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5 Fishing Techniques to Ensure Your Survival

Fish are a nearly perfect source of nutrition and in a long-term (or even a short-term) survival situation, they are not that difficult to obtain. First of all, dispel all notions that this article might have some cuddly or eco-conscious feel to it. While I can respect, and will normally do my best, to adhere to ecological best practices and animal preservation techniques, this is a SURVIVAL article, highlighting techniques that can net (no pun intended) you a healthy supply of fish to save your life. Some of these techniques are a bit rougher than normal techniques, so please bear this in mind.  The act of survival should trump the local game laws anytime, whether you are trying to get back to civilization after being lost, or bugging out because of the breakdown in civilization.

First, you need a water source. A stream or river is the most desirable, and you will need to think like a fish to get the most out of this information. Your primary goal is to collect fish and keep them alive so you don’t waste energy unnecessarily.  It’s likely that you will be best served along a river while looking for a way out of a desperate situation. Water attracts people, and rivers have water. Generally speaking, follow the river to civilization. While you trek however, you need food, so begin making the preparations to catch some.

Unfortunately, if you didn’t pay heed to the last article in this series (which told you to pack a few items in an Altoids can or a small weather-resistant container, including several fish hooks and a good quantity of fishing line), then life just got a little tougher for you.  If you did, your life was just made easier as you can find some simple ways to catch good quantities of fish.  Even if you didn’t pack these things, hopefully you packed a knife—it’s probably the single best thing to have with you at all times while traveling in the backcountry.

For those who came prepared

Set a control line (hopefully with the paracord you also brought in your kit), and attach it across a narrow, fairly shallow, portion of the river to two opposing trees. From this line, hang down leaders (pre-cut, pre-sized pieces of line with hooks attached to the ends) so that they float a couple inches or so down into the water. The fish swim directly into their path when bait is attached.

  • The narrowness of the placement will keep fish funneled into the path of the hooks, so you will be able to spread the hooks 8-14 inches apart and have a reasonable expectation of catching fish.
  • The fact that there is a passivity built into the technique means your time is spent doing other things, and the fish aren’t scared off by your movements in or near the water, or by you looming over them.
  • The full-time deployment means that it’s just a waiting game until you get something to eat.
  • Turn over a log and find grubs, worms, or even flying bugs to bait your hooks. Anything like that will work, but try to make it as natural as possible.

This is the simplest method, and can be quite effective if you packed your survival kit.  However, just because it’s easy, it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that it will be all that you need.

You can fashion fish hooks out of just about anything, including a piece of hardwood. Bones from previously caught fish, bone pieces from a carcass on the ground, natural thorns, and pieces of scrap metal you may find near the riverbanks can all serve the purpose. The hook doesn’t need to be fancy. Remember, the goal is to lodge the sharp object into a spot on the fish, preferably in the inside of it.

You can use straight pieces of wood shaped like a beefy version of a toothpick to create a fish hook that, once swallowed by a fish, is very difficult to dislodge, even though a hook design isn’t a natural part of the equation. Use what you must to catch the fish for food, up to and including the following resources.

Natural Poisons

While poisoning shouldn’t be practiced outside of a survival scenario, you can use natural poisons in shallow pools of water to kill a generous amount of small fish in a short period of time. What do I mean by “natural” poisons?

The following things are readily available (depending on geographic location) to poison fish, yet are usually harmless to humans.

  • In large enough quantities, young nut husks from walnuts can poison fish.
  • Lime, which can be made by burning seashells and crushing them up, can also poison fish in shallow pools.
  • There are many plants able to accomplish the same goal, but it will require that you do your research before you head out.

Setting Up a Fish Screen

Take three sticks of substantial size (2 inches in diameter will work), and lay them out on the ground about 8-12 inches apart. Weave supple, sapling branches (which are thin), in and out of the three sticks, so that the combination forms a wall of wood with obvious space for water to flow through. The tension caused by the sapling’s flexibility will keep the three sticks in place and, if needed, you can strip thin strips of the bark from young saplings to tie down the different pieces. The thin strips can even be combined and braided to create a makeshift cord to use as a low-strength rope.  Create enough screens (7-12 of them) to make a substantial fence line in the water. You will anchor these fences by sticking the ends of the three sticks into the sand or mud at the river bottom.

  • Start on one side of the river at a narrow spot (make sure it’s down current from your baited leader hooks) and cut in perpendicularly for the first screen and then angle the rest so they mimic the flow of the water, until at the other side of the river, you complete the fence by attaching them to that river bank also.
  • Fish will not know they’re being obstructed as water flow will still be normal (remember it’s flowing in between the sapling branches like a screen).
  • Fish will be corralled into the far corner of your “fence line,” which can then be closed off and your fish kept alive by leaving them in the water until you need one.

A significant amount of fish can bet gathered this way, and you should check often to be able to corral more and more of them.

Create A Fish Wall

A more active approach might be achieved by damming a river a few feet past a bend so the fish don’t realize that the water flow has been impeded. They swim straight into the dam and then you (lurking on the banks nearby) can spear or even grab them.

You can use your fish screens in this way as well, but it does require a more active role in obtaining the fish. Using this method in conjunction with the other two methods can create two passive sources of fish and one active source, which may have you reeling (ok, pun intended this time) in fish, in no time.

Create A Fish Net

Use the strips of sapling bark (the greenish flexible wood on the outside of the branches/sapling trunk) to create a loose mesh of wood. Tie a series of strips to one long strip and then, spacing and repeating about 1 to 1 1/2 inches farther down, tie another long strip onto the series of strips. You will want to make simple knots to make a series of interwoven strips that, when looked at from above, will resemble a checker board.

Take a ½ to ¾ inch thick sapling (which has a bit more white wood in it), and cut to a length of about 4 feet (preferably using the entire stalk of a four foot tall skinny sapling), and strip excess branches and leaves from it. Soak it in the water for an hour or two until it becomes waterlogged. The excess water in the fibers of the wood will make it somewhat more flexible and when it dries, the white wood will make it more rigid.

Bend the top (skinniest part of the stalk) around to form a letter “P” or a tennis racquet shape and tie the end off onto the long straight part of the “P” where it intersects (somewhere in the middle). Secure the tie off with additional pre-prepared sapling strips or a set of braided strips. If you brought your survival kit, use your para-cord. Now you will tie the leftover ends of your checkerboard design (which should be about 3’x3’ or even up to 5’x5’ in size) to the inside of the circular portion of your “P” design, and lash them securely with a wrapping technique like a baseball bat handle or a tennis racquet handle, where a third of the past wrap is covered by the new wrap.  You will want to make this thing bulletproof.  It may end up being a shallow net and it won’t be incredibly strong, but as an aid to grab an escaping fish, it will come in handy and is certainly worth the effort.

The loose mesh technique could also be used to create a series of nets that could be used to catch fish. Just loosen the spacing up a bit more to about 1¾” to 2¼”. Allow some more material to gather between each knot instead of making it a straight checkerboard design.

Handling fish can be awkward, especially for certain types like catfish or piranha, so please be careful of a few things. First, eat fresh fish. Don’t let fish stay out of the water for very long unless you are in the process of cooking them (we will touch on that later. While you can eat raw fish (think sushi), most of the time it’s best to eat cooked freshwater fish.  Aside from health concerns, the body’s hunger sensors tend to be more satiated with warm food.

*Important note, you can use some of these techniques in the ocean or in landlocked bays and inlets as well.  If you are out at sea floating around in a lifeboat, etc, fresh water will be paramount.  Eyes and the interior “marrow” area of fish bones contain a high concentration of pure water. Sea turtles also have parts that contain excellent sources of clean water (non saline).

Preparing and Cooking Fish

There is a hole about 2 inches from the tail on just about every fish on the planet, though you may have to look harder on some species to find it. Insert your knife tip and slit the fish lengthwise up to the rear edge of its gills. The guts are usually contained completely in the area you have just exposed and can be pulled out with one scooping motion of your hand. Use the guts to attract other animals in snares and traps, or use to bait for meat-eating fish (catfish for example). At sea, these guts may come in handy as bait as well, although use them sparingly to avoid attracting large sharks to you. Clean the inside cavity of the fish with fresh water and cook one of many ways:

  • Impale a stick and roast the fish by hand or over a fire.
  • Pack into sand at the edge of the fire after first burying some hot rocks.
  • Cut up into chunks and use a metal cup (or a similar device such as a coconut shell or a heavy plastic heat-resistant container) to cook the fish in a soup. Heat the soup with clean hot rocks from your fire and boil for three minutes or so. Use successive hot rocks to keep the soup hot and safe to eat, and free of waterborne bacteria.
  • Pack the fish into clay (an inch thick surrounding the fish) and heat until the clay cooks off. Break of any remaining clay and open up your fish.
  • Wrap in big leaves and cook underground or at the edge of the coals
  • Wash a flat, thin rock and heat it in your fire. Use it like a griddle to cook a couple halves of fish.
  • Dry the fish by the smoke of the fire (thin strips skewered by wet, thin, sapling branches)
  • Dry the fish in the sun by hanging

When it’s abundant, preserve some of it by drying by smoke or solar power. This way, you have food to eat when it isn’t so abundant.

Always try to use movements and motions that originate at the fish’s head and moves towards the tail to avoid getting stuck with scales. Also, some fish have teeth, so use caution. In fact, another way to catch fish (like catfish in the South), is to stick your hand into a hollow log where a catfish den is located, and wait until they bite onto your fingers. At that point, you pull them up. It’s surprisingly effective, but I wouldn’t try it with more aggressive fish as that could get dangerous. You can certainly get cuts this way and after a day of doing this, your hands would be basically useless.

Catching fish isn’t particularly difficult, but being smart about resources in a survival situation can be, so use your brain. If you’re lost, of course work on being found. No matter what the situation is, however, stay hydrated while you search for food. Exposure and dehydration can kill you much faster than missing a few meals.


  • ALWAYS pack a survival kit (see the first article in this series for a basic and cheap version). It could easily save your life.
  • ALWAYS have a substantial knife (4”blade or more). You’ll preferably want a fixed blade knife, but even if it’s a folding knife, anything you are well-versed in using is better than nothing.
  • Start with your passive techniques first, then move into the active ones
  • Don’t leave yourself unprotected. Fashion a couple of crude spears out of nice sized sticks and be ready to use them on animals and fish.
  • Don’t be afraid to try to catch other animals along the riverbanks as well. Just because you can see fish doesn’t mean you should rely on them as your sole food source.
  • STAY HYDRATED.  Use the water treatment tablets and zip-lock bag in your survival kit, or boil some with hot rocks in your silicone cup or an old tin can you find near the river.
  • Get away from the water before the sun goes down, so you can give yourself adequate time to dry off and avoid hypothermia or frostbite.
  • ALWAYS tell someone where you are going, and when you will be home.
  • ALWAYS research the area you will be traveling in heavily before you set out.

When things go wrong, preparation, attitude, and adaptation will be your best friend. Don’t be caught unprepared. Keep a positive and driven attitude, and adapt as the need arises. This will be what saves you in an extreme survival situation.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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