The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Fishing

'Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.' - Thoreau

'Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.' - Thoreau

The desire to get fish cannot explain the passion of recreational fishers. If seafood is what you are after, going fishing is about as efficient as raising hens for an omelette. Further, recreational fishers very often practice "catch and release", meaning that they return the fish they hook to the water so that they might be caught again another day. So why do people fish? Some tout the health benefits of fishing, arguing that it can burn calories and raise our levels of vitamin d. But surely the joys of fishing go beyond this.

Neil Dowson is an avid amateur fisher and chef in Prince Edward County, Ontario. So if anyone might be into the link between fish and food, it should be him. Yet when I asked him what I need to know to start fishing, he said the first thing I should remember is that, "You're not going to catch fish every time you go out fishing!" But that's okay, because it's not even about that. When I asked him to explain fishing's unique appeal, the first thing Dowson mentioned was bonding and the social aspect of fishing. He learned to fish with his father and grandfather, and is now passing on the tradition to his own children. But there is also something intrinsic to the activity itself that has drawn in anglers in all times and places. To some, sitting quietly for hours, waiting for fish to bite might seem boring. But in fact, it's precisely this slow pace of engagement that gives fishing it's defining charm. According to Dowson, "Fishing is a well known stress reliever, it's a great way to recharge the mind and body and help restore qualities such as patience and resourcefulness." Even as a chef, Dowson didn't mention fishing as a source of food. In fact, he saw it as an escape from the high-pressure demands of the kitchen. As we will see, he is not alone in his view.  The idea of fishing as a contemplative, restorative, and even spiritual practice runs through the history of literature on fishing.

Also, it's almost a waste of Canada not to fish. Our country is covered in beautiful lakes, streams, and reservoirs, all of which have world-class fishing. And this is not only true of the backcountry. You can catch fish even in Toronto's Grenadier Pond and the Winnipeg River. Provincial governments have also boosted our natural fishing advantages with conservative regulation on recreational fishing. This has allowed stocks to grow, and improves the chances of catching anything on any given day. The fishing in Canada is better than it has been in decades; here's how to get started.


It is impossible to know for certain when people started doing for fun what they had always done for food. There is evidence of fly fishing in Japan in the 9th century BCE and in Europe as early as the second century CE. However, the first extant essay on recreational fishing in English was published in 1496. "A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle",  by Dame Juliana Berners, includes detailed information on how where and when to fish, the construction of rods and lines, as well as "angler's etiquette".

The early literature on fishing shows that our ancestors fished for much the same reasons as Dowson. As Berners put it, "if the angler take fish: surely then is there no man merrier than he is in his spirit". However, even if he does not, "he hath his holsome walke and mery at his ease, sweet air of the meadow flowers… [and] the melodious harmony of fowls." It's the calm enjoyment of nature that makes fishing such an amiable pastime.

The Compleat Angler (1653) was the next enduring classic of early fish lit. It's author, Izaak Walton, raises the ancient philosophical question of which human life is worthiest. Is it the life of action by which men can do good to themselves and their communities? Or is it the contemplative life of the philosopher, in which humans can perceive the divine order of the universe? Rather than choose one or the other, Walton proposes a third: fishing. He regards this as the best because "both [contemplation and action] meet together, and do most properly belong to the most honest, ingenuous, quiet, and harmless art of angling." Walton and Berners agree that the primary benefits of fishing are to the soul. As Walton puts it, "the very sitting by the river's side is not only the quietest and fittest place for contemplation, but will invite an angler to it." It is the kind of situation that readies an angler for revelation.

As the centuries rolled by technology has introduced some changes. Lines are now made of plastics rather than, as sometimes in the past, horse hair. Fishing rods are more often fiberglass than bamboo. However, the essentials of rod, line, and hook remain the same. In fact, the last major change in hook design came when Charles Kirby introduced hooks with an offset point in 1655. Today's anglers share much in terms of technique and enjoyment with their forebears.

What you need to know to get started

Basic fishing technique is fairly simple, but best learned from another person. If you can, bring out someone who can show you the basics. However, there are plenty of resources available online to help the beginning fisher. The Government of Ontario has provided a helpful "Learn to Fish" Guide, available here.

Here are a few techniques you'll need to understand to help you get your first fish out of the water and into a photo of you holding it:

You'll also need to know the rules and regulations governing fishing are in your area. Provincial fishing regulations are available online.

What you need to  have to get started

Dowson told me that all we really need to catch fish is some string and a hook. However, a basic set-up usually includes:

  • Rod and reel: inexpensive starter sets are available at any shop with sporting goods. These are best to start, and usually come pre-loaded with fishing line.
  • Hooks: the size of the hook depends on the size of the fish you are after. Consult the locals to pick the appropriate one.
  • Sinkers: these are small weights that you attach to the line to help your hooks sink to the appropriate depth.
  • Floats/bobbers/corks: when fishing with bait, these are floating devices that attach to your line. They keep the hook close to the surface, and make it easy to see when a fish takes the bait.
  • Bait/lures: to persuade a fish to attach itself to your hook, you need to have something that it wants. One choice is to use bait. A very broad range of things can be used for bait, from kernels of corn, to home prepared goodies. That said, most of the best bait are just gross things: worms, leeches, nightcrawlers, maggots, etc.. Artificial lures which simulate the movement patterns of things fish like to eat are a great alternative. We recommend experimenting with both.
  • Needle-nose pliers: to remove hooks from fish.
  • Nail-clipper: to cut your line.
  • General outdoor stuff like sunscreen and insect repellent.

Aside from the rod and reel, most of your gear can fit in a compact tackle box. Dowson recommends starting with the basics, and add to your collection of gear bit by bit over time.

You also need a fishing license. Rules vary across Canada, so check with your provincial government website to see what licenses you need, where you can obtain them, and what the catch limits are.

What you need to do to get started

Once you've gathered up your tackle, got your fishing license, and decided where you're going to go fishing, you need to do:

  • Get out to the water
  • Bait your hook
  • Cast your line

At this point, you are officially fishing. Now you wait. Don't worry if you don't achieve total contemplative serenity the first time out. It takes time. Also, as Dowson saod, don't worry too much about actually catching fish. It's not going to happen every time.

For a nice step-by-step guide to go from standing on shore to catching and releasing your first fish, check out this video.

Top tips:

Dowson's number one fishing tip is to speak to other fishers and people you find in local fishing shops. They're generally eager to help both with general advice and specific local knowledge.

Here are a couple more to get you started:

  • Try fishing at dusk or at dawn. These are the best times for fishing.
  • Keep quiet, too much noise or commotion can scare fish away.
  • Start small: start out targeting smaller fish. THey are easier to find, and easier to handle when you do. This can help you build skills to chase the bigger game.
  • Finding the right spots: fish like to hang around sunken structures, such as fallen trees, wrecked boats, or sudden drop-offs in depth. Areas where water enters or drains from a lake are also good places to look.
  • Be patient, have fun.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.