Learning To Fish

By Andrew Branson | March 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: March 2021
Learning to fish
Learning To Fish

When it comes to fishing, Missouri has a lot to offer. More than 200 species of fish live in the Show-Me State, and dozens of species offer opportunities for anglers. Seasons and limits are designed to keep the fish populations strong and healthy.

If you want to get started fishing and just don’t know where to start, this article will help. It will provide basic information on fishing gear, methods, and resources. Many people learn to fish from someone else, but you can learn all on your own!


Sporting goods stores often stock mind-boggling inventories of equipment and accessories. Don’t be misled or overwhelmed — you don’t need a garage full of equipment to go fishing.

Fishing gear comes in a variety of styles, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. A simple bamboo pole with fishing line and a hook is just fine for small fish that are close by, but most people prefer a pole with an open-faced reel or a spin-casting reel.

Open-faced reel

The rod is typically held in the right hand with the reel on the underside for both casting and retrieving. Right-handed anglers reel with their left hand. Closed-faced reels with levers are also held in this position.

Spin-casting reel

The rod is held with the reel up. Cast with the rod in the right hand and switch the rod to the left hand before retrieving. Reel with the right hand. (Some reels allow you to switch the handle to the other side of the reel if you prefer.)

You will want a good, all-purpose rod-and-reel combination to start — something that will let you catch fish of all sizes. Look for a medium-light rod from 5½ to 6½ feet long and a matching reel that will handle lines from 4-pound test to 12-pound test. (The “pound test” indicates the strength of the line.)

Tackle Box

Sporting goods stores generally offer simple tackle boxes already filled with the basic items you need. If you would like to outfit your own tackle box, the following items will equip you nicely for your first outing:

  • Bait and lures
  • Hooks in a variety of sizes: Size 6, 16–20
  • Sinkers in assorted sizes of split shot
  • Bobbers
  • Spare fishing line: Monofilament line, 6- to 12-pound test, 4-pound test or less
  • Needle-nosed pliers and nail clippers
  • Tape measure
  • Stringer
  • Landing net
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Area map
  • A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations
  • Know Your Catch fish ID booklet


There are many different fishing knots a person can learn. Here are a couple of simple knots that are very useful:

Arbor knot

Most fishing reels do not come with fishing line. If this is the case, you will need to purchase fishing line and fill the spool on your reel. The arbor knot is used for attaching line to the spool of a fishing reel.

Improved clinch knot

Use the improved clinch to tie on hooks and lures.


Once you have fishing line on your rod and reel, it is a good idea to practice casting before your first fishing trip. This can easily be done in your yard or any open area.

Rather than practicing with an actual lure with hooks, use a rubber or plastic casting plug found at most sporting goods stores, or use an inexpensive lure with the hooks removed. Another option is to make your own practice plug by embedding a hook into the end of a wine cork.

Steps to casting:

  1. Note: Start with the plug hanging 1 inch below the rod tip, and then experiment by slightly increasing this distance.
  2. Grip: Grasp the rod handle as shown in earlier illustrations and place your thumb on the release button of a spin-casting reel without pressing it.
  3. Stance: Face your target with feet shoulder-width apart. If you are right-handed, put your right foot forward. If you are left-handed, put your left foot forward.
  4. Aim: Place the rod in front of your body, pointing at the target. Press and hold the release button with your thumb for a spin-casting reel. For an open-faced reel, open the wire bail on the reel and hook the fishing line on your index finger. Now raise the rod to the 2 o’clock position.
  5. Cast: Hold the rod so that the tip is at eye level and centered on the target. Your elbow should be close to, but not touching, your body. With a smooth upward motion, start the cast by raising your hand almost to eye level, bending the wrist and elbow so that the rod extends over your head and behind you. When the rod reaches the 11 or 10 o’clock position, the weight of the plug will cause the rod to bend to the rear. As it does, bring the rod forward in a crisp downstroke with the forearm, applying only a slight wrist motion forward.
  6. Release: When your rod reaches the 1 o’clock position on the forward cast, release the push button with your thumb, or line with your index finger depending on your reel, and allow the plug to travel toward the target.
  7. Follow-through: As the plug is released, your arm should follow through to about the 3 o’clock position.

Rigging Up


The bait you use depends on the kind of fish you’re after. Bait includes minnows, crickets, grasshoppers, but the best all-around bait is probably a worm. Hook the worm several times through or pinch off part of a large worm and run the hook through it. Use a sinker to hold the hook down and a bobber to set the depth under the water. Be patient and watch the movement of the bobber to tell when a fish is interested in your bait.

Artificial Lures

Fishing with artificial lures can be fun and exciting and is much more active than fishing with a bobber. Artificial lures either float or sink and require you to move the lure through the water to attract the fish. Artificial lures can be retrieved fast or slow.

Tip: Many sinking lures require you to keep your rod tip up, and reel in your lure quickly to prevent it from dragging and getting snagged on the bottom.

Fishing Rules and Regulations

Fishing regulations ensure our fish populations are healthy and long lasting, making fishing better for all anglers. Many public fishing areas have the regulations posted such as size limits of the fish you can keep, but it is good to be familiar with regulations of the area you’re visiting before you go. Fishing regulations can be found at mdc.mo.gov/fishing, or by consulting A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations, available locally where permits are sold and online at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zq3.

Fishing Permit

Everyone over the age of 15 and under the age of 65 must have a permit to fish. The exceptions are residents and member of their household fishing on waters completely enclosed by their property and people with certifiable disabilities. Youth fishing without a permit are limited to using a pole and line, gig, bow, crossbow, snaring, grabbing, and snagging.

Where to Fish

Missouri is blessed with lots of fishable water and has over 1 million acres of surface water. Many public fishing locations can be found at MDC areas, state parks, county and other community lakes, and river accesses. You can find a list of MDC fishing locations through the free MO Fishing app and at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zq5.

Proper Fish Handling

Proper handling will help prevent injury to you and to the fish. To grab the hook, have ready the necessary equipment like a landing net and needle-nosed pliers or a similar tool. To avoid removing the protective slime coating on the fish, wet your hands before touching the fish. Don’t put fingers in their gills or eyes or squeeze them too hard, and leave the fish in the water, if possible.

Grasp small fish around the body, flattening the spines. Some fish, like largemouth bass, can be grasped and lifted by their lower lip. Larger fish should also have their midsections supported.

With catfish, anglers should get a firm grip around the midsection, taking care to avoid the sharp spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins.

Hook Removal

Keep the fish in water or directly in your wet hand. The hook can be removed by carefully backing it out through the hole made in the lip when the hook was set. Hemostats or needle-nose pliers will help to remove hooks set deeper in the mouth, throat, or tongue of the fish. Release fish as soon as possible. There’s time for a quick picture, but the longer the fish remains out of the water, the less its chances of surviving.

If removing a swallowed hook will severely injure the fish, it is recommended to cut the line and release the fish. This will at least give the fish a chance of dislodging the hook, or having it eventually rust away.

You should be ready to grab your gear and head to your nearest fishing hole. But if you feel like you need a little more assistance, visit mdc.mo.gov/fishing. There you will find information on free fishing classes, fishing locations, and more.

Rod and Reel Loaner Program

The Rod and Reel Loaner Program lets you check out free fishing poles and tackle boxes. Offered at more than 100 locations throughout Missouri, the loaner program makes basic fishing accessible to everyone. To find a loaner location near you, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZJq.

Discover Nature — Fishing

Fishing is a great way for everyone to have fun outdoors, learn about conservation, and make happy memories together. Our Discover Nature — Fishing program helps Missourians gain the skills and confidence to go fishing on their own. Classes are free and no special equipment needed — we’ll provide all the gear. For more information, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/Z8Y.

MO Fishing App

MO Fishing lets you buy permits, find great places to fish, and ID your catch. Get it on Android or iPhone platforms at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zi2.

Free Fishing Publications

These titles are available free at many MDC locations. Call ahead for availability. Missouri residents may order a free copy from pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov or by calling 573-522-0108. Provide the publication title and your shipping address.

  • An Introduction to Fishing
  • Know Your Catch
  • A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations

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This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler