Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Two people fishing from the shoreline. © David Harkness

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provides a statewide inventory containing over 2,000 identified public boat access sites and over 100 developed shore fishing sites.
© David Harkness

June 2014

No boat? No problem.

Discover the joys of fishing from a riverbank.

Story by David Harkness, Garry Leonard Running and Chris Mackey–Natz

For some anglers, the bank offers loads of possibilities and strategies that just don't fit in boats.

In fact, some days, it's too darn hot to be in a boat and the shade along a riverbank offers a much more comfortable setting for piscatorial pursuits. And then there is the cost — time and money — to trailer a boat to a nearby landing. Sometimes it's just easier to fish from a conveniently – located, publicly– accessible riverbank.

Equally important is the fact that bank fishing suits the high– energy and short attention spans of young kids and spaniels. And who wants to fish without them? But kids need to catch fish for fishing to be fun. If you want to experience a very long and trying day, just try sharing a boat with bored kids.

Bank fishing offers a wealth of healthy outdoor play options that boats don't. Kids can build forts, catch frogs, climb trees or indulge their imaginations even when the fish aren't biting.

Our kids always had their own bank fishing adventure backpacks filled with items of their choosing including water, snacks, bug spray, sunscreen, some rope and a tarp (even pocket knives and hatchets — at the right age and after safety instruction).

With room to roam, a few simple tools, food and water, and armed with their vivid imaginations, our kids always had a great time whether the fish were biting or not.

Even if the catch was small, our days of bank fishing usually ended with the best question any kid could ask: "When can we go fishing again?"

How do I find a good bank fishing spot?

Good bank fishing spots are neither ubiquitous nor state secrets. Just ask local kids; they'll know where to wet a line. Ask bait shop owners — such knowledge is their bread and butter. Better yet, put your canoe, kayak, floatie or boat in the river. Bring a good topographic map or a GPS unit along. Fish your way downstream looking for the classic forked– stick rod holders along the bank. Mark them on your map or GPS. Stop and chat awhile and learn from the bank anglers.

Of course, if you're reading about bank fishing because you don't have access to a boat, you can still find a good spot. Road right– of– ways, boat landings, parks and public picnic areas are plentiful. Don't forget city parks. The Department of Natural Resources has an inventory of public fishing spots. Visit dnr.wi.gov and search "shore fishing access." Talk to people who are carrying fishing gear. Even if they're headed to "their spot," they may point you to an equally attractive piece of riverbank. Pack a lunch and make a day of scouting spots — but don't forget to pack a line so you can yield to temptation.

Patterns will emerge. Popular public bank fishing spots are often downstream from dams, at boat landings, under bridges or where smaller tributaries enter larger streams. Many of the best bank fishing spots put the angler within casting distance of deeper pools adjacent to slack water, or some other fish– holding structure.

The key to bank fishing is mobility: the more spots, the better. If fish aren't biting at one spot, move on. Invest about a half hour to try your bait and tackle combinations.

What gear do I need?

We're getting on in years, so when we fish from the bank we want comfort in addition to our fishing equipment. We bring a soft– sided cooler large enough to keep crawlers, a sandwich or two, water and enough cold beverages for the day. Frozen, salted minnows help keep the cooler cool.

We also bring a landing net for big fish, which tend to roll in shallow water near the bank and can cut the line or injure themselves if not netted promptly. We carry a floating minnow bucket for live sucker, shiner or walleye minnows.

Everything else we bring can either fit in or be strapped onto our fishing packs. We bring small portable chairs (with backs). Our fishing packs are lightly loaded with bug spray, sunscreen, sinkers, swivels, circle hooks, clothing for when the weather changes, garbage bags to carry out what we brought in (and more), a stringer, an emergency first aid kit and a fire– starter. And don't forget the camera!

Gear up for your personal comfort and needs. One of us (Gadget– Boy) has all sorts of clippers, scissors, tape measures and more on keychain– style pulls hanging off his fishing vest.

But remember that you have to carry your load, so don't overdo it.

There also are three pieces of equipment that every bank angler must have: a rod holder, an appropriate fishing rod– reel– line combo and terminal tackle. Through trial and error, we've developed (built or modified) or discovered what we think are effective and inexpensive versions.

Rod holders

Bank fishing, especially with children (and spaniels), isn't just fishing. You won't always be able to keep your fishing rod in your hand (especially if you are allowed more than one rod at a time). A good place to set your rod while you're busy with other things is necessary, but not always handy.

So we make our own rod holders and bring them along. Our rod holder designs have many advantages: they are inexpensive, homemade (which appeals to the garage tinkerer in us), adaptable to the sandy and gravelly conditions we often encounter on the banks of our favorite rivers and streams, and lightweight and easily portable (which appeals to our laziness — though we prefer to think of ourselves as "efficient users of our personal manpower resources").

And there are some mighty big fish where we bank fish. We've tested our rod holders time and time again. They don't pull out, bend enough to lose our fishing rods or break when a big fish starts to run.

Young Girl with dog shows off her catch. © Chris Mackey–Natz
Kids have the most fun when the fish are biting. But if the fish aren't cooperating, shore fishing provides hours of other entertainment. © Chris Mackey–Natz

Our rod holders are easy to make and have a two– part design: a metal or fiberglass post and a PVC tube.

We recommend a 1/4 – to – inch– diameter steel or fiberglass rod for the post. These are available at hardware stores, as are posts designed for electric fencing. We make our post 2 to 4 feet long so we can drive it deep into sandy and gravelly banks. We round the end a bit (not so sharp as to accidentally impale ourselves) so we can poke it through coarser gravel if necessary. We thread a nut onto the top to create a bigger target to hit with a hammer if we need to pound it into the bank.

We recommend strong PVC piping wide enough to easily allow setting a fishing rod into it (and taking it out fast under pressure when a fish is on), but not so wide that it allows the fishing rod to wobble: 1 3/4 – to 2 –inch–diameter PVC pipe works for most of our fishing rods. We find that 6 inches of pipe is enough to hold most rods.

Lastly, we adhere our PVC pipe to the post using two hose clamps covered with duct or electrical tape to protect our fishing line from rough edges. We tried cable ties, but they didn't hold up to the pressure of big channel cats, flatheads, walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, redhorse, carp, snapping turtles or other monsters we routinely catch.

Rod–reel–line combos

"Go big or go home" is our motto. We don't mean to be macho; our experience is that rivers can overpower lighter combinations with swift currents, sharp rocks, snags, logjams and big fish. We recommend a medium– heavy or heavy fishing rod. If your fishing rod is bent way over just from the current, you won't be able to work a fish should — or when — you hook one. We also prefer a 6– to 10– foot version because the extra length gives us more control when playing a bigger fish near the bank or working it out of a snag.

We like a reel with plenty of line capacity and a high gear ratio. Style is less important than durability. When bigger fish like northern pike or channel catfish are the target, use a reel designed to handle them. Lastly, bigger streams and rivers are no places for light line. Losing terminal tackle is a part of river fishing, but light line increases your chance of leaving terminal tackle (your swivel, weight, leader and hook) in a fish's mouth, on the river bottom or even in an overhead branch. We recommend 20–pound– test braided nylon. Though not cheap, there are many brands to choose from. All are abrasion– resistant, have excellent knot and stretch characteristics and are small in diameter compared to monofilament, which reduces drag and increases the line capacity of your reel.

Yes, our "go big or go home" mantra takes a bit of the adventure out of reeling in a drum, perch or other panfish, but it makes landing a big fish more likely. That means that big fish not wanted for the frying pan can be brought in before they tire, terminal tackle can be removed and the fish's survival upon release is improved.

Terminal tackle

We've tried everything and still experiment, but we always seem to end up with the same couple of rigs. We recommend a modified Carolina rig, pickerel rig from Canada or a Wolf River rig. Believe it or not, these simple rigs work for anything from perch to pike and carp to cat.

Over the years we've found that 2– to 5– ounce sinkers work best on our favorite rivers where the current is strong. They're expensive and we lose our share, and some days more than our share. That's why we bought sinker molds and make our own. Lead alternatives as sinkers work well.

For the basic Carolina rig, we use 10– to 12– pound monofilament between the swivel and the hook, and swivels rated to 15 pounds. Flourocarbon line works too, but it's more expensive. The Canadian pickerel rig is a drop– shot rig. You can use one or two hooks and adjust their height above the bottom as needed.

The Wolf River rig uses a three–way swivel and is a compromise between the other two. We find it best for big chunks of cut–bait for bigger fish.

In all cases leave 8 to 12 inches between sinker and hook. That seems to be the right length to allow the bait to swim with the current, and it's short enough to indicate a strike by pulling the rod tip down. We find it best to build in a weak point in the system so we know what will fail when we give up on releasing a snag. A sinker, swivel, hook and 1 to 2 feet of line is a lot cheaper than a new rod or reel.

We always tip our rigs with a circle hook. They don't require a hook–set, so even novice anglers can use them effectively. We just start reeling when our fishing rod starts to bounce. They almost always catch in the corner of the fish's mouth. Fish rarely swallow them. Circle hooks, we've found therefore, are easier to remove. Fish not wanted for the frying pan can be released undamaged to be caught another day.

Circle hooks also work well with a variety of baits. We recommend size 2/0 to 4/0 hooks when worms, grubs or grasshoppers are used and smaller fish like drum and perch are the target. Sizes 1/0 to 2/0 work well with night crawlers when walleye and channel catfish are the target species. Larger sizes up to 9/0 work best with cut–bait, and yes, we've found that bigger cut–bait attracts bigger fish. Just make sure the barb of the circle hook is exposed. Cut–bait harvested from redhorse or other sucker species works well. They can be cut to size, salted and frozen. We often use the belly meat for cut–bait and smoke or pickle the rest of the fish. Oily pieces of mooneye work even better. Mooneyes don't freeze well, so must be used the day they are caught (but catch enough of them and they're wonderful smoked).

Remember to keep it simple when you're fishing with kids. Pick a site in advance and bring supplies for comfort and safety, and gear that is affordable and reliable. Always check the fishing regulations — keep a copy in your tackle box or search dnr.wi.gov and keywords "fishing regulations."

A final tip? Clean all the bones out before battering and deep–frying the catch. That way, everyone enjoys eating what the kids have caught.

Happy feasting and tight lines to all!

Garry Leonard Running is a professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at UW– Eau Claire.

Chris Mackey–Natz is a middle school science teacher at Fall Creek Middle School.

David Harkness is a recently retired English–Geography–Math–Humanities teacher from Nelson–McIntyre Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba.