Before catching fish, anglers must locate them. Unless you live in the middle of the great southwestern deserts there should be a body of fishable water within an hour of your home. You can find fish nearly anywhere there is a body of water large enough to provide food, oxygen and cover. If you have a boat, your choice of angling locations gets even larger.
Where Fish May Be and Why
Not all fish can live in the same kinds of waters. Different species need different sets of environmental conditions, including:
- Hiding areas, cover, structure, and the bottom
- Dissolved oxygen
- Water temperature
- Types and amounts of food
- Water depth
Many fish species, such as bass, northern pike, sunfish, and trout, live near structure. Structure refers to changes in the shape of the bottom of lakes, rivers, or ponds, caused by rocks, drowned trees, manmade cribs, flooded roadbeds, humps, ledges, and drop-offs. Structure causes fish to concentrate in certain areas. Lakes and ponds may have shoreline structures such as docks, logs, stump fields, brush, rock piles, grass beds, and downed trees that provide shelter, shade, and protection for fish. Islands, sand bars, rock piles, and log jams in rivers and streams are also good places to fish. Fish inhabit certain types of cover because it provides them with protection and puts them in the best possible position to catch a meal.
Salinity and Oxygen
Some fish species like brook trout cannot live with much salt in the water, other fish, such as tuna and, need salt, and some, such as striped bass, can live in salt or freshwater. Fish also need a certain amount of oxygen in the water. Species such as carp can live on less oxygen than trout. Living plants add oxygen to the water as does moving water tumbling over rocks. Decomposing plants and animals use oxygen from the water and many kinds of pollution also reduce oxygen levels. Thermal pollution may also be a problem as warmer water cannot hold as much oxygen as cold water.
Each fish species has a specific range of water temperature that it enjoys. Bullhead catfish can thrive in waters as warm as 85 degrees F, while salmon and lake trout must have cooler 40s and 50s. Some fish tolerate a wide range of temperatures; others have very narrow requirements. Serious anglers find that a thermometer is a useful accessory for knowing when to try for specific kinds of fish.
The amount and type of food available in a body of water plays an important role in determining which types of fish you can hope to catch. The currents and water depth are also significant factors. Scrappy sunfish will haunt shallow riffles while lake trout favor the dark, cold depths. Bass will slam baits on the surface, while carp feed heavily on the bottom.
Choosing the Method for You
Once you find the fish, getting them to bite your hook becomes the challenge. Each of the various types of fishing lends itself to catching certain kinds of fish. Knowing which approach to use, and when to use it, is key to having a successful day on the water.
The Benefits of Using a Boat
Fishing from a boat enables you to cover more water than fishing from shore and reach distant spots, frequently with deeper water. Different types of boats are made for different types of water and for performing different tasks. Canoes, skiffs, and jonboats can be ideal for casual fishing on streams, small rivers, and small lakes. Larger bodies of water and more extreme fishing can demand more powerful V-hulls, "cathedral" hulls, or specialty sportfishing boats.
Trolling is Effective and Enjoyable
Trail lures or baits behind a slowly running boat to cover a lot of water. Trolling is particularly effective for fish species that regularly feed on smaller fish. Downrigging is a method of trolling that uses a winch and weight (cannonball) to carry the line and lure to the specific depth where fish are feeding. Use downriggers to control the depth of your lure, anywhere from just below the surface to 200 feet deep, and keep it running at that depth.
Still Fishing is for Beginners and Experts Alike
Still fishing is the most basic form of angling: Once the bait is cast, it stays put. Still fishing on a lake or pond was the first fishing experience for many of us. A basic rod and reel, a baited hook, a weighted line, and maybe a colorful bobber were all that we needed to get started. Many people choose to stick with still fishing as they acquire more skill and familiarity with angling. Still fishing is fairly simple, requires a minimum of special equipment and technical skills, and can give good results, particularly when done from a boat that can position you in the most advantageous location.
Flipping and Pitching Get Your Lure to the Fish
Flipping is an underhand cast designed to place a lure in a given spot with as little disturbance as possible. Normally used in dirty water and in thick cover, flipping is best done with a stationary type bait. Flipping and pitching, a related technique also used with spinner baits, have received a lot of interest as bass fishing has grown in popularity. In flipping, release a short amount of line—maybe 10 feet--and simply feed the line back through the guides as you lower and raise the rod. Pitching involves releasing the lure from your hand with an underhand pitching movement while letting the line feed through the guides. Typical “flipping sticks” are heavy, 7.5-foot rods used to flip docks, grass, wood, or other cover that requires a quiet presentation and pinpoint accuracy.
The Challenge of Fly Fishing
Fly fishing uses artificial flies—insect and animal imitations--to attract and catch fish. Initially focused on catching trout and salmon, fly anglers have taken a full range of game and panfish species. Many fly anglers use small boats—even kayaks and canoes—to get to hard-to-reach locations. Flies rarely weigh more than a few grams, consequently fly rods and lines must be specifically designed to assist the angler to cast the fly.
The Best Times to Fish
There is no single best time to fish. Like so much in this sport, different species are active at different times, and those active periods vary in response to a host of environmental factors. In general, freshwater fish seem to be more active shortly after dawn and at dusk, and least active around Noon and early afternoon. But, you can still catch fish at Noon if you understand what the fish are doing and adjust your angling tactics.
Picking the Best Season
Just like trying to determine the best time of day to fish, determining the best season requires that you understand what the fish are doing and adjust your tactics to respond. Fishing can be a year-round sport, but obviously certain seasons will be more comfortable than others.
Successful anglers know the habits and availability of the different species. A range of environmental variables determines which fish will be in an area at any given time. Temperature, amount of daylight, predation, and food availability are key factors. Lake trout, for instance, descend to the cooler depths of their home waters to avoid summer heat. Trout in rivers and streams will also shift their feeding preferences when summer’s heat brings on swarms of terrestrial insects. Most bass move into the shadows in response to the increased light at midday.
Some species and some venues may have times of the year when it is illegal to fish. Many states have closed seasons when various species are spawning. Successful anglers understand how all the factors affect their chances of catching a particular species.