I began to wonder what would happen if we really were dependent on these fish for our survival. Would we really be able to be fed for a lifetime?

I have read many articles on fishing for survival. I’ve seen a lot of good advice, as well as a lot that should be passed by without a thought. I’ve seen survival kits that include fishing tackle. I’ve heard from survivalists and enthusiasts alike about what should be included in a survival fishing kit. I’ve seen enough survival “experts” catch fish in the wild and eat it raw or over an open fire. All of these examples of fishing for survival are all well and good, but each person lives under different circumstances, and no one mode of methodology is the same.

So, I began to think about myself in a survival situation. I began to wonder how my boys and I would do, given the requirement of fishing for our daily sustenance. I grew up as a hunter and fisherman. I was taught by a father and grandfather, who knew the woods and water like no others. I didn’t learn from reading articles or watching youtube clips. Bear Grylls wasn’t my teacher, and I didn’t need to have any ex-Navy Seal show me how to find my own food. I have the foundation of knowledge within me to allow me to survive, but could I really put together a decent plan to continually bring food in for the table?

Thinking about the main points of fishing for survival, I came up with some categories of fishing preparedness that I needed to focus on with my boys. There are obviously various scenarios that could change the plan, including bugging out or bugging in, the location of bodies of water that are safe for eating fish from, and safety of travel just to name a few. So, I had to create categories that fit my current plan of hunkering down in my location. The categories I decided were of most importance were:

  1. Equipment Needed
  2. Proximity of Water
  3. Techniques for Catching Fish
  4. Cleaning the Fish
  5. Cooking the Fish

Of course, I understand others may have different categories that they may find helpful, but I felt that in the limited resources of a survival situation, I would keep things as simple as possible. Here is how I began to work out these categories in my fishing plan.

Equipment Needed

First of all, I understand that each situation calls for different equipment. Yes, a small fishing kit, consisting of line (go for a decent strength of 10lbs or more; I recommend braided), hooks, sinkers, and floats, is a helpful tool for your bug out bag, but your chances of success wandering through the woods finding streams and lakes are going to be fairly slim to begin with. This is definitely not your ideal fishing situation, but using what you have at hand you may be successful enough. I recommend, in addition to your bug out fishing kit, you include a small box of artificial lures as well. Some jigs and grubs and minnows or frogs would be a nice addition, if you can manage to squeeze them into your kit.

My plan, however, is to stay home as long as possible. This, of course, gives me access to all of my current fishing tackle and supplies. Yet moving out of the house in safety may require a more mobile setup. I most likely would avoid taking my large, seven-tray tackle box and multiple rods, and I’d outfit myself with a bit more mobile setup. Going on foot to a fishing spot, especially with my two sons, I would take the following:

  • Lightweight, over the shoulder fishing bag or backpack.
  • Small tackle boxes, including hooks, jigs, grubs, rubber worms, a spinner bait or two, and some surface lures, such as poppers, floating minnows, or frogs.
  • Fillet knife and something to fillet fish on, such as a board.
  • One rod of my choosing. I have a number to choose from, but I would most likely go with one that could be broken down into two or three parts for easier carry. My favorite rod (Fenwick Elitetech Smallmouth) is a one piece. While it is a great rod, it would be difficult to easily carry it through the wilds to a fishing spot.
  • A lot of people are concerned about the weight of line that should be used in this situation. Honestly, you know what you are fishing for, if you are in an area that you are familiar with. Here in the great State of Michigan, I’m not overly concerned with using a massive line. I’m not typically fishing for anything that 8 to 12lb line can’t handle easily enough.
  • A multitool with pliers.
  • Sturdy shoes/boots and outerwear for appropriate weather.
  • While I love fly fishing, I’m going for practicality in this situation, and I don’t have the greatest places here to cast a fly. So my fly gear will sadly be put away.

One item of note that you may notice, I did not include is a float or bobber. I wouldn’t want to alert a passerby of my presence without them having to look closely. If they see a red and white ball floating on top of the water, it’s pretty obvious that someone is there. Learn techniques to fish without them and you won’t have to worry about such things.

Some of you may be blessed with a boat that could be used. A lightweight canoe would be great for a situation like this. It could be carried to various locations or even hidden near a lake or stream. Larger boats that must be pulled with your vehicle may not be the most suitable for all situations in a post-SHTF scenario. Personally, I own an inflatable 12-foot boat with a small electric trolling motor. While it weighs upwards of 50lbs, it could still be transported easier than a hard-sided boat of the same size. I will add that I have had to patch it in various spots over the years, so some vinyl patches are a must!

If I were to have a bug out retreat of some kind (I haven’t been blessed with such a place or the finances to acquire one yet), I would make sure to stock it with at least two rods and reels per person and the tackle for each.

Proximity of Water

My family is blessed that we live outside of the city. We are in a very small country neighborhood with no other neighborhoods around us. Across my street is a hay farm that boasts 185 acres. We are also blessed that we live in Michigan, where as they say, you are never more than six miles from fresh water.

It is so important to know your surroundings. You may have already planned out where your sources of fresh water are but have you looked for places to fish? A tiny stream might be a good source of drinking water, but it may not be large enough to house food as well. Make sure you scout out the area now for good fishing spots. We are one mile from a lake to the north, and about ¾ of a mile from gravel pits (full of fish) to our south. There are streams running to our southeast, and a pond in the farmland across the street to our west.

Thinking about each one of these bodies of water, I have to decide upon two things: safety and ease of getting a decent catch.

The best place to catch a decent number of fish would be the gravel pits. They are rarely fished (as you have to have permission to fish there), and rarely does one fish there without catching a decent amount. However, this is also the least safe. There is no cover, and a number of people know about the fishing there.

The farmer’s pond would give the best cover. Almost nobody knows it’s back there; it is easy to get to, and there is a lot of cover. However, while I have not fished there, it does not appear to be a great source of fish. It is shallow and weedy, which would be good cover for fish but would create a difficult time of bringing them out.

The stream to the southeast would be a decent hike and may have a fair amount of people nearby, since it goes through a neighborhood at one point.

This leaves the lake to the north. While I have not had a lot of success fishing there, it offers excellent cover; it’s close by, and it does have fish in it. In all likelihood, I would hike or bike down to the lake with my family as my main source of fish. If I felt it was safe enough, I could pull my boat behind my bike in a trailer or even carry it, if need be.

Techniques for Catching Fish

Now that I’ve nailed down my fishing location and have the equipment needed, I still have to catch the fish. This is the part that so many seem to take for granted. There is this general assumption that if I have the right kit or equipment, I will have no problem catching what I need. “Just give me some hooks and the strands from my paracord and I will be a fishing wizard out in the wilderness.” I’m sorry, but it’s just not that easy.

There are many methods for catching fish. I’ve already mentioned my love for fly fishing, which seems a bit impractical in a survival situation in my location. I’ve seen how-to videos on making fish traps, which may work extremely well in a small river or stream (and earn you super cool survival status points). Big lakes require a different approach than small lakes, and rivers are an entirely different animal altogether. There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to fishing technique.

I will tell you this, though. Here in my neck of the woods, the easiest fish to catch are bluegill and bass. Both of them love worms. Real ones or fake ones, it doesn’t really matter, though I would suggest real bait, especially for the bluegill.

My plan would be to fish the edge of the lake with live worms initially. I have had a lot of success catching bluegill with live worms on hooks. I will put a lead sinker about a foot or two above the worm, and let the worm swing back toward me as it hits the water. This gives it kind of a natural dive action as it sinks. The occasional bass will hit this as well, but bass may require a bit more of a strategic plan. Bluegill are nice because you can often catch a lot of them, and they are easy to fillet. While fishing for food, these would be my first targets.

If the bluegill aren’t biting, or I would like something bigger to feed my family, I would search for the bass. Bass like decent cover so it’s a good thing my lake has a decent amount of lily pads. I will often rig a rubber night crawler with a weedless harness or a Texas-rig, and let the worm sink between some of the clumps of vegetation. Then as I begin to move the worm around and retrieve it, the hope is a hungry bass will come on out to play.

Now, many of you are fisherman, and have been at it a lot longer than I have. I do not need to write an article for you about the various techniques of fishing. These are just two of the methods I have found to be successful at the specific lake where I will be doing most of my survival fishing. Survival fishing isn’t the time to try out new techniques. It’s the time to catch your dinner. You may have your tried and true methods, and you can skip right over other people’s techniques.

Cleaning the Fish

So you’ve caught a stringer full of fish. Congratulations! Now what do you do with it? I recently had a friend tell me that he only fishes catch and release, because cleaning a fish is just too much work. It’s really not, but you would be surprised how many people have never done it. I would prefer to clean the fish right out by the lake, as to avoid having to bury fish parts near my home. If it becomes part of your regular fishing routine, then it doesn’t become a chore. Any meat you eat has to go through a similar process. Be thankful it’s fish we are dealing with and not something larger!

There are two ways to do this. You can either fillet the fish (giving you nice, clean pieces of meat) or you can gut the fish and cook it basically whole. In most cases, I would fillet the fish. It just makes the cooking process easier on so many levels.

To Fillet the Fish:

  • Start with the fish on its side, with the spine facing you,
  • Line up your fillet knife behind the pectoral fin (the side fin), and
  • Cut in at a 45-degree angle toward the head, tilting the knife toward the spine until it stops on the spine.
  • Turn your blade so it is facing the tail of the fish, and slice all the way through to the tail. You want to avoid going too deep toward the belly of the fish, as to avoid the innards.
  • Pull away the cut meat, and finish the cut near the belly, if needed.
  • Flip the fish and repeat. This side will be backwards, so it’s always easiest if you can fillet right and left handed. If not, oh well. You’ll get it.
  • To cut off the skin, if desired, place your fillet skin side down, then start at the tail and run your knife horizontally as close to the skin as possible. (Note: If you plan to cook with the skin on, scale the fish first. See instructions below.)
  • Rinse your fillet, and get ready to cook.

To Clean or Gut the Fish:

If the fish has scales, use a dull knife, or the back of a blade to run along the fish from the tail upward toward the head. With the right pressure, this will send scales flying off of the fish. Once they are all removed, rinse the fish to make sure the body is clean.

Next, insert your fillet knife on the underside of the fish into the anus near the tail. Draw the knife along the underside toward the head. Pull apart the opening, and remove all of the innards of the fish. If you would like to remove the head, simply cut it off on the head side of the pectoral fin.

If you plan on keeping your fish to fillet later, cleaning it before freezing or storing it in a refrigerator is a must. You can always go back to filleting your fish a little bit later.

Cooking the Fish

This all seems like a whole lot of work and preparation, and I’m still not done yet! It would sure be a letdown if I were to go through all of this only to cook a boring, tasteless fish. Obviously, if you are in a bug-out situation, sticking your cleaned fish onto a stick and cooking it over a fire might be your only option. While I enjoy that taste, there are many who would find it boring.

I love to cook fish, so here are a couple of the ways I cook fish, including two simple recipes. First, I love fried fish. You know, just about anything is better when cooked in oil. It may not always be the healthiest option, but if you’re in a survival situation, adding fats to your diet in the form of oil may be a good thing. While cooking in oil is easy enough, it took me years to find a good breading recipe. I’ve cooked this over a fire, on a stove, and in a pan on my grill. It’s good every time.

  1. Soak fish fillets in buttermilk (in the fridge) for at least an hour. If no buttermilk is available, put a teaspoon of lemon juice into a cup of milk and let it sit for five minutes before stirring it.
  2. Mix these dry ingredients together-

    • 2 Cups Flour
    • 2 Tablespoons Salt
    • 2 Tablespoons Pepper
    • 2 Tablespoons Paprika (or chili powder)
    • 1-Teaspoon Garlic Salt
    • 1-Tablespoon Dried Mustard
    • 1-Teaspoon Oregano
    • 1-Tablespoon Ginger
  3. Pull fish out of buttermilk and place in a bag. Dump dry contents into the bag; seal and shake up, until all the fish are coated.
  4. Heat oil until bubbles start to form. Drop fish in until crispy and brown. (Unfortunately, I can’t give you a time or temperature for this, as I have cooked using fire, grill, and stove. I do not have an exact measurement for you.)

Second, if frying is a little too unhealthy for you, I have a baked or grilled method you may enjoy (and it’s a lot easier).


  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic (chopped, minced, or crushed; it doesn’t matter)
  • 1 Tablespoon of Ginger
  • ½ Teaspoon Pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Let fish soak in marinade for at least an hour, then grill or bake until flaky.

I hope that you have taken some time to really consider what it will take for you to fish for survival in a post-SHTF scenario. Don’t rely on books or television to teach you what you will need to pull your food out of a lake or stream. Get out and do it. Go through all of the steps in order to make sure you are capable. Most of all, right now is the time to fish for enjoyment. It just so happens that it will also prepare you for a time to come where you may be required to fish.