A Guide for Beginners
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Ron Messina – Remember catching your first fish? I do. Mine was hooked using a wooden stick baited with a nightcrawler — a backwoods fishing rig if ever there was. But I felt a nibble and flipped a brook trout out of the mountain stream, right over my head into the woods behind me, while my older brother hooted and laughed. At five years old, suddenly I was hooked on fishing!
Over the past year, many turned to the solitude of the outdoors to find refuge from the pandemic and discovered the excitement of hooking a fish. Over 50 million Americans enjoy fishing, and why not? Whether you fish to catch a trophy largemouth bass, walleye, or trout, to get some tasty fillets for the frying pan, or to simply enjoy the natural beauty of the water, fishing is fun! And autumn is a great time of the year to beat the heat by spending a few hours casting a line into a river, lake, or farm pond.
New to Fishing?
If you’ve never fished but would like to try, you don’t need to spend a lot on gear to get started. There are many different kinds of fishing rods available, but a basic, no-frills medium-light spinning rod and reel combo sold at any sporting goods store will suffice to catch fish anywhere and is a great choice to start with. The reel will likely be spooled with 6lb or 8lb test line, which is plenty strong to catch a wide variety of species.
In addition to the rod, you’ll need essentials like hooks in various sizes, sinker weights, and a few bobbers or floats to set up a typical “float rig” using worms or other live bait. Live bait can’t be beaten for fishing: earthworms, mealworms, minnows, and crayfish all catch fish. Digging up a few worms is a great project for children. But artificial baits work too: plastic worms, jigs, swimbaits, spinners, and topwater lures — all work and all have their place.
As with choosing a rod, you could spend hours poring over the selection of artificial baits in a typical big box store — but keep it simple with some plastic worms, Beetle Spins, and maybe a soft swimbait or a floating Rapala lure, and you will be armed to catch anything from small sunfish to huge largemouth bass. While that’s the basic equipment you need to fish, there are a few more details to think about to be comfortable and successful when you go.
Planning your fishing trip and being prepared is an important part of the process. For those just starting out, it’s best to find a local pond or stream to “get your feet wet” and hone your skills. Bluegill, crappie, and other sunfish are fun to catch and make great fare for the frying pan.
A little scouting won’t hurt, either; check the website of your local state wildlife agency for stocking dates and other public fishing information, and follow any local fishing blogs in the area. Talk to fishermen you know about the hotspots near you — it’s always nice to get an inside tip about what the fish are biting on and to be on the water at the right time.
Haven’t fished for a while? Take a moment to examine your gear; are the rods and reels in working order? Do the reels need gears lubed or new line? If your tackle has been stored for a few years, it’s better to find out you have a problem before you get to the water.
A wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and insect repellent will go a long way to make the day more comfortable. Pack some snacks, cold drinks, or even a picnic for when the fishing gets slow and you need a break. Fishing is a great family activity, so be sure to bring the youngsters along. If they haven’t fished before, coach them and be patient — it could pay off with the thrill of the year, seeing them catch their first fish!
What’s the key to being successful on the water? First, learn patience. Because you will snag your hook on tree branches; you will deal with “bird’s nests” of tangled fishing line; and you will endure long periods of catching nothing but clumps of grass, sticks, and old shoes — this is par for the course. Be patient and keep fishing through it all, and you will be rewarded.
Once you feel that strike — maybe the heavy thump of a bass, or the tug-tug-tug of a bluegill or trout — it’s time to “set the hook” by lifting up sharply on the rod. Keep the rod tip up as you reel in, and keep the line tight — the fight is on! What is it? One of the joys of fishing is you never know exactly what species of fish you might catch, and depending on where are, you may land anything from a catfish to a smallmouth bass, or any other numerous freshwater fish species.
A pair of fishing-type needle-nosed pliers is good to have on hand to remove the hook from the fish. If you plan on releasing it, try to keep the fish in the water as much as possible and be sure to wet your hands before touching it, so you don’t remove the fish’s protective “slime” coating. Don’t forget to take a photo with your catch before releasing it! If keeping fish to cook, have a cooler with ice on hand to keep it cool.
The more you fish, the more you will learn how to “read” the water, getting a sense of where fish are located. Fish in rivers often hold behind rocks where they don’t have to fight the current along the bottom of the stream. They’ll also venture into the swifter current to feed. In a river, the moving water is your friend; let your bait drift naturally along with the current and it will oftentimes deliver it to a feeding fish.
If on a pond or lake, try casting near any structure you can see — including under overhanging tree branches along the shore — and try putting your bait into different depths. If using a swimbait or spinner, vary your retrieve speed — the speed you reel the lure in. Twitch the rod and it will imitate a wounded baitfish, instigating a strike.
Fish in ponds can also be found near rocks, logs, or vegetation. Try casting near these places and you will be more successful.
While you might not bring home a trophy on every fishing trip, it’s guaranteed to be fun. Make a plan to get out one day soon and discover the thrill of catching a fish, and enjoy the peace and quiet you will find while fishing.
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.