If you’ve ever been fishing, you probably know why it’s called “fishing” and not “catching.” The challenge for luring and catching good fish is what makes it a sport, but when your well-being depends on catching fish for food, things become a little more intense.
Fish is a great source of nutritious protein and essential amino acids. If you’re in a wilderness survival situation, it can be an essential part of your diet. But you’ve got to understand how to go about finding, catching, cleaning and preparing fish with minimal tools to be realistic about incorporating wild fish into your meal plan. Let’s unpack the biggest challenges in catching and eating fish in the wilderness.
Where to Find Fish
Before you can enjoy a delicious meal of home-cooked fish, you need to locate some fish to catch. The last thing you want is a wasted day tossing your line out to an area where there aren’t any fish. Where you fish will determine the type of fish you catch as well, so if you’re aiming for a specific species like trout, which prefer fast-moving clear water to the more covered habitat of bass, plan accordingly.
It’s a good idea to read up on the more popular types of fish to catch before heading into the backcountry so that you can consider what you’d like to catch if you’re planning to fish for food. See if you can learn what they like to eat, when they’re most active during the day, what water temperature they prefer and what type of cover they seek out.
When you’re traveling through the wilderness, it’s a fair assumption many of the major lakes, streams and rivers you’ll encounter do hold fish. You just have to find out which parts have the most. To maximize your chances, seek out clear, fast-moving water or cold high-altitude lakes. The lower water temperature helps these locations hold more oxygen, which is attractive to fish. Of course, you might not have the luxury of selecting from multiple locations, and that’s OK.
Basic Fishing Equipment
If you’ve got the opportunity to plan your backcountry fishing expedition, you’re going to want to bring some essentials with you. The first things you’ll need are a fishing rod and reel. A bait rod or spinning rod is the most versatile type of fishing rod, and preferable for most outdoorsmen because of its ease of use. If you’re handy with a fly rod, you can make use of this more advanced technique fishing in those faster-moving backcountry streams we mentioned earlier.
In addition to your rod and reel, you’ll need some basic fishing tackle. Typically, that consists of fishing line rated for the size of fish you plan to catch, weights to help keep your line down, swivels, hooks and lures. Bait is the final, and arguably the most crucial, component. Worms are some of the easiest live bait to transport, while you might need to catch other options such as baitfish in the field. You can also try out soft bait like salmon eggs or Powerbait, which lasts longer than the live worms.
Waterproof wading equipment is a wonderful addition to your kit if you can afford it and know you’ll use it. It will help you access difficult areas where fish like to hide. However, it might be unrealistic to pack this on a backpacking expedition. If you have access to a boat, kayak or canoe, you’ve hit the jackpot. Using a boat will greatly increase your ability to catch fish, but you’ve got to know how to use it right.
Putting a Line in the Water
With all your gear assembled, it’s time to get down to the business of fishing. Select an appropriate location and rig your fishing rod with the bait and tackle you’ve brought.
If you’re in a real survival situation, there are several options to make yourself a simple set of fishing equipment, including hand-lining, fishing with a spear and building a fish trap. Depending on the location, you may also be able to legally fish using a net. However, if you’re unsure of the area’s fishing laws, we recommend making this a last resort. Fines for illegal net fishing can be pricey.
To fish off the banks of a lake or stream, choose the appropriate time of day, and select a spot where you can cast out past visible cover where fish might dwell. It’s best to look for a place where the water is fairly deep right off the bank, which affords fish the colder water they prefer. Using your spinning rod, cast out in front of the target location.
The next stage of the process is what separates master anglers from novice fishermen. There are a variety of techniques to “work” your bait and entice fish to bite. One is to do absolutely nothing, and that often can be the best approach. Fishing requires patience. The type of behavior you want to display with your bait will again depend on what kind of fish you want to catch and the bait itself.
You might find fishing with a worm to be less of a challenge than using a spinning lure. The worm is alive and will wiggle enticingly — or, to a fish, lunch when you put it in the water. That means less work for you. It’s also worth noting you will sometimes be able to gather live bait on location. Insects and baitfish that inhabit the area are typically good eating for the predatory fish there, and you won’t have to worry about carrying bait in that way.
A spinning lure designed to resemble a flitting minnow works based on the resistance created when you pull it through the water. As you reel it in, the lure will rotate and catch the light. The idea is that this will get the attention of a hungry fish and entice them to strike. However, critics of lures will note a piece of metal and plastic doesn’t offer the smell live bait or soft bait does. That makes lures more popular for species of fish that are optical hunters. Lures are also effective in fast-running water, which will keep the lure active without you having to continually reel it in and recast.
Fishing From a Boat
Access to a boat can be a tremendous help when looking to find fish because it allows you to reach areas you couldn’t get to from the shore. Not only can you get into open water on a lake, but you can also travel to distant fishing holes much more directly. A secluded corner that’s heavily wooded and inaccessible from shore, for example, makes a perfect hiding spot for fish.
You may have experienced fishing out of a powerboat in the past. Having an engine, fishfinder, trolling equipment and other amenities can be convenient. However, powerboats can be loud and frighten fish away, and you’re unlikely to have easy access to one in the backcountry unless you’re quite well-connected. A more realistic scenario might be to fish using a kayak or canoe.
A kayak makes an excellent fishing vessel because of its small size and stealth. You can maneuver quietly into the backwoods areas fish like to hide in and wait without making a sound. Make sure you have a good understanding of how to pilot the kayak safely before you go out. Reeling a fish in can be quite the workout when you’re not on solid ground, and it would be terrible to get soaked and lose your dinner in the process.
Landing Your Catch
Since this article is about finding fish for food, there’s no catch-and-release happening here. Know how to recognize a bite and set your hook when a fish is interested in your bait. Bites can be faint through the interface of a rod and line, but will feel like a slight tug. When the moment comes, give your rod a firm pull up to set the hook in the fish’s mouth before it swims away with your bait.
Once you get a fish on, check the drag setting on your reel to ensure it can’t strip the line too quickly. Many fish fight, which might encourage you to muscle them in by reeling back as much line as you can, quickly. This approach can backfire by removing the hook and costing you your catch, so use some finesse. Allow the fish to run a little, then collect your line slowly at first. As the fish tires, you can collect more line until you see it by the side of your boat or fishing spot.
A net is convenient for collecting your catch, but not ultimately necessary. You can keep reeling in until the fish comes up out of the water. In most situations, you’ll need to kill the catch immediately if you plan to eat it. You can accomplish this by way of a blow to the head using a heavy object like a rock or club. Now, it’s time to prepare your catch so you can cook it later.
Cleaning Your Catch
You’ll need to clean your catch as soon as possible to be ready to cook and to keep animals away. Use a bucket or clean rock if you have none, and scrape the scales off the fish’s sides. Next, use a sharp fillet knife to make a shallow incision in the fish’s belly from mouth to anus. Avoid going too deep because it can pierce the intestine, which will taint your meat and require significant cleanup.
Use your fingers or a spoon to pull out the fish’s entrails. Everything needs to come out, so be sure you inspect the incision once you think you’re finished. The kidney and organs located particularly close to the sides of the belly can be persistent, but should come out with a little tug. If the fish has an inner membrane, scrape that out.
If you don’t wish to prepare your fish with its head on, remove it by making a cut right behind the gills. However, many people consider the eyes and “cheek” meat to be the tastiest part of the fish. You can also remove any fins with snips if you have them, and then rinse the inside of the fish again before you’re done.
You can saute or grill most fish in foil without a whole lot of work. You’ll want to have a basic selection of spices, but it’s reasonable to think you can make something quite tasty in the backcountry if you catch a good fish.
The process begins with breaking down the carcass, which means fileting or cutting steaks. Fileting is cutting along the fish’s side using the backbone as a guide, while you’ll cut steaks perpendicular to the backbone. Typically, you will only be able to cut larger fish into steaks, so backcountry meals will likely be filets. Once separated from the backbone, lift the rib cage out of the meat to minimize the number of bones in your meal. Bones can hurt you if you don’t realize they’re in place.
You can cook trout, salmon and bass in a saute pan with salt, pepper, butter, lemon and dill to make a tasty and simple backcountry dinner. To make this same dish using a grill, create a foil pack with the filet of fish and fill it with your butter and other seasonings. Place the foil directly on the grill or on a cooking sheet in an oven to bake. Smoking is another excellent way to prepare these fish — one we encourage if you have the time and equipment because it adds tremendous flavor.
Bon appetit! You’ve found, caught, prepped and cooked your first meal of fish in the backcountry. We think you’ll agree it’s a whole lot more fun and tasty than edible plants, so keep practicing, and maybe you’ll have a good fish story for the comments section someday.