I spend a huge portion of my small amount of disposable income on fishing gear. But sometimes all that space-age gear does is demonstrate just how simple fishing really can be.
That’s an important thing to remember when you’re lost in the woods. With just a tiny bit of gear squirreled away in your first aid kit beforehand, you could potentially survive for months on just fish. They provide protein but also fat that many terrestrial animals lack, as well as many other nutrients if you’re willing to eat more than just the flesh. Fish are also a helluva lot easier to catch than squirrels, and their populations won’t usually be as exhaustible as the mammals and birds in your vicinity.
Survival Fishing Kit
Most times when I’m going into wild places for a while I already have a good deal of fishing gear packed. The rest of the time I’ve got a tiny little bundle of tackle tucked away inside my first aid/survival kit. The current iteration lives inside an empty Pyro Putty tin, but any mint can or split-shot holder will work.
My kit includes around a dozen feet each of 8- and 12-pound-test monofilament, octopus hooks of different sizes, a few split shot weights, metallic spoons, and a corky to use as a bobber. With this sparse array of gear, I feel confident that I could figure out how to catch a fish almost anywhere there’s water. It’s worth noting that this method is also highly effective for catching lizards in warmer climes.
Survival Fishing Rig
There are a lot of ways to catch fish without fishing gear, including but not limited to: trapping, spearing, netting, herding, and grabbing them. But for now, we’ll focus on using a stick pole with a little bit of line and a hook.
As I demonstrate in this video, I like to select a relatively straight and thin green stick that’s 6 to 9 feet in length. You want something springy without being soft. Clear your pole of other branches and whittle down the tip to a point with a light notch at the end.
I choose octopus-style hooks for this type of application because the upturned eye allows you to tie a solid baitholder snell knot. This knot, tied around the hook shank instead of around the standing end of the fishing line, is strong, durable, and allows you to secure bait or decoration under the loop of line. You can also just tie any old fishermen’s knot you know by heart.
I’m guessing I could have caught one of those feisty brookies on just a bare red hook, but a little flash never hurt. I cut a small chunk off a candy wrapper I found in the bottom of my backpack and cinched it under the baitholder loop. I also placed a small split-shot about an inch above the hook to help get down.
Fishing with a stick pole requires a fixed length of line, so consider that length carefully. How far are you from the fish? How deep is the water? The rig will handle better with line approximately the length of the pole, but you may want to go longer for some situations. Once you’ve decided, cut your line to the appropriate length and tie the butt end to the notch you cut at the tip of the pole.
Survival Fishing Technique
As always, take the time to locate areas that are most likely to hold fish. In small creeks, that’s usually the deepest spots. You can cast your stick pole with an underhand flipping motion. Place your cast upstream of the likely lie so the terminal tackle can sink to where the fish are hiding. Follow the drift of your lure with your rod tip to emulate an insect drifting in the current. Keep some tension on your line.
A stick does not transmit as much vibration as a graphite fishing rod, so it’s likely you may not notice subtle bites. It’s very helpful to wear polarized sunglasses to see what’s going on under the surface. If you feel a tug or see a flash of movement in proximity to your hook, sweep firmly upward with your pole. If a fish is hooked, waste no time dragging it clear of the water.
If nothing happens, start to experiment. Try dancing your presentation to entice the fish or drift it through different segments of the hole. If all else fails, move on. Find different types of holding water or deeper places. Streams usually grow larger as you move downstream.
How to Clean and Cook Survival Fish
Once you’ve put a fish on the bank, quickly dispatch it with a sharp blow to the back on the head. I like to hold the fish upside down and bring its head down hard on a rock. Next, gut it by slicing from the anus to the throat and pulling out the intestines, organs, and gills.
Find a very green stick to use as a spit and sharpen the end. Slide it through the fish’s mouth, along the gut cavity, and poke the end into the back of the ribcage. Then poke smaller sticks or shavings through the ribs perpendicular to the spit stick to brace and keep the fish from rolling.
Build a small fire and suspend the fish well above the flames. Use a pair of forked sticks for support if it helps. Cook slowly and make sure all sides are exposed to heat. It doesn’t matter if the skin gets a little charred, but make sure the meat is cooked through. At this point you can peel off the skin and eat the delicious meat with your fingers. The skin, head, eyes, fins, organs, and other parts of the fish are edible and nutritious—if you’re hungry enough.
Steven Rinella, Joe Cermele, Brody Henderson, and I spilled a whole lot of ink about catching and eating fish with primitive techniques in The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival. Pick up your copy to learn more about these practices and a helluva lot more.