How to Get Started With Freshwater Fishing – The Ultimate Beginners Guide

Are you a fish or a man? Beginners must be both to find their prey!

“There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.”

It’s uncertain how much stand-up comedian Steven Wright fishes, but his quote reminds all of us who gravitate to the sport that we best learn enough about fishing to catch a fish, lest we be the buffoons of his one-liner.

How to get started with fishing

In this vein, if you are newly inspired to take up the sport of fishing, be aware of the basic tenets that lead to a fish in the hand, rather than someone just watching the grass grow or gazing at the size of your feet.

First, think of yourself as a fish—a being that depends on fins instead of feet, a very small mouth, and a genetic instinct with which to survive.

Then think about water, its characteristics, its force, its seasons and its origins.

All the details about fishing gear, fishing lines, lures, flies, sinkers, leaders, knots, fishing waders, inflatable fishing boats or float tubes and apparel can be learned by reading sport-fishing articles and querying your local outdoor store clerk or friends who are experienced anglers.

Alternatively, simply read on to find some of these details later in this article, while noting that the best practice field for fishing exists in freshwater lakes or streams. We therefore restrict this session of Fishing 101 to the freshwater variety of fishing.

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Lesson 1: Be the Fish

You must understand a little bit about fish to know where best to catch them. Like we humans, they must eat and they must move around in order to eat.

You must also know which species of fish you wish to catch because that determines what kind of food they normally eat.

Fishing 101 Beginners Guide

Most spring-fed lakes consist of crustaceans (i.e., shrimp, crawdads), smaller fish (minnows), insects that are born on top and at the bottom of a lake, as well as amphibians—small frogs, waterdogs and the like.

Depending on the size of the fish you seek and its mouth (small, teethy, large, toothless), any of these creatures can become its prey.

Some of these creatures inhabit the cooler currents in a lake, as in the mouth of one of its feeder springs, such as crawdads. Some thrive in shallows, including crawdads, waterdogs and tiny minnows. Others dwell in the deep, such as shrimp and some larger minnows.

Observe the fish in the water

Put on some polarized sunglasses and observe the shallows to notice which fish you see there in the early morning or at dusk. Deduce which ones are not in the shallows. This will give you an idea of whether the fish you seek must be sought in deep or shallow water.

Meanwhile, note that all fish will most likely seek a bit deeper water as the sun rises higher in the sky. Also note that fish almost always flee when they see a moving shadow (read: human) in the shallows.

As for streams, look at fish as the pot-belly angler who shuns workouts at the gym in favor of sitting on the bank or in a boat fishing.

Like us, fish prefer to not overextend themselves physically, but for a different reason than laziness. They must preserve their strength to either migrate to the ocean in the case of anadromous fish, or to chase their prey should they be a landlocked fish.

Every ounce of energy counts. This is why you see fingerling salmon swimming backwards on their way out to sea—their heads upstream in the direction from which they were born. They need their reserves to fend off marine predators in the ocean and resist disease.

They therefore let the current take them to the mouth of the river while their ready mouths remain pointed upstream to consume microorganisms served to them by the current—the mother feeding the baby.

| Further Reading: How to fish in a River

Lesson 2: Choose Your Bait or Imitation

Often, a fly fisher can be seen dipping a finely meshed sieve into a stream and then holding it up out of the water to examine it. The angler is identifying the types of bugs in the water in order to choose the fly that most closely imitates the most prevalent insect.

This sieve test is difficult to achieve in a lake unless you are at the mouth of a feeder stream or the inlet of an outlet stream, where some current exists. However, if you see that fish aren’t normally finning around in the shallow bays or flats of a lake, you know they are probably deeper.

Simply consider the types of food that dwell in deeper water, such as shrimp, leeches and larger minnows. In shallower waters you might find the waterdogs and crawdads, as well as emerger insects such as caddis and damselflies.

Fishing Bait Guide Beginners

Think of it as a “Find Waldo” game

Know the features you are looking for in the water. For instance, a fish must constantly contend with counter-current in a stream. This requires endurance and strength, robbed from them if they struggle too long in the current. Therefore, they seek shelter.

For instance, an anadromous fish might spend much of the day behind a man-sized boulder or mound of rock and stone in a stream to deflect the current. It might otherwise rest in slow current just outside the main stream slot to the ocean or behind a submerged log.

Sometimes, a small crater in the river bottom becomes the perfect refuge for a river-dwelling fish. It affords them rest and an eye just above for food swirling from upstream.

Whether a lake or stream, once you find the bottom structure and depths in which your preferred catch dwells, you are better able to determine the types of fish food that dwell there, too. This is why anglers in boats spend a bunch of bucks on sonar devices—fish finders.

As for trout, remember that more than 90 percent of its diet consists of insects. When hungry, they are going to be where the aforementioned emergers dwell or where insects are dropping into the water from shoreline brush or the sky.

Lesson 3: Read, read, read

The best way to learn how to read water, as they say, to lead you to a particular species of fish is to become a layman scientist. Scads of online articles, magazines, fishing shows and even scientific papers by fish biologists abound in the literary arena.

By collecting all the scientific data regarding fish and where they like to dwell, you will finally become one with the fish, as it were.

Lesson 4: The Fishing Gear

Once you can swim inside the fish’s fins, so to speak, you can begin to choose your preferred devices and means to catch your prey.

Types of Fishing and Lines, Rods & Reels required

There are a few main categories of fishing: with a fly, with bait or with a lure.

Fishing gear - rods & reels

Fly fishing

This requires either a sinking, floating or sinking-tip line. Again, know where your fish of choice dwells and what it eats to determine which type of line you use.

Fly Fishing Gear Guide

Floating line is used for mature insects that either bob on top of the water’s surface or in its film.

Particular patterns imitate these insects—the royal coachman, renegade, blue dun and caddis are just a few examples of hundreds more.

A sinking tip line is used to emulate emerging insects, those like stone flies, damselflies or caddis moving from the bottom as pupae to adulthood on top.

A full sinking line is often used to drag behind a boat in the deepest parts of a lake or deep pools in rivers. It can present such imitations as leeches, minnows, shrimp or similar bottom dwellers.

Fly fishing requires a rod with which the tip section whips and bends easily, but consists of a butt section stiff enough to fight larger fish.

These rods are rated from soft action (very flimsy when whipped), to medium action, to heavy action (for big fish such as salmon, steelhead or tarpon).

Fly reels are single-action reels—meaning their rotation is one-to-one when retrieving the line, with one exception.

Fly reels for big fish actually offer retrieval rates of 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 and so on when it comes to spool rotation. These reels are on the high end of the sticker price.

With smaller fish, you will likely be stripping in your line by hand when fighting them, rather than reeling them in directly from the reel.

| Also read: Fly Fishing: The Beginner’s Guide

Bait fishing

This is most often associated with still-fishing, though some exceptions exist.

Bait Fishing - Still-Fishing

Still-fishing is not too different than the iconic illustration of a young boy on the bank of a pond or small lake with a cane pole in hand that tethers a hook and worm.

In freshwater, still-fishing—essentially the act of sitting in a boat or on the bank with your monofilament line and hook remaining motionless in the water—usually demands bait.

Fish eggs, worms, grasshoppers, crickets or minnows and waterdogs on a hook are common favorites.

The first two defy the “think like a fish” doctrine we extol at the beginning of this article. Fish just crave eggs and worms no matter where they dwell; leave it at that for now.

Of course, you need a sinker on your line to bring your bait near the bottom or a bobber (a highly visible plastic floater attached to your line) set at the distance you wish your bait to hang.

A spinning rod is usually employed for bait fishing. Its guides or eyes along the graphite or fiberglass blank decrease in circumference as they reach the tip of the rod. These rods also come in light, medium and heavy action.

A baitcasting rod can be used as well, as long as it is used with a baitcasting reel (see next paragraph). A baitcasting rod’s eyes or guides are all about the same size, keeping the line from twirling as it is cast. It, too, comes in light, medium or heavy action.

| Also read: How to select the right rod

Bait-fishing is best achieved with a spinning reel and sometimes the baitcasting reel—it often is just a matter of personal preference.

The former, as previously mentioned, comes with a chrome bail that clicks into place and dictates the distance of your cast by simply reeling forward when you want the bait to drop into the water.

This reel sits below the rod handle. A baitcasting reel sits on top of the rod handle and holds the line like a spool of yarn—horizontally.

It too stops the line release with a bail, but not a visible one. It is built into the reel and engages when you reel the handle forward in mid-cast, just like the spinning reel.

Spin Fishing

This is best for using lures. Often an open-faced reel with a bail that catches the line at the distance you choose to end the lure’s path is used for fishing with lures.

Spinners, spoons, jigs (colored, lead-headed, feather or flimsy rubber adorned hooks) and divers such as Rapalas best represent the types of lures one uses with a spinning rod and reel.

A spin fishing rig can be used to troll as well as cast. In this case, flatfish, spoons, spinners, cowbells or pop gear (with trailing bait, mostly worms) are used.

Trollers sometimes use leaded line instead of monofilament because it sinks on its own without the burden of clunky, heavy, lead sinkers (that which brings the lure close to the bottom) which can sometimes leverage a hook from the mouth of a fish before it is brought to boat.

The spinning reel, which is seated on the bottom of the rod handle, is most commonly used when casting lures or trolling them. However, baitcasting reels and rods with leaded line or braided line is often used for trolling as well.

The spinning rod, as explained in the bait fishing section, features line guides that decrescendo in size. They usually come in different degrees of stiffness and range from 5 to 7 feet most often.

As with fly rods, spinning rods sometimes come in three to five pieces to accommodate backpackers who fish high lakes or streams.


fishing hook

It is easy to believe all hooks are the same when just starting out in fishing.

However, some are made to best hold eggs, worms, minnows or even globs of stink bait (various combinations of chicken scrap or meal that is balled up onto the hook when pursuing catfish).

A snelled hook (attached to six or seven inches of monofilament leader with a loop at top) is usually employed when fishing with worms.

It is barbed at the tip of the hook to better secure the fish’s mouth and prevent its release.

Sometimes barbed hooks come without such leader (the line that usually requires a swivel between the end of your monofilament and the sinker-hook arrangement to prevent line twist).

When fishing minnows, barbed hooks will sometimes be tied to a leader in tandem so that the angler can hook the head end and tail end of the fish.

Barbless hooks are self-explanative: The point of the hook is void of a barb. It is often used by fly fishers or spinfishers who wish to release fish without harm.

Double and treble hooks are usually attached to a lure and consist of two or three hooks melded together. Sometimes they are used for stink baits when catfish or carp fishing.

Some hooks are shiny in chrome or brass colors while some are black. The latter is sometimes regarded as more stealthy or less visible.

The veracity of this claim can be debated, for we really don’t know what a fish sees until we become a fish in our next lives. While in homo sapien form, we can only deduce, which we are wont to do.


Sinkers are predominantly used by spinfishers, baitcasters and trollers.

They range from bell style with the eye on top of a bell-shaped piece of lead, to sliding sinkers with a hole from one end to the other in which your leader runs, to pencil lead secured inside a rubber tube (mostly for steelhead fishing in rivers), to splitshot or small lead balls that are crimped onto your line with pliers (please don’t give your dentist the fits by using your teeth to crimp them).


As mentioned, these keep the leader and hook or lure from entering infinite-spin-twist mode. They act kind of like a ball-bearing in this regard.

Swivels come in various sizes—from a quarter inch long to an inch or more—and consist of two eyes at each end of the ball-bearing like middle. Some are brassy and some are black, just like hooks.

Some are called snap swivels with a snap above the ball bearing to easily attach the loop in your leader or the eye of a lure.


Fly leaders are of nylon while spinning and baitcasting reels use monofilament. They are not as strong as the main line so that they fall delicately onto the water.

The floating-fly leader should sink from end of the fly line to the fly and not ride coiled above the waterline, which is easier for the fish to detect. When trolling, still-fishing or casting lures, monofilament is most often used.

Some use wire leaders when fishing for sharp-toothed predator fish such as muskies, northern pike and barracuda.

Tackle Bo and Accessories

Other accessories

It is wise to carry along a pair of pliers should you need to adjust the eye of a diving lure such as a Rapala for better action or for removing a hook from a material it does not belong in (hopefully not your skin).

It may also come in handy inside a boat for loose screws or nuts on other accessories such as rod holders and other mounts.

If you are intent on releasing fish, carry some hemostats, those implements often used by surgeons. They can gently enter a fish’s mouth and securely clinch the hook for its removal.

If you are still-fishing, bells that attach to the rod sometimes come in handy to wake you up should you nod off or just space into the ether when a fish nibbles or strikes.

Some fly fishers who pursue extra-strong fish carry along a finger-protective sleeve for the finger they use to strip in and release the fly line as the fish runs. Otherwise, you risk line burns or lacerations.

Nets prove handy for stream fishing and lake fishing if you are keeping your catch. If fishing from a boat or dock, the longer-handled nets are best.

A fishing vest is any angler’s best friend, whether casting flies or trolling from a boat. It sticks to you while walking or fishing. It hosts enough pockets to confuse you as to which one contains which gear and keeps you from hefting a weighty tackle box.

In all, angling features as many accessories as apparel does; perhaps more. You will learn what you need as you deepen your relationship with fish.

Fishing is a great sport

Lesson 5: Fishing Licenses, Permits & Etiquette

Depending upon which state in which you live or visit, there are various types of permits and licenses required, almost all with a fee.

Lest you wish to pay a hefty fine to a fish-and-game agent, you best check a state’s fishing regulations to determine which permits you need for the type of fish you seek.

They are available on state fish and wildlife department websites and the pamphlets you will see at tackle shops or outdoor retail stores.

Don’t Be a Slob – Respect the Rules of Etiquette as an Angler

Just because you are a beginner doesn’t mean you can bend some of the rules of etiquette as an angler.

  • Leave the banks and waters as clean as they were when you arrived. Perhaps even pick up the trash you find from the slob sector that arrived ahead of you.
  • Respect the wildlife around you, including fish. Don’t harass them, unnecessarily maim them or kill them. Indeed, only keep the number of fish you intend to eat. Leave some for future anglers.
  • Don’t clean your fish in the lake or stream and leave their offal—guts—steeping in the water. Clean them ashore and use a bag for the entrails and heads. Take the bag to the nearest garbage deposit. Some lake docks include a fish-cleaning station. Use them if so. This is the most environmentally friendly way to clean your fish.

Finally, be patient

You’ve heard this all your life about fishing. There is a reason. Success only comes with investment of time and knowledge.

Have fun gaining those acuities and you will have fun fishing, no matter how frequent the bite. Also remember that when it comes to fishing, success is only in the eye of the beholder.

As one of the greatest naturalists of our time, Henry David Thoreau of Walden’s Pond fame, eloquently put it,

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

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