If you’ve been looking at freshwater fishing boats and saltwater fishing boats, but you’re new to the sport and you’ve been wishing there was a beginner’s guide to fishing to help get you started, never fear — we’ve got you covered. Fishing can be quite complex and anglers spend years if not decades honing their skills. But truth be told, once you master the basics you can begin having success right out of the gate. The first and maybe most important fishing tip we can share? Don’t just go fishing for anything, but instead target a specific species and focus your efforts on it.
Below are the top five most popular species to target in freshwater and saltwater.
Freshwater Fishing Top Species:
- Largemouth Bass
Saltwater Fishing Top Species:
- Striped Bass
- Speckled Sea Trout
- Red Drum
Now let’s take a deeper look at each of these species above.
Largemouth bass aren’t just popular, they’re the number-one freshwater sportfish in the nation. They strike with vigor, fight hard, and often treat you to the spectacle of tail-walking across the surface of the water when hooked. Though they’re edible most anglers consider bass a sportfish and release them after the fight. Some of the time-tested lures that are proven bass-catchers include plastic worms, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and topwater plugs. For beginners we’d recommend casting spinnerbaits and/or crankbaits, because both are fairly simple to use. All you have to do is tie them to the end of your line, cast them out, and retrieve them. Remember to try near shoreline structure such as fallen trees or docks in moderate weather, and probe deeper waters when it’s very hot or very cold outside.
Crappie are easy to catch and great to eat, so they’re an ideal fish for beginners to target. The most effective way to get started is to rig a small (1/8 to 1/32 ounce) jig or hook several feet under a bobber, and bait it with a small live minnow. Areas that are likely to hold crappie include slow-moving or current-free waters with standing timber, brush-piles or beaver dams along the shoreline, and bridge or pier pilings.
Many anglers get their start with sunfish. They are usually on the small side, but their redeeming feature is the fact that they almost always seem hungry and willing to bite. Rigging for them is also uber-easy: just put a bare hook (number six or smaller) on the end of your line a couple feet under a bobber, and bait up with a piece of garden worm, a cricket, or a small bit of crawfish tail. You can find bluegills near just about any sort of shoreline structure, around weedbeds, and in shaded areas with overhanging trees during summer.
Trout are quite popular, but we should draw a distinction between wild and hatchery-raised trout. The wild variety can be quite cagey, and isn’t usually pursued by anglers who are just getting started. Hatchery-raised trout, however, are much easier to catch, and are stocked in large numbers in most states. So as beginners, let’s stick with that variety. Most states will publish stocking schedules with dates and locations where trout are being released into a lake, pond, or river.
It’s wise to check these with regularity, and try the spots that were stocked most recently. When you go to one of these spots, simply place a split-shot about a foot above a small number-six or number-eight hook, and bait it with a commercial trout bait. You can buy this stuff in any tackle shop, and it resembles the pellets those trout were raised on. Naturally, as soon as they spot these pellets in the water they’re likely to go on a feeding binge.
Another excellent target for beginners, catfish tend to bite on just about any sort of bait at just about any time. Smelly baits like cut fish are a common offering, but many people also use commercial catfish baits or even raw chicken. They key to catching catfish is to use enough weight to keep your bait right on the bottom, where they feed. Deep holes and channels with snags, rocks, or other structure are usually the best places to hunt for them.
Striped bass, also called stripers or rockfish, are a very popular target in saltwater and brackish bays and rivers, as well as along the coast. We should mention that they’ve also been stocked in many inland reservoirs, so in a way, stripers also count as a popular freshwater species to go fishing for. Because of the various types of environments striped bass are found in, however, how you’ll actually catch them can vary quite a bit.
Many anglers like to use live bait, such as a three- to four-inch baitfish. In most saltwater environments, crab, eels, and squid may also draw strikes. Other people prefer trolling with bucktails, spoons, or artificial eels. And still others cast soft plastic jigs rigged on lead jig heads. All of these methods work, though some work better than others at varying times of the year in different locations and environments.
Flounder (called fluke north of the Mason-Dixon line) may look a bit strange, but just about every angler agrees that they’re among the best tasting fish around. And as a result, they’re incredibly popular to fish for. Since they spend a lot of time sitting on bottom while waiting for a meal to pass overhead, it’s important to keep your bait or lure on or very close to the bottom whenever you’re targeting flounder.
Jigging and trolling techniques will both catch fish, but for a beginner, the best way to get started catching these flat-fish is to get a “fluke killer” style rig, which consists of a spinner and a bucktail hair teaser, and bait it with a strip of squid, a live minnow, or both at once. These fish have a unique way of hitting so we also need to pass on this one critical tip: when you first feel a nibble don’t set the hook, because the flounder probably won’t have the hook all the way in its mouth just yet. Wait until you feel a solid thump-thump-thump, before you jerk back.
Speckled Sea Trout
Speckled sea trout (sometimes called spotted sea trout) are particularly popular in southern climates, but may be found up the coast into the Mid-Atlantic region when the weather’s warm. These fish are usually found in fairly shallow water around oyster bars, grass beds, or along the shoreline, so anglers often fish for them by casting or slow-trolling light soft plastic jigs or buoyant plugs and crankbaits. It’s important to note that this species has a relatively weak mouth, and it’s common for hooks to rip free during the fight. Try to prevent this by using a light drag setting, and never lift the fish’s head out of the water until you have a landing net underneath of it.
Another fish that’s most common in the south but which also works its way north during the summer months is the red drum, or redfish. In many areas they’re found mingling in the same types of places the speckled sea trout are found, although larger “bull” reds can be found in deep, open waters with regularity. In both cases they’ll strike trolled or retrieved jigs, and in the shallows some people target them with cut bait such as mullet or crab. A gold wobbling spoon, however, is a classic redfish lure that works just about anywhere, anytime.
Bluefish are eating machines that rarely hesitate to strike whatever offering you have in the water. However, they also have razor-sharp teeth. They will commonly bite soft lures in half, take the back end right off of a fish being used for live bait, or bite through your fishing line with ease. So for a beginner, it’s important to use lures they can’t chew through like metal spoons. Many anglers also add a length of bite-proof wire leader on the end of the line, when targeting bluefish.
Fishing Gear For Beginners
Most beginners will want to start out with a relatively inexpensive rod and reel combo set that comes ready to fish. But don’t place all the emphasis on price alone, or you’ll likely end up with gear that needs to be replaced sooner rather than later. As a general rule of thumb, if you spend between $50 and $100 you should be getting a combo sufficient for your first season or two on the water. When you feel like you’re ready to graduate to better gear, check out our Best Fishing Rods in 2020 article to get some ideas for upgrading.
The biggest decision you’ll have to make is whether to opt for spinning, spin-casting, or conventional gear. For most people, spinning or spin-casting (push-button) gear is the easiest to start out with. Spin-casting gear, however, is for the most part quite inexpensive and has very crude casting and drag systems. If you’re going to fish more than a few times a year, spinning gear is probably a better option. Conventional gear takes longer to master, but has the advantage of more accurate casting. Also note that if you plan to troll with heavy tackle for fish like those stripers and blues, conventional gear designed for inshore trolling (with a level-winding feature and star drags) are a must-have.
Best Fishing Line
Choosing a fishing line is a decision you may or may not have to make, depending on the combo you purchase. Some come pre-spooled with line, while others need to be spooled at the tackle shop. As a general rule of thumb, remember that braid line has more sensitivity while monofilament line has more stretch and can be a bit more forgiving. As a result, braid often works better when you’re using lures, since you can feel more and set the hook faster. But monofilament is often the better choice for bait angling, when you don’t want the fish to benefit from the enhanced sensitivity and realize that something unusual is going on.
You may also need to choose the strength of the line, which is measured by pounds of test. Your rod and reel will be rated for a certain range, which you should remain within. In fact, you should choose the class of the gear according to which sorts of fish you’ll likely be targeting in the first place.
Here’s a quick run-down on the class of gear appropriate for those 10 most popular fish:
- 4 to 8 pound gear: crappie, sunfish, trout
- 10 to 15 pound gear: largemouth bass, flounder, speckled sea trout, and small to mid-sized catfish, striped bass, redfish, and bluefish
- 15 to 20 pound gear: larger catfish, striped bass, redfish, and bluefish
- 20 pound and heavier: very large catfish, striped bass, and redfish
Terminal tackle is another thing beginners should stock up on. This includes things like snap-swivels, which you can tie on the end of your line to then make fast lure or rig changes; weights of varying types and sizes; rigs used for bait fishing; and hooks.
Finally, you’ll want a selection of lure to get started with. Favored lures vary widely by region, season, and species, and we’d have to write a book to cover them all here. The old standbys we mentioned for the specific species above are almost always going to be a good bet, but beyond these, we’d recommend visiting your local tackle shop and chatting it up with whoever’s behind the counter. Usually, the people working in tackle shops are dedicated anglers who hear all the latest scuttlebutt and can point you in the direction of which lures are hottest, and when.
Hold on just one second — we can’t forget the most important piece of fishing gear of all: your fishing boat. Be sure to check out Fishing Boats: The Ultimate Guide, to get some ideas on just which type of fishing boat will best fit your needs.