Fishing in a survival situation can be much different then heading out on the lake in the morning for a day with the family or friends. Survival fishing is characterized by its use of traps, a large number of hooks in the water at once, and the minimum amount of supervision necessary to keep your lines safe and in good shape. As opposed to fishing for sport or food, when fishing for survival you’ll likely need to preserve a large number of fish for later use since the catches can be very big.
There are a few different methods that are effective when fishing for survival. These include set lines, traps, nets, and weirs. All of these methods are suited to catching fish in a particular environment, and what works best for one area might not apply at all to another. In this article we’ll take a look at each different method, explain briefly how to deploy the technique, and learn where the best area is to apply them in the hopes that, should you ever find yourself stranded by a lake or river, you’ll be able to feed yourself until help arrives.
Survival fishing with lines is probably the most familiar technique for the average angler. Unlike catching fish with a rod and reel, when you fish for survival with lines your focus needs to be on getting as many baited hooks in the water as possible. Setting out lines is a great general purpose technique that works well in all sorts of water, although for the best results you’ll want to set your lines in a large area that’s mostly free of troublesome snags and buried obstacles.
When setting out survival lines, you’ll construct a long leader, made of heavy fishing line or even paracord, on which the smaller baited lines, which carry hooks, are attached. In general you’ll want a baited line attached at 12″ intervals along the length of the leader. Since there’s no way to set the hook when you get a bite, lines like this typically catch large predatory fish like bass and pike, as well as scavengers who gulp their meal down whole like catfish.
While some states don’t allow the use of set lines at all on public property, outside of a survival situation, a lot of southern states allow anglers to practice deploying, checking, and retrieving set lines as long as they’re checked daily and kept below certain lengths or hook counts.
Fish traps work almost like a net that is left in the water. They’re typically shaped like long baskets, and made of woven reed or even plastic mesh. They are placed in such a way that water flows through the opening into the far end of the basket, trapping the fish inside. It’s a good idea to place cut bait, worms, bread, or anything else that might entice a fish to enter in order to ensure a catch. These baskets have the benefit of being able to be left out for long periods of time without harming the fish trapped inside, so your catch stays lively and fresh for as long as you need it to. Fish traps typically catch active fish, including minnows of all species, trout, pike, bass, and carp.
These woven traps have the capability to catch large numbers of fish of all sizes, provided they’re properly set in running water. Survival fishing with traps is suited to running water of all sizes, from rivers to streams, as long as they’re placed well. When setting a fishing trap the angler should look for natural obstructions that the fish are forced to pass through, much like laying a snare on a game trail. Placing a trap in the shallows practically guarantees a catch, although the fish will tend to be quite small in most cases. When fishing for survival, even a tiny minnow can make a meal as long as you gather enough of them, so when possible deploy a number of traps in different areas of the river or stream.
Using a cast net can be a good way to harvest fish from a number of different bodies of water, but they work especially well in the calm shallows when panfish are spawning. They’re also suited to clear water, so that you can see your prey and cast a net over them. Fishing with a net is also a good way to catch bait for other traps and techniques, so many anglers would do well to include a folded net in the bottom of their tackle box. When fishing in this way, plan on catching mostly panfish during their spawn, when the fish are largely stationary and protecting their nets. In some areas you can run across large groups of fish feeding, and in those cases you can catch very large amounts of a variety of different fish.
Catching fish with a net takes practice and patience above all else. Many nets have weighted edges to help them fall through the water and trap the fish quickly, and by including rocks or splitshot on the edges of a homemade net you will drastically improve your odds of catching fish. Casting a net is an art, and this method takes more skill than the others that we’ll cover. If you plan on catching fish with a cast net then it’s very important to practice. Fortunately, it’s legal to take bait with a net in nearly every state, so there’s no shortage of opportunities to get out there and try it.
Fish weirs are a traditional Native American trap that redirects the fish into a small hand-dug or naturally occurring pool. Just like basket traps, a successful weir will follow the contour of the terrain in order to allow you to scoop up your catch by hand or with a net. Weirs are usually constructed of small and medium diameter limbs which have been sunk into the river or lake bed, making a wall that fish can’t swim through.
Constructing a weir is surprisingly easy, although for good results you’ll need to select the placement carefully. Like nets, weirs can catch large numbers of bait fish to be used alongside another technique. Weirs themselves can be baited with the halves of smaller fish that they’ve caught in hopes of luring in something larger. Left overnight in many rivers and streams, a weir containing cut bait will often catch a catfish or two for breakfast.
Spears & Arrows
The final sort of survival fishing that we’ll discuss involves the use of spears and arrows. Both methods are similar enough that they share many of the same pros and cons. This method of survival fishing is ideally suited for catching large fish, even alpha-predators like gar. This method also works well in coastal tide pools, although for the purposes of this article we’re only discussing freshwater fishing.
In general, fishing spears and arrows have either multiple points to stop your catch from wriggling off of the line, or large teeth pointed in a single direction to stop the fish from slipping. The refraction of the water makes spearfishing challenging at first, and for best results the spearhead is held underwater in order to make it easier to aim. Many fishing bows come with special optics that correct for the optical illusion of aiming into water from above, as well as long lines attached to the arrow so you won’t lose your fish.
Survival fishing with projectiles or a spear takes a lot of trial and error, and not just with aiming. If you’re crafting your own spear and arrowheads it will take experience to find what does and doesn’t work for your personal style. Fortunately, fishing with spears and arrows is legal in most places across the country, often with the purchase of an additional endorsement on your fishing license.