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Stalking Fish

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Photo - Tori Farquharson

Photo – Tori Baird

I first read it in a survival book years ago and did a double take. The chapter title read “Hand Fishing”. Really? That’s impossible, I thought, but I was intrigued enough to read on.

Six months later I’m in the headwaters of Quebec, Canada’s Moisie River, a wild river of the St. Lawrence north shore. I’m angling for pike, lake trout and Ouananiche (land locked salmon) from shore at the inlet of a river, and the fishing is good. I see a chunky lake smelt about the length of my hand in the shallows. Wanting to put the crazy skill I’d read about to the test, I stalk toward it. Crouching near shore, I begin to gently float my forearm along the surface of the water toward the stationary fish. I make my arm look lifeless, like a log. Slowly I sink my hand, and after ten minutes go by I’m getting excited. I continue to drift my hand along bottom toward the silvery fish, with my fingers limp and partially bent up, and I move with what appears to be the gradual movement of current and wind. Soon the palm of my right hand is under the fish’s tail. Doing my best to stay calm and patient, I maintain a very gradual approach until my fingers slightly tickle the fish’s belly, mimicking seaweed. Now the fish is a couple centimetres above the palm of my hand. I’m ready to make a move, and I think, Is this really happening? I quickly lift my hand, clenching my fingers around the fish. It squirms in my tight grip and I stare at it for a second, making sure it’s real.

Calmly I walk up to my brother and hold the fish out to him. “I just caught this with my bare hands,” I tell him. He’s dumbfounded.

Jim with Pike caught on bushcraft rod. Photo - Ted Baird

Jim with Pike caught on bushcraft rod. Photo – Ted Baird

I bait the large smelt with a plane hook right under the dorsal fin, thinking it’s too big for bait. On my first cast I begin to retrieve slowly, allowing the fish to swim around. Then wham! What feels like a leviathan hammers the smelt. Then, Bzzzzzzzz! My drag is screaming. Knowing not to reel against my drag with the mono line I’m using, I wait to make a move but not even five seconds pass before my line is totally stripped off the spool and breaks off. My heart is racing. I had the fish of a lifetime on my line and little to no chance of landing it with my medium weight tackle. The experience is resonating.

JIm with a NWT Arctic Grayling. Photo - Michael R. Shea

Jim with a NWT Arctic Grayling. Photo – Michael R. Shea

Then I realize something the survival book left out—hand fishing has more applications than just for catching fish large enough to provide a decent meal. The skill can be a real lifesaver even if all you catch is a minnow, because big fish eat little fish, and if you have a line and hook in your survival pack, a minnow could mean the difference between life and death. Since then, I’ve continued to catch baitfish with my hands when the opportunity arises.

Landing The Big One

Although I’ve never done it, I’ve researched catching large fish by using a two-hand method. The approach is the same as the one described above, but ideally the fingers of one hand need to pinch in tightly at the base of the fish’s gills as the other hand grips the tail. It’s best if you grip the fish and throw it on to shore in one motion. In fact, some fishermen in certain parts of the southern United States use a hand fishing tactic called “noodling”. It’s a very effective way to catch multiple large catfish. The practice is outlawed in some places because the fish are targeted on their nests with this method and it can negatively impact the fishery.

Pink Salmon run up a creek near Sitka, Alaska providing a potential hand fishing opportunity. Photo - Jim Baird

Pink Salmon run up a creek near Sitka, Alaska providing a potential hand fishing opportunity. Photo – Jim Baird

Some Healthy Competition

It’s mid summer, long after our return from the Moisie River. My brother Ted and I hike up a portion of the Appalachian Trail that threads through the Delaware Water Gap on the New Jersey side, USA. A slow flowing creek of cold clear water trickles down from high in the Pocono Mountains through a deep valley of mature hemlock and hardwoods. We see a large water snake sunning itself on a debris pile left from the higher waters of spring. It’s obvious the snake has devoured something big because of the prominent bulge in its otherwise serpentine figure. “It must have swallowed a chipmunk,” my brother and I conclude, and we keep walking up the creek stepping from boulder to boulder. A flutter of motion draws my eye toward a small pool. “Trout!” I say. And we begin seeing more small brook trout dart in the pools of the creek.

Our approach is slow and precise but we keep coming up empty handed on our hand fishing attempts. The fish spook easily in the clear, shallow water. Giving it another shot, I let my hands slip under a rock, the current moving them in natural motions. I let the back of my hands settle on the bottom and very slowly move them farther under the boulder. My index finger touches a fish—I’m in position. Suddenly I feel a flash of movement in the water and something brushes past my hand. Seconds later, a two foot long water snake casually emerges from under the rock a foot below my face.

Taken by the experience, I calmly turn to my brother and tell him the story. We realize the big snake we saw in the sun earlier in the day didn’t have a chipmunk in its belly after all. And I understand the techniques of hand fishing can be used to put more than fish on your plate if necessary.

Great Northern Watersnake with Brook Trout in the Poconos. Photo -

Great Northern Watersnake with Brook Trout in the Poconos. Photo –

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