Descent Into Madness: The Depths of the Tackle Box From Hell
Somewhere along the way, a tacklebox appeared which held a good amount of rubber lures, old hooks, a few strange looking plastic lures and some hopelessly tangled line. I found it upside down in my fathers shed and mistook it for the metric toolbox kept in there. It was green, with a transparent lid. It stunk. It stunk like something had died in it. I wondered for a minute if someone had caught something and left it in there. I briefly imagined my grandfather in overalls and flannel carrying the tackle-box home like some kind of fish-suitcase. He would splash up the stream, carrying a live fish, terrified and clinging to the bars of it's little fishy cell, to it's death sentence at the bottom of a waiting frying pan.
Actually it was nowhere near that interesting. There was a magazine from God-knows-when missing pages where someone had wrapped up the catch. The smell was the stringer, but they must have put the magazine away wet because it had fused into a giant stinking mass of unrecycled pulp. At some point it looked like someone had also used it to hold their fishhooks because cut bits of line were hanging out the side of my fish-brick, but I decided it was better to toss the entire thing out. The important part was that I had a tacklebox with transparent lid and a body large enough to toss a spare reel into. It's always good to have a spare reel. The lid was segmented into about eight little boxes, each large enough to hold a bit of lures and populated with various alien shapes and colors of plastic normally reserved for less pedestrian purposes. It's perhaps too deep, but the depth means it takes larger lures. Perhaps the most important part that I would later come to appreciate is that it floated upright no matter how you dropped it into the water. I tested this many times. Some people put styrofoam blocks in their boxes, but I was content with what I had.
The Rod and Reel
If the tackle box was nostalgic, the rod was anything but. Like old guns, a tool isn't happy unless its being used. I prefer to think of my tools as wasted if they merely hang on the walls, they want to be out and about and doing something worth telling people about. The first thing I did was polish up the guides on my rod. They went from coarse and rusted to a smooth but dull green; evidence that they once were brass and shone like the day. The reel was in better condition. It had a chrome bail which caught the line, but it wouldn't close automatically and would bind up if reeled in without manually folding the bail shut. I suppose I could have thrown in the towel and gone for the $10 walmart special, it worked well enough for my buddy, but I wanted to clean up what I had at hand without going so far as to roll my own. The guides, the part the line goes through, could probably be better but they cleaned up well enough. And the reel, that wasn't impossible to fix. What I did run across was that I had a spinning reel made for boating. The line would wrap around the center spindle but the bobbing action lowered the line into a guard. For freshwater fishing from shore, this would limit the cast distance but would have been ideal for a boat where getting the line caught on an open reel would be a problem. I replaced it with a Walmart special. While the off-brand one was heavy and would continue to reel if you took your hand off it, the center spindle wasn't covered and the stop on top of the spindle was half the size. This let the line have much more space to unwind, and cast much further. Feeling confident in my new kit, I went fishing.
Fishing it Quite Badly
Figuring that I had a fishing platform up the road, I stole my wife's jeep and made towards it. I probably could have foregone the jeep, the fishing platform was literally built out of cement and had a nice walkway from the parking lot directly to the water. I chose the smallest hook in my set, a number 12, and picked a rubber worm. I figured yellow was probably a good choice as I could see where it was under the water. I tied the whole thing onto the line with a double knot and cast it out. I waited, and waited, and waited... 10 minutes passed. "Were the goddamn fish on vacation?" I thought. I decided to pull the line in and cast somewhere else. Oh hell, it's stuck on some lillypads. The first one uprooted with a wet ripping noise, the second one stood firm. My yellow worm went under it never to be seen again. Lesson learned...
Tying a Decent Knot
There's only one knot anyone needs for fishing and thats a
Saddam Hussein hangman's knot. But, fishhooks have extremely small eyes, and the line is hard to see. Or, some lines are very thick and make threading them hard and tying them harder. The best way to learn to tie a knot is to find a box wrench with a loop on one side. It doesn't matter what kind of loop it is, we're much more interested in having a big eye to work with and having something weighty enough that a bad knot will quickly reveal itself. The hangman's knot is a decent knot because it's simple, it only requires one pass through the eye, and it is extensible. If the line seems to be pulling out, simply loop the line a few more times around itself. If the knot is too big, loop the line less. I have found that with monofilament (traditional "plastic") line, six or so wraps does the trick. With braided line, like spider wire, it grabs onto itself a bit and will keep with as little as two or three wraps.
Practice with your wrench. Google will reveal plenty of good knots, but pick one you can tie on your wrench with your eyes closed. You need to memorize it and it's really hard to flip through a manual while in the middle of a stream and both hands covered in string. Once you have found one you like and will hold your wrench - don't be afraid to test that knot until the line breaks - learn to tie it on a hook. Keep a good knife and pair of needle nose pliers around, you will need to get that hook out of your fingers a few times during the learning process. The knife is for cutting the knot out as a good knot is almost impossible to untie on the scale fishing line works on. You also want to trim off the excess line, but give yourself enough excess so that the knot won't slip out as the slack is pulled out of it.
Seeing Things Clearly: Sun and Location
Equipped with one more fact completely unrelated to actually getting fish on the hook, I went back out into the wild. And by wild, I mean, "park next to where I live". I learned two things on this foray: Sunglasses are great, and fishing parks is a bad idea. The day was the first day of trout season, and the park was packed. Easy access means that everyone was out with a rod. My father used to tell stories about hunting on public land before it was developed with housing and he said that the year before the land goes to homes, the woods are armpit to elbow and the game is nowhere to be found. Opening day for trout is roughly the same. Since the trout are stocked in Pennsylvania (we're a bass state), everyone knows where the trout are being dumped, when they are being dumped, and that they're too stupid from being raised on a farm to eat real bugs. Wild trout are afraid of people and extremely cautious fish. Stocked trout think people mean food and will bite anything fed to them.
I realized my sunglasses were letting me see through the water to some extent as I watched literally a pile of trout fight over a hotdog some kid had lowered into the water. This is something worth spending money on for the novice: Polarized fishing sunglasses let you see through the water. My cheap sunglasses protected my disgusting, cavefish-like geek eyes from 100% of UV rays, but they were also polarized and took some of the reflection off the top of the water. I have since purchased some honest fishing glasses and the difference is incredible. They don't look stylish since I only wanted to spend $20, but they are purpose-built to block reflections specifically from the surface of water. Finding a good place to fish now is a two part process. Does it look good? Are there fish there? I wondered idly if the trout gummed each other to death in hotdog related accidents.
Finding a Better Spot
"Hm, lets relate this to hunting. Fish need cover, food and water". Of course, being a geek, this means using computers to do my legwork. For Pennsylvania, Ask.com seems to have better aerial maps than Google Maps. Ask also offers extremely low resolution topographical maps. Low resolution is better than no resolution, so I prefer Ask to Google. But, Google lets its users annotate their maps and send them to friends. When I plan a fishing trip now, I use Google, but when I am scouting, I use Ask. Unlike hunting areas which require co-operating parks or wildlife management units, fishing can be done anywhere there is water and public land. Most of the water in Pennsylvania remains public with few restrictions, so I generally look for roads near larger bodies of water. Once I find a likely looking spot, I flip to the aerial photograph to see if it's accessible or if there are houses or other obstructions.
Good fishing spots include: artificial lakes (notice the flood control building), natural lakes and rivers but make sure the water isn't fouled from industry. Fishing the Schuylkill River as it runs through Philadelphia wouldn't result in catching anything edible, if anything actually lived in the water at all. Fishing it as it runs through Valley Forge Park, however, would give excellent results and probably some healthy fish. Valley Forge is particularly interesting in just this case as the river is loaded with smallmouth bass. During the Civil War, bass were transported by rail and placed in rivers to spawn. Bass, being easier to catch than trout and also much larger, provided food for local soldiers and fishermen in addition to replenishing themselves quickly. The transplanted bass quickly pushed the trout population out, and Pennsylvania's rivers went from harboring fantastic numbers of small and hard to catch trout to many large and easy to catch bass. The story is recreated in Will Ryan's book. Will makes the observation that trout should be returned once caught to help re-establish them, but bass are good eating! So where to catch bass? Back to the map!
Bass are big fish. Big fish need deep pools. The obvious place to catch big fish is in lakes and big rivers, but most novice fisherman will not own a boat. We need to look elsewhere. Deep pools formed around islands in the river. Most river islands have deep pools following the island from the swift moving water. Sgt York suggested looking for still surface water surrounded by an eddy. The current is deep there, but the top is undisturbed. If Ask.com provided a topographical map with depth chart, it would be very likely that the lee side (downstream side) of the island would have a deep pool formed from the turbulent fast moving water picking up the bottom. Another good place to look are bridges. Pylons which support a bridge in the water have the same effect of creating turbulence, and the shade that the bridge brings makes fish feel more secure from birds. Unlike trees, bridges do not drop bugs or berries into the water for fish to eat, so spawning fish can be found near bridges but they don't always provide the best environment to find fish in. Fishing under overhanging trees on an island is usually better. Bridges also support roads and rail, and roads means easy access for lazy fishermen. The fish may be scared easily by the fishing pressure if there are any fish left at all. Sgt York also suggested weedbeds, which likely are not visible from the map sites but provide an important resource for fish. Try fishing between cover (the bridge) and the weed bed (the food). Cast your line between these two or along the weed bed and draw it up and across the weed bed. This catches fish when they are looking for food and away from their bed.
All of this technology is great, but nothing is better than walking a body of water. I generally walk a promising bit of water to see what else is there. Fallen trees are the most common kind of cover which fish love and these trees usually don't show up on aerial photos. To really find the good spots, we've got to hike. I found that hiking upstream (against the current) prevents mud from being kicked up and concealing fish, and lets me approach fish from the rear. If I want to walk downstream with the current, I usually walk on the banks. Once I see a fish, it's time to pick a bait and see what works.
I found fish eat two things: Bugs, and other fish. Hotdogs do not occur naturally ever since George Washington cut down the last hotdog tree in Pennsylvania in his famous "No Mom I'm not a virgin" speech. The cherry tree story is much more popular from a much younger Washington. I very quickly learned that my bright yellow lure wasn't a good idea. There are no freshwater fish which are yellow, and the only yellow bugs are bees. Our favorite little guy only has one nerve running along his lateral line, so beestings are not high on a fish's problem list. But how many bees hover over water? The bait has to look and act like something a fish wants to eat. Live baits are an option. Crickets work well, mealworms work well, and so do nightcrawlers. The problem with live baits are that live baits stop being alive after while submerged in water and pierced with a hook, so you go through a lot of bait. Live baits also get torn to pieces the first time a fish bites them, hookset or not. My tackle box was thankfully outfitted with plastic lures galore.
Looking at any well-stocked fishing store, there's tons upon tons of lures to choose from in more colors then most men know names for. There's really only two main lures which will catch most fish in the soft-bait (plastic) category and they are grubs, and tubes. Grubs look like bugs, or small swimming fish, and tubes look like crawfish or bigger swimming fish. Fish have very small brains, so the lure doesn't have to be perfect but it needs to be the right color, and the right movement. You could spend a ton of money (the last owner of this box did) and buy all sorts of rubber fish-toys so you absolutely have a realistic frog to dump off the lillypad, but a tube will work just as well if you cut halfway down the middle to give it "legs". Grubs also work well when swam like small baitfish, or just lazily pulled along the surface to have their slim tail slap the water and move subtly, just like a real grub. The point of the lure is to have movement to attract fish, but it doesn't need to be perfect. Movement generally means having a good tail to wiggle with, and discarding the rubber lure when the tail eventually gets pulled off. Berkley Gulp grubs have the best tail hands down. The corkscrew spirals through the water and flicks violently. In fact, it's hard to go wrong with Berkley anything, so for a novice, they are the brand to go with. Also notice that there's a few colors to pick. Remember our underwater bee? That's represented here, but a quick check of the water I was fishing showed that white caterpillars were drifting down stream. Sure enough, using a white grub started to get bites. The three "can't do wrong colors" are black, which looks like the silhouette of something to a fish, white, which looks like a worm or small baby fish, and "pumpkinseed" (green) which actually looks like a crawfish. Sparkles are a bonus but glitter is only extra credit to fish. Besides, how many bugs glitter? If the fish don't bite on one color, change the color. Getting the hook into a grub is also pretty straightforward: Push the grub "head first" down the hook to cover the shank and leave the tip exposed. This is the simplest of hook rigs, but there are plenty others.
Small baits catch large and small fish, but larger baits only attract bigger fish. Eventually I got tired of catching panfish ("sunnies", which are distantly related to bass, are the squirrels of fishing). Bigger lures and bigger hooks mean smaller fish can't get the bait in their mouth and won't get hooked. Again, using worms, which are actually just really big grubs, Berkley is tough to go wrong with in our best three colors. One advantage worms have over grubs is that you can always cut the worm down. I found quickly that bass which hit a worm will usually bite the head or tail. Heads are OK, that's where the hook is, but the tail is just there to attract a bigger fish. Try clipping off the head (leave the tail where the motion is) and re-setting the hook lower to make a smaller worm. Or, try setting two hooks. Tie a hook on the line about six inches from the bottom and rig the worm or grub as normal, and then using the extra line, rig a second smaller hook for the tail giving the line some slack. There needs to be enough to let the worm stretch and wiggle freely, but not so much it gets snagged or appears unnatural. Done correctly, the worm can stretch almost to the point of breaking when the line runs out of slack.
Tubes take the cake for the hardest to use lure, but they also give the most natural appearance to a rig. All the other lures so far have had weights hanging off the front of them if they're supposed to dive and hooks hanging out of their bodies. Tubes are good for those great big fish who only eat the choicest of foods. They also work well when the fishing pressure in an area requires that hooks and weights stay hidden. A bit of glitter off a hook or weight (usually the weight) will quickly tip fish off that this isn't good to eat, and the tip for the fisherman is that the fish will examine the lure but refuse to bite. The tube looks like our two previous lures. Small tubes are grubs, big tubes are worms. The difference is that tubes come with a skirt rather than a tail, so they usually look more like crawfish and should be moved as such. Again, the colors stay the same, but this time pumpkinseed (green) is the breadwinner followed by black. Both of these will work for a tube bumped along the bottom, but other colors which look like fish will work if the tube is swam through the water. Instead of trying to hide the sinker, a tube is hollow. Actually rigging the tube is tricky. I have found the way that works for me is to string a hook, thread the hook treating the tube like a grub, and then using a pair of pliers, pull the hook out the back of the tube. Done correctly, the tube will slide up the line freely. I can then attach a weight to the line above the hook. Turning the tube back inside out and being careful not to split the tube, I can pick the spot exactly to set the hook and then pull the tube over the line to flatten it out. It's entirely possible to make a snagless tube by very gently pulling it over the hook so the hook is barely covered by the body also, but I have found hooksets challenging with snagless rigs. If it doesn't get caught on the weeds, it won't get caught on the fish.
Learning to Wiggle the Worm
Whatever bait you've chosen to fish with, take it to a clear shallow part of the stream and drop it in. See what it does, how long it takes to sink and how it looks idle. Practice moving the bait while retrieving and while just letting the bait sit. A good rig is heavy enough to fall at a rate which will move its dangly bits but not so heavy it won't dance on the bottom as you play the rod. You need the bait to look natural, which means that the tubes need to swim like small fish or bump into rocks like crawfish, grubs need to swim slowly, and worms need to either sit on the bottom and bob around or dart through the water like snakes. Make it a habit to practice your casting with your lure (sans hook). Take the wrench off if you haven't already done so and throw the lure around. Try to drop it in holes and targets. Expect to lose a few in trees. Tie a peanut on and go squirrel fishing. Each one flies differently. Lighter lures need much slicker line than heavier ones to cast as far, and a bit more technique to get them out there. Practice practice practice.
I Caught a Fish, What Now?
Congrats! Do you have a stringer? A stringer is a fish on a leash. Either cut off the line and give yourself enough line to tie it to something on the bank or buy an honest fishing stringer. A good stringer is a thick bright nylon line, clearly visible, with a needle on one end and a ring on the other. The needle goes in the fish's mouth and out the gill plate (not stabbing the fish) and through the eye. Or you could just let the fish go, but if it is a delicious bass or trout, it might be worth it to keep the fish for dinner. Consult your game guide (you get one when you get your fishing license) as to which waters have edible fish. Bass and trout are prized fish for their flavor. Carp and shad are strong tasting, but can be good grilled. Sunnies (panfish) can just be let go. Once the fish is on the stringer or you decide to let the fish go, grasp the fish firmly and remove the hook with needle nose pliers as gently as possible. If the fish starts to bleed, keep the fish. Most fish have no clotting agents, so a bleeding fish is a dead fish and might as well be eaten or buried.
If you do string up the fish, drive the needle of your fish-leash into the soil of the bank and place a heavy rock over it. The fish can and will pull out the stringer. Last week, fishing with my brother and a friend, we caught quite a nice bass. It was going to be a griller. We elected to keep it and strung it up using a stump as an anchor. Fishing the rest of the day was fairly uneventful. The spot we fished had significant fishing pressure because it was a stocked trout stream. What we didn't know was that the spot also enjoyed significant amounts of really stupid fish who wouldn't run from predators. Trav started to pull up the stringer and commented it was extremely heavy. He got the fish up, well, he got half a fish up. The other half of the fish was firmly swallowed by one of Pennsylvania's hideous red bellied snapping turtles. Lesson learned: Do not string up fish where things that eat fish live.
Some other people (Sgt York) bring along coolers. Coolers have two advantages: You stay mobile (the cooler will float) and the catch stays protected. Sgt York had similar experiences to myself and has lost plenty of bass to the ever present lurking turtle. No cooler? Use a bucket. No bucket? Sushi time.
Secret Nazi Fishing Technology
You've got your rod. You've got a tacklebox with colors, lures, weights and hooks. You've got your fishing license. You found a likely spot on the maps and know where you're parking and hiking to. You printed out this guide on waterproof paper. You may have even bought one of those crazy wiggling bass lures that work so well and take all the finesse out of reeling in the lure. Now what? Get out there! Look for cover, look for small fish in the shallows, and look for big lunkers with your glasses. Trout like tubes, bass like big worms, carp usually go for grubs (if anything). But what if nothing works? Try the secret weapon of fishing: Salt. To prep the salt, take some bacon drippings and saturate them with even more salt. While the bacon fat is cooling, quickly dip your lure into it. It works best if the fat has cooled to forming a skin on top. Your lure will melt if left in too long on hot fat. You may want to tie the line on the tail and just dip the body in, a little melting won't hurt. While the fat is cooling, sprinkle glitter on top if the lure is going to be a pretty pretty grub princess and maybe a bit more salt! The salted bacon fat will work if kept in your tackle box but doesn't seem to stick nearly as well when it has cooled. Do not use WD-40 as a secret weapon. I have tried it and it works, but after reading the material safety data sheet, it became clear to me that this is a bad idea. WD-40 spills are reportable oil spills, and most places this means large fines. It works, but that doesn't make it a good idea.
Enjoy fishing, and realize that there's no right or wrong way to do it. The guide covers freshwater fishing with lures, but there is also fly fishing and tons of other hard baits. The only thing to be careful of with the hard baits and spinners is that a good amount of fishing gear is aimed at people fishing from boats. You can pick up a surprising amount of fishing gear at yard sales and second-hand stores. Thankfully, fishing is pretty cheap, and can be done almost anywhere. Fishing is generally discouraged at the mall and swimming pools, but anywhere there is fish, there will be fishing.