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Fishing Techniques and Tips

Updated on August 24, 2019

Fishing is catching fish either for food or for the pleasure of the sport. Millions of people around the world pursue fishing as a recreational pastime or a sport, even as their livelihood.

From the earliest times, fishing has provided a major source of food for people living near water. Primitive people used their bare hands, spears, traps, nets, and crude hooks and lines to catch fish. It is probable that even in ancient times fishing was occasionally indulged in as a form of relaxation and enjoyment. Early records suggest that the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks all enjoyed fishing as a sport, as well as a basic occupation.

The recreational fisherman is not too concerned with method; the sport fisherman, or angler, however, develops specialized skills. In either case, the successful fisherman knows where fish usually congregate, the kinds of bait that bring the best results, how to rig the bait and where and at what depth to fish it, the best time of tide to fish, and other tips and techniques that makes fishing rewarding.

Photo by Dominic Morel
Photo by Dominic Morel

Freshwater Still-Fishing

Still-fishing is the least active type of fishing. Many enjoy this "lazy" way of fishing so much that they spurn any more active or more complicated method. It requires merely a line and baited hook, which are lowered into the water, with or without a pole, from a stationary boat, land, bridge, or pier. The best location is usually in shallow water near logs, stumps, lily pads, weed beds, or rocks. If one location produces inadequate results, the fisherman moves somewhere else. The most common catch is panfish, which include sunfish, yellow perch, white perch, crappies, and white bass, as well as bullheads, catfish, pickerel, trout, and black bass. He makes occasional inspections to freshen the bait or to be sure it is intact.

Tackle: Although more elaborate tackle may be used, most anglers prefer a tapered fiberglass or bamboo pole from 8 to 14 feet long for still-fishing. A monofilament, or single-strand, line with a testing strength of about 15 or 20 pounds is attached to the thin end of the pole. The hook is tied to the end of the line and is suspended the desired depth below the surface of the water by means of a cork or plastic float, which is attached to the line above the hook. The size and shape of the hook depend on the fish being sought. Among the live bait used are earthworms, minnows, grasshoppers, crickets, hellgrammites, crayfish, and frogs.

Where water is reasonably shallow and quiet, a sinker may not be necessary to get the bait down to the fish. But if lead seems called for because of deep holes or fast currents, it should be placed on the line a foot or more above the hook to allow the bait as much freedom of action as possible. Bobbers are used on the line to drift the bait above the bottom or above weeds. The smallest or lightest one that will do this is the best, because a fish should feel minimum resistance from the bobber.

Technique: Still fishing can be done from banks and shores, from docks and bridges, or from boats. In bank and shore fishing, the forward part of the rod can be rested in the Y of a forked stick with its end stuck in the ground. Brakes, or drags, on reels should be set very lightly, and if the reel contains an antireverse mechanism, it should be engaged after the bait has been cast out. When a fish grabs the bait, the float moves either up and down or along the surface of the water. The pole should not be lifted until the float is pulled under the surface. If the fish do not bite at all, a slow movement of the bait may attract their attention. If there is no response after several tries, it is advisable for the fisherman to try another location.

Freshwater Spinning

Spinning requires a casting rod equipped with a stationary spool that faces forward. Because the line unwinds evenly from the spool, backlash is eliminated. Backlash is a snarled line, caused when the spool revolves faster than the line unwinds, doubling the line back on itself in a tangle. Spinning tackle may be used from shore, from boats, or from a wading position to catch trout, black bass, pickerel, pike, muskellunge, walleyes, catfish, carp, and panfish.

Tackle: Spinning rods range in weight from light to heavy and are from 5 to 8 feet long. They are made from various metals, split bamboo, or fiber glass, and they are usually equipped with a long cork handle to which the reel is attached. Spinning reels are available in open-faced and closed-faced models. The open-faced type is attached to the underside of the handle and is uncovered. It generally has a bail, or finger pickup, to guide the line evenly onto the spool when the line is being rewound. The closed-faced type, also called the spin-casting or push-button reel, is mounted on the upper side of the handle. This type of reel is covered except for a hole through which the line spins out and is rewound, eliminating the need for a bail. The push button is depressed and then released, so that the line is freed for casting. Immediately after the cast, the tension of the drag is set automatically for trolling or for fighting a fish.

Spinning lines are made of nylon, either monofilament or braided, and have a testing strength of 2 to 10 pounds. Freshwater lures consist of imitation bugs, worms, minnows, and other small creatures, as well as spoons, spinners, plugs, and jigs, whose brightness and motion attract fish. Lures are made from plastic, wood, metal, hair, and feathers in various sizes and finishes, and they are designed for either surface or underwater use. Most lures range in weight from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce.

Technique: The angler begins his cast by holding the rod in one hand horizontally in the direction of the cast, swinging it up to the vertical position, and suddenly whipping it forward. Experienced anglers sometimes prefer a side cast to the overhead cast. As soon as the lure hits the water, the rod is shifted to the other hand, and the retrieve is begun.

Surface plugs are best for calm water, for early morning or evening fishing, and for shallow water near the shore, especially around logs, stumps, lily pads, and weeds and under overhanging trees. Underwater lures are best for midday fishing or for rough or deep water. The sinking type of lure should be tried at different depths. Jigs and plastic worms and eels work best when fished slowly on the bottom.

Bass Fishing Hook Setting

Saltwater Spinning

Saltwater spinning is of comparatively recent origin and is rapidly gaining in popularity. Essentially the same as freshwater spinning, it requires somewhat heavier equipment, which can be used for bottom fishing as well as for casting, and it requires natural baits as well as artificial lures. The kinds of fish caught with saltwater spinning tackle include striped bass, bluefish, channel bass, weakfish, sea trout, alba-core, bonito, bonefish, snook, tarpon, yellowtail, and the various kinds of bottom fishes.

Tackle: Saltwater spinning rods are from 6 to 9 feet long. For short casts and for light lures and sinkers, rods measuring 6 to 7 feet long are best. For long casts and for heavy lures and sinkers, longer rods are preferred.

Lures suitable for saltwater spinning rods weigh from 1/2 ounce to 3 ounces. They include various kinds of metal squids, spoons, jigs, plugs, and spinners. In addition, various kinds of natural bait are used, including sandworms, squid, clams, and baitfish.

Technique: Light, one-handed rods are used for casting from shore or from small boats. When fishing from shore, many anglers like to wade into the water up to their knees or hips and cast their lures into the deeper spots. When spinning from a boat, anglers can cast the lures in various directions while the boat is at anchor, or they can lift the anchor so that the boat drifts with the tide or current. For casting or bottom fishing from a bridge or pier, most anglers prefer the longer, heavier rods. These rods, suitable for longer casts, require the use of both hands.

Bait Casting

Bait casting or Plug-casting is the art of casting live-bait or artificially weighted lures with a revolving-spool reel. The line is drawn off the reel by the weight of the lure, rather than by the weight of the line, as in fly-fishing. Although almost any kind of freshwater and some saltwater fish can be caught with bait-casting tackle, it is most practical for the larger freshwater varieties, such as big black bass, pike, muskellunge, lake trout, and catfish.

Tackle: The bait-casting rod is similar to the spin-casting rod but is from 5 to 6 feet long. It is equipped with an offset locking seat, into which the reel fits. Below the reel seat is usually a finger grip, which is grasped by the forefinger for secure holding. The reel is of the revolving type. Some reels have antibacklash devices to prevent the spool from turning too fast during the cast, but most experienced anglers prefer to control the speed of rotation with their thumb. Most bait-casting reels have a level-wind device that spreads the line evenly on the reel during the retrieve.

Most lines are made of braided nylon or Dacron, with a testing strength of about 12 or 14 pounds. Some anglers prefer monofilament lines of about the same strength because monofilament is longer lasting and less visible to the fish. However, monofilament lines tend to tangle easily and are somewhat harder to cast. Lines with a testing strength of as much as 20 or 25 pounds are used for big fish, such as muskellunge or lake trout, and for trolling.

Bait-casting lures are similar to those used in spinning but are usually larger and heavier, ranging from 1/4 to 3/4 ounce in weight, depending on the weight of the fish being sought.

Technique: The cast is essentially the same as that used in spinning. In bait casting, however, the rod is held briefly in the vertical position during the cast to allow the weight of the lure to bend the rod backward in a curve before the sudden forward motion.

Because of its greater accuracy, bait-casting tackle is better suited than a spinning outfit for casting around such obstructions as logs, rocks,1 lily pads, weeds, and stumps. It is also excellent for working lures close to the bottom in deep water and for trolling.

Bait-casting tournaments are popular in many parts of the country. Floating circular targets of different colors are anchored at varying distances. Contestants cast at each target, as called by the referee, and the winner of the tournament is decided by judges positioned at several vantage points.

Photo by Benjamin Earwicker
Photo by Benjamin Earwicker


Although the elements of fly-fishing are easy to learn, its study can become a lifetime hobby. Fly-fishing requires small artificial lures that float on or under the surface of the water. They are therefore too light to be cast by their own weight, as in bait casting. It is the relatively heavy fly line, combined with a long, light rod, that accounts for distance and accuracy in fly casting. Once used only for trout and salmon, fly-fishing is now preferred by many sportsmen for black bass, panfish, and many other species of freshwater and saltwater fish that will strike an artificial lure. Fly rods must be used to catch Atlantic salmon in rivers, because all other kinds of tackle are prohibited.

Tackle: Fly rods of sturdy and inexpensive fiber glass or of delicate and expensive split bamboo average between 7 and 8 1/2 feet in length, with shorter and longer sizes available for special purposes. Reels are of two types: single-action and automatic. The single-action reels merely store unused line and allow it to be stripped off when needed. They are usually equipped with adjustable brakes to slow down the runs of a fish. Automatic reels, in addition to storing line, are equipped with an interior coiled spring that can be wound up manually and tripped by a thumb lever to recover slack line or to give and take line to keep it tight while handling the fish.

Fly rods should have medium action, or curvature, under stress. This is sometimes called "parabolic" action, and it is neither too soft nor too fast or stiff. Lines are braided from synthetic threads and are impregnated and coated with a plastic like material to waterproof them and to give them smoothness and weight. These lines are made to float for dry fly-fishing or to sink for wet fly-fishing. Both types are made level for bait-fishing or for short casts with flies; double-tapered (narrowed at both ends and therefore reversible) for dry fly-fishing and longer casts; and forward-tapered, or torpedo-tapered, for casting large or bulky flies, poppers, and bugs, all of which have more wind resistance. Lines with all these variations also are made in sizes to fit the different strengths of rods. Matching the proper line size to a rod is essential for the best casting performance. Manufacturers usually mark rods with recommended line size, but a larger-size line is sometimes more efficient.

Tapered monofilament leaders between line and fly help the fisherman cast the fly properly and make the connection less visible to the fish. Leaders vary from about 6 feet to 12 feet or more in length, but a leader as long as the rod serves for usual purposes. The butt diameter should be at least two thirds of line-end diameter. The fineness of the taper is in proportion to the size of the fly being used. If a leader's tip is too large, a finer tippet of monofilament can be tied on with a blood knot.

Artificial flies may be selected from an almost infinite number of sizes, types and varieties, but a dozen or so well-chosen patterns should suffice for beginners. Dry flies imitate live insects or other floating foods such as caterpillars and moths. Wet flies imitate similar dead or "spent" insects. Nymphs resemble the underwater larval stages of unhatched insects. Streamer flies and bucktails represent live minnows or other small baitfish.

Technique: Fly casting consists of two basic movements: the back cast and the forward cast. To begin the cast, the line is first extended on the surface of the water for a distance of 20 to 25 feet. The hand not holding the rod grasps the line at a point between the reel and the first line guide and holds the line out to the side. The rod is raised with increasing speed to a point a little beyond the vertical, where the line is extended almost straight back. With a snap of the wrist the direction of movement is then reversed, so that the line curves forward and continues to extend itself until the fly settles lightly on the surface. A dry fly is usually cast upstream, where it is allowed to drift with the current until it is taken by a fish. Other floating flies, such as bass bugs or panfish bugs, are cast toward the shore and are slowly worked back with short, intermittent jerks. A wet fly or a nymph, which is an imitation insect larva, can be cast upstream, across stream, or downstream, and it can move with or be drawn against the current. Underwater lures, such as streamers and bucktail flies, can be cast slightly upstream, across stream, or downstream and are then moved quickly in another direction to imitate a small fish attempting to escape from a large fish.

Fly-casting tournaments for accuracy and distance are sponsored annually by various fishing organizations. Long casts are often achieved by a technique known as shooting the line, in which the angler unreels a considerable amount of line and holds it coiled in his free hand before the cast.

Fly Fishing Lesson

Photo by Gokhan Okur
Photo by Gokhan Okur

Saltwater Bottom Fishing

Bottom fishing, as the term implies, means fishing on or near the bottom. Although some bottom fishermen prefer to use a rod and reel, a simple rig, consisting of a line, hook, and sinker, is all that is required. The sinker is attached to the line 1 or 2 feet above the baited hook. Bottom fishing is extremely popular because of its simplicity and the wide variety of fish that can be caught in this way. Among the species that are most frequently caught in bottom fishing are flounder, halibut, blackfish, sea bass, porgies, croakers, snappers, grunt, groupers, and cod.

Tackle: Some bottom fishermen use bamboo or fiberglass rods such as those used in freshwater still-fishing. Saltwater spinning tackle is sometimes used in shallow water or where casting is required. The best rod for this type of fishing, however, is a saltwater boat rod with an overall length of 5 to 6 feet. The boat rod has a revolving spool and is usually equipped with an adjustable star-drag brake and a free-spool lever. The reel should hold about 150 yards of line for shallow-water fishing and 200 to 300 yards of line for deep-sea fishing. A nylon monofilament line is recommended for the conventional saltwater reel. To catch the larger fish in deep water, lines with a testing strength of 30 to 50 pounds are necessary. For fishing from a pier, bridge, or shore, lines with a testing strength of 20 to 25 pounds are adequate.

Hooks and sinkers come in a variety of weights and shapes, depending on the fish being sought and the method of fishing. The kind of rig also depends on these two factors. Bottom fishing calls for live baits, such as bloodworms, sandworms, clams, crabs, shrimp, squid, mullet, menhaden, silversides, and killies.

Technique: When fishing from a boat, bridge, or pier, the angler lowers the rig until the sinker rests on the bottom. Since the motion of the boat or current may move the sinker, it is a good idea to raise and lower the rig every so often to be sure the sinker still rests on the bottom. More line or a heavier weight may be called for if the sinker will not stay on the bottom. When fishing from shore or jetties, anglers cast their lines out to deeper waters.

It is highly important to allow enough time for the fish to swallow the bait. The line should not be pulled or reeled in at the first nibble, but only after a solid tug on the line indicates that the fish has taken the bait and is swimming away with it.

Photo by John Boyer
Photo by John Boyer


Some form of surf-fishing with rod, hook, and line has been practiced from earliest times. Modern surf-fishing involves the use of surf-casting rods from beaches that front the open ocean; from rocks, promontories, and jetties that extend into the sea; and from boats riding the waves as close to shore as the breakers permit. When there are high waves or when the wind is blowing toward the shore, the small bait-fish are driven closer to shore. The baitfish are followed by the game fish. When the water is relatively calm, the baitfish move farther offshore, again drawing the game fish after them. The ability to cast a long distance of 70 yards or more increases the surf angler's chances of reaching the spot where the fish are biting. The catch in surf-fishing includes striped bass, blue-fish, channel bass, weakfish, sea trout, kingfish, croakers, and pompano.

While many types of tackle are used, including some of those popular in fresh water, the need for longer casts with heavier lures and the probability of catching larger fish makes sturdier, specialized tackle appropriate. This generally consists of two main types: the squidding outfit, which utilizes a wide-arbored, revolving-spool, surf-casting reel fitted with free-spool and star-drag features; and a heavy-duty spinning outfit, wherein the reel is larger and sturdier than those used in fresh water. Both types of reels should hold at least 250 yards of line.

Tackle: In both squidding and spinning tackle, the correct setting of the reel brake, or star drag, is important, because too strong a setting may result in a snapped line, and too light a setting impairs control of the fish. By sticking the hook of the lure into a log or something similar and walking backward as the upwardly rigged tackle plays out line, the fisherman can test and adjust the brake setting until correct setting becomes instinctive. Wire or plastic-coated braided wire leaders are necessary for sharp-toothed fish, and heavy monofilament leaders facilitate holding and landing others. Additions to terminal tackle such as swivels and sinkers may be required for bottom fishing; otherwise they are used only when absolutely necessary.

Lures in the weight ranges mentioned comprise metal squids, jigs, wobbling spoons, plugs of various types, weighted bucktails, rigged eels and eelskin rigs, plastic baits, and a wide variety of live or cut natural baits. A favorite method of fishing with natural baits on the bottom consists of using a fish-finder rig. This is a sliding sinker arrangement allowing the fish to make off with the baited hook unimpeded by the sinker, which remains anchored. The sinker slides freely on the line and is kept a foot or more above the bait by means of an impassable swivel attached to the end of the line and to a short leader terminating with a baited hook.

Squidding Tackle: The conventional squidding rod (so named because it frequently is used to cast a block-tin or lead lure called a squid) is a medium-action instrument, usually of fiber glass, measuring from 9 to 10 feet and casting lures in the 2 to 4 ounce range. Although a one-piece rod is preferred, two-piece rods, joined by ferrules at the 30-inch-long wooden butt, may be more convenient for transportation. Rod specifications vary in different areas. The fiber glass stick (to which the butt, including the reel seat, is attached) is fitted with 3 or 4 line guides and a tip-top. Rods of this length cast heavy lures more efficiently than shorter ones do and also help to hold the line over large breaking waves. Lines are braided from synthetic threads such as nylon and Dacron, or they can be of monofilament. The classic strength for braided lines is 36-pound test but, influenced by lure-weight and fishing conditions, they are often heavier or lighter.

Spinning Tackle: The surf spinning outfit employs a fast-action fiber glass rod 8 or 9 feet long with a very large butt (or gathering) guide plus about four or more line guides, each graduated smaller in size down the rod to the tip-top. These are usually two-handed rods and are often made in two ferruled sections. Reels are the conventional open-faced spinning type (not spin-casting), and are large and sturdy to hold at least 250 yards of monofilament or braided line in from 10 to 20 pound test, for use with lures weighing no more than 3 ounces.

Technique: In casting with the squidding outfit, the reel should be shifted into free-spool while the thumb is held against the line on the spool to prevent it from revolving. With about two feet of line between lure and rod tip, the angler pivots to the right and holds the rod tip low with the lure on or near the ground opposite from the direction of the cast. He makes the cast by swinging the rod upward in an accelerating sweep while pulling downward with the left hand and pushing upward and forward on the rod-butt with the right. As the cast passes the vertical, the thumb is relaxed enough to let the cast lure pull line from the reel. Some thumb pressure always must be maintained to keep the reel from overrunning and causing backlash. As the lure approaches the water, it is stopped by thumb pressure, whereupon the free-spool lever is reengaged.

Casting with two-handed surf spinning tackle is similar to the method used with the squidding outfit, except that the line should be held over the tip of the forefinger and the bail of the reel opened as described for freshwater spinning. The line should be released at the end of the cast by straightening the forefinger, and the outflow of line should be stopped as the lure nears the water by pressing the forefinger against the front edge of the line spool. The line is put under control of the reel by a partial turn of the reel handle, which snaps the bail closed.

Surf Fishing With Bucktails

Big-Game Fishing

Big-game, or deep-sea, fishing requires a sturdy oceangoing craft suitable for pursuing the larger fish in offshore waters. Because of weather conditions and the periodic migrations of many ocean species, big-game fishing is generally seasonal. The sport has hundreds of thousands of followers in the United States, and there is a thriving business in chartered fishing cruises along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Local, national, and international tournaments are held annually in many fishing centers.

Big-game fishermen usually go after swordfish, giant tuna, marlin, and sharks. Some of these fish may weigh more than 1,000 pounds. When these large fish are not biting, the big-game fishermen settle for blue-fish, dolphins, barracuda, amberjacks, small tuna, bonito, and albacore.

Tackle: Big-game fishing requires heavy and often expensive fishing rods, reels, and lines. The rods are usually made from fiber glass, but some are still made from wood. They usually have roller guides, strong reel seats, and thick butts, or handles. The reels are similar to the conventional surf, or boat, reels, but are much larger, heavier, and stronger than conventional reels.

The line commonly used is made of Dacron and is available in testing strengths ranging from 12 to more than 130 pounds. The thickness and strength of the line and the size of the reel depend on the weight and size of the rod that is being used.

Artificial lures, such as metal squids, spoons, jigs, feather lures, and plugs, are often used in offshore trolling for small fish. For most of the larger fish whole dead or live baits, such as mackerel, mullet, menhaden, herring, bonito, flying fish, and eels are generally used. A whole squid or strips cut from a large fish are often used to catch swordfish and marlin.

Technique: Most big-game fishing is done by trolling small lures, strips, or a whole fish behind the boat. The line is extended straight out from the rod or through an attachment on the outrigger. Two to four lines are usually extended behind each boat. If live baits are used, the boat is often allowed to drift with the wind or tide as the bait swims under the boat or behind it. Another method of attracting fish is called chumming. It consists of throwing ground fish, such as menhaden and bunker, into the water to form a chum stream or slick, which attracts larger fish to the boat. When the big fish arrive, a baited hook is lowered into the water to drift with the tide until there is a strike. When a big fish is hooked, it may fight for two or three hours before it is successfully boated by the fisherman.

Other Forms of Fishing

Trolling: Trolling, usually with rod, reel, and line, consists of towing natural baits or artificial lures behind a moving boat. While any suitably strong tackle may be appropriate, rapidly revolving lures can twist lines badly and should be alternated with lures revolving in the opposite direction. Metal lines, or leads on slow-sinking lines, are often needed to fish lures at depths where water temperatures are best for good fishing. Trolling by contour near the bottom at such depths usually is most successful.

Bow and Arrow Fishing: Bow and arrow fishing employs conventional bows and specially made arrows. The arrow is connected to the bow by braided (and occasionally monofilament) lines stored on cylindrical 5 or 6 inch diameter metal or plastic drums taped or otherwise mounted to the bow in front of the grip. The line is coiled on the drum, and the arrow is shot through or above the drum, which plays out the line with minimum drag in a manner similar to that of a spinning reel. Shots to near-surface fish are made from short ranges, and refraction of light by water must be allowed for. The sport is popular in hunting rough fish such as carp, gars, dogfish, and sharks.

Ice Fishing: Ice fishing is done by boring one or more holes through ice and lowering live or cut baits to near the bottom with short rods, or with automatic tilts or tip-ups, on which a spring snaps a small flag erect when a fish takes the lure. Jigging weighted lures or "ice flies", activated by hand, is a popular method with short rods. Sinkers are usually needed to lower lures quickly to measured depths just above bottom.


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