Dock Fishing 101: How to Rig, Bait, and Catch Fish Off a DockPublished on 08/21/2023 · 9 min readFishing Expert Christian Nelson explains how to have a great time fishing off a dock and what the best saltwater and freshwater rigs are for doing so.
Photo by Cagkan Sayin
Wherever there’s water, you’re bound to find docks. Aside from docks’ primary use as being a place to board and store boats, they also act as a great refuge for many species of fish and allow an angler to fish further off the shore without a boat. Many docks also have lights that come on at night, attracting small baitfish, which in turn attracts predator fish, creating outstanding opportunities for fishermen. This makes them a great place to relax with a line out and catch some awesome fish. With a very simple setup and a little bit of planning, it is surprisingly easy to catch fish from a dock. Whether it be a small dock on a nearby freshwater lake, a medium-sized dock on the shore of your condo near the beach, or a large public fishing pier on the beach, there are tons of them around that all offer you a shot at getting on some fish!
For starters, you’re most likely going to need a fishing license. Simply purchase a fresh or saltwater license, whichever you plan on fishing, for your state. If you’re visiting a state on vacation, out-of-state licenses sometimes work differently, but you can often buy a pass for just a few days to save on cost! Some big fishing piers on the beach don’t require you to have a fishing license though. Instead, you can just pay for the ability to fish at the dock or pier. If you plan on fishing one of these piers, research ahead to make sure you understand whether you need a state license or not! Most of these piers will also rent you gear, but I highly recommend you get your own for a variety of reasons.
When it comes to fishing off of docks, I personally use it as an opportunity to unwind and relax. This is one of the least intensive and most relaxing kinds of fishing there is, and I believe it’s worth investing in some decent gear. The basics I’d recommend are a good middle-of-the-road spinning combo like this one and some tackle. The tackle you need is really determined by what body of water you’re planning on fishing, as it differs greatly. I’ll break down exactly what bait and tackle you’re going to need based on where you want to fish, but I also highly recommend picking up a few things just to make the experience better! I usually pack a comfortable chair and a cooler with sandwiches, snacks, and drinks. This just makes the fishing more fun! Invite a few friends and grab a BlueTooth speaker, and you’re having a good time doing some summer dock fishing!
Freshwater Fishing From Docks
This is probably the most common type of dock fishing, just because it’s the most available. No matter where you are, there’s definitely a fresh body of water nearby that’s holding fish! Whether it’s a state lake, a nearby river, or a public pond, they all hold fish! State lakes, in my experience, will have the nicest facilities and docks for fishing, though some rivers have established docks for this as well. Any dock you have access to will work, so if you have a pond in your backyard with a dock or you live riverside and have a dock, that will work fine!
Now obviously you can toss a lure and bass fish from boat docks, but personally, I don’t really like bass fishing this way. I reserve this kind of fishing for when I’m more mobile. Species like bass are ambush predators, and having consistent success catching them really comes from your ability to find them. When fishing from a dock, we are trying to target species that are actively hunting food on or near the bottom of the water column.
The main two I recommend targeting are catfish and panfish, as these are the species that really give me that dock-fishing feeling!
For catfish, I really recommend a simple Carolina Rig. Some people really overcomplicate these, adding beads and tons of other flash. Personally, I simply slide a ½ oz weight over my main line and tie a swivel on, then attach my leader to the other end of the swivel and tie a 2/0 circle hook onto the leader. This rig is super simple to rig up and is a time-tested catfish catcher. For bait, you can use almost anything, from hotdogs or cut bait all the way to packaged shad, but my personal favorite is chicken livers. They’re a classic, and they’re great at catching fish, plain and simple. Just cast a line out and wait until you see the rod tip start to bounce, then start reeling—no hookset required with circle hooks! You can even get a little fancy and put clip-on bells on your rod tips as an alarm when you get a bite! For more information on catching catfish, check out this guide.
For panfish, I highly recommend a simple live bait rig. A 1.5-2 in styrofoam bobber works great above a small clip-on splitshot weight and a size 7 long shank panfish hook. Personally, I’m a true believer in live crickets. They’ve worked better than anything else for me! Live worms or even heavily compressed balls of bread will catch fish, too though. Just cast it off the dock, prop your pole up, and watch that cork until it goes down. Some great places to target are anywhere with shade, especially the shade of docks. These darker, cooler waters are a favorite place for panfish to hide. Once that cork sinks, set the hook and enjoy catching that fish! There are also bobber stops that function like glow sticks, allowing you to see your cork while dock fishing at night! I love doing this for catfish as well—just swap that panfish hook for a circle hook under your glow-in-the-dark cork.
Saltwater Fishing From Docks
Saltwater dock fishing is a completely different situation than freshwater fishing, mainly because the potential is now extravagantly greater! New variables come into play here as well, though, like water depth and tides. Saltwater is a much more diverse and all-encompassing environment which allows the angler the opportunity to not only catch more fish but larger fish as well. To me, it’s exciting because you never quite know exactly what you’re going to catch, so every hookup is filled with anticipation and surprise! Personally, I like to throw two rigs that kind of cover all the bases, meaning if a species I want to catch passes by, I have a bait out that stands a chance of getting eaten.
Firstly, for saltwater pier fishing, I like to use the same Carolina Rig that I use for catfish—this time with a weight between 1 and 3 ounces to help keep it anchored in the sand, usually with a braided main line and a monofilament 20-30 pound leader to a circle hook. Focus on casting this rig out to deeper water. Some of the best bait this rig does great with are good live bait or even a big piece of cut bait! This is a great presentation for your bigger predators like snook, grouper, bull redfish, black drum, and sea trout, as well anything else passing by if you use live bait like oysters, clams, shrimp, squid, or various other cut bait!
Beyond that, I like to fish a Fish Finder Rig. This presentation is my go-to for using smaller baits that help me focus on catching a large volume of fish instead of focusing on catching just big fish. I like to call the rod I rig with this the “Action Rod.” This rig catches a ton of fish using live shrimp, dead shrimp, or cut squid for bait. This is great for kids as it offers some constant action, which really just makes it great for everyone! This rig has the added bonus of often catching fish that you can use as live or cut bait or quarters of crabs on your Carolina Rig setup, so there are really no negatives.
Saltwater dock fishing is the most fun for me at night, but the bite is generally great at both dusk and dawn. The temperature is nice and cool, the fish are biting, and most docks have lights that act almost like homing beacons for big fish at night! When searching for the ideal dock to fish on hot summer nights, I primarily look for deeper docks that are situated in deep water. These lights attract the prey, which then attracts your bigger predators to a cool, safe, food-rich environment. This unique situation makes night saltwater dock fishing very explosive and action-packed, especially on a high tide (I would avoid dock fishing on a low tide, if possible).
You can throw some artificials and do great; topwater baits can be especially fun, and a jig composed of a jig head and a soft plastic can do wonders around dock pilings. Soft plastics and hard artificial are great, but for guaranteed success, I recommend a popping cork and a live shrimp, and in a pinch, that live bait rig you used for panfish will work great with a circle hook, as long as you use a leader or have a strong main line. Fish located under these lights get turned on super quick, and with live shrimp, you can pretty much catch them until you’re ready to quit. Almost every time I’ve done this, I’ve had to leave them biting, so expect some consistent action! I mostly catch redfish, speckled trout, flounder, black drum, sheepshead, and mangrove snapper, all of which are fun to catch and make great table fare.
Whether you’re planning on relaxing and enjoying a beach sunset while getting a hook wet, or you want to pull a few catfish from a local lake for dinner, I really hope this article was a good starting place to getting you some fish! There are tons of opportunities to fish all around us, including tons of great docks to cast a line from. The best way to learn is to just grab a rod and reel and some bait and get a line in the water. I’ve provided some of the best ways to get some fish, so now just being out there and being patient will do a lot to get you on the way to some epic fish pics! Check out the Expert Journal here on Curated for more Fishing content.