Know the Slang: A Guide to Fishing TermsPublished on 05/22/2023 · 16 min readFishing Expert Alex Johnson breaks down fishing lingo, covering everything from gear terms to slang so you can feel comfortable on the water and in the bait shop.
Photo courtesy of PxHere
“Thanks, and good luck guys. What are you going after?” asks the bait shop owner.
“Bass this morning. Figured we’d try some points and drop offs with drop shot and see what we can come up with,” answered the patron.
The owner replies, “A couple of guys came through yesterday—said they did pretty well on the windward side of the lake with Rattle traps, but with it being so hot, going deep sounds like a good plan.”
“We’ll have to give those a try too, thanks for the tip. We’re willing to try anything to not get skunked!”
To the untrained ear, this hypothetical conversation that could happen anywhere in the U.S. might sound like a foreign language. What’s a drop shot? Point? Drop off? What’s a rattle trap? What’s windward mean? And what does getting skunked mean?
Fishing has a language all its own, and it varies greatly by region and activity. If you’re new to fishing, this lingo may seem daunting and make it hard to fit into the crowd. As a novice angler, you don’t want to miss out on any tips and advice just because you don’t fully understand the lingo. As with all things, understanding fishing lingo will take time, but with my info, hopefully, it’ll give you a starting point to reference so you don’t miss out!
Fishing, namely recreational fishing in our case, has a long and diverse history, and the activity itself comes with a myriad of technical terms, definitions, and slang. A well-rounded angler will be able to understand some basic lingo in a handful of categories essential to the activity of recreational fishing. Gear, fish anatomy, nautical terminology, slang or jargon, and landscape and water terminology are the main components of recreational fishing that have their own unique language. Understanding the language will make you a better angler, storyteller, and make you feel like part of the fishing community.
Gear and Technique Lingo
Fishing gear and techniques are, without contest, the most varied and technical part of fishing lingo. There are countless different lures, types of tackle, line, rods, reels, etc that exist from a wide variety of different manufacturers that span more than a century, and there are many ways to catch fish. No one expects you to know every lure, method, or piece of tackle that has ever existed (I certainly don’t), so here are some basic fishing terms to get you started.
Artificial Lure: An artificial bait, usually constructed from wood, plastic, metal, or foam to trigger a strike from a predatory fish. Lures use vibration, flash, and/or color to mimic prey.
Bag Limit: A bag limit is the number of fish that an angler is allowed to keep on any given day.
Bait: Any organic or live material used to entice a fish into biting a hook. Common examples include worms, small fish, or hot dogs.
Bead: When rigged against a weight, beads create a sound that adds to the attraction power of any fishing rig. In trout and salmon fishing, a bead can be used as an artificial lure that mimics an egg.
Bobber: Otherwise known as “floats,” a bobber is a floating object meant to keep a bait suspended in the water column, and to indicate bites. Usually made of foam, cork, or hollow plastic or wood in bright colors for high visibility.
Carolina Rig: A Carolina rig features a sliding weight tied above a swivel which is tied to a leader with a hook tied at the end. This allows fish to pick up the bait without feeling any resistance on the line.
Chum: Cut or ground-up pieces of baitfish that are thrown overboard. The oils and scent of the chum are used to entice game fish to come close to the boat for a better chance of a hook-up.
Downrigger: A device used while trolling that brings the line and bait down to a desired depth. Downriggers are secured to a boat and consist of a large weight connected to a down line (usually wire), and a reel.
Drop shot: A common and simple rig consisting of a hook tied to be suspended above a weight at the bottom.
Dry Fly: A dry fly imitates a fly or insect floating on the surface of the water.
Fly Fishing: A technique that uses heavily weighted line to cast lightweight lures called flies. Fly fishing is most often done in rivers for trout.
Fly Line: The wide diameter, usually colored, line that allows for the casting of flies.
Hook: Probably a no-brainer, but hooks are bent pieces of metal with a sharp point, typically featuring a barb so the fish will stay on the hook. They come in many shapes and sizes.
Line: The cordage that you tie on to lures or rigs to catch fish. Countless colors and line strengths are available these days to take on just about anything that swims. Fishing line is made most commonly from monofilament, fluorocarbon, or braided nylon. Each line material has its own attributes and downsides depending on the application. Read How to Choose the Right Fishing Line for more information.
Nymph: A nymph is a type of sub-surface fly fishing lure that is designed to imitate an insect.
Outrigger: In offshore fishing, outriggers extend away from either side of the boat. Usually made of fiberglass or aluminum, these poles allow anglers to troll live bait or artificial lures at varying distances away from the boat.
Planer Board: A floating board attached to a fishing line in order to move or “plane” multiple lines away from the boat while trolling to cover a wider area.
Plug: Plugs are hardbody fishing lures designed to mimic a wounded baitfish. A crankbait could be considered a plug, but the term "plug" is usually used to describe lures that are used in saltwater.
Reaction Bait: Reaction baits are designed to trigger instinctual reactions from predatory gamefish. Examples of reaction baits include spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and chatterbaits.
Retrieve: The retrieve refers to the way an angler cranks the handle of the reel and moves the bait or lure through the water. This can be slow and steady or it can be fast and include some pauses.
Rig: Basically anything that is tied with a fishing knot onto a main line with the intention of catching a fish. Rigs can be as simple as a line tied to a hook with some bait on it, or as complicated as multiple hooks, weights, lines, and floats.
Sinker: A weight used to help a rig sink. Often made of lead or tungsten.
Skirt: A skirt is comprised of thin rubber strands tied around a jig head. A skirt adds secondary action to a jig while filling out the profile of the lure.
Spinner Blades: Usually found on a spinnerbait, a spinner blade is a thin metal blade that rotates underwater which reflects light and creates a commotion that attracts fish.
Tackle: The bits and pieces, or odds and ends, of fishing gear. Things like hooks, sinkers, swivels, and other essentials for rigging are all considered tackle (a.k.a terminal tackle).
Texas Rig: A Texas rig consists of a bullet weight, glass or plastic bead, and a hook that can be rigged up with a variety of soft plastic baits. A Texas rig is most commonly used with a worm or craw-style bait.
Trailer: Usually imitating a baitfish, a trailer is a soft plastic lure rigged on a jig head or reaction bait to fill out the profile of the lure.
Trolling: Trolling is a technique that involves pulling a rig or lure (or multiple at a time) through the water at a specific speed and depth via the use of a boat.
Umbrella Rig: An umbrella rig is a system of wires, blades, hooks, and swimbaits designed to imitate a school of baitfish. Umbrella rigs are commonly used to catch largemouth and smallmouth bass along with striper.
Wacky Rig: A wacky rig is a finesse presentation, usually used in bass fishing. A wacky rig features a soft plastic worm rigged through the center. The ends of the worm wave as it sinks which appeals to bass and other species of fish.
Waders: Waders are designed to allow anglers to enter shallow water while protecting their clothes and shoes from getting wet. Waders are often used when fly fishing for salmon, steelhead, and trout.
Rods and Reels
There are some more terms related more specifically to fishing rods and reels that are helpful to know too. These include:
Backlash: Sometimes called a bird's nest, a backlash is typical of baitcasting reels and happens when the spool moves faster than how fast the line is able to move out and tangles. It's one of the biggest headaches for bass anglers in particular.
Bail: A round metal mechanism (specific to spinning reels) that holds the line in place and guides the line onto the spool. When engaged, or flipped, the line will run free in order to make a cast.
Drag: Adjustment on fishing reels that determines the amount of friction required to pull the line out without opening the spool. Drag can be easily adjusted, and each reel has a maximum drag (in pounds) that varies based on the specifications of the reel. Drag helps bring in bigger fish that would otherwise break the line.
Magnetic Brake: This setting is most common in low-profile baitcasting reels. It adjusts how easily or fast the spool will move. When adjusting the magnetic brake, it’s best to adjust based on the lure that’s tied on to prevent backlashes.
Reel Handle: Mechanism of a reel that turns the spool and/or bail to reel in line, sometimes also called a crank.
Reel Seat: The part of the rod where the reel is mounted and secured to the rod
Rod Power: A rod’s power is its resistance to bending under a given amount of weight. The higher the rod power, the more weight it can cast and vice versa.
Rod action: Rod action is the amount of give or bend at the rod tip. A faster action will have less of a bend at the top of the rod than a slow action.
Spool: Cylindrical component of the reel that holds the fishing line.
For some more specific definitions, click the word below and you will be directed to the actual product. With specific pieces of gear, it is best to have a visual aid!
Bait and Lures
- Deep-diving crankbait
- Flipping jig
- Glide bait
- In-line spinner
- Jig head
- Lipless crankbait
- Paddle tail swimbait
- Square bill crankbait
- Soft plastic craw
- Soft plastic stick bait
- Tube jig
- Twister tail
- Circle hook
- Offset worm hook
- Treble hook
Rods and Reels
Swivels & Snaps
Weights & Sinkers
- Drop shot weight
- No-roll sinker
- Split shot sinker
Landscape and Water Terminology
Another aspect of fishing lingo that can be confusing is landscape and water terminology. Knowing these terms will help you better understand the fish you’re going after and what habitat they prefer, and it will also help you communicate with fellow anglers. These terms can vary regionally in what they’re called and how they're pronounced, but understanding the basic definitions will give you a leg up and help you better understand your surroundings.
Bay: An area of a much larger body of water that is surrounded by land except for a small area that leads out into the larger body of water. Bays are most common in coastal areas, but also exist in large bodies of freshwater, such as the Great Lakes.
Brackish Water: Found in coastal areas, brackish water is a mix of fresh and saltwater as seawater is filtered and mixes with fresh water as it moves inland.
Creek: A small version of a river. Creeks branch from major and tributary rivers, and are typically not navigable by anything larger than a canoe or kayak. They are also called a brook or a stream depending on the region. Sometimes pronounced as “crick”.
Cut Bank: A landslide or cliff-looking feature on a creek or river. Cut banks usually indicate a deep hole beneath them, and are typically found where the river suddenly bends.
Drop Off: A sudden/abrupt change from shallow to deep water.
Eddie: A slow-moving, deep area of a river adjacent to fast-moving water.
Flat: A large and shallow area of a body of water with minimal structure aside from aquatic vegetation. Common in coastal areas and popular habitat for sportfish such as redfish, tarpon, permit, bonefish, etc.
Jetty: A long and narrow man-made structure made from boulders or large slabs of concrete. Jetties extend from the coast out past the surf break in order to create a shipping channel to allow commercial vessels into intercoastal waterways. Jetties are common along the Gulf Coast and are popular fishing spots.
Lake: Pretty straightforward, but a lake is an inland freshwater body of water, typically naturally occurring, and of a larger size.
Main Lake Point: A peninsula in the larger area of a lake. A point will often have shallow water surrounding and extending from the point with deeper water on each side.
Oxbow: A small crescent-shaped body of water, typically adjacent to a river, that is created by a river flooding and receding.
Pier: Man-made platform that extends far out into a body of water. Usually constructed out of wood or concrete. For more information on fishing off of a pier, check out this article.
Pond: A small, almost always man-made body of fresh water. Fish are present through manual stocking in most ponds.
Rapids: Fast-moving water on a river caused by changes and bends in the river's shape. Also called a ripple or run depending on the region and individual.
Reservoir: A large inland body of water that is man-made via the damming of a creek or river. Reservoirs are built for the purpose of flood control, hydroelectric power, water supply, and/or recreation.
Rip Rap: A man-made bank/shore on a body of water that consists of rocks or boulders to prevent overflow and erosion.
River: A naturally occurring long and narrow body of moving water. Rivers are typically categorized as major (also principal) or tributaries (branches from major rivers).
Thermocline: The thermocline is a specific depth at which the water temperature drastically and abruptly changes to a much colder temperature.
Not all, but a large majority of fishing takes place on a boat. Marine vessels and culture have a language and history all its own. Though you don’t need to be an expert mariner to catch fish from a boat, knowing a few basic nautical terms will help you feel more at home on the water and operate safely.
Aft: Directional heading of behind when facing the bow.
Beam: The width of a boat measured at its widest point.
Bow: Front part of the boat when a vessel is under power/moving.
Fathom: The unit of measurement for water depth. Not typically used for recreational fishing. One fathom is equal to six feet.
Fore: Directional heading of forward when facing the bow.
Gunwale: The side or upper edge of a boat.
Leeward: Direction of facing away from the wind.
Port: Left side of the boat when facing the bow.
Starboard: Right side of the boat when facing the bow.
Stern: Back part of the boat when a vessel is under power/moving.
Transom: Flat surface on the stern of a boat where an outboard motor is typically mounted.
Windward: Direction of facing the wind.
Fish Anatomy and Biology
If you expect to catch fish, you need to understand their makeup to better comprehend how they operate in their environment. Every fish has similar anatomy, but the features and adaptations for each species vary, and knowing them will help you better understand them. See the graphic below to see the different aspects of fish anatomy:
The parts of a fish include the maxillary, preopercle, gill plate, pectoral fin, pelvic fin, anal fin, caudal fin, adipose fin (not all fish have these), dorsal fin, and the lateral line (how fish feel vibrations in the water).
Other Useful Fish Biology Terms
Anadromous: A fish that lives primarily in saltwater, but travels up freshwater rivers to spawn.
Catadromous: A fish that primarily lives in freshwater, but travels out into the ocean to spawn.
Spawn: The time of year when fish deposit sperm and eggs in order to reproduce. The exact time and ideal conditions for spawning vary by location and species.
Last, but certainly not least, are fishing slang terms. As mentioned before, recreational fishing is a culture all its own, so naturally, slang and jargon have come about over the decades. If you don’t know the slang, it can be really confusing in conversation with experienced anglers, but knowing some key terms is a fun way to help you understand your fellow anglers and help you feel like part of the fishing community.
Not surprisingly, many fishing slang words are used to describe a big fish (a fish that’s considered big is relative, of course). These words include, but are not limited to:
- Pig, toad, monster, mondo, tank, slab, hog, lunker, donkey, hog (or hawg), fatty, and bull.
Other slang words include, but are not limited to:
Angler: Gender-neutral term for a person participating in the activity of fishing. “Angler” typically signifies someone fishing recreationally, as opposed to for commercial purposes.
Bronzeback: Smallmouth bass.
Bucketmouth: A big bass, namely a big largemouth bass.
Channel Bass: Red Drum or redfish.
Chicken: Mahi Mahi or Dolphin.
Chromer: Steelhead trout. An anadromous form of the rainbow trout.
Dink: Small fish.
Ditch Pickle: Largemouth bass.
Fish of 10,000 Casts: Muskellunge or Muskie.
Football: Large smallmouth bass.
Googan: Unlicensed and/or lackadaisical angler.
Graph: Fish finder/sonar.
Gravel Lizard: Walleye.
Honey Hole: A honey hole refers to an angler's go-to spot for catching fish. This is usually a prized spot that anglers won't share with anyone else.
Logs: A large barracuda.
Shovelhead: Flathead catfish.
Skam: Another name for a steelhead.
Skunked: Failing to catch any fish on a particular outing/trip.
Stacked: An area/location where all the fish seem to be on a given outing/trip.
Paper Mouth: Crappie.
PB: Personal best.
Rattle Trap: A brand of lipless crankbait (branded as Rat-L-Trap), but sometimes used to refer to many brands of lipless crankbaits.
Spooled: When a big fish pulls so much drag it takes out all of the line from the spool of the reel.
Walter: Another name for a Walleye.
Wiper: Hybrid striped bass (a cross between a striped and white bass).
Yellowbelly: Juvenile bullhead catfish.
Fishing terminology is incredibly diverse, constantly changing, and it seems that new words are added to the vocabulary every year. Hopefully, these terms will give you a good start and will help you not feel so lost if you’re a new angler. The great thing about the fishing community is we are, well, a community! We are always willing to help new anglers or anyone wanting to learn more about our passion.