Features and Occasionals

So You Want to Learn to Fish

By Benjamin Bombard

Friday nights when I was a kid, my dad and I would go out in the backyard, turn on the hose and flood a patch of lawn in the shade of the house. Hours later, we’d scan the ground with a flashlight looking for shiny, slithering earthworms to use as fishing bait. The next day, before the sun was up, we’d jump in the car and head to a nearby reservoir. My worm box in the trunk of the car, snugged up against a loaded tackle box, our rods and reels geared for action. For many reasons, fishing has electrified me since I was young.

It’s the challenge of the chase. It’s the thrill of a fish suddenly taking the bait and tugging at the end of the line. It’s peaceful time spent outdoors at the water’s edge. And it’s the rewards of a skill that enhances my self-sufficiency and puts delectable food on the table for my family and me. Like growing and eating your own veggies, there’s a deep sense of pride and know-how that comes with gathering your own fishy protein.

And like gardening, there’s a lot to learn when you start fishing. My dad taught me how to tie a hook on, how to rig a bobber and weights, how to hook the worm just so, and how to properly cast. He taught me how to avoid snagging my bait or lure on lake and river bottoms, how to reel in a fish without breaking my line, and he demonstrated the proper way to kill and gut a fish.

No amount of written instruction can replace the experience gained and connections made by learning how to fish from another person. Thanks largely to my dad, who taught me the basics at a young age, I’ve been a fisherman nearly my whole life. The finer points I picked up through trial and error and by talking to other fishermen. That said, it’s never too late to learn.

Getting started

The first lesson is this old chestnut: Fishing isn’t just about catching fish. You probably already know and well appreciate that the journey is less about the destination than the path, and fishing, it often turns out, really is more about the fishing than the fish. Be that as it may, when you do catch a fish, you’ll likely discover that fishing’s one mighty fine expedition.

If you’re in search of fish for the dinner table, trout, catfish, and perch are your best quarry. They’re reliably found in Utah’s freshwater lakes or streams. However, I suggest you focus your early fishing efforts on catching trout. Delicious and abundant, they’re found in waters in every corner of Utah—even Liberty Park Pond—and the skills you gain in fishing for trout will carry over to your pursuit of any other fish.

Fishing for trout can be as simple as a worm on a hook. It does take a day or two to develop the right casting technique, especially with the spinning reel I suggest you use, but after that, you’re good to go wherever the fish are.

Gearing up

First thing you’ll need, of course, is a rod and reel. There are a lot of options, but I suggest you pick up a rod and reel combo-package with a medium-sized open-faced spinning reel that can run 4-pound test fishing line paired with a six- to seven-foot medium-lite action two-piece fiberglass or fiberglass/graphite rod. All this information is printed on the underside of the rod, near the handle. This setup will run you about $50.

Grab a package of 4-pound test line, which is ideal for catching delicious trout, and which a helpful employee will sling onto your rod—don’t try to load the line onto the reel yourself; a package or two of size 8 and 10 snelled hooks, a package of size 8 or 10 snap swivels, a couple bobbers, and a puck of variously sized split shot lead weights.

As for bait and lures, you could do worse than to procure your own earthworms like my dad and I did in the backyard. I also suggest picking up a jar of stink-tastic Berkley Powerbait (I prefer the orange color), a jar of fiery-red salmon eggs, and an assortment of fishing lures. Every angler has his go-to favorites and you’ll eventually have yours, too. I’ve had solid results around here with gold 1/6th oz Acme Kast­masters, 1/6th oz gold-with-red-dots Jake’s Li’l Jake, Jake’s Wobblers in yellow with red dots, and #1 gold Mepps with either a straight gold spoon or one with red dots. Of course, you can just ask the Bubba at the sportsman’s store what he recommends, but this selection will give you ample options for landing fishing on both rivers and lakes.

Where would you like to fish?

If, like me, you suffer from a congenital case of ants-in-the-pants syndrome, stream and river fishing might be your thing. When fishing rivers, you often employ a lure meant to imitate fish prey, usually a smaller fish. You cast the lure in a generally downstream direction and reel it back in against the pull of the water. You do this over and over again, working your way up and down the river, hopefully catching a fish every once in a while.

Fishing ponds and lakes is often a more restful pursuit. While lure fishing isn’t out of the question, especially if you’ve got a boat, it’s more common that a fisherman casts a baited hook out into the water hoping a hungry fish swims by to gobble it up. The idle time between bites can be considerable.

Most sportsman’s shops have display boards with fishing reports from local lakes and rivers. Sure, you can, try your luck and just head out to Wherever Reservoir, especially if fishing isn’t about catching fish for you. Strawberry, East Canyon, Rockport, Deer Creek, and Jordanelle Reservoirs all offer decent lake fishing within an hour’s drive of Salt Lake City, and when the thaw comes, the Uintas’ lakes and streams are a fisherman’s paradise.

The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources keeps fish well stocked in a number of community ponds in Salt Lake County, including Cove Pond, Midas Pond and Willow Park Pond. Never­the­less, your chances of landing fish will improve significantly if you head to some water currently experiencing good fishing action. The reports – which can also be found online at http://wildlife.utah. gov/hotspots—note what kind of fish people are catching, what kind of lure or bait they’re having success with, and where the fishing is best.

All the gear and info you’ve picked up should outfit you to catch trout in a variety of environments, from deep lakes to shallow, quick-running streams.

One more thing: you need to get a fishing license. You can purchase one at any sportsman’s or grocery store. The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources also has developed a handy app on which you can both purchase and display your license. You’re also responsible for knowing and following the state’s fishing regulations, so bone up on those by picking up the latest guidebook when you buy a license.

Tying the knot

Before you even think about heading out the door to go fishing, I suggest you familiarize yourself with your fishing gear and a critically important knot.

If it isn’t already assembled, put your fishing rod and reel together. Guide the tip of the fishing line through the rod’s guides—the progressively smaller eyelets—and tie a swivel onto the end of the line using a Pitzen knot, also called the Eugene bend. If your knots aren’t tied well you can count on losing not just fish, but also valuable fishing tackle. With a swivel tied onto the line and a split shot weight clipped just above it, you’re ready to try casting.

In all likelihood, your first few times casting a rod won’t be pretty. I like to grip the rod and reel with my pinky tucked behind the reel’s support arm. To cast, use your index finger to reach for the line running out from the reel up along the rod and pinch the line against the rod; flip open the reel’s bail arm; take the rod back and up, almost like you’re throwing a baseball, and swing the whole works forward, more with your shoulder than your arm, releasing the line with your index finger at the proper moment. There’s real art in a proper cast, and you’ll feel it when it’s right. It’s like riding a bike: kids learn how to do it everyday, and once you learn how, you never forget.

Time to fish

The most dedicated fishermen wake up well before the crack of dawn to get to the lake before the sun rises. Like many animals, fish feed most actively in moderate weather: not too hot, not too windy, and definitely not too sunny. You can hit some good fishing in the evening, but you’ll find the most success—and the most peace, quiet, and solitude—fishing in the morning on placid days. If you have to travel an hour or more to reach your destination, you’ll likely want to spend two to four hours fishing, to make it worth your while.

A gifted fly fisherman friend of mine said he wouldn’t make a single cast until he actually saw a fish in the water. It’s good advice, but you can also look for ripples where fish are rising to feed and try to cast at them. Most of the time, finding fish is a guessing game with some clues given by nature. Structures in the water—rocks, weeds, logs, and underwater ledges—provide ideal fish habitat. On rivers, look for patches of calmer water in the midst of more tumultuous currents.

And again, don’t be afraid to ask for advice from other anglers. The forums at UtahWildlife.net are a great place to get some pointers and maybe find a fishing buddy.

When fishing with bait like worms, Powerbait, or salmon eggs, especially in large bodies of water, you want to rig your line so as to dangle the bait in the water at the same depth as the fish. The bobber on your line floats on top of the water, and dangling beneath that is your baited hook.

You can definitely land fish in lakes using lures, but they really shine in the river. Depending on the weight of the lure you’re using, you may or may not need to snug a lead weight onto the line. To get the most action out of a lure, cast your line downstream past your intended target, and reel it back in. With any luck you’ll drag the lure past a waiting and hungry fish. It’s much easier to see fish in a river, especially with a decent pair of polarized sunglasses and an elevated vantage point.

Caught one!

If you get a fish on the line, take a breath, and then take a moment to appreciate the magic. This is the addicting part. Don’t reel in too quickly, and don’t yank on the line. Take your time, feel the fish fight, and feel the tension in the line. If it gets too tight, it could snap, so be careful.

Once you land the fish, carefully remove the hook so as not to injure the animal or cause it any additional stress. This is best done by pinching the eye of the hook and pushing the barb in the reverse direction that it entered the fish’s flesh. If the fish really gulped the lure, a hook removal tool or a pair of needle nose pliers come in really handy.

Remember, fish need water. After you’ve taken a picture of your prize, either put the fish back in the water—gently hold the fish underwater until it swims off on its own power—or string it onto a submerged fish stringer while you continue fishing. If you intend to take the fish, you first need to measure it to make sure it meets the regulation size for the type of fish you’ve caught.

When it’s time to go, you’ll have to kill your fish. The most humane way to kill a fish, though violent, is to knock it forcefully between the eyes with a blunt instrument. It’s a cruel punishment to let a fish expire from exposure or lack of water. Put it in an ice-packed cooler so you can keep your catch as fresh as possible.

Whatever the outcome of your first fishing expedition, I hope you enjoy your time spent at the water’s edge, watching the waves lap the shore or the river flash by, wondering where the hell the fish are, and if you do happen to land a fish, here’s hoping it’s a big, tasty one.

Kids and fishing

Most cities in Utah that have Community Fisheries also sponsor a youth fishing club. Youth fishing clubs are open to children 6 to 13 years old. Clubs generally meet once a week for six weeks. The children spend the first 30 minutes of each two-hour class learning about fish, where they live, and how to catch them. Then, adult volunteers help the kids use their new skills to catch fish.

Adult volunteers make the clubs possible. The clubs will only be formed if enough adults sign up to help. DWR personnel provide a one-day volunteer training seminar. You don’t need a lot of fishing experience to volunteer. If you have a positive attitude, patience and good communication skills, you have everything needed to be a great fishing mentor. The DWR can teach you everything else you need to know have a great experience with youth fishing club children.

—Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

For a list of clubs and information on volunteering: wildlife.utah.gov/cf/clubs.php


The Utah Fishing Guidebook (wildlife. utah.gov/guidebooks/2016_pdfs/2016_fishing_low.pdf)

How to Fish for Beginners: Preparing Supplies and Catching Fish


Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Fishing Report: wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots

Learning the Pitzen knot/Eugene bend: youtube.com/watch?v=K_Iwrhce-mo

Gutting a fish: Neither complicated or messy when done right. youtube.com/ watch?v=1Hkt3Q5y84U

This article was originally published on June 3, 2016.