Panfish to pike: An every-person’s guide to fishing

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

It’s tough for lifelong anglers to imagine what it’s like to be a beginner. Those introduced to the sport through family traditions often had elder mentors who instilled not just the how-to, but also the why-to, and the ethics and ecology lessons that naturally follow. But for folks without that foundation, the barriers to entry can be high, even in a water-rich state like Minnesota. Fishing doesn’t need to be expensive or difficult, but starting from scratch can be daunting.

In the spirit of Minnesota summer, The Growler would like to empower even the most alien-to-angling readers to explore their local waterways confidently with rod in hand, and to inspire more accomplished anglers to take the next step in their fishing career.

Where to Start: Beginners

The first thing any aspiring angler should do is find a local bait shop. A small yet active independent shop is best, but a big-box retailer will work in a pinch. It should be a place that smells faintly of minnows, is a little cluttered but well-stocked, and has dusty fish mounts on the walls. Try to get to know the folks working there. They love to fish, probably love to talk about fishing, and should be happy to help new anglers—you’re a potential lifelong customer, after all. Repeated visits will establish you as a “regular” and you’ll find they’ll get more and more generous with help over time.

Your bait shop friends will help you select your first fishing rod and reel combo and a small selection of tackle. You want basic, inexpensive, and versatile: a six-foot medium-action rod with a spinning or spin-cast reel, six- to eight-pound test line, and a small tackle box containing hooks, a couple bobbers, and some (non-toxic) split-shot sinkers. Add a few basic tools, like a line cutter/nipper, forceps, sunglasses for improved visibility and eye safety (both from reflected UV light and from errant hooks/sinkers) and a stringer if you plan to keep fish to eat.

Don’t forget your license, which will come with the all-important regulations book. Note: Buy your live bait just before you go fishing. Worms (night crawlers) will last in your fridge for a few days, but when they go bad, they go really bad—so buy only what you need in the short-term.

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The shop folks will help you set up your new rig. Generally, it will look like this: a hook tied to the end of the line, a couple sinkers one to two feet above the hook, and a bobber clipped on one to two feet above that. When you get home, a little YouTube time will help cement your new skills (mainly knot-tying and casting) so that you’re not fumbling around your first time on the water.

Next: Where to go? Luckily, most lakes in the Twin Cities metro have a public park and a fishing pier, where small sunfish and perch are plentiful. Outside the metro, you’ll work a little harder—but, after all, this is Minnesota. There’s water everywhere. Drive around lakes and rivers near you and you’ll find people fishing from shore.

So now you’re standing on the fishing pier of your nearest lake. You’re itching to make that first cast, but first, take a short pause. Look around at other anglers, if there are any. Be sure to give them plenty of space. Note how they are fishing. Are they catching anything? Do you see any fish activity?

Put a small chunk of a worm on your hook. Move your bobber up or down on the line to adjust the depth of your bait. You want it at the depth of the fish, but not laying on the bottom or in the weeds. Double-check behind you before casting (hooking a passerby or their dog would ruin your day quick) and lob your rig out there. No need to cast as far as possible. There are fish right under the pier.

Watch the bobber. With a little luck, it’ll probably start to bounce and move around a bit as fish inspect your bait. The rule of thumb is to wait until the bobber goes completely underwater, when they’ve got the whole thing in their mouth. Then, set the hook with a firm, but not violent, lift of the rod tip. With a little luck, you’ll be tied to a fighting fish.

Reel the fish in, but leave about a rod-length of line between the tip and the fish so you can reach it with your free hand as you bring the rod tip up overhead. When grabbing sunfish, smooth their fins down backward from the front, or you’ll get poked by their spines. Same goes for bass and walleyes. Northern pike have no spines but their teeth are quite dangerous—use your pliers to extract hooks.

Every outing teaches you something, even—especially—if you don’t catch fish. Avoid getting discouraged by changing things up. Try different baits and lures, different lakes, different times of day, different weather conditions. Keep it up!

Catch and Release, or Keep and Eat?

So you’ve got this nice fish in your hand. Do you let it go, or take it home for dinner? Really, you should answer this question before you hit the water. Have a plan and know the local regulations—not all waters have the same rules.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping fish for food. It’s why fishing exists, and in Minnesota our waters are generally clean and healthy enough to support it. But keep in mind that the resource is not unlimited, and it often takes many years for a fish to grow to “keeper” size. As good stewards of the water, we should keep a modest number of smaller-to-medium-sized fish, and release the biggest ones. Here’s why: 1. Big fish are rare and fun to catch, and releasing them gives someone else that chance; 2. Pollutants like PCBs and mercury accumulate up the food chain, so a 20-year-old 15-pound northern pike carries a lot of poison in his flesh, while a few two-year-old crappies carry far less; 3. Large predators are key for healthy ecosystems, and removing them can impact the health and size structure of other species.

There’s also nothing wrong with fishing just for fun and releasing what you catch. This practice is why our waters have healthy fish populations, especially our trout streams. That said, it’s not quite as simple as “throwing ‘em back.” All fish, especially big fish, are fragile creatures and proper handling is key to ensure their survival after the release. Keep them in the water as much as possible, be gentle and wet your hand before touching them to preserve their slime coat, and use barbless hooks (crush the barbs with pliers).

Keep in mind that we’re still impacting the resource—some fish still die, no matter how careful we are. Damage to the gills can be fatal, and so can hot weather, an extended fight, and a number of other things. Sometimes even a fish that swims away strong might die later. This doesn’t mean catch and release is bad—it’s good, and future fishing opportunities rely on it. Just be mindful of your impact on the water.

Next page: Advanced Angling

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