How to Fish in Freshwater
Learning how to fish is overwhelming. The act of dropping a line is easy, but being a successful angler is hard. That’s why they call it fishing and not catching. The 3 biggest challenges in fishing for beginners are finding fish, tying on the right fishing tackle, and using the best technique to catch fish on that tackle. This guide breaks down all 3 challenges and gives you step by step directions for your first fishing trip. Our team of fishing guides gives you exact recommendation on what to use and how to use it so you start catching fish right away without breaking the bank.
In the beginning, your goal is to start catching fish in the easiest way possible. There is a lot that goes into learning the basics. Nailing the basics of fishing is best done by catching a smaller species like Panfish near the shore. If you are ready to step your game up with larger species, check out our beginner guides on Bass Fishing and Walleye Fishing.
Find a Place to Fish
Start googling to find a public area that has shore access available for fishing. If the public location has a dock or pier access the better. Start by searching your “county or city” + “public fishing access”. A lot of State DNR websites have “Lake Finders” or other tools to search for public fishing access near your town. While fishing off the beaten path is a scenic ideal, you should focus on finding a location that is convenient. This way you can focus on fishing and avoid complications. Many local parks have stocked ponds and small lakes with convenient public fishing access. Restrooms, short distances, and stocked Panfish make up the ideal location at this point in your journey.
Pick the Right Fishing Rod & Reel
Purchase a Spinning Combo that is close to the specifications below. This Rod & Reel size pairing can be used to target the majority of freshwater fish. It’s large enough to hone in on Largemouth Bass and Walleye once you get your licks in, and will do just fine for catching some Panfish off the dock.
Rod: 6’6″ Length, Medium Power, Fast Action, Line Weight: 6-12 Lbs.
Reel: Size 35, 4-7 Ball Bearings, Line Capacity: 6Lb./230 Yds, 8Lb./185 Yds, 10Lb./150 Yds.
Please buy a combo in the $49.99-$79.99 range. I call this the Toyota Camry range. The price tag may seem expensive next to cheaper combos, but your time is valuable. Most inexpensive combos will break after 5 or 6 trips so its actually cheaper to get a mid-range model now. Combos like our Multi-Species Combo that we use every time we are on the water won’t break the bank and are more than capable of handling advanced techniques as you grow.
Spool your Reel with Fishing Line
Don’t worry about all the fishing line options out there for these first couple trips. Simply spool your reel with 200 yards of 6lb Monofilament Fishing Line. To spool your reel, run the line through your rod guides and tie a double knot to your spool while the bail is open. Place the spool of line you purchased in the water, or in a pot of water at home, and apply tension with your thumb and index finger while you reel the line on.
Caution on Over Spooling your Reel
Your reel may be able to handle a few more yards than the recommended amount above, but it is important not to over spool. Leave about 1/8 of an inch between your spooled line and the rim of your spool. Fresh monofilament will curl to its original circumference from the spool you purchased, which is typically twice the size of the circumference of your reel’s spool. When you open the bail to cast, the line will pool out to its original shape. Always spool a bit less than full.
Start with 6 Lb. Monofilament
6 Lb. is the ideal test while you are still learning the basics. It is strong enough to land a Largemouth Bass that may happen to take advantage of your Panfishing presentation, but slender enough to target Panfish. 6 Lb. mono is also easy to tie. Once you get into higher tests or different line types, a secure fishing knot is more challenging. There are some other great line types such as Braid and Flourocarbon. These will be better suited for mastery later in your journey. For your first reel, 6 Lb. mono is the best option for versatility and ease of use.
Basic Fishing Tackle: Hooks, Sinkers and Bobbers
You need hooks, sinkers, and some snap bobbers. Nothing too fancy, just the right collection of bait holder hooks, split shot sinkers and some small snap bobbers. For the first few trips this basic rig will land you some Panfish:
#4 Baitholder Hook + 3/0 Split Shot Sinker + 1″ Snap Bobber = Basic Shoreline Fishing Rig
This simple setup should be be baited with a 1″ piece of worm. Tie your hook by simply double knotting it, you can learn the Clinch Knot later. Double knotting the hook will work fine for the Panfish. Pinch your 3/0 Split Shot sinker about 1 ft. above the hook and snap on your bobber through both loops, about 2-3 ft. above your sinker.
Tailored Tackle’s Basic Fishing Kit
How to Fish with Bait
I highly recommend using a small piece of Nightcrawler, or half of a smaller worm type, for landing fish on your first outing. These will come in counts of 12 or 24, available at your local tackle shop or Walmart for around $3-5. You can also dig them up in the garden. Look for moist areas under rocks or leaves. If you are not comfortable using worms on this first trip, some typical grocery store items can work as replacements. Baiting your hook with 3-4 kernels of corn, a thin slice of hotdog, or a small balled up piece of bread can work as replacements. However, these are not as effective as worms.
Baiting your Hook
For the worm option, use your thumbnail to pinch off a small 1-2″ section of the worm. Pierce one end of the worm and thread it to the barbs on the shank of your #4 Baitholder hook. Pierce the worm piece once more on the other end, securing it to your barb, but covering the point of the hook.
Piece of Nightcrawler, 4-5 Kernels of Corn, 1/4 Slices of Hot Dog on a #4 Baitholder Hook
Getting Bait out For Beginners
If you have access to a dock on this first trip, don’t worry about casting your bait out. Panfish hold closely to the dock and scavenge for anything edible that falls nearby. Simply open your bail and let your rig fall to the water right next to the dock. Try to fish in 4-7 ft. of water, you should be able to see the active Panfish underneath and may not need to use the bobber. Sight fishing is challenging to explain but you will have a natural ability to land fish if they are visible next to the dock.
Casting your Bait Out
If a dock or deeper water is not accessible on your first trip, you will need to learn how to cast. Hold the rod in your throwing hand, with the reel’s shaft in-between your middle and ring finger. Open the bail with your opposite hand while pinching the line between your index finger and the rod handle with the hand gripping the rod. Slowly, direct your rod to the side of your body at a 45 degree. Gradually bring the rod back to center with your body, releasing the finger that’s pinching your line once the momentum of your rod is in front of you.
Here’s a great video on How to Cast from Joshua Taylor @ Salty Scales.
Getting Bait in Front of the Fish
The bait is now out in the water, and all your hard work should start to pay off. If you are using the basic bobber rig, you should see your bobber halfway submerged, with the top half above the water and the bottom half underwater. Make sure your baited hook is at least 1 foot off of the bottom. If your bobber is submerged without a bite, you have added to much weight with your sinker or the bobber is too small.
Fish Bait Near Cover
Try to position your bait near the dock, fallen timber, weedline or a swimming platform. Fish hold to Cover which provides shade and an ambush point. If Cover is not available, just do your best to set the rig 1-2 ft. off the bottom.
How to Tell if You Have a Bite
You will notice that you are getting a bite when your bobber moves up and down, or drives to one side or the other. Let the fish take the bait. Give the bite a 5-10 second count if your bobber is not completely submerged. Small Panfish do not have the strength to completely submerge your bobber. Their mouths are very small, and they suck in and push out food with their gills. You likely have a fish hooked if the bobber moves erratically for over 5 seconds. If you do not give it 5 seconds, you run the risk of pulling the bait out of the fishes mouth while it exhales. The feeling for when to set the hook will develop over time.
Reeling in the Fish
After you have confirmed the 5 second rule, you need to set your hook. Start by slowly reeling in your line until it is taut. Gently lift your rod tip a few inches to connect with the fish and set the hook into its mouth. This is not the Bass Master Classic, do not over do it. You are reeling in a healthy and vibrant Sunfish and you want to keep them healthy and vibrant. Gradually reel the fish in, guiding your rod with the movement of the fish and monitoring your line’s tension. When the fish starts to surface, lift them by your rod above the dock or ground. Be careful not to reel in too much slack or your bobber will get stuck on the top of your rod’s guide. Your line with break and you will lose your catch before properly releasing it.
Keep your Catch Off the Ground
Once your fish is out of the water, try not to contact it with the dock or ground. Keep it propped in the air as you gently place the palm of your hand underneath its belly and wrap your fingers around its body. Panfish spines are sharp, and can poke easily. Be careful to wrap your hands around the belly and hold it in a cradling form with the spine pointed upwards.
Having pliers is a convenient tool for removing the hook and you should buy one. However, I understand that the budget is tight for a first time angler and making another purchase is a tall order. So if you do not have a pair of pliers, the best method to remove a hook from a fish is to rotate the hook so the barb gets close to the surface, then push down on the hook until the barb pops back through where the hook entered. The hook should now be in the fish’s mouth, so gently rotate the hook once more so it clears the entrance of the mouth.
Avoid Filleting Fish for Now
Your newly caught Panfish is fantastic tablefare. Regardless of their size, Panfish like Sunfish, Bluegills, Crappie and Perch taste excellent when deep fried. This is my preference but they are also great on the grill or in a pan. However, keeping fish requires a tedious filet job on some very small slices. I recommend avoiding this intermediate skill during your first few trips. I highly encourage you to release your catch.
Releasing a Fish
Release your fish by submerging it in the similar palm hold discussed above, letting it paddle off on its own. If the fish is not kicking, slowly guide its tail back and forth while in the palm of your hand until it starts to kick on its own. If your catch does not make it through the resuscitation process, and has accidentally passed away, please take your fish with you, either consuming it or disposing it through your State’s waste management process .
Purchase your Fishing License Before you Fish
Gahhh the dreaded paperwork….. So most States require anglers to purchase a fishing license. There are some exceptions for children in a certain age range. This is a cost that you cannot avoid, even if you plan on going out just a trip or two. The fines and penalties for fishing without a license are typically harsh and can result in the confiscation of all your recently purchased gear. Also from an insider’s viewpoint, this is not one of those things the experienced participants skimp on.
Google your States DNR to Print your License
All seasoned anglers buy their fishing licenses annually and are very diligent with the process. The proceeds go to stocking public bodies of water and managing the ecosystems we share. Buying your license is one of those things that everyone does and is expected of doing so. You will not be in the know if you avoid this as you are technically a poacher when fishing without a license. Google your State’s fishing license requirements and purchase what is necessary ahead of time, most States will enable you to buy yours online and print a temporary license the same day.
My Favorite Fishing for Beginners Tip
The greatest fishing tip I can give is to fish with friends. Whether that’s with your family or a friend from work, you will learn how to fish quicker and catch more fish. Regardless your friend’s experience, you will either improve your skills through teaching, or you will learn a thing or two as they show you up. I was skeptical of this maxim when I heard it over a beer in an ice fishing shack on Leech Lake. The old timer who shared it convinced me otherwise, stating “it’s simple math, at the very least you have 2x the chance of catching something now that your buddy has a line in the water.” I recommend this glass half full approach to fishing.