Fishing basics: A guide for beginners

Newhoff column: Finding new activities during coronavirus crisis

Fishing can be a fun activity any time, but especially during these days of staying inside and social distancing when ou
Fishing can be a fun activity any time, but especially during these days of staying inside and social distancing when outside. (The Gazette)

Hopefully, the world gets through this COVID-19 crisis in a matter of weeks rather than months and life returns to some semblance of normal.

Hopefully, our country can produce enough medical supplies to provide adequate care for those afflicted. Hopefully, our brilliant scientists and physicians are able to quickly develop effective treatments.

Hopefully, there comes a day soon when no new cases of the virus are reported.

In the meantime, for the sake of everyone, we must live largely in seclusion and follow a set of rules defined by what we cannot do.

So, inside my home I’ve made it my mission to find little things in daily life than I can do.

If my wife tells me not to leave the toilet seat up, I leave it up. If she says I don’t need to eat my entire steak, I clean my plate and ask if I can have hers, too. If she announces we need some exercise, I drive slowly around the block while she walks.

On a more serious note, one thing we can do during these trying times is go fishing. If you’ve never given angling a try, now may be the perfect opportunity to learn a new activity that can serve you for the rest of your life.

An Iowa fishing license costs $22 for those age 16 and older. Anyone under 16 can fish for free, although $14.50 is required for everyone wishing to fish for trout. Beyond that, a little basic information and equipment is all you need.

Successful fishing starts with location. It’s critical for new anglers to enjoy their initial adventures and for kids to stay engaged, and that means finding a body of water close to home with abundant numbers of fish and good access. Consider other activities that can be incorporated into the outing, such as picnicking or playing games.


Quantity trumps quality at the outset, and lakes and ponds are generally easier to fish for beginners than rivers that tend to be more unstable in the spring.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources website offers data on fish populations in most lakes, as well as which ones have fishing jetties or shoreline access along with maps, fishing reports and tips.

Spring is an ideal time to get out. Vegetation that might make shore fishing problematic later in the season isn’t an issue in April or May while fish of all species tend to be more accessible for two reasons.

First, they are hungry after a long winter and feeding actively. Much of their forage relates to shallower water closer to shore that warms faster early in the season. Second, species like panfish and largemouth bass are preparing to spawn in the spring, which also takes place in the shallows and makes them more accessible.

You’ll need rod and reel combos and life jackets for young children. Garage sales and Goodwill are a good places to look for used equipment, or borrow from a family member, friend or neighbor. Young kids do best with simple, push-button spin-cast reels on inexpensive rods about five feet long. They will drop their rods, step on their rods, slam the car door on their rods and they might even accidentally throw it into the lake, so cheap and durable are top considerations.

Kids with a little more experience and coordination should advance to more versatile open-face spinning reels for their all-around fishing needs coupled with longer rods in the 6-6 1/2-foot range.

The other half of successful fishing is the product of presentation. For beginners, species like panfish, bass and catfish are good targets and readily available throughout Iowa.

Next, choose a presentation that fits your means and the species you wish to pursue. Think about what that fish wants to do and what you want it to do.


You may not want to purchase expensive crankbaits, topwater lures or spinnerbaits for bass fishing off a dock or fishing jetty. Live bait is a less expensive way to go at the beginning and hunting crawlers or digging up worms in the backyard can be part of the fun.

Panfish such as bluegills and sunfish have tiny mouths, so choose hooks small enough for them to get into their mouths. They also are notorious bait thieves, so it’s helpful to use longer-shanked hooks that you can thread part of a worm onto rather than leaving most of a whole worm dangling from the hook.

Crappies have larger mouths and tend to bite better on minnows and lures that look like minnows. Bass eat everything and tend to inhale their prey rather than peck at it so larger hooks, larger minnows and full night crawlers are probably better live bait options.

There are two primary ways to rig live bait. For panfish and bass close to shore, a bobber setup is a good choice. Determine the depth you want to fish and set the bobber so your bait is about 6 to 12 inches off the bottom to help avoid any brush or decayed vegetation. Add a couple of split shot between the hook and the bobber to keep your presentation vertical, which also will help you detect light bites.

Other species, like catfish, may require a different type of setup. They may be in deeper water and they may be more isolated and not feed as aggressively as competitive panfish that hang out in groups. Thus, a sinker rig can be the right call. Slide an egg sinker up the line, add a barrel swivel that keeps the sinker away from the hook, tie on a leader of two feet or so and tie your hook to that baited with anything from shiners or minnows to stinkbait, chicken liver or crawlers. You’ll be able to cast this rig farther and when you detect a bite, you can free-spool your reel and let the fish think he’s made off with your bait before crossing its eyes with a good hookset.

If you plan to keep fish to eat, care for them properly. Get them on ice if it’s going to be an extended period before you get them cleaned. Know the regulations and size limits on the body of water you are fishing. Keep what you can eat and eat what you keep.

Get out and give it a try. And don’t forget to put the lid down on the toilet.

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