How can you catch a fish without a rod and reel?

By: Jessika Toothman
Wild animals foraging for food in nature.
Um, no. Not quite like this. Works well enough for a bear, but in this article you'll strictly be learning about methods that won't have you putting a fish in your mouth until it's hot off the grill.
Paul Souders/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The wilderness is known for its lack of grocery stores and restaurants, so if you accidentally wander off in­to the woods without a trusty tool like a fishing pole, knife or gun -- are you out of luck?

It's pretty likely you'll be working harder for your meal than you would if you had something useful like a fishing pole handy, but you can probably pull it off with a little ingenuity and some of the techniques we'll cover on the next page. In most cases, a handcrafted device or special setup is necessary to catch fish, so you'll have to get creative if you left home without anything that can be entered into the "useful" column on your mental checklist of supplies.


You might be wo­ndering: Can't I get away without doing any of that? Fish with my own two hands? Fishing by hand is definitely a possibility -- trout tickling is one example that might spring to mind -- but it can take loads of time and patience, along with a quick hand. If you're planning on getting more done besides finding food, it's better to use a more efficient model.­

­On a similar note, some people enjoy noodling as an alternative to traditional rod and reel fishing. Noodlers wade around muddy water in search of a catfish's hideout. When they come across one, it's not a worm they use as bait but their own hand. When the catfish clamps on, the noodler hauls it to the surface. Not for the faint of heart, noodling can be exhilarating and painful, and also quite dangerous. For more about this oddball hobby, read How Noodling Works.

If you're not in the mood to lose a limb, we'll discuss some of the tamer methods for catching a meal out in the middle of nowhere on the next page.



Here Fishy, Fishy: Some Fishing Techniques

Illustrated vector axe cutting wood material.
HowStuffWorks 2008

When it comes to fishing­ without a rod and reel, you're pretty much only limited by your own imagination. Lots of different techniques can be tailored to fit a variety of situations -- it just requires a little creativity to see how one can work for yours. Here are the basics on a few strategies you can try:

Spearing: Spears, crafted from long sticks, saplings and the like, often prove to be very effective. It's possible to sharpen the thicker end into a point or lash a knife onto it, although many survival gurus recommend forming the end into prongs. Slicing the spearhead and wedging the sharpened prongs apart with a bit of wood or vine not only gives you a wider margin of error, it also means you can both skewer the fish and trap them in between the prongs. Remember to harden the points in hot embers, and securely lash the base so your spear doesn't crack down the handle.


Once you're ready to go, find a promising site and slowly insert your spearhead into the water. This helps cut down on refraction, but since it won't fix things entirely, you'll likely want to aim a little low while you're getting the hang of it. Keep your shadow clear and your spear angled advantageously. With a strong thrust, pin the fish to the bottom and reach down to grab your dinner.

Trapping: Looking for a less hands-on method? Traps can be the perfect answer if you don't have time to dawdle; they epitomize the endless versatility of fishing. On a beach, you can utilize the tide to trap fish in augmented rocky pools -- or make your own underwater traps from scratch. In a stream, you can rig up woven twig fences to corral fish into holding pens. You can even put some bait at the netted-off end of a narrow hollow log -- since fish can't swim backwards, they'll be trapped. Carefully haul up the log, and it's time to feast.

While building a trap is often easier if you have some store-bought supplies like rope or netting, in most places, you can find suitable materials in the wilderness around you. Twigs, along with vines and reeds, can all be woven into water soluble walls, and sticks can structure the trap. The key is to make it enticing to enter and hard to get out. Slap down some bait and add features like inward-facing sharpened sticks as a bit of discouragement for those attempting to escape.

Set Lines: Set lines are another way to fish from afar. Fish hooks and gorges can be fashioned from just about anything: wood, bone, nail, safety pin, thorn, needle, wire, sea shell, you name it. If you don't have a knife to carve and sharpen wooden hooks, use a rock with sharp edges.

Then you need to rig up your lines; there's lots of ways to do that. You can string a main line across some water between two trees, or for smaller operations you can fasten it between two sticks shoved in the mud. Dangling off the main line, all those hooks you crafted will be secured to secondary lines, and several fish can be baited at once. You can even set up bobbers to monitor drifting set lines. The sky's the limit, and with any luck, a couple of lines will be waiting with some fresh fish fillet when you check on your progress.

The information on the next page is an absolute must if you're the kind of person who loves to go on a hike, but is always wandering off from the group.



Lots More Information

Rela­ted HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bennett, Oliver. "How to tickle a trout." The Independent. 10/24/2004. (11/14/2008)
  • "Fishing Devices." (11/14/2008)
  • "Fishing for Survival." The Survival Expert. (11/14/2008)
  • Sherwood, Frank. "How to Make and Use a Survival Fish Spear." The Tracker. 1983. (11/14/2008)
  • "Survival Fishing." (11/14/20)
  • "Survival Fishing." Survival and Self-Reliance Studies Institute. (11/14/2008)