Choose either a bait or a lure, that is, natural food on a hook or an artificial imitation of a live creature.
Many people object to using live bait, such as a worm or minnow. Fine! You don’t need to! Lures made of plastic catch fish, and often they work better than bait, and you don’t have to handle worms.
The general subject of lures is way too large for the beginner. After working with many first-timers, I can recommend one all-inclusive, catch-em-every time lure. It goes by names like grub or twister tail. Every tackle counter has some variation, and they all work.
Get some about one inch long. You can buy the two parts, the lure and the 1/16 ounce lead-head hook separately, or for a higher price, buy both already rigged. The color to use is the subject of endless debate. Two very frequently used and successful colors are bright green (chartreuse) and silvery nearly-clear and those are the two colors recommended here. Purple, white and yellow are also widely used. However, there is no wrong color. Even pink has been very effective. Wherever I have fished, from ocean pier to mountain stream, this lure has worked.
[One condition: the water has to be fairly clear for lure fishing, enough that you can see six inches or more. If it’s really muddy, a beginner won’t catch fish with a lure.]
Simply move the lure through the water. If you’re fishing from a boat dock, drop it down move it up and down and back and forth. Try to get it a foot or so from the bottom. If you can cast, toss it out in non-weedy water and reel it in fast enough to keep it out of snags like rocks and weeds. One turn of the reel every two seconds is a good starting speed.
For standard freshwater fishing, find out ahead of time if you or anyone in the group is going to have a hard time seeing a worm impaled on a hook. This is the all-time tried-and-true fishing bait, and for millions of people has been the key to many happy hours and fun childhood memories. If there are howls of disgust and revulsion, live bait fishing may not be for you.
With everyone on board, purchase or dig your worms. Small worms work fine. Big nightcrawlers are also very good bait, but so large they need to be cut into pieces.
You’ll want to be at a place where the current is not strong. Moving water creates all kinds of problems for beginners, so a swift river or ocean spot with moving tide is a bad choice. Ideally you’re on the bank of a nice lake. [In salt water, a fishing pier or dock is best. It’s likely that heavier line, at least eight-pound, and weights of a half-ounce or more will be needed.]
At the end of the line are the hook and the float. Your hook should be a size four. If the fish are truly tiny, less than four inches, go to a size six. Tie on the hook (see “Knots”), then place the float a couple of feet above the hook. Now grab a worm and to the best of your ability, thread it all over the hook. If you leave a lot of the worm dangling, the fish may be able to easily pull it off without getting hooked.
Toss your rig out at least eight or 10 feet from where you’re standing. Now wait for the float to start moving.
It will be a big help to know how deep the water is. If your float is in more than ten feet of water, the fish may be too far down. If you’re on a dock or in a boat, you can skip the float, and just drop the bait straight down, trying to keep it a foot or two from the bottom. [ In salt water earthworms are generally not used. Cut pieces of fish, shrimp or squid will work fine.]
Worms are the number one freshwater bait. However, they are sometimes out-performed by packaged fishing dough, which sometimes has strong odors that may not please the nose but do attract fish. One well-known brand is called Power Bait, and is a standard for many trout fishermen. Another bait that works very well for catfish, small sunfish and bluegills is a dough ball made from a roll of biscuit dough.
You can fish baits without a float and let them sink to the bottom, possibly adding a lead sinker for longer casts. Don’t use more than a quarter ounce, and usually a very tiny bb-size pinch-on lead weight will work fine where there is no current. Heavy weights interfere with the fish’s strikes. The drawback to fishing without a float is that lines often get caught on the bottom or tangled in weeds. A snag is one of the most unpleasant parts of fishing. Always try to avoid snags, and floats are a good tool for beginners to steer clear of them. But when they do happen, don’t get upset. Snags and lost rigs are part of fishing. They happen to everyone.