Survival Fishing

Posted by Kevin Estela on Jun 2nd 2022

“Want to know how to catch fish, learn from poachers.” I’ve said it over and over in my survival courses. There is a direct correlation between what is illegal and what is effective. Think of the most extreme cases. In my younger juvenile years, I watched a guy tape a M80 firework to a rock and throw it in a creek. The concussive blast was enough to bring fish to the surface. I was left speechless but I can’t deny the effectiveness of what he did. Highly illegal, fishing with explosives IS effective but hardly sporting. For this reason, there are sport fishing laws in place to hopefully dissuade this behavior. These laws prevent overfishing, injuring fish, and destroying a vital part of our ecosystem. Then again, fishing laws are only valid in non-emergencies. If you find yourself in a true survival scenario, I hope you would do whatever it takes to put food on your table. As a lifetime avid angler of both salt and freshwater and a survival instructor who has had the opportunity to test equipment and methods for their efficacy, I want to share my preferred equipment for catching fish. Note, this equipment is only part of the equation. You must learn fish habitat and techniques to truly be effective.


There is no natural primitive or traditional fish hook that outperforms a modern fish hook. Modern fish hooks are a marvel of technology and are much stronger today than years ago. There are also so many varieties like dry fly, bait-holder, treble, and larger gaff hooks that should be carried to improve your chances of success. Primitive hooks or makeshift hooks as you’ve probably seen made from safety pins and soda can tabs don’t work near as well as a purpose-built hook. I’ll gladly challenge anyone to a fishing derby of sorts to prove me wrong. You can carry fish hooks package taped to a piece of Rite-in-rain paper like poor-man’s laminating and push the hooks through the back. They can also be organized on a paperclip or safety pin to keep them all in one place. Hooks are one of those items that are inexpensive enough for everyone to own and no one to argue otherwise about.


Fishing line is another modern marvel I can’t live without. For survival fishing, you want to choose the strongest and most durable line. For me, that usually means either a 30 or 50 pound braided line. This line requires care when it is handled as a running fish can pull it from your hand and through your hand. I will gladly accept that risk since this line is also a weed killer and fish that have run to the weeds for safety weren’t safer from my retrieve since the braided line cuts nicely through underwater vegetation. Modern fishing line can’t be bested by anything primitive for strength, diameter, or durability. It should be carried into the field and spread out on your person and throughout your kit in a variety of ways. Think about spooling it on a hand line and you will have a safer handle to fight your fish with. For a survival fishing kit, braided line makes sense and traditional monofilament is still popular with sport fishing. Learn which works best for each application. A final thought about fishing line. Good fishing line comes at a premium. Pay it and it will be worth it!


Lead is the best sinker for the money. Sure, there are waters that have prohibited the use of this toxic substance but modern non-toxic weights aren’t as heavy for the size or work as well. Also, those no-lead laws won’t carry any authority if you really need your fishing kit in an emergency. For survival fishing, split shot sinkers make the most sense and if you are near a larger body of water and need to send your line further into the water, think about adding a couple larger bell sinkers that can be threaded with paracord and thrown underhand out to deep water. Don’t go overboard with your sinkers/weights as they can weigh your kit down. In a pinch, you can always improvise weights in the field with pebbles and duct tape. Sounds crazy, looks stupid, but it works and therefore it isn’t crazy.


There is a stigma against fishing with floats or bobbers. Some would call it juvenile or unskilled. Who needs to see something on top of the water when you should be feeling the reaction of the fish underwater? Fishing floats are excellent for survival fishing because they can take the place of a fishing weight/sinker and help you cast your line further from shore. They can be used to float bait along a current and keep your precious hooks and other tackle from snagging on the bottom. Floats offer the survivalist an incredible advantage but they do take up space. An alternative is to use small party balloons in your kit that can be inflated by the water when they are needed.

Snap Swivels

An underrated item for survival fishing is the simple snap swivel. Designed to link eyelets to line and prevent your line from snagging, these absolutely belong in your survival fishing kit. Snap swivels can be pushed through the outer braid of paracord and used as the drop lines on a long-line or trot-line setup. These swivels have use outside of fishing when used for trapping to prevent your snares from twisting too much. Pack them. You will not be sorry.


Lures come in many different shapes and sizes to imitate what a fish consumes above and below water. Spoons are reflective and work well in both freshwater and saltwater. Spinners have hair attached to their treble hooks and also work extremely well. Walk the aisle of any good sporting goods store and you’ll find plenty of options. Remember, when you are using lures, you must retrieve them and even though you probably don’t have a traditional fishing reel, you can still work jigs up and down and with a large enough arbor, you can retrieve a hand line pretty quickly. Now, if you have a traditional rod and reel, you will find you can definitely put a hurting on the fish population and put food on the table easily. Vary your retrieval slow, fast, and erratic. Mimic an injured fish or a drowning terrestrial with different movements of your rod tip.

Live Bait

If you have ever seen the movie, “A River Runs Through It”, you know the disdain the Maclean brothers have for bait fishermen.There’s a great scene where they say a guest fisherman will probably show up with a can of worms. In the fishing community, there is no doubt a clear divide between those who use artificial flies, lures, attractants and those who use live bait. Some believe using a baited hook is cheating but in a survival fishing scenario, there is no such thing as unfair. On many camping trips, I’ve turned over logs and looked under leaves to find bait for fishing. Earthworms, grubs, crickets, and even small minnows capture the attention of fish and give off a scent most artificial baits cannot. Since live bait will actively work to get off your hook, use baitholder hooks with additional barbs along the shaft to secure it in place. Use discarded trash containers to store your bait and be mindful of the conditions you’ll need to keep it alive. Realize some fish, like trout, can be finicky with bait and a smaller offering may be more tempting than a larger one.


Even if you are a seasoned fisherman who prefers baitcasting or spinning, consider carrying some fly-fishing flies with you. It is hard to beat an elk-hair caddis, wooly bugger, and terrestrials like the ant and pink worm. You can use a water-filled float with a long leader to send your fly out further from shore. Traditionally, fishing flies are cast out on a heavy line that helps propel the fly away from the angler. If you are without a traditional rod and reel, you will need to improvise. On the 72 hour challenge last summer, I used a 9’ long sapling to reach out over the creek nearby. The length of the sapling allowed me to flop my fly upstream and let the moving water carry it until it stopped in the slow water. Flies can be fished on the surface as well as subsurface and one must remember a fish’s diet is mostly subsurface. For this reason, the wooly bugger is one of my all-time favorite flies whether I’m fly fishing or ultralight spin fishing.


You only need to lose a nice fish once to understand the importance of a net. Designed to help you land the fish and secure them, a fish net may not be the easiest thing to pack into the backcountry but it’s worth its weight in protein. If you cannot sacrifice the space for a complete net, at least pack the netting in your kit and build a frame from a couple bent saplings. The alternative to using a net is to either gaff the fish through the body with a makeshift gaff pole made from a sapling and a large salt-water fish hook or pulling the fish further up on the bank where you are. Look at most indigenous fishing tribes around the globe and you’ll see some form of net technology. These will range from simple scoop nets to long extensive gill nets. In a pinch, you can make your own gill net with the outer braid of paracord as the horizontal upper and lower strands and the inner cords as the vertical strands making up the grid. Pound for pound, nets work well if they are placed well.


Fish traps are typically cone shaped and they go by many names around the globe. The variation my father made in the Philippines and taught me is called “bo bo” and it works well in slow water. Other variations utilize only a singular cone shape and rely on a fish swimming into the funnel and being unable to reverse course against the interior walls and current. I’ve had luck with the double funnel version my father taught me on the CT shoreline to catch many bait fish. Truth be told, I find these traps work better for smaller critters like baitfish and small crustaceans than anything substantial. Still, eat enough small fish and you can fill yourself better than the large fish you didn’t catch.

Traditional Rod and Reel

If given the opportunity to pack a dedicated rod and reel for survival fishing, I would not turn it down. Handline fishing gets old. Sure, it works but I would rather have a purpose-built tool than something improvised. Consider this, there is a concept in combatives that prescribes “better weapon, better position”. What’s better than a handgun? A rifle. What’s better than being out in the open? Behind cover. We can apply this mindset and drive for improvement in all of the gear we use. What is better than a hand reel? A mechanical reel that retrieves more easily and efficiently. What is better than a single fishing pole? Two. Once we realize a standard fishing pole can cast more accurately, help fight fish, and improve our chances, we won’t want to be without one if we must live off the land. My personal favorite setup is a two-piece 6’ or 7’ ultralight fast action St. Croix rod paired with an ultralight Shimano Stradic reel. Pricey, yes but a good reel will pay off if you are fishing for species that like to run. I use a 6 pound test line with a 4 pound fluorocarbon leader. Another popular rod I often pack into the backcountry is a travel rod from St. Croix that doesn’t feel like a multi-piece rod when it is assembled. As long as you do your part, your fishing gear will not fail you and I’ve pulled in much larger fish using proper drag on my reel than one would think is possible.
If I had my way, I’d pack a Fishpond USA net with a small soft-sided tackle box filled with my preferred tackle to set up salmon egg drift rigs as well as Carolina Rigs. I’d have Mepps Rooster Tails and at least one of the patterns would be the mini minnow Comet model. I’d also have a number of assorted flies including floating bass poppers. I’d include a small folding filet knife from Havalon and a tent-peg stringer to make sure my fish doesn’t get away. If I had my way, I’d love to be stranded near a highly aerated creek and know exactly what is needed to land the fish that live in those waters. Then again, I can’t have my way and in an emergency survival fishing scenario, Murphy’s law will definitely come into play. Since that is the case, I’ll continue to practice with bare minimum tackle and have fun learning how to stretch the capability of limited resources.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, the suggestions here primarily deal with fishing hardware. You can have all the best kit and still not be able to land what you need to eat and thrive if you don’t match your tools with the best software. My recommendation is to learn how to fish from those already skilled and seek out professional guidance. You might want to avoid learning from poachers like the one I witnessed as a kid but don’t discredit their methods as they are effective. You’ll just have to answer to the law if you decide to use those in a non-emergency scenario. Consider a day-rate guided fishing trip a learning experience and tip your guide if he/she puts you on the fish. This survival skill is one you can practice all around the world and the opportunities it brings for travel and adventure are well worth the investment in quality gear. I hope you get out on the water and if you happen to find a great fishing hole, don’t hesitate to share it with me in a DM.