I can barely remember it, but to the best of my recollection, I was attaching a rubber tube jig to the fishing line of a Zebco 33 rod and reel outfit. I can say for certain that we were standing at the southwest corner of the family farm pond a quarter-mile from our 100-year-old farmhouse, about an hour before sunset.
That was how I learned to fish, standing alongside my mom — she taught me to tie my first fishing knot — and Homeboy, who taught me to work the jig. Homeboy was a family friend of unimaginable character — big beard, overalls with no undershirt, and one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known — who brought a whole new meaning to the term “free-range” chicken. The chickens at Homeboy’s were free to range about his place, in and out of the house, but would become that evening’s dinner at a moment’s notice, at which time Mom and Dad scooped my brothers and me up, and home we went.
We spent hours upon hours at that farm pond and knew that an entertaining, easy way to please our parents and feel proud of ourselves was to walk the gravel road home with a stringer-full of fish draped over our shoulders; I can still see the raised-eyebrow, smiling look on Mom’s face and feel the excitement it created to this day.
Whether you have access to farm ponds, lake water, freshwater rivers, or small lakes and ponds in an urban setting, fishing can supplement your diet and provide hours of fun in the process — and it’s an easy and inexpensive hobby to take up.
Waters of rural America
Whatever water source you fish upon, you need to start by seeking permission from the landowner and make sure you are equipped with an appropriate license. Some of the best fishing waters around the country are farm ponds, many of which no doubt get left alone all year simply because the landowner doesn’t care to fish them and no ones dares to ask.
Knock on a door, shake someone’s hand, explain that you’ll be completely respectful, and ask permission, just like in the old days. It may be met with rejection, but that’s fine. One simple tactic that may improve your chances for fishing access is to offer a portion of what you catch to the landowner, say one fillet out of every three you keep. And who knows, once you knock on their door a few times with fresh fish fillets, they might even come up with a couple of extra holes for you to try.
Fishing in farm ponds
When fishing in farm ponds throughout most of the country, fishermen are most likely after bass, bluegill, catfish, and black or white crappie. When stocking ponds, it’s generally recommended, from Florida to Iowa to New Mexico, to stock largemouth bass, channel catfish and bluegill (bream, either bluegill alone or bluegill and redear sunfish). When kept in the right balance, these three fish can offer great fishing and maintain healthy populations for years. I also lump crappie in there because it’s widely regarded as a delicious fish to eat, but it’s generally not so easy to stock and maintain.
Crappie and bluegill fishing require lighter tackle, at least to fish them properly. It’s nothing to horse a 3/4-pound crappie into the boat using 15-pound test line, but the flip side of that is you’ll miss more fish with heavier tackle or set the hook too hard and lose more fish. Fish with lighter tackle, 4-pound test on an ultralight spincast combo, or keep it even simpler than that. An old cane pole will work brilliantly for fishing shallows and snag-likely waters, as well as the usually fishy brush pile. Manufacturers even sell (for a pretty penny) fiberglass and graphite “fishing poles” (as opposed to fishing rods equipped with a reel for casting) that operate like a cane pole, and they often have built-in line holders for easy adjustment.
Drop a minnow over some cover (brush piles are great) with a bobber and sinker(s), adjust to the right depth (a good place to start is the length of your pole unless you can see differently), and concentrate on gently and smoothly lifting the rod tip an instant after the fish takes it.
Bluegill fishing is similar, and they are only slightly less tasty than crappie. One benefit of slabs (big crappie) over bluegills is the larger fillets — it will generally take more bluegill fillets to fill the frying pan. Worms and bread pieces also work for bluegill; just be attentive, both of these fish are light strikers and adept at robbing you blind.
Bass fishing is also fun, be it for largemouths or smallies. These fish are well known as sport fish, and they’re not picky eaters — insects, fish, frogs, snakes, mice and sometimes ducklings. Imitation is the main way to entice these fish. Spinners imitate smaller fish, the versatile soft plastic worm imitates all kinds of species and can be fished in so many different ways, and there are as many artificial lures — frogs, crawdads, rooster tails, spoons, rattletraps, you name it — as you want to buy. The best way to go about fishing an unfamiliar farm pond is to find out what species are in the pond, settle on a species to target, and go from there. But, I have caught all of the main panfish in my region — bass, bluegill, crappie and sunfish, and even channel catfish — on the old trusty rooster tail.
Speaking of channel cat, this is one tasty bottom feeder, although they’re not exclusively bottom feeders. If you’re really serious about it and have a boat or river access, setting limb lines with live bait (if it’s legal in your state and area) is one of the best methods for catching channel cat and flathead. A buddy of mine here in Kansas does well every single year using bluegill as baitfish on limb lines. On the day of this writing, Rod sent me a text saying he’d pulled a 54-pound “flat” out of the Kansas River just that morning. It’s always exciting heading out to run the lines; there’s no telling what you’ve got hooked up.
Make no mistake, you have to be equipped with heavier tackle when you head out chasing the nocturnal catfish. There are river monsters all over the continental United States, but some of the biggest catfish live in lakes and other reservoirs. The larger of the two typical American catfish, the flathead, can exceed 100 pounds.
When using rod and reel for channel cat, 7- to 8-foot rods are ideal. If using a stronger-action rod — stiffer — monofilament line in the 20- to 30-pound range should work fine, while braided line in the 50- to 80-pound range is best for softer rods. If you’re after flathead, or if you’re fishing waters with multiple types of catfish, go larger.
Use sinkers (the amount will vary based on depth and current conditions) and let your chicken livers, baitfish, or what have you sit on the bottom. Then sit back and wait. There are a multitude of bells and other strike indicators one might use, but the best method is to hold the pole and be ready. When catfish hit, they usually run. Also make sure your drag is set appropriately before you throw your line out. It seems like the biggest ones always have one or two more runs in them just when you think they’re out of gas.
Two fish that haven’t been mentioned yet, walleye and northern pike, are extremely tasty and fun to catch, yet aren’t an ideal option for your average farm pond. Walleye grow poorly and don’t reproduce as well in ponds, and the northern pike needs cooler water (so summers in a farm pond are tough), and both species shouldn’t be relied on to keep a good species balance. In cooler climes, some of the largest local northern pike come from larger farm ponds that are connected to sloughs, lakes and streams during the spring runoff. The downside to harboring these monsters is that they’ll decimate the pond’s largemouth bass population in a hurry.
In lakes, these trophy species are fun fishing. Tactics for walleye fishing depend heavily on the time of year. Warmer water means walleyes will head for deeper water, especially the larger trophy females. Minnows down deep can work, as do jigs and other gizmos that saturate the market. I like the spinning rod and reel combo because of the ease with which you can work jigs. Length of rod is fine at 6 1/2 to 7 feet, and although walleye can get up to 20 pounds, 8- to 10-pound test should suffice. The top third of the rod should be strike sensitive for these lighter strikers, yet you want it to have some backbone as you move down to the reel. If possible, have a second rig outfitted a little heavier, maybe even with a baitcaster reel for reaching lunkers in deep water with bigger, heavier lures and heavier line.
The range of the northern pike is more constricted, and like the name suggests, you have to head northward to find them. They can be as far south as Nebraska and Missouri, but northern pike country in the United States is North Dakota, Minnesota and the Great Lakes region. Canada is known for pike fishing as well. These fish actually eat walleye, among other fish, so as you can imagine, you’ll need a heavier outfit.
Northern pike have sharp teeth and bony mouths, so a steel leader is crucial to prevent them from cutting your line. A heavy-action rod in the 6- to 7-foot range equipped with a baitcaster reel and 15- to 20-pound test is a good choice. Northern pike aren’t picky; they have a savage attitude and will strike on a variety of small fish imitations, jigs, spoons and more. Fishermen have reeled in pike while fishing for walleye with a jig, which makes sense if you think of a pike patrolling the outside of a group of walleye. They are territorial, and they’re opportunists — they will strike hard, so set your drag on the light side. One tip: If you have a pike following your lure, intuition might suggest slowing down reeling pace, but this actually turns them off. Maintain your tempo. Smacking the top of the water with spoons seems to attract them, and you can achieve this by casting to 2 or 3 feet above your spot, then pulling the rod back to you.
Most importantly, before you cast a lure in pike country, know how to hold the fish — at the front of the gills, while not supporting any of their weight, to protect both yourself and the pike. Open their mouth and use forceps to remove your lure.
For river and stream fishing, some of the most common angling to be done is trout fishing and smallmouth bass. One method for both is to take up fly fishing. Fly fishing is a blast and will challenge your knowledge of fish and insects in ways you can’t image, but it can be an expensive endeavor. One piece of advice I would give you is to try it first with rented tackle, spend 30 minutes getting the cast down, and see if it’s something you want to pursue.
On my first fly fishing trip on the Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado, it took me a good 30 minutes before I got the timing down, but I was hooked for life after I managed to catch a couple of wild rainbow trout during a two-day fishing excursion.
Before you spend the money and invest in a rod (which is much more important than what reel you choose), do your research — it is indeed an investment. I bought a 4-weight St. Croix rod for somewhere around $350 when I was 16. I’ve broken it twice (once on a big rainbow that I did catch!), and since it’s got a lifetime warranty, it’s been replaced twice in a quick and painless manner.
Save yourself a bundle by catching trout and smallmouth on the same rod and reel outfit you’d use for crappie or maybe even walleye, and throw the rooster tail, a Mepps lure, a grub with a spinner, or some other gimmick at them. You can fish flies on an ultralight outfit with the help of a casting bubble.
No matter the species of fish I was after, to say that some of my best days (or nights) on the water were days in which I didn’t catch a single fish wouldn’t be accurate. I’ve been skunked plenty of times, and one trick to fishing is finding enjoyment on those days. Outings when you’re nailing them, sure, it’s a blast, and those will probably be the most memorable — but you have to enjoy the fruitless days. Of all the lures at your disposal, the most valuable tool for any fisherman is patience.
From fresh 3-pound whole trout with the skin and head still on to smaller crappie fillets, fish in the deep freeze is a constant summertime concern for Managing Editor Caleb Regan.