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Primitive Fishing Techniques:
Three Ways to Catch a Fish in a Survival Situation

student practicing fish spear

By Connor O'Malley & Steve Nicolini

Primitive fishing techniques are very useful skills to know if you find yourself in a survival situation. The chores of survival require a lot of calories which can be hard to replace out there in the woods. 

In some areas fish are a great survival food – if you know how to catch them.  They provide protein, fat and essential nutrients that are important for muscle and bone health. Historically, here in the Pacific Northwest entire societies were built around the seasonal migrations of a certain fish - salmon!

In this article I’ll share three methods of obtaining fish in a survival situation if you are caught out there without any modern fishing tackle. 

Primitive Fishing Techniques

1. Fish Spears

Fish spears are simple and easy to make, and with skill and knowledge, they have worked for millennia on the right types of fish and in the the appropriate environments.

The ideal conditions for hunting with a fish spear are banks with dense cover and clear or shallow water where you can see the fish. Carp and catfish “root” in the early mornings near the shores of ponds and slow moving rivers so if you find a spot with good cover, you might be able to catch one in the act.

students demonstrate fish spears

2. Bone, Wood, & Cactus Hooks

With the right natural materials, you can also make your own fishing line and hook to catch fish. The best location for this method is a bank with good cover and a sharp drop off. It is hard to get a long cast with natural cordage and you need deep water to get fish to come right up to the bank, so find a spot where the water drops down deep right next to the bank. 

Grasshoppers and other invertebrates can make great bait.  If you want to catch one fish it will probably take five grasshoppers.  So if you want to catch five fish you should collect at least twenty-five grasshoppers.

When you fish with one of these natural hooks there is often no barb, so when you hook the fish you need to flip it out of the water onto the bank right away.  Be quick to jump on the fish before it has a chance to flop back into the water.

primitive fishhooks

Be More Prepared For Your Next Outdoor Adventure!

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3. Fish Traps

Fish traps (like weirs and funnel cages) are widely used all over the world as a means of procuring fish, crabs, and lobsters for food, both by those who use modern and primitive fishing techniques. Fish traps are also a good option in areas where fish are funneled by a narrow spot in the river or when there is a major salmon run.  Bottom feeders like catfish and carp can also be caught in fish traps that are baited on the shore of a pond or slow moving river. For example, here's an article we put together about making a Survival Fish Trap Woven from Willow Branches.

fish trap made with sticks
fish trap made with stones

All of these primitive fishing techniques can provide food in a survival situation.  The method you choose will be dictated by the body of water and species of fish you seek.  Know that in most states there are laws that forbid the use of certain primitive fishing implements, although there are often exceptions for catching invasive fish species. So check your state’s regulations before heading down to the river to practice. Happy fishing!

By the way, if you enjoyed this article then you'll love our survival mini guide. You'll discover six key strategies to staying alive in the outdoors plus often-overlooked survival tips. We're currently giving away free copies here.

Additional Resources:

How to Make a Survival Fish Trap Woven from Willow Branches

Making an Antler Hook - Primitive Ways

Recommended Books:

The Outdoor Survival Handbook by Ray Mears

Wilderness Survival Handbook by Michael Pewtherer

Related Courses:

Wilderness Survival Courses

Connor O'Malley

About the Author: Connor O'Malley is an experienced wilderness skills educator. He taught at Alderleaf for several years. Learn more about Connor O'Malley.

About the Author: Steve Nicolini is an experienced permaculturist and wilderness skills instructor. He taught at Alderleaf for a number of years. Learn more about Steve Nicolini.

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