Sunday, December 30, 2007

Equipment — Don't Buy a Lot!

It isn’t necessary to spend much money at all to catch a fish. In fact, your first fishing trips are a LOT MORE fun when you don’t invest much time OR money – and still have a great time.
What items do you need to catch a fish? Not that many.Here are the FEW things you NEED:

Small tackle box
Nail clipper
Cotton gloves
Assorted size hooks
Small weights (1/4 ounce)
Several plastic floats
Plastic grubs (see “Lures or Live Bait”)
If you’re using bait: Worms or other bait (keep the worms cool)
First aid kit (at least a couple bandages and antiseptic wipe)

Those items above, all inexpensive, would get you through the day at 90 percent of fishing places in North America. If you want to keep and eat any fish, then certainly you need things like a filet knife, ice chest, plastic bags. Possibly you noticed a lure at the tackle counter and you want to see what happens if you use it. Go ahead, try it out! (If money – or lack of it – is a factor, don’t be dazzled by the big claims you see on many products. They ALL claim to be the secret weapon. Just try one, but DO try the inexpensive techniques on the blog here!)

I don't include the net because you probably won't catch a big fish on your first trip, and using a net takes a little experience. For the record, you probably wouldn’t land a large fish without a net. If you’re fortunate enough to hook one, you would end up just trying to lift it in the air or drag it along the water’s edge, and it would wiggle until the line breaks, and it would escape. So consider buying a landing net if you don't want the big one to get away.

You’ll wish you had photos of your first trip, so probably the camera should be on the list.

There is absolutely no limit on how much you can spend for tackle and accessories. After you’ve made a trip or two you can decide if you want to invest in expensive equipment.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Reel

The reel can be the big stumbling block. Here is the best advice for every beginner: ignore all of the reels you see that are expensive. What you want is called a closed-face push-button spincasting reel. There are several available in the $10 to $20 price range that are the best choices of all reels to learn fishing.
These are not the choice of most experienced anglers, and they will be likely to tell you to buy the reel design that they use. Just smile and say, "That's what I'll get next." There is way too much to learn first, and if you buy the push-button reel, you will spend your time learning to fish — not learning how to use a fancy reel.
However, the very least expensive push-button spincast reels are to be avoided. These often are sold with an accompanying cartoon character or otherwise are made to appeal to children. This is ironic, since they usually don't work well and could create a potentially life-long aversion to fishing for the child who experiences the sad disappointment of being unable to fish because the line won't come out of the reel. A rule of thumb is simply, the more you pay for these reels, the more likely they are to have sensible design. Among the least expensive reels that work well are the Shakespeare Synergy Steel 10 or Titanium (Ti) 10 series. These start at around $10 at discount stores. Most of the spincasting reels over $20 are "heavy duty" reels, designed for holding 12 to 14 pound line, and for first-timers, that line is too thick.

Fishing Line — Less is Much More

The one “dangerous” bit of advice here is to replace the line from the reel you buy, because it’s almost always eight or 10 pound line. (If this is all too complicated, skip this step! You can still catch fish with the original line.)
“Pound” refers to the strength of the line – it would hold that amount of weight without breaking. That is, you could suspend an eight pound weight tied to a segment of eight pound line, but adding another pound would make it break.
The natural inclination would be to use stronger line rather than weaker line, but in fact, the weaker line often brings much, much better results. The reason is simple: six-pound line is thinner and harder for the fish to see than eight-pound line, and four pound line is even harder for the fish to detect.
Imagine dropping a worm in the water and watching it slowly sink toward fish. The fish will dart after it, and it will quickly disappear into their hungry mouths. However, put that worm on a hook, with heavy 10-pound fishing line, and the fish may well simply swim up and then swim away, or bite very cautiously, and avoid the hook.
If your first fishing trip involves small fish, and they usually do, then you will want your reel filled with four-pound line. (If the fish are plentiful and large, that is, over a foot long, then you will probably do fine with eight pound line, and if the fish are running quite large, over two pounds, then eight or even 10-pound line will probably work best. Fish over two pounds can break four pound line.)
A likely reaction: “Hey, I want line strong enough for big fish!” That’s the reason that heavy line is there. Response: first of all, for kids, ANY fish is big. A five-inch perch is a thrilling first time trophy. For adult first-timers, just catch something. There ‘s much to learn catching small fish. And you’d surprised how much fun it is catching six-and eight-inch fish. The lighter line easily may make all the difference between a fun outing and a fishless foray.

Any brand of line will do well, and there’s no reason to buy the fancy expensive lines. You should be able to get a couple hundred yards of four or six pound line for $5. By the way, line for spincasting is called “monofilament.” The old fashioned type that looks like string is called “braided” and doesn’t work with spinning reels.

Changing the line means pulling all the old line out of the reel, a tedious job. You’ll need about ten minutes and some space in front of you for a pile of tangled line.
You’ll have to unscrew the cover of the reel to see if you’ve reached the end of the spool. (There are electric line winders to speed this up. Also if you have access to an empty old reel, you could wind line from your new reel to the old one.)
When the line’s finally all off the reel, take the end of the line from your new spool, run it FIRST THROUGH THE FACE OF THE REEL COVER, then tie it in a simple knot twice around the core of the spool. Screw the cover back on the reel.
Pull the line lightly, then start turning the handle and reel until the spool is about full. This will probably be around 110 yards of line. You don’t want it too full or it’ll be hard to manage. However, if there’s not enough line on the reel, it won’t cast.
Congratulations! You have probably quadrupled your chances of catching fish by replacing the heavy line.

Tying Knots

The problem with knots comes as a surprise to everyone who's new to fishing.
If you tie a lure to the end of the line with a simple knot, and then pull, the line slips and the knot comes undone.
The secret is to wrap the line around several times before completing the knot. This type is called a clinch knot. There’s debate as to how many times to wrap the line – four, five or six times. Five will work fine for now. To see, do a “clinch knot” video search.
One thing you’ll want is a nail clipper to trim off the extra line after the knot is tied. You want your knot and line to be as close to invisible as possible.
[There is also the improved clinch knot, and it is an improvement. But don’t worry about it now.]

Here is a clinch knot demonstration from YouTube. Click on the screen first, then on play:

Picking a First Rod — Easy

Rods are easy for beginners. Just remember you need the kind that has the handle with what appears to be a trigger.
You’ll want a 5-1/2 foot or 6 foot rod that comes apart into two pieces. Discount stores offer these starting at about $8. Look for small print on the rod that says either light or medium action. Durango by Shakespeare is one inexpensive rod brand.
Stores offer combos, the rod and reel together, at a discount. These are usually a good way to save money and get a rod and reel that match – but you don’t save if they add in other equipment that you don’t want with the package and the price goes up. Also, only buy a combo if it has one of the better reels. Check the prices of the reels separately, and frankly, if they’re offering one of the five-dollar reels in a combo, don’t buy.
With fishing rods, you could pay any amount of money. There are plenty of hundred-dollar rods out there, and some that are hundreds of dollars. Those work better and last longer (and you can feel really cool carrying that expensive equipment.) They’re completely unnecessary for the beginner.
Also, the more expensive rods are often one-piece rods. Once you have tried to fit a six-foot rod in your car, you’ll quickly realize any loss of performance with a two-piece rod is completely acceptable.

Casting Your Line

Kids, especially, see the button on push-button reels as a very mysterious thing. What powers does that big button have?
Many people think that pushing the button would somehow launch line out of the reel.
In fact, holding the button down prevents any line from leaving the reel. It’s letting go of the button – taking the thumb OFF – that allows the line to come billowing out of the reel.
So naturally, you need to take your thumb off at just the right time – that is, when the bait is traveling through the air in the direction of the fish.
Tie a small lead weight to the end of the line and hold the rod so the weight is suspended in the air. Push and hold the button, then take your thumb off the button. The weight will fall to the floor.
Now do the same thing, but first give the weight a little swing away. If you take your thumb off the button at just the right time, the weight will fly through the air several feet away from you. You just made a cast.
Find the swing that works best for you. If there’s room, swinging the weight over your head, and letting go at just the right time, will allow the weight to travel a good ten or twenty yards.
If you have internet expertise, do a “video” search, and enter how to cast spincast to find a demonstration video.

Live Bait — or Lures?

What to put at the end of your line to catch the fish?
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.
Bait fishing:
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.]
Artificial bait:
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.

Where to Catch Fish

Where Can I Go to Fish?
Don’t let anyone give you too-quick answers here. There really are good fishing places nearby – that is, an hour drive or less – just about anywhere in North America.
By “good fishing places,” I mean places where you are fairly certain to catch some fish. Not certain to catch large exciting “tacklebusters,” because that’s always UN-certain. But some places are very dependable for small perch or sunfish.
Those big fees your pay for the fishing license do go for management of certain waters in state parks. Usually those lakes or streams have the fish and the facilities – that is, the lakes are scenic, the waters are managed so there are some fish all the time, and there are piers, shoreline pathways and rental boats available so you can take your new fishing rod and make a cast to waters with fish.
The best advice at these lakes is to find a spot where the water is not too shallow. Often the deepest water is right at a dam, and at the opposite end of the lake, the water is terribly shallow, only a foot or two deep even far from shore. Fishing in this shallow section might be very frustrating, with your line constantly caught on submerged rocks and sticks.
Most areas have those little-known places on rivers and streams that are not really parks, they don’t have signs to find them, but they just happen to be scenic places where there is good fishing. A ride in the countryside might unveil one unexpectedly around a corner. (Just be sure there are no signs that say “Keep Out.”)
If you’re fishing in salt water, look for a place that offers a chance to drop your line on the fish, a pier, a bridge (where it’s legal to fish) or a jetty. (Again, in salt water you want the heavier line, at least 8 pound. And always wash the salt off your equipment when you’re done or it’ll rust.)
And the obvious final advice on where to go: ask somebody who knows!

When to Go Fishing

Some times ARE better than other times for fishing. Yes, there is a reason why people get up before the sun to go fishing. When the sun’s first rays start to illuminate the water, many fish start to look for food. Particularly in lakes, many large fish have entered shallower water, and are just moments away from returning to their daytime hiding places.
One of the best reasons for fishing at the crack of dawn is simply that it’s a nice time to be on the water. It may be the only time of the day that everything is calm and the scenery is most attractive with the rising sun.
But if you really don’t want to get up early to fish, relax. You can catch fish at any time of the day. Smaller fish particularly will go for a baited hook whenever and wherever it’s presented.
The one off-switch to catching fish is cold weather. Freshwater fish will slow down in the cold of winter. There are notable exceptions: ice fishing is very productive for certain species. Also in many areas where it’s chilly in winter, trout are stocked for wintertime fishing in lakes and streams. Although it’s unlikely they will survive when summer returns, they provide fun in the winter.
If you live in warm areas such as Florida, any time of the year will work. For those who live in more temperate climates, for your first fishing trip, your ideal time would be a month after warm weather arrives, that is, in North Carolina, for example, the spring peak could be around the middle of May, while in Michigan, perhaps late June.

"Winter Only" Trout Near You

One relatively new idea that continues to expand is the “winter” trout, also sometimes called the (seemingly contradictory) “Urban Trout” program. In many areas where waters are too warm in summer for trout, state agencies or sportsmen’s groups stock trout in the winter.
(Photo) This was taken inside the beltway of Washington, DC in November, 2007. A tiny lake in Alexandria, Virginia called Cook Lake along Eisenhower Avenue is stocked with trout each month in winter, starting November 1. The limit is four trout per day. This gentleman had no problem catching his limit of rainbow trout using lures for two and Power Bait, sold in jars, for the others. What may be most interesting is, in this metropolitan area of five million, he was the only person fishing at the lake that weekday afternoon. A trout fishing license is required.
These are fun to catch, and in certain cities, the trout normally associated with a day-long drive to the mountains to streams and lakes are instead right around the corner.
Hatchery trout are a little less exotic than the wily natural trout of the great crystal mountain streams, but they will bite on those carefully hand-tied trout flies and other fabled lures at the tip of a fly rod handed down from generation to generation.
However, the hatchery trout have had it a little easier growing up. They’ll also bite very quickly on a kernel of corn on a size six or eight hook (use a larger hook if you don’t want to keep the fish. They’ll be less likely to swallow it). Another popular bait is called Power Bait, a dough sold in a jar. The most effective way of fishing is to put the bait on the hook and add a split-shot sinker (these are very small sinkers that you pinch onto the line with your fingers) for weight. Cast the line to one of the deeper areas and let it sit right on the bottom. Wait until you see your line moving, then reel in the trout.
If you choose to eat them, these fish are very tasty.
In many areas you do need to purchase a special trout fishing license to fish these winter trout waters, so check the laws. Enter your state and the words fishing license in a search and the link to your regulations will pop up.

Handling Fish

It can be a humbling experience to watch seven-year old kids grabbing those squirming fish like it’s nothing, while you’re completely helpless on how to proceed.
Let’s back up. Before you leave you need to have gloves. Never mind that no one else has a glove. They have practice, you don’t. (And don’t be surprised if they ask to borrow YOUR glove. They’re always good to have on when fishing.)
Fortunately the best gloves are the cheap gloves. Simple cotton gloves you can get for around a dollar a pair at the hardware counter will work fine, protecting your hands and giving you a good grip on the fish. (Those pesky sharp fin tips can sometimes go through cloth and stick you slightly, but with most fish this is not a big problem – watch out for catfish, though.)
There are expensive fish handling gloves. Not necessary, but if you have extra cash, go ahead and get those. Whatever you use, be sure to wash them after the trip!
Now, you just pulled a wiggling fish out of the water. We’ll assume it’s not a big fish, maybe 6 inches long? Leave it hanging in the air but grab it as soon as possible, putting the rod and reel down to your side or on the ground.
Reach around the fish’s mouth and grab the head. It will probably wiggle when it’s touched, so be ready. You’ll probably pull your hands away in a reflex action. If so, then just grab it again and hold it tight, but not enough to hurt it.
You’d like to get the hook out easily. The way to do this is to push it further into the fish’s mouth about a quarter inch. The reason is to get the barb of the hook out of the fish’s tissue. This would be much easier if the fish would hold still, but it probably won’t.
You should have long-nose pliers for this – much better than using your fingers.
Once the barb is clear, pull it out.
Fish to be extra careful with:
Catfish have fins that can stick you much more than most other fish can. Be very careful with them.
Fish in the pike family have sharp teeth. Use pliers only. Some fish, like bass, are routinely handled with a thumb or finger right in the mouth. But if you don’t know the fish you’re handling, keep fingers clear.
In saltwater there are many fish to watch out for. Bluefish can slice fingers and saltwater trout have jagged teeth that will scratch you. Of course many of the large fish such as barracuda and sharks are dangerous, as are stingrays.
Summarizing, for your first trip, handle all fish with gloves and pliers!

The Fishing License — A Necessary "Evil"

This entry comes with added opinions.
If the license laws make you groan, you have my sympathy.
I don’t like the concept of a license to fish on public waters. A nation’s residents should be free to drop a fishing line into the nation’s public waters, as long as they follow the fishing regulations, including methods allowed and size limits. License laws are too complex and the prices are far too high. The license fees do provide many millions of dollars to fund the stocking and management programs, including those at my favorite fishing places. But personally, as a big fan of fishing, I’d like to see most of those funds come from general fund tax dollars. Today’s license procedures simply prevent millions of people from ever enjoying a day of fishing on their own public lands because they haven’t obtained the expensive and troublesome licenses. All right, enough venting.
The fact is you gotta have ‘em. The game wardens are out there looking at licenses all day every day. It is extremely tempting to avoid the cost because you simply have the feeling, “Who in the world is going to come up to me in the great outdoors and demand to see my license?”
Believe me, they do. I’ve had my licenses checked more times than I’ll ever remember, sometimes on crowded fishing piers, but also in the middle of lakes or on a lonely riverside with not another soul around for miles.
Here’s an example of the licensing situation in the state this where blog originates, Virginia, and this is typical:
A license for a resident to fish in freshwater is $18 for one year. But wait – to fish in TROUT fresh water, that’s another $18. To fish in SALT water it’s $12.50 more. Or if you buy the fresh and saltwater combined, you save 50 cents. I don’t have a Virginia salt water license. Since I’m doing my salt water fishing in the nearby MARYLAND Chesapeake Bay, I paid 15 dollars for a non-resident Bay Sport license. My contributions to Maryland continue with a non-resident freshwater license for $35, and a trout stamp to fish in mountain trout streams for $9.
That all totals $95.
There are temporary five-day licenses that cost less and you may want those if you’re still trying to decide if fishing is for you. They are good for about two percent as much time as annual licenses, but they cost a lot more than two percent of the price.
If you’re still following all of this, one more issue is the term of the license. In Virginia, your license is good for a year from the day you purchase it. In Maryland, not so. When you pay the fee to fish for one year, you get less for your money every day you wait after January first. You guessed it: all licenses expire December 31. So to go fishing, say, in November, you pay a full year’s fee for a license that’s only good for a few weeks. Again, a lot of people certainly end up choosing not to go at all. Oops, I said I was finished with venting.
At least it’s not as complicated as, say, Maine. This is one of the truly great areas for fishing. But entire huge areas of that state are reserved for people fishing with fly rods. No fly rod, no fishing. That’s a good part of the reason it’s so nice and unspoiled in Maine, because so many people don’t have the means to fish there at all. But for beginners – beware the laws!

One good recent development is internet sale of licenses. Put your state, followed the words fishing license in a search and you'll come up with the site for buying your license. If you have some expertise with computers, you can often download the PDF of your own license, and reprint it anytime you lose your old one. Remember, you have to sign it.

Safety for Beginning Fishermen

One of the worries I’ve had about fishing is that parents might be so afraid of the dangers posed by fish hooks and certain other hazards that they will prevent their kids from ever knowing the joys of the sport.
That said, the fact is, experienced anglers know instinctively that you have to be vigilant about the dangers of sharp hooks every single second you are fishing.
When beginner kids are fishing, keep them apart if they are casting their own lines. Before they fish give them one very strong rule: ALWAYS look behind before you cast. And every time you see them casting without looking back first, let them know in no uncertain terms they just made a mistake. (Certainly that’s true for any grownup, too.)
Do not leave hooks on when you’re done fishing. When the last cast is made, the first part of packing up to go is to remove the hook and place it in your tackle box.
The other danger is the fishing rod and eyes. Whenever you’re walking, always keep the tip down or up. The classic is when the person in front stops and turns, and the one behind with a rod keeps walking and it goes right into the face. It’s always a good idea to pull the rod apart when walking. Doing that also makes it easier to avoid bumping tree branches.
I have purchased snake bite kits for some beginners who I know will be in areas where poisonous snakes could lurk, and I have one for myself. Poisonous snakes really aren’t common in most areas (although water moccasins are practically part of the scenery in southern swamps) but it’s good to be safe. Those kits also serve as a backup first aid kit for ordinary injuries.
One other mention for beginners: slippery rocks. If you’re on rocks near water, remember that one rock can give you firm footing while the one right next to it can be as slippery as soap. Also, rocks can appear firm but shift when you step on them, causing you to slip. Always move slowly on rocks.
Don’t let fear keep you from the great experience of being in the outdoors, but keep these safety rules in mind.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Drag

Something that's a little hard to grasp for beginners is the concept of turning the reel handle, and no line being reeled in. That is, "I'm reeling and nothing's happening!"
This is "drag." You'll usually see a plus and minus marker on the drag control. You won't understand this until you've hooked a big fish: you have to be able to let line back out of the reel when you have a big fish, or the line will break, or else the hook will come out of the fish's mouth.
If the drag is "tight," then the line will be tested at its limits. If the drag is "loose," you may not even be able to reel your line in.
Find a spot somewhere in between until you get a feel for drag.

The Typical (useless!) Fishing Lesson

The typical fishing expert will offer beginners advice like, "Get a good spinning reel with eight-pound line and a light action rod, and cast a spinner to the edge of the weeds."
These people have no idea that, to beginners, this is gibberish. Eight pound line? This is line that weighs eight pounds? A spinning reel — don't they all spin around?

Fishing is fun, but it can have such a long learning curve that many people miss out. I've had many opportunities to take people of all ages on their first fishing trips — and soon after, their second and third trips.
Here is what I have learned: a trip to a pretty spot on the water and very simple fishing methods combine for one of life's greatest pleasures.
Don't spend a lot of time or money on your first trip. Seriously — inexpensive equipment, and an hour or less on the road are all you need, especially if you're taking youngsters for their first fish.