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  • Writer's pictureDustin

How to Start Fishing: Beginner Guide and Starter Gear Kit

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

woman catching smallmouth bass
Learning How to Fish

Fishing in freshwater can range from the shoreline, wading in the water, or fishing from a boat and it can be done all year round, but without any previous experience, I wanted to find out how to start fishing.

To learn how to fish in freshwater you will start dropping or casting either spinning gear (a spinning rod, a spinning reel, sinker, hook, a bobber and live bait) or fly fishing gear (fly rod, fly reel, fly line, leader, fly). You will learn basic techniques, then find a stream, river, pond, or lake to start fishing. 

The combinations of the rod, reel, and tackle are endless and so is the list of places you can find fish. Getting into fishing can be intimidating without a mentor but learning a few basic skills will get you well on your way to being self-sufficient with a rod and reel. Whether you fish from shore, wade, or from a boat you will need to learn where to locate possible fishing spots and what species will most likely be found in that spot. Learning to fish can be done at any age, and it is a vital tradition that can provide a lifetime of food and memories.

What Do I Need to Know to Start Fishing?

Fishing refers to the process of trying to catch something, usually a species of fish. Fishing can be done with the goal of catching and releasing the fish back into the water or with the goal of harvesting and eating your catch. Traditionally fishing was a method of food harvest and it dates back thousands of years. Today many people still enjoy eating fish caught all over the world. Catch and release fishing became popular as a method for conservation in the 20th century, but some species and bodies of water are still overfished (overfishing when the removal of fish exceeds the reproductive ability of the remaining population of fish in that body of water). Whichever fishing practice you decide to choose, if you know the regulations for the body of water you are fishing, then you will be able to legally harvest or release your catch.

Fishing regulations are the law(s) established by governing bodies such as the DNR (Department of Natural Resources). They can be federal or state laws and vary by region and type of resource. Some rivers even have different regulations for different sections of the same river. It is important to check the regulations as part of your planning process and you can find up to date information when you purchase your license(s) or you can check out many state and federal online resources.

Common Freshwater Fishing Terminology and Definitions When Learning How to Fish

Current Seam refers to the edge of fast-moving water as it runs next to slower moving water.

Eddy refers to a slower moving section of water adjacent to a fast-moving segment (current) and an obstacle restricting or redirecting the flow. Typically eddies may appear circular with circular current patterns and may be referred to as “pockets” in a river or stream.

Hole refers to a deeper portion of the bottom of a body of water that will create deeper water than the surrounding water depth. Structure is a term used in fishing to describe inanimate objects in the water that may provide an attractive element to one or more fish species. Water Temperature – anglers typically use water temperature to communicate the surface water temperature of a body of water. Temperatures will be different at different depths and times of year of a given body of water. Panfish/Bream/Brim are all terms or regional slang for species of small sunfish typically harvested for eating such as bluegill and various sunfish species. Crappies and perch can be sometimes be referred to as panfish by some anglers due to their popularity as table fare. Sinker/Weight is usually a piece of metal formed to attach to fishing line with the purpose of lowering your bait or lure into the water column. Rod is the stick-like object used to place leverage on a fish while fighting it, and also ease the catching and casting process. Rod Tip -the section of the rod with the smallest diameter and the most flex and the furthest away from the reel or reel seat.

Reel Seat – the place of reel attachment on a fishing rod.

Rod Butt – the section of the rod closest to the reel or reel seat.

Rod Weight - in fly fishing rod weight refers to the size fly fishing line the rod can handle.

Rod Power - refers to the stiffness of the lower section of the rod and amount of energy it can apply back to the force pulling on it (powers include Ultra Light, Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium-Heavy, Heavy Extra Heavy, Ultra Heavy.

Rod Action- refers to the amount of flex or ability to return to natural shape (actions include slow, moderate, fast, extra fast).

Eye/eyelet-eyes or eyelets are the ring-type prongs attached at interval spacing all the way up the shaft of the rod. The eyelets are sometimes called guides, and provide smooth passage of fishing line in and out of the combo to reduce the chances of abrasion and damage to the fishing line.

Reel-the device that manages the fishing line.

Spinning reel-spinning reels feature an open spool and an arm or bale that opens or closes the spool. The line is run through the eyelets below the rod itself and the reel hangs below the rod as you hold it in your hand.

Baitcaster reel- type of conventional reel that is open face and used on top of a rod while in your hand with the eyelets oriented in the upward direction so that the line exits the rod above the tip through the last eyelet.

Fly reel – the line storage and retrieval device, specific to fly fishing, is typically in-line and ambidextrous in function.

Drag – the system by which a reel applies pressure to the fishing line in response to fish pulling line out of a reel.

Spool – a spool is the part of a fishing reel where the fishing line is stored.

Line - fishing line refers to the string-like material that is used to dispense and retrieve fishing lures or bait.

Hook - conventionally the hook is a piece of metal (can be made of other material) that has a shank and a curved tip and it is used for penetrating and keeping the fish attached to your fishing line.

Jig- a jig is a type of hook with a built-in weighted head that is attached to a hook. It may be painted or have other materials attached to it such as spinners, skirts, etc.

Bobber/Float -bobbers and floats are the circle or pencil shape objects that attach to your fishing line that float on the water’s surface. They come in different sizes and weights and can be adjusted to allow different amounts of the line to extend below the float.

Lure- refers to artificial fishing bait.

Fly-refers to an artificial fishing bait composed of feathers or fur.

Backing -a term used in fly fishing to describe the braid like line that attaches your fly line to the spool of the fly fishing reel.

Leader-the section of fishing line or other material directly attached to your bait hook or lure. It may be the same as your main line if the line on your spool is connected directly to your bait hook or lure.

Waders-type of overall suspender style outerwear designed to be waterproof and worn while wading in the water. Can be insulated and may feature built-in boots.

Wading boots-special boots designed to be worn while wading, typically paired with waders, featuring material designed to be submerged in water and has either felt or grip type soles.

Hemostats-alternative hook removal tool to pliers, typically lighter in weight and easier to carry.

Pliers-tool used for hook removal from the fish’s mouth or throat and also can be used to close sinkers or adjust lures.

Nippers/scissors -tool(s) used for cutting fishing line.

Net-an aid for securing fish after fighting them to your feet, also a method of catching fish or bait by trapping them in webbed material that is either fixed or tossed by hand.

Limit- the term for the amount of fish you are legally allowed to harvest and or possess in a given period of time.

Swivel – a metal part used for joining two segments of the line while allowing independent rotation of each individual segment.

Knots – the joining point of two sections of tied material.

DNR -department of natural resources, the governing body for rules and regulations regarding fishing and water management.

catching smallmouth bass
Smallmouth Bass

What are Types of Freshwater Fish Caught While Fishing?

  • Salmon

  • Trout

  • Largemouth Bass

  • Smallmouth Bass

  • Striped Bass

  • Bluegill

  • Crappie

  • Perch

  • Walleye

  • Catfish

  • Northern Pike

  • Muskie

  • Rough Fish

Each species listed above have tactics and techniques that are different from each other, but there are also several techniques that will catch multiple species. Similarly, there are bodies of water where you can find each of these species and some areas will hold multiple species of fish at the same time. Generally, there are three main categories of freshwater bodies of water that anglers chose to target fish that can be broken down into sub-categories.

Driftless Area Wisconsin Trout Stream
Driftless Area Wisconsin Trout Stream

Main types of Freshwater Fishing Bodies of Water When Starting to Fish

  • Rivers (and streams)

  • Inland Lakes (and ponds)

  • The Great Lakes (There are 5 Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, Ontario)

There are also four main ways to fish these bodies of water and each body of water has special versions of these methods that are suited for the circumstances found in each environment. Most people when they first start out fishing on their own will learn from shore or by wading because these methods do not require extra equipment like boats, trailers, or vehicles to access the water. The cost is usually less with shore fishing which is often a barrier to entry with the boating or fishing platform methods. Wading can be a budget-friendly option if the temperature of the water or air is conducive to standard clothing and footwear (bathing suit, sandals, etc.) For colder water or temperatures, it may be necessary to purchase waders, boots, or other equipment that will raise the cost of accessing the water you want to fish.

Trout stream wading
Wading in a Stream

4 Main Types of Freshwater Fishing Methods to Start Fishing:

  • From shore (standing on land)

  • Wading (standing in the water)

  • From a vessel (boat, kayak, canoe, or other floating platforms)

  • Ice fishing (fishing on top of a frozen body of water)

Depending on the body of water you chose to fish, there will be different techniques that are effective and specific to that fishing environment. Depending on the size of the body of water, you may be able to choose between multiple techniques that will work on a species of fish in the same body of water. Techniques may also differ based on seasonal changes and being prepared with the knowledge and gear for a couple of options will provide you with a greater opportunity to capitalize on the body of water you are fishing. Techniques for catching fish are also typically broken down into segments among anglers and tackle companies that more accurately describe methods of catching specific species of fish. These segments generally refer to the depth in the water column that you intend to catch a fish (topwater vs deep water), and the type of bait or lure you are fishing.

Types of Freshwater Fishing Water Column Depths When Fishing:

  • Topwater

  • Sub-surface

  • Shallow water

  • Mid-depth

  • Deepwater

  • Bottom

Types of Freshwater Fishing Techniques to Get Started Fishing

Casting is the act of moving the rod in a direction with the fishing line free to spool off and in the direction of your motion.

Jigging typically refers to the repeated raising and lowering of your rod so that your bait goes up and down in the water column. Also, other qualifiers can be used such as “vertical jigging” referring to jigging directly underneath you in a vertical plane of movement.

Trolling is a fishing technique typically used by boats whereby fishing poles are placed in rod holders and the line is let out behind the boat while it is in motion. The boat continues driving while pulling one or more baits through the water. Depths and speeds may be varied depending on several factors such as species targeted and time of year.

Straight Retrieve is usually how anglers describe a lure or bait that is worked by simply turning the reel after a cast until it has come back to you. It also implies no other action is imparted on the lure or bait unless you add a qualifier or additional instruction (example: popped a few times during a straight retrieve).

Twitching is an action that can be imparted on a lure or bait while you are trolling or casting and it results in a short aggressive burst of movement in the bait. This is usually performed by popping or snapping your wrist that is holding the rod in a constant direction (side, up, or down).

Still Fishing refers to leaving a bait or lure completely still in the water. The only action you impart on the bait is casting or dropping the bait into the water. This is typically the technique used with “bobber and worm” fishing and it requires the least amount of work from the angler.

Drifting refers to the process of allowing your bait or lure to move at the same speed as the current or it refers to fishing in a boat while under only the influence of the wind or water current thus imparting an action and movement on the bait consistent with the input of only those external forces.

Hand Lining refers to the fishing method of using only the fishing line and your hands to both dispense the bait or lure and retrieve line when catching the fish. Basically, it is fishing without a rod and reel.

Bow Fishing is a method of fishing using a bow and arrow that has a reel and rope attached to the arrow. The bow is then shot into the water at a fish and the arrow tip locks after it passes through the fish enabling you to retrieve the fish using the reel.

Noodling refers to the practice of catching fish using only your bare hands (or other body parts). This technique is not legal in all states and has unique risks that should be learned prior to participating.

Fishing for some species can be better at night versus the day time. Some of the more popular nighttime species are catfish and walleye. You can check out our article on how to fish for walleye at night from shore to learn more.

Each fish species also has a couple of techniques that are popular with a large group of anglers. For example, jigging for walleyes or casting for bass is quite common, effective, and widely known in the fishing community. Another common knowledge nugget is that fishing with worms is a great way to catch most fish species in a variety of bodies of water. Fishing with worms is a method called fishing with live bait or live bait fishing. This technique is one of the first methods most new anglers learn because it is so effective for just about anything that swims. Live bait sold in stores includes leeches, minnows, chubs, grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, suckers, spikes, and other types of worms (wax, red, nightcrawlers). However, in many places, it is also legal and effective to use live bait from the area you are fishing. For example, many pike, muskie, and catfish anglers will catch panfish (bluegill and sunfish) and then use those fish as bait by either cutting them up into chunks to put on a hook (mostly catfish) or by directly hooking the fish and casting it back out into the water so it can swim around.

Learning How to Fish Starter Kit spinning rod, spinning reel, fishing net, fishing bag, sinkers, bobbers, scissors, and fishing line
Learning How to Start Fishing with Spinning Gear Essentials: Links to Gear in Table

Learning How to Fish

The best combination for learning how to fish would be using spinning gear (rod and reel) and live bait, and you could focus on fishing for bluegills. You could use a fly rod but learning from scratch would be easier with a spinning rod and reel combo. The rod can be one or two pieces depending on your ability to transport your gear, and the reel does not have to be large or bulky. Generally, any rod in the four to seven-foot range in light to medium light action is going to be a great all-around rod for multispecies action. A spinning reel that has around six pounds of drag and one hundred yards of line capacity will work nicely. Ten-pound braid is a great backing fishing line for your reel spool, and you will only need a small piece of silk (athletic) tape to attach the braid onto the spool. Make sure you open the bail (arm of the spinning reel) before taping the braid to the spool. Close the bail with your hand and begin to reel the line onto the spool. Then you will want to tie a leader section of two to four feet of six- or eight-pound fluorocarbon fishing line. A number 6 or 8 (small) circle or standard bait hook paired with an eighth ounce (lighter or heavy depending on the current and depth you are fishing) sinker and a circle clip-on bobber will give you the effectiveness and diversity to catch just about any fish that swims. You can cast the bait or drop it straight down off a dock, boat, or ledge and catch fish and you can adjust the bobber to fish different depths in the water.

Orvis fly fishing sling bag, orvis fly reel, orvis fly rod, fishing hemostats, fishing nippers, fly fishing box, fly fishing flies
Learning How to Start Fly Fishing Essentials: Links to Gear in Table

Learning How to Fly Fish

Learning how to fly fish has a unique set of skills when casting and presenting a fly to a fish. If you are learning how to fly fish with no prior fishing experience then you will simultaneously learn the technique of fly fishing with the skills of angling such as reading water, fighting fish, setting a hook, fish habitat, and water access. If you are learning how to fly fish for trout or general freshwater fish, the recommended set up is a 5 weight fly rod and a fly reel rated for the matching size fly line (5 weight). You will then pair your rod and reel combo with the same size fly line (5 weight) and purchase the type of fly line most suited to your application which for general trout would be weight forward (WF) five weight fly fishing line. Most companies of fly fishing line also label their fishing line products with the fish species name you are targeting which makes it a little easier to shop if you do not know fly fishing line characteristics. Attached to your fly line will be a leader (usually fluorocarbon or monofilament) and may be tapered to aid in casting efficiency. However, you can save money by tying your own leaders using a spool of four- or six-pound fluorocarbon fishing line. The two line segments can be joined easily using a loop to loop connection whereby you create a loop on the end of your leader using a double surgeons (overhand knot) and then feeding the loop you created through the loop on your fly line. Then pass the tail end (non-loop) of your leader through the loop of your leader and pull the leader section through the loop. Once you have pulled it through, tie on a neutral color bead head wooly bugger. Usually black, white, green, and brown are great colors that work on just about any fish and anywhere all year round.

Strikemaster lithium ion ice auger, fly fishing reel, fly fishing pole, ice hole scooper
Learning How to Start Ice Fishing Essential Gear

Learning How to Ice Fish

Learning how to ice fish is another unique set of skills that has both similarities and differences to the other two popular methods of fishing (fly fishing and conventional gear fishing). Ice fishing is the process of fishing through a hole drilled into a frozen body of water. Many fish species can be targeted through the ice including perch, bluegill, crappie, walleye, northern pike, whitefish, trout, and catfish. Each species has certain rod, reel, and bait setups but the process of ice fishing is relatively the same. After selecting a target body of water, the ice needs to be deemed thick enough to travel or sit. This is done by using a spud bar to manually check the thickness of the ice with each step.

Never trust someone else to tell you the thickness of the ice, and always remember no ice is safe. After you find a suitable fishing spot with thick enough ice (greater than three inches), you will use an ice auger to drill a hole into the ice.

The size of the auger is usually related to the size of fish you are trying to pull through the hole with most smaller fish needing only a five or six-inch hole. Larger game fish such as walleye, pike, or trout may require an eight or ten-inch hole. Each auger model will have specifications with the size hole it will drill. Once you drill the hole, you will want to clear the chunks of ice out of the hole with a scoop to prevent them from getting in the way of your line and bait movement.

Ice Fishing Hole
Ice Fishing Hole

After you get the hole drilled and cleared, you will start fishing with your ice fishing rod and reel setup. For learning how to ice fish, the best starting setup will be a light action or ultra-light action ice fishing spinning rod in the twenty to thirty-inch range paired with a small spool ice fishing spinning reel or in-line ice fishing reel. Both reels will be spooled with 5lbs. ice fishing braid and attached using silk or athletic tape (small piece) to the spool. After spooling the line, you will need to tie a leader of a few feet of two to four-pound fluorocarbon fishing line. Tied to the fluoro leader you will use a small tungsten jig (3mm or 4mm)(1/64oz or 1/32oz). The tungsten jig can be threaded with either spikes or wax worms. You will find the bottom by letting out the line until your jig touches the bottom (you will know it's on the bottom when your line goes slack). Engage your reel and then reel up a few turns off the bottom (when tension returns to your line) and pause. Then cycle through small jigging motions followed by a pause. Repeat that sequence at different depths all while watching your rod tip closely. Ice fishing bites can be subtle, and you may need a spring bobber or very soft tip to detect bites.

Fishing is a vital outdoor tradition that has numerous options for species, methods, and techniques. Combining all three types of fishing will provide you the knowledge necessary to learn how to fish all year round. Whether you choose fly fishing gear, conventional fishing gear, or ice fishing gear it is important to respect nature and the resources along with other people enjoying the outdoors. Once you get comfortable with the basics, start learning some of the nuances of each fish species and techniques to help increase your angling ability. Fishing is a lifelong skill that will continue to put food on tables and memories in minds for current and future generations. Get out and try it!

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