Most people’s first experience with fishing is freshwater fishing in lakes, rivers, or streams. This guide focuses on fishing with a standard spinning reel, as opposed to fly fishing, which uses a fly rod and a very lightweight lure.
If you want to go fishing, the first thing you should do is find out what types of freshwater fish are in your area. Once you know which species you’re likely to catch, you’ll be able to figure out what type of gear to buy and what tactics to use.
Table of Contents
Fishing License Requirements
Before you start fishing, check with state or local government agencies to determine whether you need a freshwater fishing license, which you can purchase through the fish and game department in your state. In many cases you can buy a state freshwater fishing license at your town hall or even at a sporting goods store.
Your state should also provide a booklet detailing its freshwater fishing regulations, including the minimum size requirements for keeping an individual fish and the total number of fish you can keep per day to eat. For information about freshwater fishing in your area, your state’s regulations, and where to acquire a fishing license, see https://www.fws.gov/fishing/FishingLicense.html
Essential Fishing Gear
Once you have a general idea of the local waters and what type of fish they might hold, it’s time to select the right gear. There are many different types of rods and reels, but all share the same basic components.
The Fishing Rod
Most modern fishing rods are made out of graphite, fiberglass, or a composite, though you will also find rods made of plastic or bamboo. All fishing rods consist of five basic components: the grip, reel seat, fighting butt, guides, and tip.
The grip is the section at the lower, thicker end of the rod where you hold the rod when casting. It’s usually made of cork, foam, or spongy plastic.
The reel seat is a slot, located in the middle of or just above the grip, where you attach the base of the reel to the rod. A typical rod has clamps that you screw down to tighten and hold the reel in place.
The fighting butt is the thickest part of the rod, located at the base of the grip, closest to the body. When you hook a fish, you’ll have to battle to reel it in. The fighting butt absorbs most of the resistance and allows you to place pressure on a fish to tire it out so you can land it—hence the name “fighting butt.”
The guides are circular eyelets that start small at the rod tip and grow bigger as they approach the reel. As their name suggests, they guide the line from the reel through the tip of the rod. Guides are made of metal and contain a ceramic or plastic ringed insert that helps the line flow through them smoothly and without snags.
The rod tip is the thinnest and most flexible part of the rod and helps the rod bend to load when casting. When you throw the rod over your shoulder to cast, the momentum of the lure causes the rod to bend at the tip and “load.” That flexibility allows the tip to act as a shock absorber and give a little when a fish strikes, which helps keep the line from breaking. It also allows the rod to bend while you fight a fish, transferring the resistance of the fish to the fighting butt.
The Fishing Reel
Most reels are made out of a combination of metal, carbon composite, and plastic. There are three types of reels—the spinner, the bait caster, and the spin caster—which use different mechanisms to accomplish the same thing. All three types have a base, spool, crank handle, and drag, though the spinning reel also has an extra component called a bail.
The reel foot is the part that attaches to your rod’s reel seat. It typically fits under the rod’s screw clamps and attaches the spool to the rod with a long, thin stem. A bait casting or spin casting reel is mounted on top of the rod. A spinning reel attaches underneath the rod.
The spool is the part of the reel that holds the fishing line. It is barrel-shaped and rotates to allow the line to flow as it spins. On bait casting and spin casting reels, you press a button to let the spool spin freely and let out line. On spinning reels, you open the bail (see below). With spinning reels, it’s the bail, not the spool itself, that spins.
The bail is the metal bar that sits atop the spool. When you click it to the “open” position, line can flow freely from the spool. When you click it closed, it changes the direction of the spin so that you can reel in line.
The crank handle is a lever with a knob that allows you to reel in line. On a spinning rod, turning the crank handle will automatically close the bail. On most bait casting and spin casting reels, turning the crank handle disengages the pushbutton so you can reel line back onto the spool.
The drag is a mechanism inside the reel that applies pressure to the spool when a fish is trying to pull line off it. Even with the bail closed, a strong fish will peel line off the reel, fighting against the pressure of the drag. You can set the drag to determine how much pressure the fish feels as it pulls against the line. The heavier the drag, the harder it is for the fish to pull. But too much drag can cause the fish to break the line.
On a spinning reel, you set the drag by twisting a knob at the top of the spool. On bait casting and spin casting reels, the drag is typically set by adjusting a circular mechanism at the base of the crank handle.
The Fishing Line
What type of line should you choose for your reel? The most important factor to consider is the line’s breaking strength, or test. Test is simply the amount of pressure the line can withstand before it breaks. So a six-pound test line can hold up to six pounds of pressure when fighting a fish. The rod you buy will indicate the range of line test it works best with, inscribed just above the grip.
Moreover, there are three different types of fishing line to consider, and each has its strengths and weaknesses:
- Monofilament line: The most common fishing line. It’s probably the best choice for beginners, as it’s easy to tie into knots. It has the most stretch, which helps it act as a shock absorber when a fish strikes. Monofilament is more visible to a fish than fluorocarbon and is also more buoyant and slower to sink.
- Fluorocarbon line: The type of monofilament line that’s the most invisible underwater. However, fluoro is relatively stiff and has a lot of memory, meaning that the line tends to retain the coils from sitting on the reel. This makes the line tangle easily and makes it harder to knot. Fluoro is also more susceptible to nicks and abrasions that can cause it to break or fray.
- Braided line: The toughest line to break. It also has the most sensitivity, which allows you to detect the slightest nibble from a fish when using it. But braided line is the most visible to a fish. And because the line has no give, it’s more likely that you’ll accidentally pull the hook out of a fish’s mouth when one strikes.
Tackle Box Essentials
Think of your tackle box as the nerve center of your fishing operation. It’s where you’ll store your hooks, lures, pliers, and other fishing gadgets that you accumulate. Tackle boxes range greatly in size, but a huge one isn’t necessary because you need it to hold only a few basic items.
The easiest way to catch fish is by using bait on a hook. You can attach a live bait, such as a worm or a minnow, to the hook, or put on a dead bait, such as a salted sardine. You can use either a weighted sinker to drop the bait down to the fish or a bobber to float the bait just under the surface. There are two basic types of hooks:
- J-hooks are traditional hooks that are shaped like the letter J. They feature an eye through which you tie your fishing line, a shank (the long, straight part of the hook), a sharpened point at the end of the hook), and a barb that keeps the hook from backing out of a fish’s lip once it has tried to eat the bait. J-hooks can be difficult to use because you have to set the hook when you feel the fish bite. That is, you need to lift up with your rod tip to drive the hook point into the lip of the fish and prevent it from swallowing the hook. If a fish swallows a hook, it will most likely die from internal injuries.
- Circle hooks were designed to prevent fish from swallowing the hook. They have a rounded shank, with the point and barb directed inward. They’re easier to use because you don’t have to set the hook. When you feel a bite, you simply wait a second or two and start to reel. Because the point and barb are curved inward, they don’t hook into the fish’s gut but rather catch the corner of the lip as the fish tries to spit out the hook. This site at the corner of the lip is the best place to hook a fish. The only drawback of circle hooks is that it’s a bit harder to attach the bait to them.
Sinkers are weights that you attach to the line to drop down your bait if the fish are in deeper water. Sometimes you need to use heavier sinkers to help the bait drop faster or to make it drop straight through a current. Egg sinkers are egg shaped, made of lead or another metal, and have an eye at the top for tying on line. Pyramid sinkers are pyramid shaped and also have an eye for tying.
Split-shot weights are small balls (made of lead or another metal) that have slits in them that you squeeze onto the line at various points to add a little extra weight. Lead sinkers and split-shot weights are now illegal in many areas because they can harm local wildlife, so check your local regulations before using them.
Bobbers, also known as floats or strike indicators, attach to line and float on the surface above your bait. They are made of cork, Styrofoam, or plastic. When bobber fishing, you simply keep an eye on your float. When it gets pulled below the surface, that means a fish has taken your bait and it’s time to start reeling.
Lures, or artificial bait, are imitations of something a fish likes to eat—such as a minnow, frog, worm, or leech—that are made out of wood, metal, or soft or hard plastic. Lures can be made to float on the surface, swim just underwater, or crawl along the bottom. You cast them and reel them back, hoping a nearby fish will be fooled into thinking the line is dinner. Thousands of lures are available in tackle shops and through online retailers. But as the old saying goes, most of them are designed to attract the fisherman and not the fish. Here are a few basic lures to get you started.
A spoon is an essential lure for any freshwater fisherman. It’s a silver- or gold-colored piece of metal with a teardrop, egg, or oval shape. It’s typically painted on top and shiny on the concave underside, with a single, double, or treble hook attached to the end. (A double hook has two sharpened points; a treble hook has three.) A spoon can be retrieved (reeled in) quickly or slowly, shallow or deep. Two elements make the spoon an effective lure:
- The shiny underside reflects light and “flashes” to the fish, mimicking how light reflects off a minnow’s body.
- The concave shape causes the spoon to flutter and wobble in the water. Gamefish see this movement and mistake the line for an injured or crippled baitfish, which is typically easy for them to catch and eat.
A crankbait is another type of lure that resembles any number of baitfish. It is made from hard plastic and typically has two hooks: a single, double, or treble hook at the tail and a second one attached to the midsection. A crankbait fools fish because of its resemblance in size and shape to the bait it’s supposed to mimic and also because of the way it swims through water.
The basic form of a spinner bait is a V-shaped wire. Line is attached to the point of the V through a loop or eye. The top arm of the V attracts fish with a reflective, rotating blade. The bottom arm carries the hook, usually adorned with a soft plastic “skirt” that looks like a tiny hula skirt. The skirt is usually vibrantly colored and pulsates in the water when retrieved, both concealing the hook and creating an enticing target for the fish.
A plastic worm is among the most lifelike of all the artificial baits. It is made of mushy plastic and usually packed in scented oil, which further attracts fish. A plastic worm is typically attached to an unweighted hook with the point concealed in the plastic body. These worms are sought by fish who move slowly along the bottom among rocks, submerged tree stumps, or weed beds.
Worms are just one category of a growing number of lures made from soft plastic. You can also buy lifelike plastic lures made to resemble minnows, frogs, salamanders, leeches, and even mice.
A jig is a type of lure with a weighted head and a soft body usually made of fur or plastic. It’s typically fished vertically, meaning that you drop the jig to the bottom and reel it back up in an erratic pattern by stopping and starting and also raising and lowering your rod tip in a twitching movement as you retrieve the jig. The constant fluttering and falling tricks the fish into thinking your jig is an injured baitfish ready to be eaten.
Plugs and Poppers
Plugs and poppers are lures made from hard plastic or wood that float on the surface of the water when retrieved. They typically have large flat or concave fronts that push water as they’re retrieved, creating a lot of noise that attracts fish. The beauty of plugs and poppers is that you can watch the fish hit them, which makes for an exciting strike.
Every tackle box needs a fishing knife, which cuts bait and, should you decide to keep your catch, cleans the fish. It’s best to get a sharp fillet knife that can serve all purposes and comes with a protective sheath.
A good pair of corrosion-resistant pliers is a worthwhile investment. Try to find a pair that also features a wire cutter so that you can keep your knife in its sheath while clipping your fishing line. Pliers are also useful for safely removing a hook from the mouth of a fish. Be sure to get a pair designed specifically for fishing, as household pliers will rust and seize up after just a few uses.
Pliers can do the job if a fish is hooked in the lips, but when the hook sets deeper, using a hook remover is the best way to remove it safely without seriously injuring the fish. A plastic hook remover slides down the line and pushes out the hook, allowing you to pull both the hook and remover back out cleanly. You can also buy a sturdier metal hook remover that resembles long, slender pliers and better fits into a fish’s mouth.
Swivels are great for connecting your line to your lure, sinkers to your line, or joining different-sized lines together. The most common type of swivel is the snap swivel. The snap swivel features a circle eye at one end where you tie the line and a bracket that you open and slide through the lure’s eye and snap shut, making it easier to change lures as you fish.
A pair of polarized sunglasses to filter out the sun’s UV rays is essential for fishing. They eliminate glare on the water’s surface, allowing you to actually see the fish underwater, as well as any other underwater structure you are trying to fish around, such as rocks, sunken tree stumps, sandbars, or weed beds.
Though it won’t fit in your tackle box, a net is another important fishing accessory. A net lets you safely scoop a fish out of the water without touching the fish. Netting is usually made of polyester or rubber. Rubberized baskets are becoming more popular because a fish can’t get tangled in them, and they are less damaging to the fish’s coating of protective slime, allowing for a healthier release back into the water.
Sporting goods stores carry a lot of expensive, high-tech fishing clothes that you don’t need. But a few items are essential, depending on the season and where you’ll be fishing. Here’s a list to get you started.
Clothes for Cold-Weather Fishing
If you’ll be fishing in cold weather, take special care when selecting clothes. You face the possibility of getting wet and being exposed to wind, rain, and chill. In addition, keep in mind that temperatures around the water are often a few degrees colder than on nearby land. The best rules of thumb are to layer your clothing with breathable garments and to stay away from cotton because it absorbs water quickly and is slow to dry, which will make you very cold.
Your base layer should consist of a pair of form-fitting long underwear and thermal socks. When selecting long underwear, choose a light-to-midweight pair that still has thermal properties but allows a full range of movement. The best are both breathable, which means they allow air circulation, and moisture wicking, which means they drain sweat away from your body to where it can evaporate and dry quickly. Choose long underwear made of silk or a synthetic such as polyester. For socks, avoid bulky styles that can cut off circulation to your feet. Opt instead for two layers of thin thermal socks, also with moisture-wicking properties.
With the second layer, focus on items that will keep you warm. Again, avoid bulky items that will restrict your movement when trying to cast or fight and land a fish. A wool sweater or fleece pullover is a good choice, but you can opt for any fast-drying, heat-retaining garment that you find comfortable. For pants, avoid lightweight cotton or denim in favor of heavier canvas pants. Some brands make water-repellent canvas pants with extra thermal layering.
The key for your outer layer is to find a combination that’s both waterproof (or water-resistant) and windproof. Nothing will cause a chill faster than wind hitting wet clothes. Jackets designed for skiing or hunting work well, if you already own them. If it starts raining, you’ll need rain gear: a waterproof jacket with a hood and a matching pair of pants that will keep you completely dry.
You’ll need shoes that can keep your feet warm and dry while also providing traction on wet, slippery surfaces.
Though a baseball hat is great for fishing because the bill shades your eyes from sunlight and glare, it won’t keep your head warm in cold weather. A winter hat designed to cover your ears will retain heat and keep you warm. In very cold or wintry conditions, consider wearing a hood or balaclava that will protect most of your head but allow you to see and breathe comfortably.
Gloves are an important consideration because you need to keep your fingers warm but also have the freedom to work the rod and reel, tie knots, and handle fish. Look for a pair of fingerless gloves, preferably with a reinforced palm and a fold-over mitten top. The gloves are cut at the fingers mid-knuckle, and the fingertips are open. Should your fingers get cold, flip the mitten top over them to warm up. Or opt for a pair of solid neoprene gloves that allow for some dexterity yet protect your hand as a wetsuit would a diver.
Clothes for Warm-Weather Fishing
For warm-weather fishing, your clothes should be lightweight and breathable but also provide sun protection. Look for items with a high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating—similar to the SPF rating for suntan lotion. The higher an item’s UPF rating, the more ultraviolet rays it will block.
It might seem counterintuitive to wear a long-sleeved shirt during hot weather, but many clothing manufacturers make fishing shirts designed to keep you cool while offering sun protection. Look for polyester “microfiber” shirts that are breathable and dry quickly. Many have sleeves designed to roll up comfortably above the elbow, collars that turn up to protect your neck, and mesh vents sewn in along the back and underarm areas. Another option is buying a microfiber performance T-shirt, which usually lacks pockets, vents, and neck protection but does have high UPF ratings.
Shorts and Pants
Breathable materials that dry quickly are again the way to go for warm weather attire. For shorts, pick a cotton/nylon blend with several pockets to stow away small fishing gear items. Make sure the shorts or pants have sturdy zippers and buttons that will not be damaged by water exposure. Safari or “zip-off” pants, which have legs that zip off at the knee and convert to shorts, are another way to go.
A regular baseball hat is all you typically need. The bill shields your face from sunlight and deflects glare. A visor also works well. If you need additional protection, there are hats made specifically for fishing that have sun flaps to cover your ears and neck.