Survival Fishing: From Finding Bait to Making Fishing Tackle in the Wild

Fishing is one of the quickest ways to obtain food in the wild, and all fresh water fish are edible. Fish can be found in rivers, lakes, streams, and ponds.

While the average person can survive up to three weeks without food, you must have nourishment for energy in a survival situation. Lack of energy may mean you cannot perform the necessary tasks needed for survival – such as hiking out of your predicament, or constructing a shelter and finding a reliable source of water. After three days without adequate nourishment, you will begin to feel the effects, which will be physical as well as psychological.

Fish can be caught using your hands, speared, netted, and caught using the traditional baited hook and line. Once you realize your are lost or stranded, you should inventory your supplies for the means in which to fish. In some circumstances you may not have any more than what you are carrying in your pockets, or may happen to have in your vehicle, on a motorcycle, or even on a bicycle.

Using a baited hook and line is the simplest method and is likely to yield the best results. Contrary to what some may believe, successful fishing does not require expensive rods, reels, and watercraft. Fish are attracted to bait – which can be virtually anything – and once they swallow the bait, the hook is what secures the fish to the line. Hooks can be made from pieces of bone, broken buttons, wire, wood and even glass in some cases.

Gorge hook
A “gorge hook,” which can be made from bone, wire, buttons, glass or wood.

The hook depicted is made from a one inch piece of wood. The sizes of the hook are dependent upon the fish size, and if unsure of what size, start with a one to two inch piece. Sharpen both ends so that bait can be secured. The idea is to get the fish to swallow or gorge on the entire hook, and from there it is simply a matter of pulling the fish in.

Button hook
You can make a hook out of a broken button.

Another way to make a hook is to break a large button and sharpen the ends leaving the holes intact so you can attach line. The ends can be scraped on a rough rock or use the file blade on a multi-tool. The end must be shaped so that bait can be secured.

Can tabs
Break apart the tabs from tops of beverage cans using pliers, knives, or rocks to form a hook.
Fishing hooks
Hooks made from bone, wood, and wire.

You can make a hook from a paperclip, vehicle wiring, and even shards of glass. Make multiple hooks, because it is likely you will lose some, and so you can have several lines in the water at the same time as well.

Once you have the hooks made it is time to find some fishing line. Any type of cordage can be used including shoelaces and strips of clothing twisted into string. Plastic grocery or garbage bags that you may have in your vehicle, or scraps you find on the ground can be cut into thin strips and twisted together to form line. You can use electrical wiring from vehicles and bicycles as well. Certain fibrous plants such as dogbane can also be used for fishing line.


Dogbane can be found virtually anywhere in a wilderness environment and the dried stalks can be peeled apart into fibrous strands that can be twisted or braided together to make a strong line.

Paracord can be used as fishing line if you remove the braided outer sleeve and unravel the seven inner strands.

Bobbers can be pieces of Styrofoam and even empty capped water bottles. Wrap the line around the neck of the bottle leaving plenty of line to reach into deep pools. The bottle will float on top of the water and it is recommended that you attach some type of weight to the line such as a pebble or other weighted object.

Fishing Bait

Fish are attracted to many things and sometimes it is simply something to grab their attention. They will test the “food” and many times end up swallowing the hook. You can use food scraps, fuzzy seedpods, worms, crickets, and grubs for bait. In some cases, you can use brightly colored pieces of cloth or even Styrofoam as bait if nothing else is available. Live bait is ideal and you should always attempt to find some for best results.

Live bait cricket

Live bait grubs

You can use any shiny object as a fishing lure, such as discarded eating spoons, bottle tops, and even pieces of colored glass. Even though the environment you find yourself lost or stranded in looks remote, it is likely that humans have been there, and in many cases will have left debris behind. Carefully look your area over for anything that can be used as line, hooks, and other fishing tackle. In some cases you may find discarded line, hooks, and even poles near large bodies of water left there by some other anglers, or those that may have been lost as well.

Spear Fishing

Fishing spears can be made with a few simple tools and in some cases no tools at all, except for what you find in your environment.

Fishing spear
A fishing spear.

Sharpen the end of a sapling using a sharp sliver of stone or knife, and then split the end into prongs using a stone shard and a heavier rock for hammering. A single sharpened end will not always penetrate, which means the fish can get away. You will need multiple sharpened prongs for penetration and securing the catch.

In most cases, you will need to be directly over the fish to plunge the spear versus trying to launch it from any distance. The spear will not be heavy enough, or be balanced properly to throw it at the fish. You want to keep the spear in your hands so you do not lose it or the fish, so you are essentially stabbing down into the water as you stand over the fish.

Hand Fishing

It is recommended that you only hand fish if no other means are available. To catch fish by hand you have to find a relatively deep pool near the bank where fish would gather to hide from predators, or to escape the hot sun. You may also find snakes and snapping turtles nearby as well, so use caution when trying to fish by hand. Reach under the banks to find the fish, and in some cases to secure the fish you may have to place your thumb in their mouths and grab the gills with your other fingers, otherwise they may slip away.

Netting Fish

Fish will gather in deeper pools if the weather is warm, and in shallow areas if it is cold. You can wade into the pools and wait for the silt to settle from the movement, and wait for fish to begin gathering again. You can lay your net along the bottom while you hold on to the handle and lift the netting up as fish swim over it.

Sapling net
A sapling net.

Fish netting made from a supple sapling and string. Ensure the sapling is long enough so you have a handle after bending the end into a hoop. You can use pieces of clothing instead of string to capture the fish. Once the fish is in the netting or clothing work fast to get it to the bank – otherwise the fish will slip from the net. You can essentially “fling” the fish from the netting onto the shore or riverbank.

As stated earlier, all fresh water fish are safe to eat, but they must be thoroughly cooked to destroy any harmful bacteria and parasites that may be present.

Also, don’t feel that you can’t prepare for survival fishing in advance. There are several small kits available that can be placed in a bug out bag, hiking backpack, or automobile as a precautionary measure.