Survival Fishing: 10 Ways to Catch Fish in an Emergency

Catching fish can be a fast way to an easy meal. Fish live and thrive in many large bodies of water, including alpine lakes, ponds, and rivers. Knowing how to catch fish in an emergency can save lives. Some survival fishing methods are illegal, however in an emergency when your life is on the line, survival comes first.

Any number of events can take place in the backcountry that seperate a person from their gear. Most people in the backcountry know enough not to get lost, but sometimes even that can happen.

What if you’re far from civilization or have sustained an injury like a sprained ankle or bruised knee and now you can barely hobble along? Keeping warm (typically shelter building) is always a first step to take in a wilderness emergency; but at some point you’re going to need to eat. Foraging for roots and berries and some edible plants can provide a few daily calories, but usually not enough for a person who is not an expert at foraging.

Fish Can Sustain Survivors in the Wilderness

Fish though can provide a meal each day, or even 2 or 3 meals. But the idea of carrying a fishing pole, tackle, and bait into the backcountry and then hoping to have a bite seems like a gamble, when it comes to fishing for survival.But there are a few highly effective methods for catching fish, many which are illegal under current federal fishing laws. This is survival though. And what if the time comes where the law of the land doesn’t exist anymore?

While it’s good to practice catch and release of small fish, as well as avoid eating minnows when possible (giving them a chance to grow to adult size and re-populate, providing future generations of fish to area streams and lakes), well, in an emergency and for a short period of time you need to eat to survive. You may need to break some laws — though I want to stress that you shouldn’t break any fishing laws unless it’s an emergency.

Here are 10 ways to catch fish in an emergency:

1. Carry Proper Fishing Supplies

Carry an assortment of hooks, line, swivels and small weights into the backcountry, as part of your essential survival gear. Packed right, these can take up very little space in your pack. You can easily have 40-50 hooks and 1-2 long reels of line (200-400 yards). Why so many hooks? One of your emergency fishing techniques will call for running several lines simultaneously.As a rule of thumb, at higher elevations fish are likely to be smaller than what you might be used to in the lowlands. But you might not be at a higher elevation when you find yourself in an emergency. There may be plenty of large fish in area lakes and streams where you’re at down in the valley or foothills.

That’s why you should carry an assortment of hooks of various sizes: Large hooks for large fish and small hooks for small fish.

You can increase your chances using the same set of Speed Hooks used in U.S. Air Force survival kits.

Currently Illegal: Drift Nets

Though fishing with nets (drift nets) is not a legal method nowadays, at one time it was a popular method due to the ease of catching large amounts of fish with just one net. I only mention drift nets here as a suggestion to have on hand should you find yourself in a survival situation and need a way to catch fish for your family or for even possibly a larger number of people in an emergency.Be warned — if you use a drift net under the current rules of law you could end up in jail and with an extremely large fine. Save your drift net for a true emergency and or for a dangerous time of economic and social collapse as warned about elsewhere on this site. It is not illegal to own a drift net — many are purchased for decorative purposes; it is only illegal to actually use a drift net in actual fishing. (The actual length and mesh size of a drift net can vary as well as how they are used and even where they are used — large commercial operations in decades past would have commonly used several drift nets. In other words, if you add a drift net to your survival preps you may want to have more than one on hand for a true emergency.)

2. Set Multiple Fishing Lines

One way to fish in an emergency is to tie a line with a baited hook, and attach it to a low lying branch over a stream, lake, or pond.If you set 20 lines and hang each line from a different tree branch, you have a lot more chances of actually catching a fish. That would be like having 20 fishing poles going at once. Odds are one of these baited hooks is going to catch a fish.

3. Identify the Best Location to Fish

So you’re standing next to a pond or lake. Look for grass, weeds, even lily pads growing alongside the water’s edge and in the water. Fish such as bass and walleye and even salmon (depending on where you’re at) like to stay in cover (grass and weeds are considered cover). Hiding in cover gives several species of fish an instinctive feeling of security.In recreational fishing, this causes problems for a lot of anglers. The grasses and weeds are likely where you’re going to get snagged, where you now have to cut your line loose and then have to re-tie and bait another hook.

So a lot of people who fish tire of fishing for bass (usually found in cover) and so they move to trout, often found swimming in more open areas of the lake.

To fish for bass and other cover seeking fish, place your hooks in a way that they’re not likely to get snagged: By hanging vertically into the water. Hooks, weights, and even bait typically get snagged as a line is reeled in or simply when trolled (a line dragged behind a slow moving boat), pulling fishing line horizontally through the water, making it most susceptible to catching on grass and weeds. Now you’re snagged.

The tedious task of cutting loose your line and then tying new line, swivel, weight(s), and hook begins. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

4. Fishing from Tree Branches

To avoid the hassle and time of pole fishing in cover, realize that an overhead tree branch can provide a great way to fish in cover, with a lot less chances of getting snagged. You don’t need a fishing pole for this.Tie your line to a branch over the water, water that’s a few feet deep, near cover (grass and weeds, fallen trees, etc), and let your baited hook settle in. Depending on the water’s depth, set your line 5-6 feet from a swivel (a swivel allows a fishing line natural movement in the water), with a bullet weight or other weight tied above the swivel.

Tie as many as 20 or more of these along the shoreline, and now simply watch from the bank for any tree branches to start moving, signaling that you’ve caught a fish. Be ready to wait for a few hours, if that’s what it takes to get a bite.

Not sure what a swivel is? Not sure what a leader or bullet-weight are? Don’t know how to properly tie a hook? I encourage you to visit your nearest fishing supply store and get yourself a quick demo from one of the staff on hand and then simply practice your ties at home. It’s not difficult to get this down.

5. Use Balloons

Carry a package of 100 or more white or gray colored balloons into the backcountry. In an emergency situation, these can be inflated and used as “floats”, when overhead branches aren’t available, or you simply want to set more lines in cover.Tie a baited hook, along with a weight and swivel, and hang from each balloon. An inflated balloon has a wide surface area, and will float on top of the water. Your line and hook will hang vertically, and float amid the grasses and weeds, submerged logs, etc. When a fish bites, it won’t be able to pull the balloon underwater. The balloon has too much buoyancy.

Be sure to run a second stretch of fishing line from the balloon to the shore, so that a large fish doesn’t take off with it, once it’s been hooked.

As soon as a fish is on the hook, you’ll know it — you’ll see the balloon start moving on the water. Make your way to the balloon and pull up the line and you should have a fish on the end.

What if there’s a current? Some lakes have a current that sometimes occurs in areas where lakes are fed or exited by rivers; sometimes high winds can move balloon floats also; try using more weight on your line to keep these balloons in place or simply tie a second tether (stretch of fishing line) to a balloon, and then run that line to the shore, where it can be tied and anchored.

Bait and Attractant

Along with your emergency fishing gear, pack some bait. Live worms should be your first choice; live worms work on most types of fish. Salmon eggs are a great secondary bait to consider as they come bottled and one small bottle carries a lot of salmon eggs — just in case you run out of worms.

You can also carry an assortment of plastic worms since these are light weight and pack tight, as well as a small bottle of fish attractant (popular attractants include garlic oil, crayfish scent, etc) that you’ll coat your plastic worms in. These attractants come in bottles and are sprayed on plastic lures, giving the lure a scent that can increase the chances of catching fish. (Keep a small supply of both in the rare event you can’t find live worms or other natural bait. As a rule of thumb though, always go with the live worms first. These plastic worms and fish attractant sprays simply guarantee that you’ll have bait if natural bait is hard to find.)


6. Finding Natural Bait

Like live worms, the land around you provides an assortment of possible bait. Even in an urban environment. From Night crawlers, grubs, and maggots, to grasshoppers, ants, mayflies, midges, centipedes, millipedes, caterpillars, craw dads/crayfish, aquatic snails, and even bees and beetles. Again, just depends on where you’re at and what it’s possible to catch in the stream or lake you’re fishing in.If one kind of natural bait isn’t working, try another kind. Better yet, since this is an emergency and part of your strategy will be multiple fishing lines (illegal in many states, but again this is an emergency and your life is on the line), use multiple types of bait: Worms, maggots, bugs, craw dads, etc. Run 10 worms on 10 hooks and then run 10 crawling bugs on 10 other hooks and finally 10 flying bugs on 10 hooks also. Vary the height in the water (run short leaders, weighted to the bottom, to fish for bottom feeding fish; let others float atop the water for fish that feed on insects and other natural bait near the top.)

If you’re counting hooks, that’s 30 lines you’ll have in the water with the chances to catch more than one species of fish. Do you understand now why this kind of fishing is illegal, outside of a true emergency?

Minnows and Leeches

Live minnows and leeches also make good bait. Simply press your hook through the tail end of a live minnow or leech, and set it in the water on a baited line. Now, let the minnow or leech do what they do best: Swim. Attached to your hook, they’re not going anywhere; the swimming motion is likely to catch the eye of a larger fish, and before you know it you can have a fish over the fire.

Use Fish to Catch Fish

When you do catch a fish, set aside portions of that fish that you can use as bait. Several types of fish eat smaller fish, and will often bite your hook, if it has a portion of fish on the end.

Where to Fish

Spring: Spring is a great season to catch fish as many are hungry after a long winter and are now more active due to warmer water as well as laying eggs near shore. Fish along the shoreline, especially in areas of cover. Cloudy and rainy days make good days to fish.

Summer: Fish will often move to deeper, cooler waters (calling for a boat or raft to fish from, or just a long way to cast your line). Try fishing early mornings or later evening as well as river fishing, where you’ll find cooler water also, and often a good place to fish. In the summer, hot temperatures over several days can have a negative effect on fishing: Water in shallow lakes, ponds and even rivers becomes to warm for too long, lowering the oxygen level in the water, causing fish to become sluggish.

Fall: Like spring, water temperatures in fall are cooler than the summer, making fish more active near the shoreline (important for people fishing from the bank). In the fall, fish will feed more aggressively than in previous weeks, as they prepare for winter, making fall a great time to fish.

Fish that Live in Cover

Fish such as bass feed near the bottom and are commonly found in cover. Bass feed throughout the day. Some can be fished with top water lures, but there’s a technique to top water fishing, as well as certain conditions that should exist — read more here on top water fishing.

Fish Found in Open Areas

Other fish like trout can be found in open areas of water, away from cover. Sometimes predator fish like bass will come out of cover, to follow schools of trout around a lake, which they feed on. Knowing that bass feed on trout, makes trout minnows a great bait to fish for bass with.

Essential Fishing Gear

1) Fishing line (5-7 weight for small alpine lakes, higher strength fishing line for larger lakes and rivers known for large species of fish).

2) Hooks of various sizes

3) Needle-nose pliers (with scissor built in): This tool is very efficient for both cutting line (easier than using a knife) and even holding hooks; the pliers can be used to bend small pieces of wire, when you don’t have hooks.

4) Secondary bait such as salmon eggs, which carry some of the smallest bait known for catching fish — meaning you can pack more. Fishing outfitters say these can do best in rivers, specifically when fishing for trout. When it comes to lakes though, live worms are best. (Experts say if the fish aren’t biting your worms go with a smaller worm on a smaller hook and try reeling slower.)

5) Super Glue – Steve Kennedy, award winning professional fisherman, shares that a dab of crazy glue on a hook when using worms will help keep your worm on the hook, specifically when fishing in cover (grass and weeds can tear a worm off a hook when you’re reeling; plus, fish are less likely to get away with your bait, if it’s been glued to a hook).

6) Container for carrying moist dirt and live worms.

7) Small bucket for carrying live minnows (be sure to give them space and not crowd too many in a bucket). Catching minnows is as simple as arranging rocks and shallow depressions in the ground along shore, where minnows become trapped; also, spread out a towel, shirt, small tarp, or even a garbage bag along the water’s edge, and bury it with a thin layer of sand and anchor down with rocks. Wait for minnows to swim over the top, and then pull it up like a net. If you have mosquito netting, that also works.)

Fishing Tips

7. Fishing in Cover with a Raft or Canoe

Because fishing from shore into cover is a common way to get snagged, fish from a raft or canoe when possible; row toward an area of cover and stop paddling (you don’t want to spook fish), and simply drift into the lily pads, grasses, etc. Set your anchor(s) so you stay in one area, and now drop your fishing line straight down.Bass feed near the bottom, so set your leader at about 12 inches with a couple of snap on weights near the swivel.

8. Fishing with Camouflage

A lot of people probably haven’t thought about this. But the data is in: Fishing in an area of clear water is risky business; fish can both see and hear sounds above the water. That means anything shiny and metallic you’re wearing or fishing with might reflect sunlight, spooking certain types of fish who catch the flashes of light. Also, bright, solid colors can also spook fish, including movement, etc. Learn to fish with stealth.Just like game or bird hunting, put on camouflage, if you can. Or simply disguise yourself in brush, while also minimizing noise as much as possible, and that includes the sounds that occur in your boat, if you’re fishing from a boat — though some fish like bass are sometimes curious about noise, and you may draw in fish like these with the right noise (rocks banging together, for example).

9. Fishing in a Breeze

Windy conditions can create good opportunities for fishing; as the wind kicks up waves, light penetration from above is reduced, making it harder to spook fish — they won’t see you or your movements. In clear water, the wind can kick up sediment, making the water somewhat cloudy, also making it difficult to spook fish. At this point, you just need to get your bait in front of them (if the water is too cloudy though, fish aren’t likely to see your bait).

10. Fish Facing into the Wind

It’s been said that 99% of fish face into a wind or current; so be sure to drop your bait in front of fish, not behind them. Do this by casting into the wind (you may need to use more weight on your line, depending on the wind strength).Windy conditions can push natural bait fish find in the water to the far shore — thus fish are drawn in the direction of the wind. That is a shoreline to fish from.

Weather Conditions Affect Fishing

A front can affect fishing as fish are driven by changes in barometric pressure. Several types of fish feed more right before a cold front, but that feeding slows or stops as that cold front hits. So, if you know a storm with cold temperatures is about to hit, that’s a great time to get out and fish. After a cold front has passed, fishing can be poor, even for a couple days after.

A warm front causes surface temperatures to rise and becomes a good time to fish, as fish increase in their feeding. This is especially true in winter, when sluggish fish due to cold temperatures suddenly become a lot more active.

Cloudy days can also be good days to fish, since there’s a lot less light coming down from above. Fish feel safer coming out from cover; this can mean fishing in open areas with lower risk of snagging is possible.

A light rain is also a good time to fish. Rain drops falling on the water can help conceal your presence from fish, reducing the risk of spooking fish. Rain also washes bugs and other natural bait into the water where it falls from things like brush and branches growing above the shoreline, drawing fish to these areas in search of food.


Hard rain though can be a poor time to fish; the water can become too muddy, and fish simply can’t see your bait floating in the water. Also, fish can be affected by clogged gills. Heavy rain can cause river currents to pick up pace, making it difficult for fish to remain in place.

In stormy weather, beware of lightning strikes. Get away from the water.


This article introduces readers to one method of survival fishing — running multiple fishing lines. In the coming days we have a follow up article that demonstrates a number of Native American freshwater fish trapping methods, as well as tricks for spear fishing from shore using a small fire and a stick with a sharpened point to spear an easy meal.

One secret to surviving in the wilderness is having multiple ways to catch and harvest fish. It’s possible to survive and survive well just off fish alone. Knowing these methods can save lives in a short term and extended emergency.

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