Killing a half-day fishing is one of life’s greatest joys. Measuring yourself against Earth’s dumbest creatures and being found wanting is terrible. For this reason, fishing is the most frustrating of our relaxing pastimes.
Let’s first talk about why fishing rules, though. Everyone occasionally gets the desire to put down that beer, get off the couch, and go do something outside. But compared to drinking on the couch, a lot of things are hard to do. Not fishing. Fishing is one of the few sports (along with golf, and driving a stock car) where drinking three to five beers and eating a ham-and-cheese grinder is an essential part of the experience. That alone should tell you most of what you need to know.
That said, considering how remarkably dumb fish are, most of them still don’t want to be hooked through the face and probably eaten. In response, some fish will display a shrewd cunning capable of driving some of us mad enough to spend our evenings hunched over a magnifying glass and our vacations wearing rubber pants and rattling a bamboo stick in Montana.
Maybe you’ll become one of those people. But you’re going to start out like everyone else: fishing from shore, for dumb(er) fish, with worms.
The first thing you’re going to want to figure out is where you can catch fish. Google might be able to help you. A call to your local Fish & Game office might be helpful. But for the real dirt, you need to go to your local bait shop.
Every town has a bait shop, and every town’s bait shop is the same. It’s the slightly grimier gas station in the part of town with no Starbucks. There will be a forest-green early-2000s Ford F-150 parked in the driveway. Inside, you will find the men in your town who smell of Grizzly Mint, wear camouflage, and vote Republican.
If these are not your people, you might be nervous. That’s understandable. Walking into a roomful of unfamiliar strangers and throwing your ignorance at their mercy is difficult. But these men are repositories of the oral history of everything that has happened outside since your hills and streams heard English for the first time. Preferred hunting and fishing spots aren’t things people tend to publish.
So you’re going to walk into the bait shop and ask, nicely. Tell them you want to take up fishing but aren’t sure where to start. If you’re polite and forthright, the guys at the bait shop will sell you a license (~$25), tell you the best beginner spot, and tell you what swims there.
If you’re looking for their own personal favorite spots, you’re unlikely to get that info out of them by any means—the CIA recruits primarily from bait shops—but that’s okay. You’re a beginner; you can fish the beginner spots.
Now that you know what you’re fishing for, it’s time to play detective. Find out what your fish likes to eat, where it eats, where it likes to hang out, how deep, where it likes to spawn, and whether it feels a twisted joy every time it pulls a bug under the surface.
Here’s a lineup. You see your fish? Let’s nail that scumbag, because now that we know what he likes to eat, we know what to use for bait.
There are as many kinds of bait as there are master baiters (li’l bit of fishing humor), but you’ll probably want worms and a couple of plastic lures. The advantage of plastic lures is that they come in shapes, colors, and compositions that can attract nearly any fish. The advantage of worms is that they grow in your backyard and are free. Grab a couple of lures the bait-shop guys recommend (nothing should cost more than a six-pack), plus a couple bobbers, and some sinkers and hooks.
Now that you’ve got all that gear, you’ll probably want a fishing rod. If you want to get fucking fishing, grab whatever’s selling best for $50 at Dick’s or Cabela’s. If you’re a buy-once cry-once type, for around $110 this combo comes highly recommended.
Finally, you’ll probably want a pair of pliers for pinching sinkers and pulling hooks, a sharp knife for gutting, and a cooler to keep your lunch cold on the way there and your fish cold on the way back.
First thing when you get there, you’ll want to set up your rod, more or less thusly:
And now, we practice casting. Entire books have been written on casting, and I’m not Hemingway, so here’s what you’ll do:
1. Spool out enough line that you can whip it around, but no more than a forearm’s length.
2. Flip open the bail so your line can spool out and grab it with your forefinger against the rod.
3. Casually bring the tip of the rod back until the rod reaches your ear, then whip it forward like you’re trying to put a badminton shot right over the net.
4. As soon as you feel it moving forward, release the line. Practice a couple of times with just the sinkers on there; throwing your worms into the trees over and over again will only help you catch birds.
By now you should have a good idea how your fish acts, but a good mantra is that fish like deep, cool water and terrain transitions. A still, shady hole near moving water is always a strong place to start.
Murder your worm by shoving the hook into one end and keep feeding the worm up the hook until it looks like your hook is wearing the worm as a sock. Don’t get sentimental now.
Cast until your bait’s in the water where you want it (and the fish are all scared by your first 50 tries), then start reeling in, very casually, with just enough speed to keep the line out of the water. When your hook gets back to you, you haven’t caught anything, so do it again. This is most of fishing. Most of the rest is drinking.
Sometimes, however, you’ll get a nibble. It’ll be just a tickle, but reel in a tiny bit; if the nibble repeats or intensifies, give your line a swift yank. This jerks the hook through the fish’s cheek, at which point he (presumably) will begin thrashing around like kingdom come.
Contrary to what you’ve been lead to believe, you’re not going to want to haul back and reel like hell: This is bad for your rod and ergonomically garbage. Try to keep your tip slightly up and reel with slow, steady pressure. Feel free to change angles from time to time to tire the fish out.
Once he’s at the top, grab the fish firmly with one hand and determine its fate. First, ask yourself the following questions, in order:
1. “What kind of fish is this?”
2. “Is this fish in season?”
3. “Does it appear to be a mature specimen?”
4. “Am I going to eat it?”
If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to any of those questions, pull the hook out and throw it back. If you’re good to go, hook your fingers into the fish’s gills and, with your thumb on its spine just behind the head, pull back sharply and break its neck. For bigger fish, you might need to cut the spine.
Yeah, you did, but if it’s any consolation, humans have been killing fish pretty much forever, and you caught it legally and for the purpose of sustenance. You’re not a bad person unless it made you aroused.
Now you’re going to want to clean your fish. Your mileage may vary, but usually, as Bart Simpson so eloquently put it, “Knife goes in, guts come out.”
Once your fish is gutted, throw it in the cooler (with lots of ice) to keep it fresh. When you get home, dredge your fish in cornmeal and fry them. Every fish tastes better fried in cornmeal.
Maybe, though, you didn’t catch anything. Maybe you picked a bad spot. Maybe you had the wrong bait. Maybe you were casting like a moron. Maybe the fish just weren’t biting. Maybe you caught nothing but bluegill, the dumbest and boniest of all fish. Well, they call it “fishing,” not “catching,” and you’ve still managed to spend the whole day avoiding your loved ones, standing around, and drinking beer next to a lake. Fishing is fucking grand.
Samuel Wadhams grew up hard in Vermont and now grows soft in New York. He is not an expert on anything. Occasionally, he tweets here.
Photo by Getty.
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