The primary objective of fishing is to catch fish, but the actual enjoyment of the sport stems from many of its aspects. Just standing in front of a cold, gurgling brook, rowing across a glass-still pond at dawn, or riding the ocean swells on a sport fishing boat on the way to the fishing area provides enough enjoyment for many people; actually catching a fish while they’re enjoying the scenery is nice but not necessary. For others, getting away from it all (whatever it may be) is enough reason to grab a rod and find some water. Camaraderie (or solitude), getting some sun, and an excuse for having a picnic are all reason enough for plenty of people to go fishing. Well, that’s not good enough for me and, we can assume since you’ve read this far, not for you either. Granted, I love the outdoors, and one of my favorite moments on a fishing trip is arriving at a lake, stream, or dock in the half-light of dawn, witnessing the creation of a new day. But I’m there to catch fish or at least attempt to. That’s my primary goal. Many fishermen hit the water with hopes that they’ll catch fish, but either they don’t consider it a serious pursuit or they don’t know enough about the sport itself. The vast majority of these types of fishermen go home empty-handed.
That’s why only 10 percent of all fishermen catch 90 percent of all fish caught. This is not an original statement I’ve heard it repeated ever since I was old enough to understand it and I know of no survey proving the numbers. But I’ve witnessed its truth many times, and so can you. Drive to a popular fishing area right now and you’ll see an assortment of anglers. I guarantee that at least one of the fishermen would not be fishing right at the moment. He or she would be gazing around, talking to another fisherman or half-heartedly fumbling with tackle. At least a couple more anglers would be actively fishing but casting to the wrong place, fishing with the wrong bait or lure, or even using the wrong rod-and-reel outfit for the conditions. At least one of them might have it all correct focusing on the water, using the right equipment but the line on his or her reel is weakened because it hasn’t been replaced in three years, and the knot he or she tied is more granny than good, and what is that grinding sound coming from the reel, anyway? What’s more, all the people you would see there could very well be fishing at the wrong time of day, during the wrong tide, or even during the wrong time of year. Like many pursuits, fishing is easy to initiate but not so easy to do well. Just realizing how much goes into successful fishing will make you a better fisherman even before you make your very first cast. The Least You Need to Know There are numerous types and styles of fishing, all with varying venues to pursue different types of fish. Billions of dollars are spent annually on fishing, by approximately 50 million fishermen. It costs less than $100 to assemble rudimentary fishing tackle. The you get what you pay for philosophy applies to fishing tackle. Avoid low-end prices. Fishing is an easy sport to take up, but it’s not so easy to become proficient at it. The sport offers numerous rewards, but the primary one catching fish requires focus, experience, and knowledge.
You have to know where you will be fishing before you first set foot inside a tackle shop, because even the best rod, reel, line, bait, and lures won’t help you catch a fish if you’re using it in areas that don’t hold many fish. Judging fishing waters accurately on looks alone takes time and experience, but this chapter will at least get you started finding waters, both public and private, that you can fish, as well as help you recognize waters that you should avoid.
So Much Water, So Few Fish To begin your search, first narrow down your possibilities. Don’t focus so much on finding a great place to fish (that will come later) as finding one that isn’t far from home within walking distance or a short car ride away. This is important because many basic fishing skills reading the stream or lake, setting the hook, playing the fish can only be practiced on the water. Also, as an extremely general rule, fish are more active early in the morning and late in the day, when the sun is not shining directly on the water. For now, the less time spent getting there and the more time there, the better. When you’re just beginning to learn to fish, pick a small body of water rather than a large one. A one-acre pond, for instance, is basically a 1,000-acre lake in miniature. Various types of shoreline, submerged drop-offs and humps, vegetation, and varying temperature zones are all there, only in scaled-down form and thus much easier to identify. The same is true with fishing a creek instead of a river, or a back bay instead of the ocean: There’s less water to fish, which makes navigation easier and simplifies the process of narrowing down likely areas to focus on.
However, don’t pick too small a body of water. If you decide to fish a brook that’s narrow enough to jump across, or a pond so small that you can easily cast across it to the opposite bank, you stand a very good chance of scaring or spooking the fish before you even begin fishing. Most fish are extremely sensitive to abrupt changes in their environment, such as vibrations from heavy footfalls on the shoreline, or shadows suddenly appearing or moving across the bottom. Even an ill-placed cast can send fish scurrying into hiding, where they’ll remain for an hour or longer without feeding or moving. Fishing small waters requires extra patience, a good degree of stealth, and an ability to accurately cast a bait or lure when standing well back from the bank or shoreline. (Even many otherwise experienced anglers don’t know how to fish small waters effectively.) The first-timer needs a wide and forgiving margin of error.
Another reason that the beginning fisherman should avoid such high-popularity, low-result fishing areas: You probably aren’t going to learn much about fish habits and habitat. Other anglers there could have beat the water to a froth with their casts and spooked every fish in the vicinity for the rest of the day. This means that you could be doing everything right and still not be catching anything. On less-frequented waters, you could at least guess at the reasons for your lack of success wrong bait or lure, wrong time of day, too windy. (The mark of an experienced fisherman is having a host of excuses, available at any time, for not catching anything.)
The Least You Need to Know Try to find water that’s not too far from home, so you can start building your fishing skills as soon and as often as possible. Select a small body of water so you can learn its makeup quickly but not too small, where the fish tend to be flighty. Contact your state’s fish and game department for names and locations of public waters near you. Waters that offer easy access to a lot of people usually suffer from over fishing. Many waters on private land offer good fishing, but you must be willing to spend some time both finding them and gaining permission to fish them. Visiting a commercial operation that charges admission to a heavily stocked body of water and levies a fee on fish that you catch offers good fishing, but their artificial nature means you’ll learn few skills that carry over into real world waters.
Considering the fact that civilized humans at least bright enough to seek shelter in caves have been on Earth for 50,000 to 100,000 years, you might think we’d have this business of fishing down pat. Fish do have the advantage of time, though, because they’ve been around for an estimated 400 million years. On the other hand, they still have a brain about the size of a pea. And it’s not much of one, being pretty much an enlargement of the spinal cord. Ironically, that itself is a clue as to why catching a fish isn’t a simple and straightforward process. Fish are slaves of their senses; they don’t ponder abstracts and permutations like humans do, they react to various stimuli. If you’ve ever been around a four-year-old when he or she hears the jingle of a nearby ice-cream truck, you’ve already grasped this concept. Also, the stimuli that fish react to are very different from those that you and I react to (and I refuse to write a simile or metaphor about that, because fishing is a wholesome activity). But the point is that it can be difficult to catch fish consistently if you don’t understand, say, how the heck they can live in water in the first place. This chapter introduces concepts that can help you become better at catching fish.