Guide to Survival Fishing

Guide To Survival Fishing

We’ve been fishing as a species for longer than we’ve been doing almost anything else.

Survival is in our genetic code, and when we couldn’t take down large game, we took to the waters to hunt.

There’s a serious difference between going out to the lake for the day with your dad and survival fishing. One is leisure, the other is necessity.

When it comes down to the wire, we need to be able to know how to take care of ourselves and feed our families, especially when SHTF and we have to bug out.

This guide will cover survival fishing in its entirety, and discuss everything that you should know about it before you cast your line. You’re going to survive; we’re going to show you how.

What do You Need to Fish?

What do You Need to Fish?

It’s time to assemble your gear. We’re doing this with your bug out bag and carry weight in mind so that you aren’t just walking with fifty pounds of fishing equipment, but so that you’re equipped enough to handle yourself in the wilderness for the next few potential years.

Rod and Tackle

A fishing rod and the tackle to use it. Tackle simply refers to equipment used by people when they’re fishing, which is why a tackle box can hold hundreds of different things inside of it.

You can store additional hooks, more fishing line, lures, waders, basically anything related to fishing that will fit inside of the tackle box.

I cannot stress this enough: get a good fishing rod. If it snaps out here, you’re going to be using a stick with a short line on it and hope that you can actually catch fish this way. Make sure you choose the best material, the best strength, and ensure it has some flex to it.


Some bowhunters use the same arrows for decades. If you get quality arrows and a fantastic bow, then there’s no reason to not reuse those arrows for as long as they’re useful. There are a few bits of information you should know about choosing arrows that will last.

  • Grain Weight: Arrows are measured in grains. Every single grain will impact performance, carry weight, and usefulness of an arrow. Grain weight generally doesn’t impact the durability of an arrow; that comes down to the materials used.
  • Material: Aluminum is a common modern choice for arrows. It’s not going to break down on you from repeated use, but there is the possibility of rusting. Wooden arrows are still useful, but they can break easier than most modern arrows. A carbon aluminum composite is the answer: strong, durable, lightweight, and less prone to rusting than standard metal arrow shafts.
  • Sharpness: You don’t want your arrows to be so sharp that you can’t store them without damaging the case/packing they’re in, but they still need to be sharp enough to piece through the scales of a fish with ease. Have a small grinding stone handy in your bug out bag in the event that you can’t store sharpened arrow tips. Give them a new edge when you get there.


Primitive and powerful, spears are a great way to fish in the middle of a disaster. The goal is to remain as silent as possible, and while we can’t avoid splashing around in the water a bit, spears are mostly silent.

The difficult thing is bringing a spear along with you for the ride. Ideally, you’ll be able to make spears with legal length tips (follow knife laws for your state). If you have the option, you should make your spear retractable.

Make your pole easy to fold up and conceal, and attach a screw-in base to the top so that you can keep the knife/spear tip separately.

There is also the option of making your own primitive spear when you get to the campsite. Use a knife, find a branch, and fletch away. You can use a paracord to tie a sharp piece or flint to the top of the spear if you wish.


You have two viable options here. You can either bring a fishing net on a pole, or you can go with a full-sized fishing net (sometimes referred to as a trawler net) to give you an edge.

Standard fishing nets are often used with deep sea fishing in conjunction with a rod and tackle. You pull the fish close to the surface, and someone else uses a net to bring the fish up the rest of the way.

In a solo survival situation, you’re not going to be that high up, so you can use the net, pull it up out of the water, and then you’ve caught yourself a fish. The best way to do this is to find a fish in the water, lock eyes, and then scoop as quickly as you can with the net.

What Food Can You Use as Bait to Catch Fish?

There’s an insane amount of food that you can use to fish, and some of the choices are quite comical. Here’s a quick list.

  • Canned Meat: This attracts a ton of fish, though for some, it’s hard to know exactly why. Canned meat has been a staple in midwestern fishing since WWII. For some fisherman (such as an award-winning catfish angler), it’s the only bait they use.
  • Hot Dogs: Did you burn those 4th of July franks? Don’t toss them out—toss them into the water on the end of your line. Hot dogs attract catfish, but they’ve also been known to attract sand sharks.
  • Dog Food: The kibbles and the bits. Dog food is very aromatic (as you’ll know from opening up the bag every time), and when those particles dissolve in the water, it can be detected by fish from a relatively far distance.
  • Dried Fruit: We’re talking raisins, cranberries, basically any kind of small fruit that can be freeze dried and stuck on a line. If you use golden raisins, they rehydrate in the water and let off a ton of tantalizing scents in the water, and they’re bright enough to be seen as well (we have a guide on freeze drying, so you can make your own bait if you want to).
  • Chicken Liver: They’re just going to get tossed anyway, right? Most of us don’t enjoy the taste of chicken liver, but cutting them up into small pieces is a great way to attract fish from all around.
  • Gummy Candy: Similar to how they respond to dried fruit, fish actually have a strong desire to enjoy sweet treats. It just goes to show that just about every creature, from ants to fish to people, enjoy a bit of sugar in their diet.
  • Bacon: In the spirit of enticing fish, some fishermen have taken bacon out of their sandwiches and run a hook through them. Everyone likes bacon, right? Apparently, the fish do too.

You would be surprised to find that this is maybe one percent of the foods you can toss in the water, not excluding doughnuts, marshmallows, cigarette butts (not a food, I know), peanut butter sandwiches, corn, and so much more. Make sure you bring a lunchbox with you when you go to the fishing hole.

How to Make Your DIY Fishing Gear?

We didn’t have fiberglass rods two-hundred years ago; we had to do the best with what we had. This is a quick way to make a DIY fishing rod and a river net.

DIY Fishing Rod

Fishing rods are actually pretty simple. In your bug out bag, make sure you have a seven-foot long piece of paracord. This can just be in your paracord bracelet; it doesn’t matter either way.

Disassemble the paracord. From this, you should have roughly fifty feet of length in the thinnest possible strand of paracord. That’s going to be your fishing line.

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Now you need a rod to attach it to. The trickiest part is finding a decent branch. Bring your survival hatchet with you, walk into the woods, and find a healthy-looking branch that’s about six to eight feet long.

Scale this based on your height. Ideally, the branch will have a small enough diameter that you can have your index finger and thumb touch when holding onto the thickest part of it.

Get a nice clean cut at the bottom. Taking your survival knife, go along the edges of the branch, and remove any twigs. We want a smooth surface to avoid cuts and injuries.

On the end of your branch, use your knife to carve a small divot that goes around the entire branch. Tie your paracord strand here, and make sure you pull it tight. The groove you create will help keep the paracord in place. You want the paracord tied so that it exits along the bottom of the branch.

It’s primitive, it’s simple, but it’s effective.

DIY Fishing Net

Using a similar approach to the DIY fishing rod post above, find two branches that are about three feet in length. Remove twigs along the edges of the branch with a survival knife.

The difference here is that you’re going to tie your paracord around these two branches. You want one of the left, one on the right; this allows you to collapse the net and bring it with you when you go.

Writing about making a net out of paracord doesn’t clear things up. In this instance, a visual example works best.

How to Easily Prepare Fish

What’s all this fish good for if you don’t know how to cook it properly?

This is a hard and fast guide on how to cook fish over the campfire, from cleaning it to getting the perfect sear on it, and enjoying the fruits – er, fish, of your labor.

Cleaning the Fish

  1. You have to do this properly, or you’ll dirty the fish. Begin by placing the fish on a flat surface like a cutting board. Take your knife, and gently insert it into the fish belly directly next to the anus.
  2. Make sure to only insert the tip of the blade and do so very delicately. We want to avoid puncturing the intestines.
  3. Run the knife along the body. Open the side of the fish up and manually remove the entrails. Proceed to the back of the fish and cut around the anus until it is gone.
  4. Search for a kidney near the fish’s backbone. Remove it (only located in some breeds of fish).
  5. Pick up the fish and find a source of potable water. Cleanse the fish to remove any excess entrails or fluids left behind. You may remove the head after this is done if you choose (optional).
  6. Remove remaining scales and get ready to cook your fish. Be sure to clean up the area where you cleaned out the fish to avoid illness and cross-contamination.

Cooking the Fish

Now it’s time to get it on the fire and count down until you can eat. You can leave the fish as is once you’ve removed the entrails and cleaned it properly, or you can filet the fish once the scales have been removed. That’s up to you.

  1. Using oak leaves, aluminum foil, or another safe wrapping, cover your fish entirely.
  2. Rest the fish on a piece of metal or pan over a campfire. If this option is not available, use a low fire (flames under four feet or so) and place the pouched-up fish into the base of the fire so that it’s accessible with a stick or poker.
  3. Let the fish cook for longer than you would expect at home. You need to be sure that all potential parasites have been cooked away and that nothing is left raw. Foil and leaves help preserve moisture, but dry fish is better than unsafe fish.
  4. Keep in mind that if your fish is wrapped in foil, it will cook faster than if you wrap it in leaves.
  5. Let your fish rest for a moment after you pull it out of the fire. About two to three minutes should be enough. Residual heat inside of the wrapping will help cook off anything that’s left.

Should I Be Worried About Bacteria or Parasites?

Of course you should. Even if you’re in a freshwater river, parasites and bacteria are still persistent; it’s nature, after all.

When we purchase fish from the supermarket, they’ve already done most of the processing and save us the hassle. These are some serious things you need to look out for in raw, wild-caught fish.

  • Tapeworm: This is rare, but only because of all the processing that we do to our foods. It’s the reason that I personally never have sushi. Japan actually has the highest rating of parasitic diseases caused by worms than anywhere else in the world, and while that’s not directly tied to sushi, we can all put two and two together. Raw, uncooked fish can absolutely have tapeworm.
  • Anisakiasis: This bacteria might as well be nameless, because most people don’t really know a lick about it. While this is more common in squid than in fish, this is caused by little worms that stick to the walls of your throat. While it’s rare, it’s not unheard of, and it’s almost impossible to know if you have it in the wilderness. You’ll undergo diarrhea, stomach pain, basically all the symptoms of food poisoning, although the effects could last for a lot longer than that. This isn’t something that survival antibiotics will fix, either; this requires surgery.
  • You Can Get Sick From Touch: It doesn’t just have to be consuming raw, wild, or undercooked fish; you can contract anisakiasis and tapeworm simply through touch. Your pores can absorb a lot more than you think, and that includes bacteria.
  • Overcook Your Fish: We’re not going for gourmet out here—we’re just trying to survive. Overcook the hell out of your fish, because that’s the only way you’re going to kill any parasites that may dwell within. Lemon juice does not kill bacteria; that’s just a myth.
  • Cook Quickly After Catching: Don’t let your fish just sit around – that’s when bacterial growth multiplies, and the food can easily spoil. Cook your fish the second you can to mitigate your risk of encountering bacteria.

Do Antibiotics Help With Bacteria and Parasites?

If you suspect that you’ve ingested bad fish that may be carrying harmful bacteria with it, you’re not alone. The sheer possibility is enough to frighten people, and it’s absolutely something you should be vigilant about.

Packing for the long haul means bringing survival antibiotics along for the ride. Thankfully, most antibiotics can kill parasites and bacteria that you encounter in the wilderness. The problem is when you catch a virus, because antibiotics cannot treat even the symptoms of a virus.

Fishing for Your Life

Survival fishing is what you make of it. You can spend the time and fish a ton right now to make fish jerky, cook and store the food, or stay near water and just fish as necessary. It’s all up to you.

You’re going to survive one way or another, and fishing is the best way that you could possibly do that. It’s low-risk since American rivers don’t have a high number of predators.

This is something you can teach party members to do as well (it’s not that complicated) to free you up to either forage or perform more dangerous survival tasks.

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