How to Catch Your First Fish

If you've ever wanted to learn how to fish, this guide is the best place to start. Expert Christian Nelson covers the basics so you'll be catching fish in no time.

A silhouette of a man fishing backdropped by a glowing, orange sunrise.

Photo by Natsuki

From the outside looking in, fishing may seem like an intricate, complicated sport, but it’s not that hard to get set up for your first fishing trip! It can be intimidating at first glance, but fishing is only as complex as you make it. Now is the best time to learn how to fish, and I’m here to make it easy! Equipped with some basic gear, a fishing license, and the knowledge I’m about to lay out for you, you’ll be taking sweet pictures with some fish in no time!

Remember when I said fishing is only as difficult as you make it? Well, we’re going to keep this cut and dry, simple and easy! A spinning combo is the easiest and most versatile rod and reel type to fish when just starting. They are very user-friendly, meaning they’re super simple to learn and handle! Combine this with their relatively small initial investment and a simple spinning combo is perfect for the beginner angler to learn with. There are many more specialized rods and reels that all have their place in different scenarios, but you can always branch out later. Trying these more advanced methods at first can diminish confidence and be demoralizing to a new angler. As you gain some experience and develop the confidence to experiment with new approaches, you’ll be able to expand outward to some other types of fishing! For now, let’s cover the basics.

The Basics of Fishing

Getting a License

Wherever you’re in the country or not, you’re going to need a license to fish! Before heading out to any of your local waters, make sure you have all of the proper licensing required to fish in your area. In most cases, this is simply a residential license for your state, but depending on where you are there may be special daily licenses and permits required. If you plan on fishing outside of your home state, be aware that non-resident licenses are usually a bit pricier, but can usually be bought daily or for set increments of days. If you plan on tackling some local bodies of water, I highly recommend just buying an annual license for your state. Depending on the state, these can be anywhere from under $20 here in Alabama, all the way up to $150 in some areas. I highly recommend an annual license because there is no barrier to entry after that, and, who knows, you might decide you like it and want to go again!

The author holds a slender fish in his open hand. The fish still has a lure in its mouth.

Photo by Christian Nelson

Where to Go Fishing

One thing I have realized over the years is that there is tremendous fishing everywhere, especially right in our backyards. I’m just as guilty as the next guy of daydreaming about exotic fish in faraway lands, but when it comes down to it, there are plenty of great fish all around us! I first learned to fish at a very young age in small ponds around my town, and that is where I recommend any new angler should begin. Almost every town I have been to has a few small public ponds, and if yours doesn’t, I promise there is one within nearby driving range! They offer great fishing opportunities, and many even have docks and piers for some pier-fishing! Small ponds and lakes like these are predominately stocked with largemouth bass, panfish, and catfish, though if you’re based a bit further north, it is very common to see these bodies of water stocked with rainbow trout.

In the beginning, it’s important to just start moving in the right direction, and being in the best location doesn’t matter as much when you’re just trying to catch your first fish, so focus on finding a relatively small public pond or lake and don’t stress about it being the perfect place!

The Gear You’ll Need

Like I said earlier, we’re going to keep this simple! A great place to begin is a middle-of-the-road spinning combo, which is a fishing rod and reel sold together. This is easier because it takes away the hassle and confusion of picking out a rod and reel separately, and a decent setup like this can last for years to come. I recommend a combo that pairs a 2500-3000 size reel with a medium action rod somewhere in the 6’6”-7’0” range. Something like this would be perfect! This size rod and reel combo is ideal for smaller gamefish like bass, panfish, catfish, northern pike, and rainbow trout. This means it will not only allow you to catch your first fish but will also allow you to grow as an angler and try new kinds of fishing with the same gear you already have.

After you’re all set up with a rod and reel, you’ll need some fishing line and some tackle! I recommend 15lb test fluorocarbon or monofilament line to fill up the spool, and I lean towards monofilament because it is more affordable and, for all intents and purposes, it is nearly the same thing and will perform just as well.

As far as tackle, I recommend that any angler looking to catch their first fish keeps it as simple as possible, and to me, that’s a live bait rig. This consists of a cork or a bobber, a small lead or steel sinker (I recommend a simple split shot sinker), and a small panfish hook in size 7. Position the cork on your line with enough line below it to reach the fish—if the water you are fishing is 5 feet deep, there should be around 3 feet of the line below your cork. Next, tie on your hook using a clinch knot or improved clinch knot. Numerous videos can be found on this and it’s super easy! After you’ve done that, clip your split shot onto your line around 6 inches above your hook. While you’re buying tackle, don’t forget you’re going to need a place to store it! There’s no right or wrong tackle box to buy, so pick out one that you like!

Then, all there is to do is put some bait on your hook. I highly recommend live worms for beginner bait fishing—they’re a classic and, no matter where you’re fishing, there’s something that’s going to eat them! Simply thread them onto your hook shank a few times over, and you’re ready to go! I also highly recommend crickets, specifically if you’re targeting panfish. Live minnows also work great. You could always opt to throw lures instead, like a jig for example, but I find that using live baits first is better than using artificial lures because it allows a new angler to build a base level of confidence and come to the realization that fishing isn’t really that hard, and its best to move forward from there.

A man holds a fish in his hand. The fish's mouth is open and its body is about twice the length of the man's palm. Below them are water and a creekbank.

Photo by Christian Nelson

Catching Your First Fish!

So you’ve figured out where you’re going to be fishing, got yourself a license, and gathered all the gear, tackle, and bait you’re going to need; now all there is to do is catch a fish!

Casting

Casting a spinning reel is as simple as rearing back and throwing out your rig! Start with about 6 inches of line between your cork and your rod tip, holding your rod in your dominant hand. A spinning reel uses a bail, which is a thin metal wire arm to keep your line from leaving the reel. To cast, simply flip open the bail of your reel and hold the line between your index finger and the rod. Rear back and throw the rod forward, releasing the line that you were holding with your index finger, and watch your bait fly out onto the water!

As you cast more, finding your release point will become easier, and you will become better at casting longer distances as well as casting more accurately. Target areas where you think fish may hang out. At your local pond, this may be near some grass, weeds, weed beds, under an overhanging tree, or near a submerged tree or stump. You’ll want to focus on shallow water. I would steer clear of deeper water as deep water presents more variables and thus more of a challenge.

Setting the Hook

Once you cast your rig into a promising spot, now you wait for a bite. Your cork acts as a strike indicator—whenever it goes underwater, it means something has the bait and is pulling on your line! When setting the hook, you’re attempting to hook the fish before it can spit out your bait, so be attentive. To set the hook you simply need to make a quick semi-firm motion upwards. Be sure to keep as much slack out of your line as possible to ensure the force you apply is transferred to the hook.

The author holds his fishing rod and reel in his hand along with a small green and gold fish with the lure still in its mouth.

Photo by Christian Nelson

Landing the Fish

Once you’ve got the fish hooked, play him gently to tire him out and avoid breaking your line, while slowly reeling the fish toward the bank. Most any fish you catch on this rig is going to be plenty safe to handle—just be careful of sharp fins, especially those of catfish! Of course, a net can definitely make this easier. Once you’ve landed the fish, be sure to take some good pictures and get a nice, clean release!

While fishing can no doubt seem intimidating at first glance, it is one of the simplest and most enjoyable hobbies out there. It really is as simple as finding a local body of water, getting a fishing license, equipping yourself with some fishing gear, and spending some time out there getting a hook wet! If you need any help finding the right gear for your first outing, reach out to me or one of my fellow Fishing experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.

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Written By
Christian Nelson
Christian Nelson
Conventional Fishing Expert
I have been fishing for pleasure for over 10 years, fishing tournaments and doing some guiding as a side gig along the way. ​ I have caught 50+ species of fish, from rainbow trout to giant sharks, and from bass to monster bull redfish. ​ I have a wide array of knowledge to put you on fish, no matter...
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