Survival Fishing 101, by Captain T.

Many of us have, within our Bug Out Bag some kind of basic survival fishing rig (like those sold at Ready Made Resources or Camping Survival) be it a simple hook, line, and sinker tucked away in a plastic case, in the handle of a survival knife, a pill bottle, plastic pack or metal tin, or a slightly more elaborate setup that might include a small fishing reel and telescopic rod or a small Yo-Yo fishing reel.  Regardless of what rig you possess at the time TSHTF, it is important to have some general knowledge and ability in order to accomplish the desired outcome while fishing—and that is catching fish.   Let’s face it, those of us that have never fished for anything with the exception of the remote control between the cushions of the sofa, could benefit from some tips to increase our chances, especially if it means the difference between a much needed meal or going hungry for yet another day.


For the sake of brevity, the focus of this discussion is going to be on the simplest of fishing transactions.  There are an overwhelming variety of fishing styles (sport, spear, bow, nets, etc.), methods (bottom, top water, drift), types of equipment, locations, environments, etc. that can be included in the discussion, but the scope of this writing will be limited to freshwater, a simple fishing setup such as what is found in a typical off-the-shelf or homemade survival kit and what is typically available in terms of the live bait. The goal will be to increase the basic familiarity of it to the prepper  or the  persons in a G.O.O.D. situation that has little to no knowledge about the act of fishing and may be forced to act in that capacity to generate sustenance to survive.     

Contrary to what you may think, successfully fishing to the desired outcome is not necessarily easy and likely one of the more difficult foods to get from the water, but it’s certainly not impossible.  There are many considerations and factors that go into a successful fishing event and some of them include, fishing equipment being used (rod and reel, net, archery, spear, trapping, etc.), weather conditions (heavy rain, full sun, snow), body of water being fished (stream, pond, lake, river), bait available, time of day (dawn, noon, dusk), and season (spring, winter, summer), clarity and depth of water, temperature of the air and water, and the amount of cover in and around the water just to name a few.  Many of the negative factors, some more than others, can be overcome with experience and knowledge.   The argument can be made, that for the time and energy invested, fishing is not the best plan to procure a meal (I’ve gone home on more than one occasion with an empty stringer)–but given a particular situation it just may be your best opportunity at that moment. 


The typical survival fishing setup provides the bare essentials to fish– a hook, line and possibly sinkers—and doesn’t involve legalities such as licenses and other regulations.  If you are going to practice your skills please make sure you comply with all federal/state/local laws—or get the permission of the land owner if you are going to practice on a private pond or lake.  The line and sinkers are designed to get the bait and hook down to where the fish are at.   It is important that you inspect your fishing line and the knot at the hook.  Don’t wait until you need it to find out that the heat has weakened or frayed your line to the point that a slight pull would result in it snapping—that is the last thing you want to happen when your next meal is on the other end.   Monofilament lines (common type of fishing line typically used in survival fishing kits) will breakdown over time and that effect is accelerated with the addition of heat.  It may be worth your while to invest is a small spool of high quality 8-10 pound test braided fishing line available at any sporting goods store or section in one of the big box stores.  This braided, or multifilament line has greater strength and durability when compared to monofilament, but it is more expensive and not without its unique issues.  If you can’t keep the entire spool in your BOB, create a mini spool using a small piece of cardboard and wrap as much as you can (space permitting) around it.  Consider (safely) including a couple of larger sewing needles in with your fishing line—this can help stitch tears, mend other items during the course of your travels , and provide you many other uses should the need arise.   

Your knot on the end of the fishing line is just as important as anything else.  If this is the weak link then you can say good bye to a hook and your dinner.  It is essential to know how to tie a good knot and one or more that meet the needs of your applications. , or are just a few good sources of animated/pictures of knot tying examples.  Additionally, there are several resources (such as knot cards) concerning knot tying for your BOB available at Camping Survival.   Knowledge of knots in a practical or an outdoor survival situation can’t be overstated.  Some of the considerations, other than fishing requiring knowledge of knots include:  lashing/securing/binding items together, climbing, creating a loop, splicing ropes, tying bandages, are just a few.           

It may also be in your best interest to invest is some additional hooks.  They are light and don’t take up a bunch of space and it is almost assured you will lose some in the course of fishing.  There are a wide variety of hooks for different purposes.   In this case we want to stick with bait hooks.  These type hooks are designed with small barbs on the shank of the hook to help hold the bait in place.  From my personal experience the size of the fish I wish to catch and the bait I’m using determines the size of the hook.   In my kit I carry #12 to #8 sized hooks because my primary target will be the pan fish family, a plentiful and easy to catch fish such has bluegills, sunfish, and crappies.  A smaller hook is a good compromise because not only can you catch small fish, but also larger fish. The reverse is not always the case.  My goal is to obtain as much food as I need, as fast as I can, with as little effort as possible.  This family of fishes has very rarely let me down over the course of 30 years of fishing.  Now if I catch a good sized Trout I will certainly be better off in terms of the amount of total protein, but I am relatively sure I can catch more bluegills in the same amount of time (if at all) than it would take me to catch a 4-5 pound trout or bass with a survival rig.

Fishing with a bare line is not impossible but adding that line to a moderately thick green branch can: aid you in getting that hook and bait closer to your next meal, allow you to hold that bait over the target longer, give you access to additional areas that require additional reach (working around a muddy river bank keeping you from slipping in, working in and around cover, placing the bait into a quite pool, etc.).   Select a limb that will withstand a significant amount of pull from the top one-third of it without snapping, rigid is good but you want the limb to flex some (absorb moderate pull) without snapping.   Keeping your line far enough from the tip of the stick, using a pocket knife or something similar, bevel in a smooth notch into the wood all the way around the stick (must be very smooth to ensure the line does not get accidentally frayed or cut by a rough spot on the wood).  Make sure you don’t go in too deep into the wood and unintentionally make it too weak in that area.  If the limb is thick enough, it should easily withstand a 1-5 pound fish–but take the extra precautions and test it.  This beveling will keep your line from sliding off the end of your makeshift “pole” (if you have one, you can also use an eye screw attached to your pole as a fastening point too).   Tie a sufficient length of fishing line for the depth and distance you will be fishing (using a hitch knot or something similar) around the notched area.  Make sure that it is tight enough that it will not fall off or be pulled off when a fish is hooked.  Add your fish hook on the other end of the line and sinkers if you have them (these help get your bait down to the level where the fish are).  Here again, use a good knot, as it would be a bad thing to lose both your meal and a hook at the same time. Not that you have too, but if you want to add a home-made bobber, try this.  Simply find a twig, ¼ inch or slightly thicker, about 1-3 inches long and trim all the bark off of it (contrasting color in the water).  Then bevel evenly around the circumference of the stick, like you did with your fishing pole, but more toward one end, not exactly in the middle.  Determine the level you want your bait to be at, based on how high the bobber will be on your line—high is deeper, lower is shallow.  Once that is known, you can attach the bobber to your main line.  Take the main line, place it against the bobber.  Using a small length of extra line (or small wire, rubber band, etc.), simply wrap it tightly a few times around bobber and main line forcing it into the beveled area (toward the bottom) of the bobber and tie off with a tight knot.  A rubber band would make this process even easier and allow you to quickly adjust the depth if needed plus they are helpful for other things as well.  With a little ingenuity you can make a bobber with just about anything that floats.  This is just one variation of a home-made/survival fishing pole set-up.  There are many interesting creations out in YouTube to give you some idea on how to create your own.  Find one you like, build it, experiment, try it out and share it with others if it works.       
The next component to a successful survival fishing undertaking is bait.  Here again, the focus will be on the natural side of things or what might be available in and around the body of fresh water where you would be fishing.  Yes, you can fish successfully with artificial lures, flies, and plastic imitation baits but that will likely not be in your standard kit unless you supplemented it with those items (and if you did that, then you are likely proficient in this skill and will find this article to rudimentary for your purposes).  When searching for bait, look into and around the water for sources of food that the fish consume.  If you see tadpoles in the water, mussels, or crawfish, that would be a good bait to use.  You might see grasshoppers or other insects floating in the water or around the shore—if they can fit on your hook those would also be great bait items.  A general rule of thumb:  big bait, big fish, small bait, small fish.  Some suggestions for bait include:  tad poles, small frogs and toads, fish eggs, grubs, beetles, millipedes, crickets, worms, crayfish, larva, freshwater crabs, minnows, fish fry (young fish), caterpillars, fresh water shrimp, mussels, etc.  Look in or under rotten logs or stones, high grass (for hoppers), around the shore line, under rocks in streams, or under plies of leaves–but always use caution.  Take some time to explore the area and don’t be afraid to try different baits out.  Sometime fish can be as finicky as people in what they choose to eat.  Also—word of advice:  if you are not sure what it is, don’t take a chance on getting bit or stung—you can’t afford that in a survival situation!  Move on to something safer and surer.  Always keep your situational awareness in active mode.

Setting the hook, especially in sport fishing, is a very import part of the “catch”.  Since this discussion involves a survival situation the focus is on catching food not sport.  For the most part, when fishing with live bait, many fish will quickly ingest the bait since it is real and something they recognize and regularly feed on.  In a situation such as this, the fish will likely swallow the bait and hook itself—what is often called a gut hook.  This significantly increases the mortality in a sport/catch and release situation (hook removal).  In a normal situation you will want to avoid this and can do so with a quick hook set.  There may even be legal requirements in your area on how to handle a “gut hooked” fish—so be aware.   However, in a survival situation hook setting is another important step in securing food.  Once you feel the weight of the fish (tug), simply snap the rod (or line) in an upward motion and to the left or right. If the hook sets, you will feel the fish fighting (pulling) on the other end.  The goal is now how quickly you can get that fish safely out of the water.  Remember different fish species have different biting patterns, some are aggressive and some light biters.  Here again, practice and learn from your experiences.             

After you catch your first fish, you can cut open the abdomen, and remove the intestines and other organs.  Cut open the stomach and examine the contents and that will tell you about the fish’s diet.  Examples of this can be seen at the Hi-lakers web site. These parts of the fish can also be successfully used as bait as well.  When using “live” bait the goal is to keep it that way.  Hook the bait in such a way that it appears natural (hook hidden) and that it will stay alive as long as possible.  For example, if you are using a minnow as bait, you want it to be able to swim around; therefore you hook it thru the tail, or the lips, or under the spine (from the top of the fish). No, it won’t be hidden but it will stay alive longer.  If you bring the hook too close to the spine, you will kill the fish or at a minimum paralyze it.   The same can be said of frogs, crayfish, or freshwater shrimp, hook them in a way that they will stay alive longer.  With crickets, grasshoppers, grubs and worms their life span is significantly limited in the water—unless they have scuba gear.  With these baits the important thing is to secure the bait and hide the hook!  Of note, it is an important fact to point out that many times the bait you may collect can also double as food for you.  So if you can’t catch a fish, at least you can eat the bait.  Frogs, toads, crawfish, worms, crickets, and grubs in sufficient quantities can provide substance.  Just do your homework so you know how to identify the good stuff and ways to safely consume it.  

Location, Time, Temperature, Weather, the Moon, and Seasons

Finding the best location to fish can also mean the difference between a full stomach and an empty one.  Generally speaking, fish need cover for protection and to provide them sources of food.  Cover comes in a variety of forms both in the water and out of the water.  Some examples of cover in the water can be a sunken tree, a bank of lily pads or aquatic weeds,  large rocks, bottom drop-offs (underwater ledges), or an undercut river bank (safety first—don’t stand on it if it could collapse).  Out of water cover includes overhanging trees or bushes that shade the water or fallen trees.  These are all areas where you would want to place your bait.  Water patterns and formations can also provide successful opportunities to get to fish.  Here you need to look for quite or still pools of water (in rivers and streams) behind rocks and fallen trees , feeder streams into lakes or rivers (these provide cooler water, oxygen, and food), or look for deep holes in rivers or streams where fish might “hole up”.  Often, in clearer water, you can spot fish.  In these situations you want to present your bait up stream (if there is current) and allow it to drift into the area where the fish are waiting.

Remember:  your approach to the fishing location should be done slowly.  Limit any vibrations that you might send in your advance to the area.  Fish are very sensitive to vibrations and will spook easy.  Also if the water is clear your movement or shadow, if you cast one, will likely be seen by them.  While fish do have the ability to see, the distance and definition of what they see depends on the species and environment.  Rule of thumb:  walk slowly, tread lightly, and watch the shadows.  If you do spook them, give it a few minutes as they might return to their feeding area once they feel (no pun intended) the perceived threat is gone.  
Along with location and cover– time, temperature, lunar cycle and weather also work with you or against you.   Knowing the best time of day to fish often depends on the family of fish you are going after and the location you’re fishing.    Much like us, they need to replenish their food banks after an evening of rest. Commonly, fish start to get hungry and feed just before dawn and into the first hour.  White Bass, for example, at a certain period of time in the wee hours of the morning, will simply go crazy chasing (feeding on) shad and then just stop.  It’s really an amazing event to be in the middle of and quite illustrative of feeding times and it brings up another good point—an obvious sign that fish are feeding is that they are breaking the surface of the water going after food or their food (as in this case) is breaking the surface of the water trying to get away from the predator.  The other optimal time for most fish to feed is just after sunset.  That doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish during the day, it just means it might be more difficult and require more effort.  You might have to fish at different location (in cover), run your bait deeper, or use different more appealing bait, or a combination of all three.

Here is something my grandfather taught me at a young age:  just before a storm, fish increase in their feeding.  I’m not exactly certain why, but I have been told that fish sense the change in barometric pressure and this is one of their reactions to it.  This may be due to experience and the lack of or difficulty in the fish locating food during or after a storm.  Regardless, it is indeed a good time to fish.  However, it can be a very dangerous time to which I can attest first-hand.  Two near miss lighting strikes during separate events (one shore fishing, one on a boat), convinced me that it’s not worth it.  If there is a thunderstorm in the forecast, I stay indoors.  Again, you have to weigh the risks—hunger pains versus possible death—it doesn’t take much convincing on what to do in my book.  But then again, maybe the rewards outweigh the risks in a certain situation.  You will have to make the call. 

The lunar cycle also effects the feeding cycle of fish.  When the moon is full and when it is waning (illuminated surface as seen from Earth is decreasing), is another good time to fish.  Again, depending on other conditions, temperatures (water and air), weather, season, it can certainly affect your outcome.  Likewise, if you have the majority of positive possibilities on your side you increase your odds but there are no guarantees.   
 Seasons play a part in the successful outcome of fishing.  Keep in mind that most of the freshwater fish families spawn in the spring (exact times vary).  Spawning occurs in the shallows (bedding) and often around areas that provide cover in the water (logs, aquatic plants) for protecting the young fish and to also keep food in close proximity.  Also, shallow water provides warmth while coming out of the winter season.  Because of the energy it takes to spawn and the warming effect, a fish’s appetite increases.  Also in the fall season is a good time to fish as well.  The temps (water) have to drop significantly enough to signal the fish that winter is coming.  This tends to spur the fish into action—to put some extra calories on before the slower feeding season of winter.  During the winter months, fish tend to go into deeper (warmer) waters.  For more information on the topic of when to fish, take a look at this free PDF resource that you can download and/or print. 

Preparing the Catch

For additional information concerning the preparation of your recently caught meal, take a look at these diagrams.  The process is fairly straight forward:  scale it, gut it, skin it (depending on the fish), cut/fillet it, and then cook it.  Here are two guides (one and two) to help you through the process and another with a good diagram.  There are also numerous videos on YouTube, some quite entertaining, that can give you an idea of how to prepare and even cook your fish.     


In a SHTF scenario you will certainly need to take any necessary tactical considerations while fishing.  Watch your back.  It’s hard to concentrate on catching your next meal while making sure that you don’t become a victim or another predator’s next meal.  As it has been said, safety (and security) is paramount! 
Take the time to put the knowledge you gain into action.  Practice knot tying, rig preparing, finding and using different baits, locating good fishing areas, and actually do some fishing now, while things are relatively normal.  Then take the time to clean, prepare and cook the fish you caught.  Fishing is a fun sport and most kids enjoy it as well–so bring them along.  Fishing, like any sport requires practice and is a diminishing skill.   Through your experiences, you can better define what works for you, as well as the gear you will or won’t take with you in your G.O.O.D. kit or Bug out Bag.  Remember always obey the laws that apply in your area, respect property owners rights, exercise any needed precautions and safety requirements (weather, equipment, situational/threat awareness, environment, etc.), and if you need any licenses or tags make sure you get them as required.   Please also respect the areas that you fish in and leave them in better condition than you found ‘em!  Best wishes on catching those fishes!