All fresh water fish found in the United States is considered edible, which means there are no known species with poisonous flesh. With that being said however, certain toxins in the water such as mercury can be present in the flesh, which of course, can pose a health risk.
Others things to be concerned with are the needle like barbs on the dorsal fins of catfish/bullhead species. The wound created by the barbs is likened to a bee sting or other insect bites, and they can become infected if not treated.
Certain fresh water fish also have teeth that can cause a rather nasty wound if you are not careful. Any cut or scrape and especially a puncture wound from a barb in a survival situation can lead to infection, which can be deadly.
Come Prepared and Leave Alive
Ideally you would have an emergency kit that included some rudimentary fishing tackle. Tackle such as hooks, bobbers, some weights, fishing line and possibly artificial bait. If you have line and hooks you can fish and be successful with a little patience and very little skill or experience. A pole can be fashioned rather quickly using a small flexible sapling.
First, we will talk about fishing when you have come prepared with some tackle, knives and other various tools and materials. Then we will talk about how do you fish for survival if you show up to the party empty handed.
If you have four or five hooks you can set up a simple trotline. Attach a few inches of line to each hook, then bait and then attach each one to a baseline (trotline) made out of whatever cordage you have available. The baseline will have to be sturdy enough to hold the weight. Paracord would be ideal.
Stretch the baseline tightly across a small section of the river or stream letting the baited hooks dangle a few inches in the water. You may have to add weights to the stringers to keep them from floating with the current.
Anchor the baseline well on both sides. You can drive stakes into the river or stream bed to anchor the baseline, and by doing this you can more easily move your trotline if you are not having any luck. Anchor it well to ensure the current does not carry away your hard earned catch. Double check your work.
Fish like cover so when survival fishing look for pools close to the bank where there is overhead foliage and high grasses growing in or near the water, submerged logs, and debris dams.
2.) Fishing Spears
A fishing spear is easy enough to make if you have a cutting tool. Cut a slender sapling as straight as possible, and it should be long enough so it can be plunged straight down from a standing position, with plenty of sapling left to grip.
Split the end into three barbs (keep separated by small wooden wedges) and sharpen each one to a point. A single blunt spear tip will not penetrate well. It will crush the fish, but not hold it, so you may lose your catch to the current.
If you have a fire you can harden the green sapling points by heating over a flame. Heat until the ends are ash coated but not charred, and let cool and do again. Heating green wood essentially speeds up the seasoning process, by removing most of the moisture, which hardens the material.
You may have watched some survival shows where Dave C., for example, throws a spear from the bank to snag some fish. You would not have much luck doing it this way if you are using a field expedient fishing spear. It will not be balanced or weighted properly, and you simply cannot get enough thrust behind it.
The best method for spear fishing in a survival situation is to wade into a shallow pool and stand still and let the fish begin to swirl around you after the silt has settled. You can do this from the bank if you can stand nearly over the water. A cut bank overhang would be ideal, but be careful it does not collapse on you. Thrust straight down, this ensures you do not lose the spear, and by looking straight down you have better optics, and can judge the positions of the fish for more accuracy.
3.) A Single Line Attached To a Branch
This is a very simple and passive fishing method, and you can hang multiple baited hooks in the water along the shoreline if you have the line and hooks. Use this method for fishing along the banks under cover. Fish like shaded pools in hot weather, and they will gather to cool off, if the current is slow enough.
4.) Hand Fishing (Noodling)
In some states hand fishing is illegal for various reasons. In Missouri, for example, catfish is considered a game fish. Larger more mature catfish are typically caught by Noodling and the state fears that Noodling would dramatically reduce the population of mature egg laying catfish. If a mature fish is taken from the nest after laying eggs, the eggs do not stand much of a chance and they die off.
Catfish are vulnerable during their nesting season usually June thru August. Therefore, hand fishing for catfish can be very successful during this time, because you essentially reach into their nesting spots with your hands.
In a survival situation of course you do what you have to do to survive. However, you can encounter things other than catfish, such as water moccasins, and even alligators in some southern states when reaching into crevices underwater. Not to mention the barbs can give you a nasty sting, which as stated earlier can become infected.
5.) Netting Fish
You can weave a fish net out of cattail fronds, grasses, and supple vines and from cordage you have on you. Clothing can be cut into strips and made into netting, but do not ruin clothing you are wearing. Look for discarded materials first. This process is time consuming however, but is a reliable method in some situations.
You will have to wade into a shallow pool and essentially scoop the fish with your net or make the net big enough to where it is a floating or drift net, which is illegal in many states because of the large number of fish it traps. The drift net you could construct would be small and manageable.
In most situations you would simply want a net that allows you to scoop up fish that have gathered in shallow pools. Salmon, for example can be more easily netted at certain times of the year when they swim up river to spawn.
Making Your Own Tackle
You may have seen Cody set out to make cordage from Yucca, for example, and before you know it he has made rope, carry baskets for gourds and even shoes, and if the show was any longer he may be able to build a house this way. You however, probably will not have as much luck.
You do have fishing line with you though. Your shoelaces, the pull cords on zippers, cordage on your backpack, wiring from a bicycle or vehicle and even plastic garbage bags can be made into fishing line.
You can make field expedient fishing line by braiding green grasses into line and cattail fronds make ideal cordage. Separate the fibers and let dry in the sun for a few hours and then braid together.
Fish hooks can be made from paper clips, or any metal, pop tops, wood, and bone. The simplest of hooks would be the Gorge hook, which resembles a fat toothpick sharpened on both ends. The hook can be one to two inches long. The length depends on the size of fish you expect to catch. If the hook is too long the fish cannot swallow the entire hook and if too short it will not lodge in the in the mouth of the fish.
Sharpen both ends and create a channel in the center so your line can be attached without slipping off either end. Bait both ends and attach a weight so the hook does not float to the top. Let dangle a few feet down and attach a bobber to the line. You can use foam ear plugs for bobbers, a piece of Styrofoam, and even a water bottle that is capped and empty.
Bait can be fuzzy seed pods, scraps of rations, grubs, worms, ants, crickets and other insects. Use pop tops for spoons and lures.
Fish can see shiny objects in the water and can sense light and movement out of the water as well. Light will attract certain fish at night, so if you can get a torch lit you can dangle a line off a pole as you hold the torch above the water.
If you do not have a knife you will have to work with stone and scraps of metal you find along the shoreline to make your fishing tackle. Often times though, you will be able to find tangled line, hooks, and other useful debris near any waterway.
No matter how remote the area may seem someone has probably been there before you, and has fished the waters. Look for discarded line, especially line that has been snagged and is still in the water because it may have the hook, weights, lure, and even the bobber still attached.
Scavenge the area before expending a lot of energy trying to make cordage and hooks, because there is a good chance you will find the fishing tackle you need discarded along the shore. You may even find discarded netting, which can be used as a net, or it can be cut up and used for fishing line and cordage for other uses.
Gain versus Effort
Fishing is typically a passive method of gathering food, so once you have your tackle made and lines put out, you should begin working on other methods of food gathering. Monitor trotlines, floating nets and static lines closely. Leaving fish netted or hooked for very long may mean you can lose the catch. Do not leave the area with the trotlines, static poles, and netting in place.
Hunting for food without adequate weaponry will burn up energy, and it can be very time consuming and dangerous in some cases, if you are not equipped to handle large or dangerous game that can turn on you. Get your fishing methods incorporated before you attempt to hunt or trap game.
Waterways can provide you with more than food and water. Waterways can also lead you to civilization. Follow rivers and streams downriver and fish along the way.