As a life-long angler, I always thought being a capable fisherman meant also being a boat owner. So, when I got the cash for a 15-foot outboard, I bought one.
Then, just a year later, I sold it.
I quickly learned that the two qualities don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand—just because you love to cast a line doesn’t mean you like to find boat storage, carry boat insurance, winterize your boat, launch your boat, buy gas, and make the inevitable, incessant repairs. In other words, you really need to want to own a boat if you’re going to own a boat. I just wanted to fish.
So, I kept doing what I’d learned to do out of necessity: Find great fishing spots that I could get to without a 35-horsepower prop-drive and all of the headaches that came with it.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t advantages to owning a boat. There’s no disputing that. But, there is an attractive simplicity to finding fish on your own two feet. And let’s not forget the fact that we can’t all afford a $20,000 (or $10,000 or $5,000) watercraft. With that in mind, let’s explore some alternative options to fishing with a boat.
Get Creative As any good angler knows, you need to fish where the fish are. Oftentimes this means finding small tailwaters, feeder creeks, and water that branches below or above lakes or reservoirs. You’d be surprised how many there are. Just open up your map of choice, start with large bodies of water, and then look for small runoff creeks and rivers. One small-ish reservoir could include half a dozen great creeks, and different species of fish run up into those small confines at various times of the year. Look for constrictions, confluences, corners, and deep pockets surrounded by shallower water—all places where fish tend to congregate.
There are other options, too, like finding long, walkable stretches of river, or asking landowners for access to private water. People tend to be more likely to grant fishing access than hunting access in my experience. Or, if you live near the coast, there are plenty of great wading opportunities and much more space to find them. Find a good place to park, pack a backpack, and you can fish all that day and the next without running out of water.
Another resource you can tap into is your local fishing community. When I got serious about finding great walkable fishing spots, I started researching forums and messaging other anglers to get their thoughts. This can be tricky because, as we all know, fishing spots are best kept secret. But, if you can find a helpful angler who’s willing to share some information, they can point you in the right direction.
Lastly, you can rethink how and what you’re fishing for. In Texas, targeting largemouth bass is just short of a religion. But, if you’re willing to fly fish for carp, follow white bass in the spring, target walleye, set a trotline for catfish, or even hunt the occasional gar, you’re opening up all sorts of opportunities that aren’t open to the glitter boats flying across open water.
Be Map-Savvy A tool I use constantly is onXmaps, which not only offers some great insight from a cartographic perspective, but also from an access perspective. In just the past year, I’ve found a few new fishing areas that I didn’t know were public by using public and private land layers on the app—they’ll even include potential easements through private land that offer access to public land.
When you’re looking for new access areas, foliage and water depth are some key factors. The former is fairly obvious. If you’re going to be casting from the shore or need open space, look for areas without greenery. As for water depth, there are a few free apps that offer information, but I think it’s worth springing for the Navionics App. It includes detailed bathymetry for just about any body of water, and you can easily find shallower sections along the coast and larger bodies of water. Plus, you can mark fishing spots and read notes from other anglers.
Of course, you want to be sure that you’re legal when you’re trying new spots. onX is a great starting point for finding public land, but depending on your state, you may be able to access public water that exists within private land—the “if you can float, you can boat” rule. In Texas, any “navigable stream” is open to the public, but the definitions of what that means are grey at best—it’s generally a waterway that is consistently 30 feet or wider. And, in most cases, your water access in private land stops at the water, so be careful about walking on shorelines and beyond. Check out this great Stream Access Report from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers to get started. Do your due diligence and check with local authorities to see what opportunities are at your disposal.
Stay One Step Ahead One thing many anglers have in common is we hate crowds. There’s nothing worse than pulling up to the creek only to see a dozen trucks already parked at the trailhead. Plus, with more people come more issues with littering, high-holing, and other fishing faux-pas. The best thing you can do is to avoid other anglers altogether. If you have a flexible schedule or some paid time off burning a hole in your pocket, do your best to make weekday trips. I assure you, the fishing and overall experience will be better.
Or, as MeatEater’s own Sam Lungren points out in this article, you can always rely on good, old-fashioned sweat equity. If you’re willing to walk, wade, bushwack, or work at all (really, even a little helps), you’re going to find some space from the crowds.
As you peruse maps of your local areas, look for spots that allow you to get away from the boats as well as the cars. Shallow flats, rocks, flooded timber, dams, rapids, and many other obstacles that are dangerous to boats can provide great wading opportunities if you’re willing to get to them.
Adjust to the Conditions If you’re looking to capitalize throughout the year, you need to learn how temperature, water levels, and wind affect different species. If you’re an angler who only wants to fish for crappie or largemouth bass, then I’d probably recommend buying a boat. You’ll be better off for it.
But, if you’re like me and like to target just about every species under the sun, then you’re going to need to live with the land. For example, white bass are better on foot during the spring run, so mark off a few weeks in March and April for hitting deep pools in the creeks. Just a month later, largemouth bass are spawning in shallow waters and offer some great opportunities close to the bank. Then, the crappie do the same. Similar patterns play out all across the country with everything from muskie to salmon.
In a semi-arid environment like Texas, a stretch of consistent rain can open up new creeks and streams that are very low or dry for most months of the year. There’s a particular tailwater near me that’s killer when spring rains fill it up and the white bass and largemouth move in to take advantage of new food sources. For the rest of the year, it just looks like a ditch. Or, high water in major rivers offer some great striped bass and catfish opportunities.
The point is, if your fishing style will require flexibility, you’re going to have to learn to be adaptable. And that’s a beautiful thing. Once you learn to be a well-rounded fisherman, you can take advantage of more opportunities throughout the year.
Focus on the Right Gear For anglers on foot, the right gear is even more important than when you’re casting from a boat. You’re going to get up close and personal with all sorts of terrain and obstacles, and you want to be comfortable when you’re on the water. The better and more confident you feel, the more time you’ll spend on the water, which means more fish in the net. Use the gear you have, but if you really want to get the walk-and-wade game dialed, here are some ideas.
Cast the right rod. Depending on the water you’re fishing, the right rod is key. For example, a fast-action stick is great for conventional fishing in tight areas. You’ll be able to reach farther across the water when an overhead cast isn’t possible and the fast action will allow you to flip lures more easily into tight spots. A long rod is useful for making lengthy casts and mending at a distance, but a shorter one might be more helpful in tight situations. The same is true for fly anglers. A short fly rod will offer accuracy and the ability to use a steeple cast, bow-and-arrow cast, or roll cast to get your line out without snagging the foliage behind you. Think lightweight and flexible for narrow areas. On wide open beaches you can stretch out a lot further.
Wear the right shoes. There’s no discounting the power of appropriate footwear. Walking on wet rip-rap rocks in flip-flops can be frustrating, dangerous, and clumsy—and every fish in a quarter mile will know when you’re slipping and sliding into the water. If you’re trying to get to the really good water by land rather than sea, a solid pair or wading shoes or boots is a must. Mud can suck the sandals right off your feet and slippery logs will twist ankles in an instant. In many areas, you should be cognizant of poisonous snakes, sharp shells, and other dangers. If you’re wading in saltwater where stingrays are prevalent, you may want to consider boots with ray guards. Your shins will thank you.
Get ready to wade. No matter where you are in the Lower 48, waders are a beautiful thing. Not only can they provide warmth and dryness in colder temperatures, but they also provide wading confidence. Underwater branches and obstructions can be dangerous and annoying when you’re wet wading, but with a solid pair of waders on, you can be more adventurous getting to new areas in deeper water. Regardless of temperature, if I know I’m going to be wading into unknown territory, I generally throw on a pair.
A Different Kind of Boat Now, this one is a bit of a detour, but take it from your local kayak or canoe club: Sometimes going with man-powered transportation is better. At least, there are different opportunities for anglers who run something besides a motorboat. First off, you can get a completely serviceable used kayak or canoe for a few hundred dollars and you never have to spend a dime on gas—just a little bit of that sweat equity I mentioned.
But the advantages include more than costs. Kayaks and canoes can get to places a boat simply cannot, including skiffs meant for the skinniest of waters. First of all, you don’t need a ramp or to even park very close to the water. If you encounter a dry spot or need to portage through some brush, that’s an option too. Also, if you’re targeting spooky fish like carp or redfish, the silence of an oar in the water is hard to beat compared to a trolling motor.
Lastly, the opportunities are different when you break out a paddle. All of sudden, small rivers and creeks open up and you can navigate farther along waterways that would’ve been nearly impossible on foot. There’s a reason more than a few anglers have ditched their motorized boats for hand- or foot-powered boats.
All of this is not meant to dogpile on boat owners. Obviously, power boats are incredible fishing tools and can provide plenty of opportunities that wading cannot. But, for too long, I thought I wasn’t a serious angler unless I owned a boat. It’s just not true. Now, when I see that 18-foot center console zip on by and feel a pang of jealousy, I just think about all the incredible opportunities I already have at my disposal. Then, I keep on walking.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.