Camping & Survival

Survival Fishing: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Fishing rod, spoon, hooks on a brown wooden background. fishing bait. close up. throw-line. fishing rod. Rod on the bridge. Bridge passes through the lake, river. flat lay. top view.

The idea of ending up in a survival situation is a deeply scary thought. However, training for one can be thrilling and empowering. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the great outdoors, is worried about the future, or is simply interested in living off the grid, should prepare for the worst. 

One of the best ways to be prepared for a survival situation is to learn how to catch fish without the modern accouterments of a rod, reel, and tackle. If you’re near any body of water, there’s almost guaranteed to be fish living there. Those fish will probably be your most accessible and reliable source of protein. In this article, we’ll discuss several different techniques for survival fishing and then determine the best ways to maintain a long-term food supply from the marine environment at hand.

Net Fishing 

Using the term “net” broadly, this is a form of active fishing that allows you to potentially scoop up many fish at once, making it much more practical than traditional fishing in a survival setting. Net fishing works equally well in moving or flat water and is one of the best ways to catch guppies, minnows, and other small fish. These may not seem appetizing to you, but they make great bait to use in other fishing methods to lure in larger fish.

Trouts fishing with coopnet. Fish caught into a fishing net.

The only thing you need to be a successful net fisherman is, unsurprisingly, a net, which is a pretty non-specific term in this context. If you have a proper fishing net among your supplies, that would obviously be ideal, and if you have enough fishing line or strong twine to make your own, that’s great, too. Even without these, though, you can have a fair bit of luck net fishing just using a shirt or a good-sized piece of fabric. The only thing that won’t work well is a raincoat, tarpaulin, or other waterproof fabric — you want your net to catch the fish but let the water through; otherwise, it would be too heavy to haul up. 

Once you have your net, this technique is fairly straightforward and relatively easy to do successfully. Start by standing in deep water — deep enough that you have a good chance of catching fish, but shallow enough that you can safely stand in the current and drag your net along the bottom without having to swim. Holding your net along the bottom, walk toward the shore. Once you reach shallow water, pull your net up and admire your catch.


Laying trotlines is something of a middle ground between traditional fishing and some of the more complex live traps described below. Though they can work in lakes and ponds, they’re usually easiest to set up over a stream or other running water. You’ll need a sturdy rope or line, some fishing line or string, and hooks with bait for the lines.

String your strong rope or paracord across a shallow section of the stream a few feet above the water. You want it to be taut, but to still have a little bit of give. Tie hooked and baited fish lines to this rope at intervals of a foot or two and wait. When you come back, your trotline will have hopefully netted you several fish to enjoy.  

Picture shows a drawing of a fishing trotline.
Trotlines allow you to catch fish while tending to other things.

Live Traps 

“Live traps have two major advantages over trotlines,” David Thomas from Everything Fishkeeping says, “they don’t require any specialized equipment, like hooks or fishing line, and they allow you to keep the fish alive.”

The most basic kind of live trap is called a funnel trap. Funnel traps can be made from a discarded plastic bottle or just about anything similar. The first part of the trap is a funnel, which leads into the second part, the container. Fish swim into the funnel but are unable to swim back out because of the narrow entrance.

You can set one in still water, if you put bait in the container. Alternatively, you can set it in moving water and trust the current to guide the fish into the trap. If you are setting a funnel trap in moving water, be sure to secure it and poke holes in the bottom of the container to allow at least some water to flow out, reducing the pressure on the container.  A more complex but larger kind of live trap is called a fish weir. A fish weir uses natural barriers to guide fish into a small, closed-off space where they can’t swim out again, usually because of the current and the size of the opening they came through. You can construct a fish weir from rocks or sticks placed closely together — anything that will let water through, but not large fish. 

Fishing nets - a fisherman's equipment hanging on the fishing boat

Long-Term Strategies 

If you’re in a survival or subsistence situation for an extended period of time, there’s only so much time and energy you can devote to fishing and acquiring food. The rest of your resources will need to go to things such as building a shelter, defending your camp, preparing for weather events, learning the area, and seeking rescue. 

With this in mind, techniques such as spearfishing, hand fishing, and even net fishing begin to look impractical. In a long-term survival situation, passive fishing techniques, like setting traps and trotlines, are the way to go. If you set them up well and check them regularly, these will allow you to catch fish to eat, while also leaving you plenty of time and energy for the other tasks necessary for your survival. 

However, there is still one major drawback to relying on these techniques — your food supply is at the mercy of the environment, and your access to fish could dry up suddenly and without warning. One of the core tenets of successful survivalism is, of course, planning and expecting the worst, and the same is true of survival fishing. 

Traditional Tsonga fish trap built in the Kosi Bay estuary, Tongaland, South Africa
Traditional Tsonga fish trap built in the Kosi Bay estuary, Tongaland, South Africa

One method of dealing with this uncertainty is preserving your fish after you’ve killed them, usually by smoking or drying. However, storing large amounts of preserved food is likely to attract wild animals. A better solution would be to have your own stock of live fish, ready to be eaten.

Despite sounding too good to be true, a live fish store is easy to set up. Using rocks or sticks, set up a small area of your lake, stream, or river that’s closed off from the rest of it, so that water and small animals can flow through, but your large fish cannot. Then, either set up a fish weir or funnel trap to lead directly into this area or transfer the fish you catch elsewhere into it.

You might need to do some management, by adding or removing vegetation or other food sources. However, if you’re lucky, your fish might even start breeding. Then, you’ll have a continuous, self-sustaining supply of delicious dinners ready at a moment’s notice. 

The idea of turning the wilderness into dinner, especially without the benefit of modern tools and tricks, can be daunting. However, the well-prepared survivalist can always eat well, when near a body of water, with these fishing techniques and a little bit of patience. 

Would you rely on fishing during a survival situation? Do you have any other tips for survival fishing? Let us know in the comments.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (4)

  1. Limb lines are another technique that ony requires checking at regular intervals. A spingy limb overhanging the water(within reach) is used to hold your line and hook in the water. A sandwich bag can hold some hooks, line, and split shot. Don’t leave home without it.

  2. Hook and light line;1/4 inch frogs oñ sebiki gold hook,cork set at two feet ,frogs hooked just under tail bone,shore line grass big blue gill!

  3. In my Air Force survival training we were taught to make a long fishnet trap out of parachute cord and suspend it across a stream. According to our instructors, we were going to catch more fish than we could eat. Since such fishing techniques are typically illegal and I’ve not yet been found myself in a desperate survival situation, I’ve never had the opportunity to test their claim.

  4. There is another, natural, method of gathering a quantity of fish from flowing water. This only works during late spring though summer (growing seasons) and was used by Native Americans and requires the use of the black walnut tree. While black walnut nuts grow they are covered with a thick green hull. Collect a good size pile of the green-hulled walnuts and remove the green hulls. Crush the hulls into dime-sized, preferably smaller, pieces. Find a pool of slow moving water and spread the crushed hulls at the upstream side of the pool. Apparently, the chemical reaction restricts the oxygen intake by the fish and they rise to the surface in an effort to “get a breath of fresh air.” They can then be scooped up with a landing net or with a larger net at the downstream side of the pool.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.