Fishing is defined as the activity of catching fish, for food or as a sport. But, there is a major difference between fishing and catching fish. If fishing were that easy, it would be called catching instead. I fished competitively for a few years, competing in amateur Bass tournaments in Virginia and Hawaii. After tens of thousands of dollars in fishing equipment, boats, fuel, and tournament fees, I threw in the towel. Why? Fishing competitively is very expensive, it sometimes takes the enjoyment out of fishing, and my money is better used towards additional preparations.
Most years I average over 100 days on the water, honing my fishing skills (and getting away from the wife). It is rare that I go without catching a single fish, but those days do happen every now and then. Usually, when I am unable to catch my target species, I simply target a different type of fish. Some fish are easier to catch than others, due to higher numbers or being less picky, while some are simply more enjoyable to catch. Sometimes, I only bring the equipment to catch a specific species of fish, therefore if my target fish are not biting or I cannot find them, it is a long boring day of throwing my line in the water.
For those of you that do not know that you can target a specific species of fish, then you are way behind. Or, you may not like to fish because you can count the number of fish you have caught using one hand. To me, fishing is a blast; how can catching dozens of fish in a few hours not be fun? The reason why most people think fishing is boring is because they do not catch fish and/or the perceived waiting that is involved. Most people believe that fishing involves sitting in a chair, throwing out a line, and waiting for fish to bite; maybe with a cooler full of beer in arms reach. However, an experienced angler doesn’t necessarily wait for fish to bite. If you are not consistently catching fish, then something is wrong. Here are the top five reasons why people do not catch fish.
Reason 1: Improper Tackle
I couldn’t tell you how many times I have seen a family walk up to the shore, toting a brand new fishing pole still in the wrapper, the small “fishing kit” that is sold with the pole, expecting to catch a fish. As the parents start assembling the fishing pole, the kids have a smile from ear to ear. But, here is where the problem starts. I can see that the dad is having a hard time putting the hook on the line, the same hook that came out of the fishing kit which is usually way too big to catch most fish, speaking out loud that he cannot remember how his father taught him to rig a pole. Eventually, the hook is tied on, so is the bobber, a full Earthworm is thrown on, and the pole is handed to the kid. Sometimes the kid catches a fish, even one fish is a major victory, but in most cases the kid doesn’t catch a fish.
The kid usually walks away disappointed, the dad puts the check-mark next to the “take the kid fishing block”, and the pole is probably thrown into a corner of the garage until next year. The child learned two lessons during this ordeal: I can’t catch fish and fishing is boring. And, this pattern continues, year after year, until the kid is old enough to tell his dad that he doesn’t want to go fishing. Eventually, the kid turns into an adult, that doesn’t like to fish, and the pattern repeats the next generation.
To catch fish, you do not have to spend a lot of money on a fishing pole or the tackle. I often teach fishing using a plastic soda bottle, some fishing line, and basic terminal tackle. The bargain fishing pole from the example above, is more than adequate to catch a fish. And, in some cases, so is the tackle that comes with these fishing kits. However, if you do not understand the basics of fishing, more than likely you are not going to catch fish.
You always need to scale your tackle to the types of fish you are trying to catch. Small fish are usually easier to catch, and luckily most fresh waters in the United States contain an abundance of smaller fish species. Sunfish, also called pan fish, are located in most waters, especially small ponds or stocked ponds. They are usually plentiful, and it can be non-stop catching if you find a school of them.
When trying to catch a fish, most times smaller is better. Small hooks, small weight, small line diameter, and small bait presentation. The smaller the fish, the smaller your tackle needs to be. In contrast, if you are going after 20 lbs. Catfish, then you want to have larger tackle. You can catch more large fish using smaller tackle, than you can catch a small fish using larger tackle.
Recently, I was fishing a small stocked pond, located outside of a Marine Corps base. I was fishing for Catfish, and had caught a couple. A few feet away there was a little girl, about eight years old, trying to catch some Blue Gill (pan fish). The fish were about five feet away from the bank and were very active. Each time she dropped here line in the water, the Blue Gill immediately stripped her hook of the worm. Her problems were she was using too big of a piece of worm, and her hook was twice the size as it should have been. I grabbed a hook from my tackle box, and walked over to her father and asked if I could take a look at her line. A few minutes later, the new hook was on, I showed her how much worm she should use, and then I walked away. Before I got back to my fishing spot, she had caught her first fish, then another, and then another. Within thirty minutes she caught over a dozen fish. Before the family left, the mother walked over and thanked me.
When fishing, you need to match your tackle size to the species of fish you want to catch. And we will go over the specifics in a future article.
Reason 2: Failure to use the right bait
There are several reasons why a fish may bite your hook, but usually it is because you are presenting bait that mimics something they eat every day. Sometimes they bite out of reaction, and sometimes they bite because of competition with other fish. When fishing, you can use live bait, such as worms, insects, or minnows, or you can use artificial bait, normally a lure or plastic bait which are designed to mimic live bait. Just as with your tackle, your bait selection needs to be matched to the species of fish you are trying to catch, and so does the portion you offer the fish. Plastic worms can be purchased from 1” to over 12” in length; so if you are trying to catch a 4” fish, you shouldn’t use a 12” plastic worm. This is no different for live bait; why use an entire worm that is too large to fit inside of a fish’s mouth?
The general rule when selecting bait is that live bait usually out performs artificial lures; however this is not always the case. The challenge with live bait is that you have to find, catch, or raise it, which is not always realistic during a survival situation. Therefore, you can store artificial lures instead. Different baits catch different types of fish. And, different sizes of baits are designed to catch specific sizes of fish. However, a small bait can reliably catch a small and large fish, and while not as effective, a large bait can catch small fish. Again, smaller is better. The fish’s mood, water temperature, water clarity/color, and how active the fish are, will determine if live or artificial bait will catch more fish. Sometimes people fishing with live bait will “out fish” individuals using artificial lures, sometimes it is in reverse. If you do not have live bait, and are not catching fish with your favorite lure, use a different lure instead.
When using artificial baits, color can plan a major role. Most lures come in multiple patterns for each specific lure, and most plastics come in nearly every color of the rainbow. Now, whether you should use one color over another depends on the body of water you are fishing; it changes from water to water. Also, color is determined by water clarity. The clearer the water, the more natural colors you want to use. The more stained or dirty the water, you want to use colors that contrast with the water color. For instance the pond in my neighbor has a slightly stained water color, and has on average two feet of visibility. I catch most of my Largemouth Bass using a white or silver crankbait, and a greenish colored plastic worm. For Blue Gill, I use a Beetle Spin with a black body. In short, if the water is clear, I use mostly white, silver, or natural colored baits, and if it was dirty I would use darker baits.
Reason 3: Fishing unproductive areas
Sometimes your fishing equipment and presentation are perfect, but you are not catching anything. The problem may not be you or your gear; it could simply mean that there are not any fish where you are fishing. My neighborhood pond has a great population of Blue Gill, Largemouth Bass, and Crappie. There are lily pads, grass edges, and fallen trees. It is an ideal small pond, and I have never gone without catching a dozen fish per hour. But, what I have noticed is that each day, even throughout the day, the fish move from one area to another. What worked the day before, may not work today. Sure, I can sit in what I consider an unproductive area, and catch a few fish. But, if I am not catching a dozen fish an hour, I know I need to move and find out where they are located.
In a survival situation, you may not always be able to move around that easily. However, if you have a pond on your property, or if a water source is close to your Bug Out Location, then you should start fishing the area now so that you can learn which areas are more productive. While fishing conditions change every day, productive areas are usually productive (but this can be seasonal, see Reason 5).
While some people believe fish are stupid, I have to disagree. I have fished areas where certain fish will only eat certain things, for instance bread at ponds where people feed ducks and geese. I have also fished ponds where you may catch one Blue Gill, but the other dozen will not bite once that fish is taken out of the water. Fishing pressure is a major cause of why people do not catch fish or high quantities of fish. There is usually plenty of fish in the water, but they have learned what not to eat, what times to eat, and to not eat if another fish is caught.
On most waters, the bank or shore is continually beat up by anglers. While some species of fish prefer to be in the shallows, they have learned to move out to deeper waters or only eat things moving in a specific direction. So, to increase your odds, you can fish from a boat. Fishing from a boat will usually increase the amount of fish you catch, since you will be able to cover more water in a shorter amount of time, and fish waters with less fishing pressure. Additionally, you will be able to effectively fish deeper water. If you plan on fishing a small pond, or calm waters, an inflatable boat can be used. While not that durable, as they are prone to punctures and leaks, they can be effective. Or, you can take a step up to a kayak or plastic pontoon style boat. Personally, I prefer the pontoon style boat (due to more stability and load carrying capacity), but a kayak does have its advantages (such as no need for an electric motor and can be thrown on top of most vehicles).
I have a 21’ Bass Boat and a 10’ plastic pontoon style boat, made by Freedom Electric Marine (formerly Carolina Electric Boats). I use my Twin Troller X10 (pontoon boat) on small ponds, where electric motors are mandatory. To charge my batteries, I use my solar power system. The Twin Troller X10 is part of my Bug Out Plan, as it can fit inside of a truck bed or be put on a small utility trailer. I have previously owned a Pelican Bass Raider 10E, and it is also a good little boat, and is much cheaper than the Twin Troller X10.
Reason 4: Failure to change tactics
Now if you are in a productive area, but are not catching fish, then you are doing something wrong. It could be as simple as changing the type of bait you are using, such as switch from artificial to live bait, or changing the color or size of your offering. In my opinion, most artificial lures and plastics are designed to hook anglers at the store, more than they are to catch fish; if it looks cool it must be able to catch a fish.
Another issue I have seen is that people have their go-to-bait; one they have caught a few fish on and will swear by. Most anglers grew up fishing a certain way, or used certain lures that worked in their hometown waters. However, what works in one area may not work in others; don’t let your ego get in the way. A few years ago I took a U.S. Army helicopter pilot out fishing. As I do with all of the people I take out, I had a goodie bag full of lures that I give to anglers that are new to fishing my local waters. Upon getting in the boat, I inspected what the individual had brought, and made a few recommendations. But, he decided to fish with his proven go-to-bait. He told me stories of all of the large fish he had caught with this specific lure. Within a few minutes of fishing, I had caught a decent sized Largemouth Bass, and I again offered him one of my lures. He claimed it was beginners luck. About a minute later, I caught another bass, and so on. After fishing for a couple of hours, with a score of 10 to 0, the individual eventually caved in and tied on one of my lures. A few minutes after, he caught his first fish.
While fishing, you have to remain flexible. If you do not catch something after a few minutes, you may want to try a different tactic. One recommendation is to talk to local fisherman and see where they are fishing and what they are using. But, you also need to understand that fishing holes are very secretive; so let them know that you are just looking for some general knowledge as you are new to the area. Another option is to talk to people that work at bait shops; but I have mixed feeling about using this method. Most fisherman are biased in what they think works, and this is no different at a bait shop. Lastly, you can take a guided fishing trip on the body of water that you may use as a food source; most guides know how to catch fish.
Other things to consider when fishing is cover and structure. Cover are things that you can see, which can be seasonal, and includes grass, lily pads, fallen trees, etc. Cover provides protection for fish. Structure, or bottom composition, could be a ledge, submerged rocks, old roads beds that have been submerged, house foundations, etc. It is easy to spot cover on the bank, but you also need to understand what is also happening under the water (structure). Sometimes fish can be on the outside of a grass edge, sometimes in the middle of the grass, sometimes along a large fallen tree, and sometimes a single twig can hold a school of fish. Or they can be relating to rocks, a depth change (ledge), or along a gravel point. If you are not catching fish, move to a different type of cover or structure (remain flexible).
Reason 5: Not understanding seasonal fish patterns
Fish are not that much different than humans. We prefer air conditioning, they prefer cooler waters. When we want to get lucky (sex), we will do crazy things. When fish are spawning (mating), they act totally different. When we are hungry we go to the local drive through. When fish are hungry they find smaller fish to eat; we both move in the same direction as the food. Therefore, understanding seasonal patterns will greatly increase the amount of fish you catch.
In the spring time, most fish have mating on their minds, called spawning, and transition to water that is only a few feet deep (most areas spawning occurs in 1-5 feet of water, but can occur deeper if the water is very clear). You can see them in the shallows, usually in an area that is cleaned of debris (a bed). There will be one or two fish on the bed (male and female), and they will protect the bed until after the deed is done. Bedding fish do not usually eat during this process, but will chase away other fish. However, If you can find bed fish, you can usually catch at least one of them by repeatedly bothering them. There is a sweet spot on a bed, and if you can find it, the fish will normally attack your bait.
Following the spawn, fish usually remain close to the spawning areas, or move to the first drop off near the spawning areas. Since they were not actively eating while spawning, they immediately begin devouring everything in sight. Some fish can lose a quarter of their weight, or more, during the spawn, and they desperately try to gain back this weight as fast as possible following the spawn.
In the summer, the water warms, and this temperature increase is greater in shallow waters. Since fish like cooler waters, they will go to deeper water. However, this is not always the case with smaller fish; since they value protection and this protection is usually found in shallower water around vegetation (cover). While you can still catch fish in the shallows, if you can find a school of fish in deeper water, you will have a better chance of catching the fish. Larger fish will sometimes be in the shallows, especially if there is adequate cover, or may come up to the shallows in the morning or evening to feast.
More about schooling fish. Fish, just like humans, like to be in groups for protection and assistance. Protection, there is less of a chance to be consumed by another fish. Assistance, a school of fish can maneuver in such a way to corral bait fish. So, if you can find a school of fish, then you will also increase your chances of catching them.
In the fall, the bait fish usually migrate to the back of creeks (if you are on a larger body of water). In unison, larger fish follow the bait fish to the shallows in the backs of creeks. Schooling of larger fish occurs during this period, but these fish are mostly along ambush points near shallow areas.
In the winter months, most fish drop to deeper water since it is warmer. This is why most bank fishermen do not have as much luck in the winter; the fish have moved beyond their casting limits. Most people think fish go dormant in the winter, but this is far from the truth. Most fish are actively eating and fattening up for the next spring spawn; you can catch some of the largest fish of your life during the winter months. In the winter if you can find a school of fish, it is normally non-stop catching. I actually prefer to fish in the winter, and sometimes even break ice to get to the fishing grounds. Also, if there is a warming trend, a few days of higher than normal temperatures, the fish may go to the upper part of the water column.
This process repeats, year after year.