I’ve never been a big fan of the term “life hack.” My parents and grandparents were all nose-to-the-grindstone types who instilled a work ethic in me that tends to avoid loopholes and lean towards hard work. This desire to always push and challenge myself has even spread into my sporting life. Some of my favorite ways to hunt and fish like Spey casting for steelhead and tracking whitetail deer in the snow are considered by many to be the most difficult ways to find success.
However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize that there’s nothing wrong with taking a few shortcuts or using a hack or two to make things easier for yourself, especially when it comes to fishing. Difficult weather and water conditions can make fishing tough and not catching anything when trying to learn a new technique can stop you from expanding your horizons. So, instead of getting frustrated and giving up fishing altogether, why not try tricks that, like putting your pancake mix in a ketchup bottle or learning how to fold a fitted bedsheet, can make your life easier. With the right fishing hacks, you can forget those long days of getting skunked and bring fish to the net all season long.
We all know how effective chumming can be for sharks. Researchers, cage divers, and anglers have all been using the technique to draw large predators close to their boats for years. However, very few anglers realize just how effective chumming can be for freshwater fish, especially for more scent-oriented species like catfish and carp. It should be noted though that chumming is illegal in many states, so you should be sure to check your local laws before trying it.
For those unfamiliar, chumming is the act of using chunks of cut fish, fish oil, corn, or other bait in and around the area you’re fishing to draw fish into your spot and make it easier to catch them. It’s most effective to chum an area over several days, ensuring that the location is thoroughly saturated with scent which will make the spot a prime feeding location for the fish that you’re after. Chumming can be especially effective when fish are sluggish and hesitant to feed, like during a cold front, when the water is high and muddy, or when you’re ice fishing.
“I like to use a lot of chum during the winter,” says avid ice angler James Mugele. “Especially when I’m fishing for something difficult to find like burbot. Those fish are wanderers and can be really hard to get on top of, so I’ll drop a lot of cut bait, like chunks of whitefish or the heads and skins of panfish and perch I’ve already cleaned down different ice holes to draw them into the area. Then I’ll go back out and fish in those chummed-up spots at night when burbot are more active. It can be a really great way to get a lot of big burbot for the freezer.”
Catfish and carp anglers can also have a lot of success with chumming, especially when fishing in rivers. Both species can be extremely spread out in large river systems and can be extremely difficult to find. They’ll hide in dark holes or feed exclusively in the middle of the river, well out of casting range. However, the scent and sight of chum floating downstream can and will draw the fish in, causing them to move into casting range and concentrate in one area so that you can find and catch the big ones you’re after.
Fly anglers pride themselves on matching the hatch. They turn over rocks, strain rivers, and shake bushes and trees trying to find different insects and nymphs that trout and other fish may be feeding on. Once they find a decent number of bugs, they search through their fly boxes trying to precisely match the insects they find. While this can be effective, there is a shortcut that cuts past all the hassle of trying to match the hatch—fishing several different flies at once.
Fishing multiple flies at once allows you to offer the fish different food items to see what they’re in the mood for and to fish different areas of the water at once. The most common way of doing this is with a hopper-dropper rig. These rigs consist of a large foam dry fly, such as a grasshopper or stonefly pattern, with a small, weighted nymph attached to the shank of the hook by a 12- to 20-inch length of tippet. This allows you to both fish the dry fly in hopes of attracting a big trout to the surface while drifting the nymph beneath the water to catch any fish that aren’t in the mood to rise.
The same technique can also be used with multiple nymphs rigged under an indicator. Tie on a heavy weighted nymph, like a Girdle Bug or a Beadhead Stonefly, to your leader and then attach a second smaller nymph, like a Hare’s Ear or Prince Nymph, to the shank of your hook with a 6- to 10-inch length of tippet. If you’re really feeling froggy, you can also attach a third tiny nymph, like a midge, to the bottom nymph. This allows you to cover multiple depths at once and to find out exactly where in the water column the trout are feeding.
“I like using multiple nymphs, especially on days when I’m not sure what the fish are doing or what they’re feeding on,” Oregon and Montana fly-fishing guide Nickolai Sposato said. “When I’m fishing a new river or even a new spot on a familiar river, fishing a few different nymphs at a time is going to put you on the trout a lot faster than rolling over rocks and guessing what the fish may be eating. You can also fish a couple of the same fly during a hatch, like when there are a lot of big stoneflies around, and increase your chances of just laying the smack down on trout in deep and shallow water. It can make for some seriously fast-paced fishing and can be a hell of a lot of fun.”
Additionally, while it’s certainly possible to fish a streamer like a Woolly Bugger or a Muddler Minnow in several different ways, such as stripping, drifting, and swinging it through the water, to see what the fish are in the mood for, sometimes nothing you try will work. When trout are being stubborn like this it can be a good idea to attach a small swimming nymph like a Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail or a Lightning Bug about 6 to 8 inches behind the streamer to increase your chances for a strike. Often fish attracted to the movement of the streamer but hesitant to eat it will absolutely slam a nymph they suddenly find swimming by their noses.
One of the biggest problems bait anglers have is when their bait gets overlooked by the fish. This usually happens with worms that rest on the bottom out of sight of cruising fish or when minnows or other baits die and stop moving around. While fish like catfish that hunt the bottom will still eat these baits no matter where they are, fish like trout, crappie, and pike that feed higher in the water column will often ignore anything that’s not in their line of sight. Now, you can solve this problem by fishing with a bobber, which works well when fishing in shallow water. However, when you’re fishing in deep water or in a fast-moving river, a bobber won’t get your bait down deep enough or it will be swept out of the strike zone by the current. You can solve these problems by using a long leader or by making multiple casts and drifts, but it’s often easier to stop using a bobber altogether and instead blow your baits up.
Injecting air into your worms or dead minnows can be an incredibly effective way to get your baits up off the bottom and into a hunting game fish’s path. It’s also a great way to fish baits on the bottom in extremely weedy areas where they might otherwise get tangled up or lost by helping your baits rise above the weeds.
Inflating bait can be done with a special worm blower tool or with a large hypodermic syringe you can find in almost any drugstore. To do it with a worm or nightcrawler, you’ll want to hook the worm through the head (the fat end) so that the hook point sticks out of the worm right below the band and then insert the needle into the tail of the worm (the skinner end below the band) and slowly squirt in a small pocket of air. If you’re inflating a small garden worm for trout or panfish, one small pocket should do it. However, you may need to inject several along the length of the tail to properly float a large nightcrawler. Once inflated, drop the hooked worm in the water near the bank where you can ensure that it’s floating properly, before attaching a heavy weight to the line 6 to 20 inches above the bait and then casting it out into the water.
Small dead minnows can be inflated in much the same way, but instead of injecting the bait’s tail, you’ve got to inject air into its gut. To do this, insert the needle of the worm blower or syringe into the fish’s anus and slowly inject air into its body until you visibly see the minnow’s stomach begin to distend. As with the worm, you’ll want to test the minnow before hooking it through the lips on the same weighted rig you’d use with a worm. Then cast it out where the dead bait can float just off the bottom enticing any passing fish to come over and inhale it.
Whether you’re fishing for trout, walleye, bass, or muskie, your best bet for catching a fish is always going to be live bait. Natural baits simply smell and taste better than artificial ones meaning that fish will be more attracted to them and hold on longer when they grab them, giving you a much better chance of setting the hook when you get a strike. Of course, this means that when you’re fishing lures and flies, you probably won’t be catching as many fish as you would when using live bait. However, you can increase your odds by combining the two techniques and tipping your artificial lures and flies with a little bit of bait.
Adding a piece of nightcrawler, a live minnow, or even a leech to lures like jigs, spoons, and spinners is a great way to increase your catch rate, especially when fishing for more particular feeders, like walleye. In fact, many walleye anglers almost exclusively tip their lures with bait because they know how incredibly effective it can be.
“Unless I’m throwing a minnow profile jerk bait or a soft plastic, I always tip my lures with bait,” Minnesota walleye guide Wil Neururer told MeatEater. “Though the different baits I use will change from time of year to time of year. I’ll tip my jigs with minnows and then in the beginning of June, I’ll start using leeches, and then once you get into late summer when the big mayfly hatch is coming and there’s a lot of food in the water, I’ll start using nightcrawlers. It also works great for trolling. During midsummer, it’s pretty common for fishermen to tip the back trailer hook of their crankbaits with half a nightcrawler. It works well on different lakes when there are a lot of bugs in the system and walleye really stack up on mud flats. In fact, it’s never a bad idea to try anytime you’re out trolling crankbaits for walleye to tip your lures with bait. When you have winds or clouds or it's cool, minnows are king but any other time I go with nightcrawlers.”
Though it’s considered a cardinal sin, fly anglers can tip their flies with bait as well. On cold days when trout aren’t eating nymphs very well, tipping the hooks with a small mealworm or a piece of nightcrawler can really make a difference. Steelhead anglers on the Great Lakes looking to catch a few extra fish can use bare hooks on their fly rods, either tipped with salmon eggs or egg sacs. During the depth of winter when the water is freezing, using real eggs can make all the difference between spending a long, cold fruitless day on the river or spending your day wrestling with some hot chrome.
This move may get you nothing but a punch in the face by a fellow angler. The San Juan Shuffle is the act of kicking up silt and mud on the bottom and then drifting your nymphs along in the cloud. A practice that originated on the San Juan River in New Mexico, it is believed that the shuffling kicks up nymphs, worms, and other food from the bottom and causes trout to move in and feed in the drifting mud.
Shuffling works on almost any trout stream with a lot of traffic. The fish become accustomed to boats and rafts hitting and turning over rocks and anglers kicking up the bottom as they cross the river, and thanks to their lateral lines, the fish feel the disturbances and will actually move in below any areas they feel consistent disturbances.
Shuffling is commonly done with a fishing partner, with one angler actually doing the Shuffle and the other fishing just downstream of their dancing buddy. The angler doing the shuffling moves systematically across the shallow water, kicking up rocks, mud, and sand, while the second angler casts and drifts their nymphs in the water below the shuffler’s feet.
So why would you get punched just for doing some intentionally sloppy stepping? Repeatedly doing the shuffle in the same spot can be extremely harmful to the structure of the river bottom and the invertebrates and other organisms that live there. There is also a chance that an angler could Shuffle over spawning beds, potentially killing thousands of fish with a few heavy steps. While The San Juan Shuffle has not been made illegal, one could argue that it is technically chumming the water, which, as previously mentioned, is illegal in quite a few states. Regardless of the legality, it is an act largely considered unethical by the fly fishing community.
Most of these “fishing hacks” are considered to be dirty in many angling circles, which when you look at it, is understandable. After all, being sporting and challenging yourself on the water is a huge part of angling. On the other side of the argument, the whole reason we go fishing is to catch fish. As long as you’re not dynamiting the fishing hole and you’re obeying your local laws, you should be able to do anything on the water that doesn’t hurt your angling morals.
So, whether you’re a purist fly angler desperate for a tug or a weekend warrior looking to bring home a few extra fish for the freezer, having a few tricks up your sleeve is always a good thing. Like life hacks, fishing hacks aren’t going to completely change the game, they’re simply little things you can do to make your time on the water a little more fun, and in the end isn’t that what fishing is all about?