Emergency Fishing Techniques

Emergency Fishing Techniques
written by Keith Sutton

If you're stranded near a waterway, fish are one possible source of food. All fish are edible, and nearly all are tasty.
In most survival situations, obtaining food ranks low on the list of priorities.  Survivors must focus on more immediate concerns such as treating injuries, creating shelter, attracting the attention of rescuers and obtaining water.  Starving to death is not an immediate problem, and the survivor who stays calm and stays put will usually be rescued long before lack of food becomes life-threatening.  

Unfortunately, survival situations don't always end so quickly.  As hours turn into days, food becomes increasingly important in maintaining a positive attitude and healthy condition.

If you're stranded near a waterway, fish are one possible source of food.  All fish are edible, and nearly all are tasty.  In his Complete Book of Outdoor Survival, J. Wayne Fears, one of the country's foremost survival experts, states, "I am convinced that fish is the best source of edible wild food in North America for the person in a survival crisis.  Freshwater lakes and ponds, streams, creeks and rivers are abundant food reservoirs."

The problem, of course, is how to catch those fish.  If you have a survival kit with you and stocked it with fish hooks, lures and line, you're set.  We must assume, however, that you may not have any fishing tackle.

Remember these things as you consider emergency fishing techniques:

  • If possible, have a number of fish-catching devices in use all the time, preferably while you attend to more important concerns.  
  • Concentrate on catching smaller fish, which are usually more abundant and more easily caught.
  • There's nothing "sporting" about survival fishing.  Use any method at your disposal, but only in a true survival situation.
  • Improvise; use whatever material you have available to create the fishing tackle you need.

Hooks, Line and Lures

Hooks can be whittled in the traditional shape from wood, shells or bone.  A simpler type is a gorge, which is a short (1 inch or less), straight piece of hard material sharpened at both ends and slightly notched in the middle where it's attached to the line.  Sink the gorge in a piece of bait.  Allow a fish that takes the bait to swallow it.  A quick yank jerks the gorge crosswise, lodging it in the fish's throat.

Hooks can also be improvised from many other materials, including needles, safety pins, nails, paper clips, thorns, a bird wishbone or claw, or a piece of metal cut from a can.  Don't overlook any possibility.

Line may come from threads in clothing and equipment, pieces of wire, dental floss, sinew from the leg of a deer, twisted bark or whatever else is available.  Most good survival books offer tips on improvising.

You can make lures from pieces of cloth, feathers or bits of bright metal fashioned to imitate natural food like a minnow or insect.  In many waters, all you need to catch fish is a small piece of red cloth attached to a hook.

Your improvised gear can be fished with a makeshift pole or as a hand-line.  Any extra should be used to create setlines attached to springy green branches overhanging the water.


There is practically no end to the makeshift spears you can concoct.  A sharp piece of bone, wood or metal can be lashed on as a tip, or you can simply whittle the end to a sharp, barbed point.  This type of spear is very effective when used at night with a torch while wading shallows.

A jawed spear often works better.  Split one end of a hard, green sapling, seven or eight inches up the shaft.  Cut sharp teeth into each flat side of the split.  Use whatever cordage is at hand to bind the upper end of the split so it won't split farther.  Open the "jaws," and prop them open with a twig strong enough to hold them.  When this spear is thrust down over a fish, the twig is knocked out and the jaws snap shut, holding the fish. 


If it's not too cold, and you can find undercut banks, holes beneath rocks, hollow logs and other dark recesses in shallow water, you may be able to catch fish by hand. In many parts of the South, this is called "noodling," and it's an excellent way to catch catfish, suckers and other species.  Try to block the hole so the fish won't shoot out, then reach inside and move your hands along the fish's side until you can grasp the mouth or gills.  You can also spear fish in holes, or catch them with a stout hook attached directly to the end of a pole.


In small bodies of water where minnows and other small aquatic animals are plentiful, a net improvised from a shirt or other piece of cloth stretched between two sticks can be effective.  Push it before you as you work your way toward a small cove or bank.  When you reach the shallowest water, lift it quickly and remove the catch.  At times, this method yields more food than fishing with hook and line.


Fish traps, or weirs, are very useful for catching both freshwater and saltwater fish, especially those that school.   To build one, drive stakes side by side into the bottom in shallow water to create a rectangular fence with three sides.  The open end should be on the downstream or downcurrent side. Next, drive more stakes to create a V-shaped wall that points into the open end of the rectangle.  The point of the V should be left open so fish are funneled into the weir.  Such a trap can also be constructed of rocks placed in similar fashion.

The trap's size will depend on the material at hand and the size of the water in which you're working.  Even small ones work well, but the best have side walls extending to the bank that allow fewer fish to pass by.  In muddy water, you may be able to herd fish into a trap, starting downstream and driving the fish in front of you.


There are numerous plants throughout the world that natives use for poisoning or stunning fish.  Man can eat fish killed this way without ill effects.  Mullein and buckeye are both reported to stupefy fish when the leaves, stem, flowers, and in the case of the buckeye, the nuts are crushed and dropped into small shallow pools.  The crushed green hulls from black walnuts. and lime made from mussel shells cooked in a fire and crushed are said to work in a similar way.  

Cooking Fish

Unless you can keep them alive in some type of trap or on a stringer, all freshwater fish should be cooked as soon as possible after catching to avoid spoiling.  Many contain parasites that make them dangerous to eat raw, so cook your catch by steaming it in a wrapping of leaves, boiling it in a makeshift cookpot, broiling it on a sheet of scrap metal or roasting it on a stick.  If you find yourself in a survival situation, it may seem like the best meal you've ever had.

Fishing with Poisons

By Chuck Kritzon



In my studies of California Native Cultures, I was often surprised to keep coming upon plant-use references documenting "fish poisons". In widening my search, I became aware that most indigenous cultures across the Americas and indeed on all continents in the temperate areas of the world, used poisonous plants to catch fish. Below is a small sample of fish poisons and the indigenous peoples who used them. Further study will present the reader with a much greater breadth of information.


Fish poison plant families of the world.


Most fish poisons, also called icthyotoxins or piscicides, occur in several related plant species. A variety of chemicals found in these plants will stun fish when it passes through the gills or in some cases ingested. The fish then floats to the surface for easy capture.

The active ingredient is released by mashing the appropriate plant parts, which are then introduced to the water environment. Poisoning was generally done in stagnant pools or slow-flowing streams and rivers, that allow the pounded bark, leaf, seed, root or fruit, to concentrate its power without being washed away or diluted by a strong current. Sometimes streams would be partly blocked to slow down the water flow. Gathering the fish was usually done by hand, but baskets, spears and nets were sometimes employed.

Although primarily used in fresh water areas, Australian Aborigines and Californian Indians also used this technique in saltwater environments for octopus and low-tide shellfish fishing as well as for catching fish trapped in inter-tidal pools.

This ethnological report from Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia, shows that with some Native Peoples, the cultural and material world was not separated:

A secret, sacred song of the Pascoe River bora (initiation cult) was sung by 60-year-old George Morton accompanying himself with his own drum. The singer was born a Kandyu but married a Wutati woman who was the daughter of one of the great Wutati bora singers who handed down the entire repertory of ancient bora songs to him. This song tells of a turtle that used a medicinal vine as a poison to catch fish in a rock pool at low tide.

The use of plant poisons to catch fish is still used in many places in the world today. In Guyana, fishers pound the root of Lonchocarpus on logs fallen across a stream and allow the juices to drip down into the water. Brazilian gold miners, who probably learned the technique from the displaced Yanomami Indians of the Amazon, also toss pulped plant material into a very slow moving stream where the fish would surface down stream and be washed into a net set in place by the fishermen.


Grating Barringtonia seeds on the island of Tanna for use as fish poison.


The Carib Indians, who live along the Barama River also in Guyana, use a modified technique. A ball of bait is made from baked Cassava (Manihot esculenta) mixed with the pounded toxin-laced leaves of Clibadium. The small balls are thrown into the river where the fish swallow the balls whole. As with the previous methods, the stupefied fish floats to the surface for easy capture.

H.E. Anthony reported another example of fish poison use in South America in 1921.

"Another poison which is extensively employed by the Jivaros is barbasco (a common name for any plant used as fish poison), a jungle vine or creeper, which is put into the rivers to secure fish. A great pile of the plant is beaten up on the rocks until it is a pulp, and after the Indians have stationed themselves down-stream, some of their number throw 2-3 hundred pounds of mash into the river and the fishing begins. The fish are killed and float down, belly up, to be gathered in by the Jivaros, who see them as they pass.

So potent is this juice that large streams may be poisoned by this relatively small amount of barbasco and under favorable circumstances fish are stricken for a distance of three miles down-stream."

The pandemic need to find plants that work well as a soap, i.e. the ability to make lather and suds when agitated with water, has been pursued by most native cultures. The experience of using various plants selected for their soap like properties, led to the universal discovery that chemicals from these plants would also stun fish when used in a specific circumstance.

The two primary chemicals that occur in most plants used for stunning fish are saponin and rotenone.



Saponins normally break down in the digestive system and must enter the bloodstream to be toxic, but fish take in saponins directly into their bloodstream through their gills. The toxin acts on the respiratory organs of the fish without affecting their edibility. Saponins also cause the breakdown of red blood cells that help the toxin to spread quickly. Even though the effects of the poison are powerful, they are not usually fatal. Fish that are washed away into untainted water revive, and can return to their pre-toxic condition. Because of this, the fishermen would have to gather the stunned fish quickly as they floated to the surface.

Saponins are one of a group of glucosides found in many plant species with known foaming properties when mixed with water. Saponins lower the surface tension of water allowing the formation of small stable bubbles. The amount of foam created by a crushed plant sample, shaken with water in a jar, is a good indication of the amount of saponins present.

Saponins have been used in modern times in the manufacture of fire extinguisher foam, toothpaste, shampoos, liquid soaps, and cosmetics and to increase the foaming of beer and soft drinks.

Plant Families that contain significant saponins are: Amaryllidaceae, Convolvulaceae, Dioscoreaceae, Lamiaceae, Lecythidaceae, Liliaceae, Loganiaceae, Meliaeae, Menispermacea, Papilionaceae, Solanaceae, Sapindaceae, Sapotaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Solanaceae, Verbenaceae.



Plants containing rotenones are the second most utilized as a fish poison. Rotenone is an alkaloid toxin, in a group called flavonoids and stuns fish by impairing their oxygen consumption. The plant is toxic only to cold-blooded creatures and is found almost exclusively among the family comprised of legumes (Papilionaceae, Mimosaceae, Cesalpiniaceae). Rotenone is also used today as an insecticide.



Fish Poison Wattle (Acacia holosericea)

Fish Poison Tree seedpod (Acacia ditricha)
Leaves are used for fish poison.


Below is a short list of indigenous peoples and the plants they used to poison fish:

Location or Tribe / Common Name, (Latin Name) / Part used


Catawba, Cherokee, and Delaware / Black Walnut, (Juglans nigra) / Bark and green nut husk

Yuchi and Creek / Devil's Shoestring, (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) / Roots

Horse Chestnut, (Aesculus hippocastanum L) / Fruit, twigs and buds

Cherokee / Polk Sallet, Polkweed, (Phytolacca americana) / Berries

Central and coastal California / Turkey-Mullein, (Eremocarpus setigerus) / Leaves

California Buckeye, (Aesculus California) / Nut or fruit

Soap plant, soap root, (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) / Bulb

Indian hemp, (Apocynum cannabinum) / Stalk, leaves

Pokeweed, Polk sallet, (Phytolacca americana) / Leaves

Indian Turnip, (Arisaema triphyllum) / Leaves

Wild cucumber, Manroot, ( Marah fabaceus) / Seeds


Mexico / Lechuguilla, (Agave lechuguilla) / Leaves

Venezuela / Soapberry, (Sapindus drummondii) / Berries

Mexican Buckeye, (Ungnadia speciosa) / Nut or fruit

Ecuador / Barbasco, (Jacquinia sprucei) / Bark, roots

Barbasco, (Tephrosia toxicofera) / Bark

Barbasco, (Lonchocarpus nicou) / Roots

Acariquara, (Minquartia guianensis) / Bark

Brazil / Fish poison leaves, (Euforbia cotinifolia) / Leaves


Rarotonga, Moorea / Fish poison tree, (Barringtonia asiatica) / Seeds and leaves

Hawai'i / 'Auhuhu, (Tephrosia Purpurea) / Roots and bark

'Äkia, The fish poison plant, (Wikstroemia uva-ursi) / Roots, bark and leaves


Pituri, (Duboisia hopwoodii) / Cured leaves

Austral Indigo, (Indigofera australis) / Leaves and fruits

Fish Killer Tree, (Barringtonia asiatica) / Seeds and leaves

Fish Poison Tree, (Acacia ditricha) / Leaves

Fish Poison Tree, (Barringtonia racemosa) / Seeds and leaves

Fish Poison-wood, (Barringtonia vitiflora) / Seeds and leaves

Fish Poison Wattle

Soapy Wattle, (Acacia holosericea) / Leaves


Pongam, Indian Beech, Derris, (Pongamia pinnata) / Seeds

Fish Berries, (Anamirta cocculus) / Seeds

Bloodflower, Curassavian

Swallowwort, (Asclepias curassavica) / Roots


Pencil tree, Milk bush, (Euphorbia tirucalli) / Leaves, sap

Guele, Ironwood, (Prosopis africana) / Dry fruits



Common Mullein
(Verbascum thapsus)

Turkey Mullein or Dove Weed
(Eremocarpus setigerus)


Ecological Responsibility

Professionals today, to control fish populations or to eliminate alien or destructive species, use the same plant toxins: saponin and rotenone. Practicing primitives may be eager to experiment with the techniques listed above, but great care must be used, as the toxins are not selective and will eliminate all fish in the water where it is introduced. Keep in mind what is down stream and may be affected by these poisons. These chemicals will generally break down in sunlight. If you choose to use this technique, be aware that fishing with poison (even natural poison) is illegal in most states. Check your local laws.


A Lesson From the Amazon

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance relates this story from an expedition in which he was a member in the 1960's:

"The Maku Indians of the upper Rio Negro region of Brazil are well known for their fish feasts, where they go to a small river and catch a large number of fish by using fish poisons. The time I arranged to watch one of these, we were told that we must set out into the forest early in the morning. After two hours of a very fast walk we came to a small stream and I was glad to have arrived, but our leader said 'not here'. We came to another stream an hour later just to be informed the same again. This process continued for about eight hours when finally the chief proclaimed that this was the correct stream.

We were almost too exhausted to observe the preparations as the men built a frame over the stream and placed their sacks of the fish poison leaves (Euphorbia cotinifolia). Meanwhile the women stirred up the muddy stream and the men began to beat the leaves so that the plant juices dripped down into the water. Very soon fish began to float to the surface and were gathered up by excited women and children.

We had a banquet as all the fish were roasted on fires and eaten. I asked the chief why we had to walk so far to carry out this operation. The answer I received was that they had poisoned fish in the first stream two moons ago, in the second five moons ago etc., until I got a complete description of when each stream had been used. He then informed me that if they poisoned a stream too frequently there would not be any fish left.

How unlike the fisheries off the British Isles, Japan or Newfoundland where fish like cod have been mined almost to extinction. These Indians are aware that you manage such natural resources rather than over-exploit them to extinction. Could we not learn from this harmonious co-existence with nature and become better managers and less greedy about our natural resources?"




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