When fishing becomes all about the gear, I lose interest in fishing. To me, fishing should involve the least technology possible. I’ve gone through several cycles of fishing in my lifetime, and each peaked with an accumulation of specialized fishing gear that I just didn’t want any more. When I reach that point, I give my gear away to somebody with kids so they can addict the younger generation to fishing gear without spending as much money.
Not fishing is about as entertaining as fishing, on most days. Instead of hunting for fish, I get to observe fish and fish habitat, without all the pressure of wanting to actually catch something. It’s like hunting without carrying a rifle, any woodsman knows that if you go into a forest without firearms you’ll see an amazing amount of game. Everything comes out and stares at you. Go back the next day with a rifle and you won’t see a sign of any living, edible creature. Critters know what a rifle means.
When you reach your fishing spot, unwind some line, clamp a sinker on it, and set your bobber to hang the bait as deep as you want it. Then pay out line as you extend the sections of the pole. They don’t need to be really tight, just snugged together lightly. You want to be able to collapse the pole again without breaking it. I used a light sinker and bobber rig that barely took the slack out of the line still running along the pole, and the line did sag a lot when the rig hit the water, but it was workable. You can adjust that slack somewhat by winding line on the cleat, but you don’t want the pole tip to affect the bobber and the bait. You just want the tip ready to set the hook with a quick flick of the wrist. Too much slack line makes you miss strikes. Clean any dirt off the pole before you collapse the sections, or the next time you set it up, the sections will jam together somewhat permanently, a common problem with any telescoping pole.
Rigging the Wonderpole or Durango — I thought I should clarify how this was done since most people don’t fish with cane poles any longer. The only line guide on the pole is a ring at the very tip. Tie the handle end of the fishing line to one end of the line cleat on the butt of the pole and wrap about fifty turns of line onto the cleat, just to give yourself some spare line for when that big fish breaks loose and you want to try again. The action of the Wonderpole is very limber so I rigged it with six-pound test line. If you catch a fish of three pounds I’d advise playing it into shore and not lifting it out with the pole, it’s a panfish rig and parts of it are comparable to an ultralight. When you’ve wound the line onto the cleat, open up the rod tube and find the tip of the pole. Unwind enough extra line to go the length of the extended pole and about six feet beyond — you can wrap it temporarily around the cleat while you’re finishing the rig and testing things. Run the line through the guide at the tip and tie a hook on the line end. Extend the pole and unwind the line as you go. The hook will keep it from falling back through the tip guide. If it looks good, you can finish playing with it and wind the line up again as you collapse the sections. Cap the base tube and run the hook through one of the hook keeper holes on the line cleat. Wind any slack onto the cleat to keep it all neat. You don’t need to take the line out of the tip guide for storage, the cap fits anyway.
With fish it’s a little different, and the change isn’t so much in the behavior of the fish as in your own behavior and your own perceptions, when you’re just observing and not concentrating on fishing. You lose the old rules and the old habits and start noticing the bigger picture. You notice new places that look like they’d be good fishing holes, instead of returning again and again to the places where you got lucky once or twice before. With a little time away from fishing, you start feeling like you could do it right next time.
So this time, going completely against the modern fishing trends, I’ve decided to start out with the simplest rig and tweak it until I find something perfect. I don’t want several hundred dollars worth of gear that I never use just taking up space in the boat. All I want is a pleasant day and some fish for supper. I sat myself down in front of the living window this past winter and set about making whatever simple gear I could make. There’s no reason not to do that. I made a stringer from a length of nylon cord and a bamboo chopstick. I made a couple of bobbers from some old corks and bamboo skewers. Looks like those things ought to work.
Sinkers and hooks are cheap. I bought the environmentally wise sinkers, in one size only, and a box of No. 4 panfish hooks. I’ve caught all sorts of things on No. 4 panfish hooks, and light crimp-on sinkers work about as well as any other type of rig. Light sinkers are as good as sliding sinkers if you’re fishing in still water. I’m recalling all the fishing hikes I went on, with a two pound load of assorted sinkers, only one size of which I ever used. If you might use it, you should probably leave it at home. Take the things you do use, instead.
I wondered whether I ought to buy a pole or make one from a willow branch or one of the local canes, but I wound up buying a collapsible panfish pole made by Shakespeare, partly because it seemed light and compact and partly because I wanted to know if it was any good. The Shakespeare Wonderpole, made of strong but light fiberglass sections, offers what seems to be the simplest approach to fishing that you can buy in a retail store. The Wonderpole sells through Amazon, and Shakespeare markets the same telescoping fiberglass pole through Walmart under the brand name Durango. You can get a Wonderpole or Durango in lengths from 6 feet to 20 feet. I settled for a 12 footer, long enough to drop lines into deeper offshore water but not so long it’s impossible to manipulate.
My Durango has no reel seat, so I don’t need to worry about a reel. A bracket on the side of the pole’s butt section holds line. I padded the bracket with one turn of leather thong because I was a little concerned about six pound test line pinching off against the metal, but I doubt that’s a problem really. I’m not used to fishing without a reel and at first did not trust the situation at all. This is very old-style fishing, and all the finesse comes from the pole. You take up slack line by lifting the pole. You play the fish by dipping and raising the pole, because there’s no drag. That’s too simple! Where’s all the gear? Well, you don’t need all that gear. If you catch small fish, you just lift them out of the water and put them in your bucket. Larger fish that can break lines usually will do that unless you know how to play them, no matter what rig you’re using. You can’t let a fish run if all you have is a pole with no reel, and everything has to happen within that first small radius of fishing line you have out. The action of the pole does all the fancy work of playing the fish.
I set out on my test expedition with the Durango Wonderpole, equipped with line and a fanny pack partly filled with essentials and a tiny amount of stuff I will never use, like a camera and a GPS. I always think I might enjoy those but when I get out to the lake I’m only interested in fishing. Someday if I catch a fish that takes pictures and notes GPS coordinates I’ll actually use those things. OK, maybe next time I’ll take the camera in case I see a UFO fishing for carp or something, but I’ll leave the GPS at home. Otherwise, I had my hooks, my sinkers and homemade bobbers, a belt knife and multitool (for removing hooks from fish and for performing unexpected surgical tasks) and that’s that. Maybe some extra gear there, but it was a pretty minimal fishing kit, with no beer.
About a hundred feet down the lakeshore from the two middle-aged fisherwomen in bikinis and lawn chairs I found a nearly brand-new plastic bobber. Hey, free plastic bobber beats homemade free bobber, now I’m carrying extra bobbers. A hundred yards down the lake from the bikini women I remembered I didn’t have any bait. Hmm. Bait is something most fishermen bring along with them, but I haven’t carried bait since the 80’s. For me, part of fishing is finding what’s there. If I’m fishing a creek I net some minnows (requires more gear, of course) or overturn some rocks and catch crayfish and caddis fly larvae (requires time). If you don’t find bait, you can pretty much conclude you won’t find fish, either. Sometimes I have so much fun looking for bait I don’t get around to fishing.
With no pristine creek available I had to look elsewhere for bait, meaning the woods above the lake. On the way up I found an empty Vienna sausage can of just the perfect size for containing bait, so I brought that along. I didn’t find much of interest under rocks or logs on the open slopes, but when I hit the woods, overturning a couple of rotten logs exposed a dozen or so earthworms. Those cost about three dollars at the local bait shop. Later in the year the worms will be harder to find, but the cans are usually available for free, and any natural bait you find in the area you fish usually works lots better than bait from a jar or refrigerator.
I tried a few places where seating alongshore seemed comfortable, but of course had no luck there and moved on to a less friendly place where I could actually find fish. Sometimes you do get lucky in a human-friendly location, because of chance underwater structure like old cars and Christmas trees, but usually you’ll find fish in places where fish find food. I settled at the mouth of a tiny creek and fished the edge of the shade from the willow trees. With the float set at about four feet I had pretty good luck. Fish were holding just off the mouth of the creek, waiting for food to tumble down. I caught some of about everything, including catfish and carp and bluegill and bass. The little fish were as easy as little fish ever get, they’re expert at robbing hooks of bait but when you do hook them they just pop out of the water. The larger fish tested the rig a bit better, and I was impressed by the way the Durango responded to an 18-inch carp. Carp fight like hell and would be as popular as salmon if there was anything appealing about them in culinary terms. I only missed having a fishing reel a little bit, when I was playing with the carp. The fishing reel turned out to be unnecessary. That’s a little sad, because I like reels.
UPDATE! NEW CARP RECIPE DISCOVERED! — When I showed up at work this morning several of the fisherpeople there wanted to know if I’d had any luck, and I was pleased to report that I had. When Will, the grill cook at the restaurant, heard that I’d caught a carp I was surprised by his excitement. Usually people snicker when you mention you caught a carp. I was a little skeptical of Will, because of my experience with people who want to tell you a pine plank tastes better than a carp if you cook it properly, but Will has a recipe and his enthusiasm was clear. Clean the carp and slice out the dark “mud vein.” Soak the carp in salt water overnight, then cut into pieces and deep fry. Delicious, according to Will, and by the size of his eyes and his rapt expression I believe him to be correct. Will also concurs that carp are one of the best fighting fish you’ll ever encounter (except maybe snakeheads, coming soon to a river or lake near you).
I honestly think that if you’re concerned with saving ounces on a backpacking trip and taking minimal fishing gear, you’d be wise to take the Durango/Wonderpole from Shakespeare. It does work well, and it’s both light and compact. There are a few problems, but problems you can live with peacefully. The longer the pole is, the more trouble you will have with instantaneous tangles of fishing line. I was most impressed with the extremely complicated knots this bouncing rig created out of only a a couple of seconds of chaos. How a sinker and bobber rig manages to cause a knot with thirty-two convolutions in it on just two bounces is just beyond me, but this rig will do it. You’d think that if you cut the reel out of the rig you wouldn’t have any more trouble with backlashes, but that’s not so. The longer the pole, the more bounce you get when you pull the line in to refresh the bait. If one part of the rig overlaps the line, the next part of the rig overlaps the part that overlapped the line, ad infinitum. Good luck with that 20 foot pole — keep the rigging simple.
Looking ahead, I won’t set the Durango/Wonderpole aside, because in Indiana I can fish with more than one rod and this one is simple and easy. But, I will be considering a basic rod and reel next. A medium-action rod and reel gives you more fishing distance and more varied options than a simple panfish pole. Probably will not catch more fish, but the options are entertaining. I like being able to cast and reel, even if I don’t catch fish. Sigh, it’s the beginning of that long old road to the boat full of hundreds of dollars of unused tackle. Maybe I can resist. For an ultralight trip, though, I’m going with the Durango. It’s the simplest choice of modern ultralight fishing poles. Heck, maybe I’ll just take the hook, sinker and line and make my own pole. The older I get, the farther back in time I travel.