The Total outdoorsman Skills & tools fishing



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THE ART AND SCIENCE OF DIY The Ozark Puffball was born on a picnic table in Missouri’s Montauk State Park, where photographer Colby Lysne and I sat drinking beer and licking our wounds after an unimpressive show of fishing skill at one of the premier trout parks in the Show-Me state. All morning long, stocker trout had snubbed our dough baits, following them through slow riffles, eyeing them warily in the pools, but simply refusing to eat. We were stumped, but not yet beaten. It seemed that we needed some kind of hack for the lowly ball of scented dough, some trigger to turn the trout’s obvious interest into a committed bite. The Puffball was Lysne’s idea— I’ll give him full credit— but it fell to me to field-engineer the innovation. Our solution was to fasten a pea-sized glob of fluorescent orange PowerBait to a tiny #16 treble hook. Next, we smeared the glob with a skim of Secret Bait, a dough-and-glitter conglomeration made by some Ozark hillbilly and sold in every trout park for miles around. A split shot and split-second timing were the only other ingredients.


To work the Puffball’s magic, I’d cast it downstream and watch the drift until a trout eyeballed the mutant wad but refused to eat. That’s when I’d snap the rod tip, telegraphing a pulse of energy down the line, which jerked the Puffball just enough to release a brown smudge of atomized Secret Bait into the stream. Intrigued by the piquant fog, the fish would then spot the orange PowerBait emerging from the mist. It would be like waking up from a dream about Thanksgiving dinner to find a ham biscuit on your pillow. The wiliest trout couldn’t resist. Unorthodox? You betcha. But jerry-rigging a doughball is just par for the course for the avid angler. Fishing seems to bring out the shade-tree design engineer in outdoorsmen. With fishing, the margin between success and failure is often tippet-thin— and dependant on an angler’s ability to innovate, modify, and adjust gear to specific conditions. Trim a spinnerbait’s rubber skirt by a half-inch and you might double your rate of hook-ups. Upgrade a baitcaster’s gears and you can rip lunker bass from the thickest weeds. Make your own fly rod and you can save hundreds of dollars. And most fishing gear tweaks and hacks are cheap and easy. In fact, a lot of the tricks in this book require little more than odds and ends you likely have in your basement or garage right now. A small finishing nail to give a soft-plastic crayfish a more lifelike action. Leftover plywood for a worm box. An old coffee can to convert to a leech trap. That’s so much of the fun of fishing— figuring out how to use what’s close at hand to better your odds at catching fish. After all, it’s not enough to know where the fish are. It’s not enough to be able to make the perfect cast or tie a gorgeous fly. You have to put a hook in the fish. You have to convince your quarry to eat whatever you’ve tied to the end of your line. Sometimes that’s easy. Sometimes that’s nearly impossible. You

never know until you’ve done everything you can to stack the deck in your favor. I learned that lesson down on Florida’s Suwannee River, in a tip you can read about in this chapter. Sometimes the smallest tweaks can make a huge difference. During the spring spawn, the male redbreast sunfish, known in the South as a “robin,” is a riot of crimson, green, and blue colors. Fishing for redbreast is a tradition so steeped in Southern culture that it’s the subject of local festivals and highbrow doctoral dissertations. Jim Greek and Billy Cason, however, were less concerned about the robin’s role in the fabric of rural experience than in how to entice one onto a hook.

When I ran across this pair of anglers, they were each 64 years old and had forged a deep friendship based on a love of bream fishing. Thirteen years earlier, Cason was running a backhoe on his peanut farm when Greek, his neighbor-through-the-woods, dropped by to ask if he might have time to push dirt over his trash heap. Cason was there within 30 minutes. A couple of days later, they went fishing together for the first time. Ever since, they’ve fished two or three days a week. Every week. These boys know how to catch a robin, and they were happy to share their secrets.

“I think a worm’s about the sorriest bait there is, at least for river fish,” Greek told me matter- of-factly, as he threaded a cricket on a hook. Their go-to rig was a #6 extra-light wire hook topped with a small orange bead and a 1/ 16-ounce bullet weight. But it was the bobber they fussed over most carefully. Each one was hacked very specifically. I won’t tell you how, not right here. Just turn to item #151 for the details. But I’ll tell you this. Their change resulted in a cooler slam-full of robin, and a riverside fish fry I’ll never forget. “It makes the line slide through the cork easier,” Greek explained about their tweak. “It don’t get hung up as bad, and drifts deeper. Sometimes those little changes make a difference.” As in all the difference.



With nothing more than a simple nail, you can make your softbait do all kinds of crazy moves. Here are a few.

HANG YOUR HEAD Make a wacky-rigged worm or Senko even wackier by putting a small finishing nail into the head of the bait. The soft plastic will flail more erratically.

MAKE A BACKDROP Push a nail into a soft-plastic shad’s back just ahead of the tail and run a plain hook through the nose. The lure will drop back when you pause the retrieve.

STICK IN THEIR CRAW Put a finishing nail into the tail of a soft-plastic crawfish and hook the bait through the head. The nail keeps bait and hook at a better fish-hooking angle.


You don’t have to fish with a standard lure. With a careful trim, your lures can take on new life.

MAKE A MINISKIRT One solution to bass tapping at your spinnerbait without connecting is to add a trailer hook. That’s fine for open water but can result in more snags around any structure. Instead, trim the skirt so it hangs evenly with the hook bend.

SHAVE YOUR LEGS Sometimes bass grab the skirt legs of a hollow-body frog lure and miss the hook. Trimming legs back even ½ inch can reduce short strikes and actually give frogs a smoother side-to-side glide when “walking the dog.”

TAKE A BACK SEAT How many times have you reeled up a curly-tailed grub with no tail? Solve this by cutting away a portion of the front so the hook sits just in front of the tail. Cut back a soft-plastic shad for the same hook placement.

76 MAKE A WOODEN DOWEL POPPER Making custom diving lures is a challenge. Lips, weights, balance, and buoyancy all factor in to getting one to swim properly. But making a popper is cheap and easy. All you need is a wooden dowel, some screw-in eyelets, hooks, split rings, and some simple tools, like a drill and sandpaper. Cut the dowel to your desired length, taper one end of the cut piece with the sandpaper, drill out the mouth with a large bit, and screw an eyelet into the tail, the belly, and the mouth. How you decorate the popper is up to you, but it will float and it will pop, and you need not be an engineer to get it right.


I recently spent half an hour un-trebling a trio of snarled plugs and— more than once— I’ve had to extract trebles from human flesh. And they can rip fish mouths to pieces. If you’re fishing with kids, especially, replace treble hooks. Most spinner hooks aren’t attached with a split ring, so use side-cutting wire snips to remove the trebles. If the hook eye is particularly stout, clip it in two places to create a gap, and slip it off the body wire. Replace with open-eye hooks. Before replacing trebles, evaluate the track of topwater and diving lures so you can compare their performance with single hooks. Most will do fine. For many largemouth baits, replace the hooks with some 1/ 0 or 2/ 0 ringed live-bait hooks. Remove the belly treble entirely, or just replace it with a ringed live-bait hook with its point facing forward. The point on your trailing hook should face up.


Working just an hour or two a night, you can build a fly rod in less than a week, and fish with your handmade custom beauty for the rest of your life. Rod kits contain all the components and instructions, and you can use rod blanks that vary from basic to cutting-edge.

SEAT THE REEL Find the hood recess at the base of the handle. You’ll probably need to enlarge it slightly to fit the reel seat hood. A rotary tool works well. Set the handle aside. Use 1/ 2-inch-wide masking tape to create two bushings under the place where you’ll glue the reel seat, just thick enough so that the reel seat fits snugly over the bushings. Spread waterproof two-part epoxy over these bushings, then slowly slide the reel seat into place. As you slide the reel seat down, fill all gaps with epoxy. Attach the butt cap with epoxy.

TOP IT OFF Use epoxy to glue the tip top in place.

HANDLE IT The rod channel needs to be custom fitted to your blank, so use a tapered rat-tail file to create a good fit. Go easy and check the fit frequently. You should have to use gentle pressure to fit the handle into place. Once you have it right, prepare the blank by gently sanding under the handle with 200-grit sandpaper. Spread more epoxy at the location of the handle, and slide the cork into place. If your kit has a winding check, glue it into place now.

GET GUIDANCE Taper the end of each guide foot with a fine-metal file. Rod-building kits will come with a spacing chart. Hold guides in place with thin strips of masking tape. For a consistent width, mark up a business card with the desired width of the wrap, and use it as a template to mark the beginning and ending points of each guide wrap with a grease pencil. Begin by wrapping the rod blank with a half-dozen tight wraps over the tag end of the thread. Snip off the tag and continue. As you spin the rod, angle the thread from the spool slightly so that each wrap is snug against the previous one. To finish a guide wrap, stop when the wrap is 1/ 8 inch shorter than the planned finished length. Form a loop of monofilament with an overhand knot, pinch it so that the closed end is narrowed, and place this closed end on top of the wraps so that the pinched end sticks out just a bit. Wrap over this loop to the end of your wrap marks and cut the winding thread with a 3-inch tail. Thread this through the exposed end of the loop, then pull back toward the wrap. This will pull the loop and the tag end under the wraps. Trim the excess with an X-Acto knife. To hold the rod in place and provide thread tension while wrapping the guides, make a rod wrapper: Cut notches in a cardboard box to hold the rod blank horizontal. Run thread under a book and through a small hole punched through the box. Last, wrap the female end of the ferrule with a 3/ 4-inch wrap to give it added strength. Apply rod finish to all the windings. To prevent the finish from running, support the rod in a horizontal position and rotate 90 degrees every minute for 15 minutes.

79 MARK FLY LINES I had wads and wads of mystery fly lines until I started marking each new fly line with a permanent marker: eight tiny little hatch-marks at the end of the fly line for an 8-weight, seven hatch-marks for a 7-weight, etc. Simplified my life and saved money.

80 FLOAT A LINE WITH AN EARPLUG For a cheap yet effective bobber for light-tackle fishing, use a foam earplug. Just thread the hook through and slide it to the desired position on the line. You can make it a slip bobber by inserting a length of plastic coffee stirrer.

81 FISH A GREASED LEADER Before strike indicators, fly casters greased leaders to provide bobber action and fly suspension. It’s still a great tactic. Fishing with a greased leader suspends pupae and midges at predetermined depths and makes it easier to track the path of a fly by keeping an eye on the floating leader. But there’s a cost. A leader floating in the film is more visible to trout. Beware. Use a thick silicone paste, and smear the goo on your thumb and forefinger. Pinch the leader butt with these fingers, and pull the leader through. Stop a few inches farther from the end of the tippet than the depth you want to suspend the fly.

82 DAMPEN LINE TWIST A big problem for spinning anglers, whether using live bait or lures, is dealing effectively with line twist. This can cause tangles or affect the action of a lure to the point where it won’t attract fish. Here’s how to keep the line running straight and true.

STEP 1 Close the bail with your hand, not the reel handle. When you turn the handle, the spool also turns slightly before the bail snaps shut, which causes the line to twist.

STEP 2 Set the drag properly. If the line slips too much while you’re playing a big fish, you’ll end up with line twist.

STEP 3 Let the rod fight the fish. Spooling line under tension creates line twist. When you have a big fish on the line, raise the rod. Reel in line only while lowering the rod (when the line is no longer under tension).

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