NAFC members take fishing more seriously than most. Even so, it's easy to get complacent. Fish the same waters and species. Rely on go-to lures and tactics. The world of fishing has so much to offer, you're cheating yourself by not savoring a broader spectrum of fish, methods and destinations. With that in mind, the North American Fisherman staff joined forces with several of our fishing industry friends to compile the first-ever, "Top 45" things every angler should do at least once. Be forewarned, some are virtually impossible to do only one time.
1. Fish A Classic American Water
Chesapeake Bay. Lake Fork. Okeechobee. Mille Lacs. Castaic. Dale Hollow. Their hallowed names roll off the tongue like Shakespeare and are forever etched in the history of North American fishing. Add renowned rivers like the Beaverkill, Columbia, Madison and Firehole. The list goes on. Fish one at least once and take your place in angling history.
2. Rescue An Old Outboard
Modern outboards are incredible machines, but we owe a mighty debt to the engines of old, which rescued mankind from the oar. Repay them by saving a battered outboard from the boneyard. Clean it, fix it up. Breath life into its cylinders, then donate it to a budding angler in need of horsepower.
3. Go On A Canadian Fly-In
Catch fish until your arms ache, from the only boat in 100 miles, surrounded by sights and sounds that will forever haunt your dreams. Feast on shore lunch, enjoy cabin camaraderie and tempt fate as you slice the skies in an stalwart DeHavilland Beaver. It's an adventure worth taking at least once—more if you're lucky, eh?
4. Build A Fishing Rod
Catching fish on a rod you built yourself is supremely satisfying. The simplest way to start is at a tackle shop that offers rod-building components and advice. You'll find books, videos, even rod-building classes. Best of all, you'll have access to the know-how of an experienced rod maker.
5. Fish Bass In Mexico
Everyone should try largemouth bass fishing south of the border. If not for the sheer numbers of bass you'll catch and an honest shot at breaking 10 pounds, then for the chance to see a whole different world. Top bets are El Salto, Agua Milpa, Huites and Baccarac. Just don't drink the water, amigo. Really.
6. Fish A Tournament
Whether it's a small tourney with 50 locals vying for bragging rights, or a stop on the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, the excitement of going head-to-head with other anglers is incredible, even if you go down in flames.
7. Fish Key West
Ply the waters fished by Ernest Hemingway, Harry S. Truman and other great historical figures. Take your pick of tarpon, permit, sails, tuna, dorado, grouper, amberjacks, cobia, sharks, kings and more. Or, go all out and schedule your trip in March or April, when almost every species is available.
8. Catch An Atlantic Salmon
The mystique of fishing one of the renowned Atlantic salmon rivers is matched only by the thrill of a hookup and the aerial acrobatics that follow. Head for eastern Canada in September and fish such rivers as the Miramichi, Bonaventure, Gander or Flowers.
9. Build Your Own Spinners
In-line spinners are probably the easiest artificial lures to build, and sources of tools and components abound. Use round-bend pliers to make the shafts, or invest in a bench-mount wire former. Either way, you'll have the satisfaction of catching fish on lures you built yourself.
10. Carve A Crankbait
Make a crank the way your grandpa did—from wood and by hand. Start with a block of pine (easy to carve but still durable) a tad larger than the lure you want. Draw a body shape on the top and sides, then drill holes for hook hangers and whittle away. (If you intend to use screw eyes, you won't need to drill.) Use a coping saw for rough shaping, followed by a carving knife, wood rasp and sandpaper. Paint, apply a sealant, add the bill and trebles, and go fish.
11. Start A Fishing Log
Keep a written record of your fishing trips—wind direction and speed; sky conditions; air temp; water temp; color and level; patterns that worked and those that failed; and of course the date, time of day and waters you fished. Use the log to bring back memories as well as to plan future trips. Keep it on your PC, a logbook designed especially for anglers, or simply pick up a hardcover journal at the drugstore.
12. Fish Tarpon On The Beach
Sight-fishing tarpon as they migrate up Florida's Gulf Coast is among the most intense angling experiences you'll find. The day begins at dawn, in an open boat, cruising beaches and scanning the surface for rolling fish—or maybe just a fin or two. Stalk within range using an electric motor and cast a live crab or whitebait on light spinning tackle. Then hang on. Plan your trip for late April, May or June.
13. Take A Senior Fishing
Kids are the future, but don't forget about the generation that taught us to fish. One of the primary reasons older people quit the sport is because they have no fishing partner.
14. Tell A Great Fish Story
Whether it's due to genetics or simply learned behavior, fishermen tend to stretch the truth. We can also smell a fish story a mile away, so when spinning a yarn it's best to extend the facts only to the limits of physical possibility. For example, if you turn the 8-pound largemouth you caught in an Ohio farm pond into a 16, even the most indulgent angler will demand to see a photo or a dead fish. Now, if you were fishing in Florida, Texas or California, you're safe all the way to 20!
15. Go On A Fishing Date
Pack a cooler with classy snacks and beverages (skip the RC and Moon Pies), grab the picnic blanket and head for the nearest sandy riverbank or lakeshore. Cut a couple Y-sticks, set your lines and relax. Impress your partner with a one-match campfire. Share secrets. Count the stars. Maybe even catch a fish.
16. Combat Fish Kenai Reds
Thousands of anglers wading shoulder to shoulder along miles of riverbank, flipping flies in unison as millions of sockeyes wriggle past—that's "combat fishing" on Alaska's Kenai River. Plan your Alaskan fishing adventure around wilderness and solitude, but be sure to participate in this spectacle before you head home. Book your trip for the first to third week in July, but beware that the state can close the fishery to protect spawning stocks. If it does, find similar action on the nearby Kasilof and Russian rivers.
17. Go On A Back-Country Fishing Trip
Such adventures offer scenic solitude and fishing similar to a Canadian fly-in. The only difference is you get there under your own power, by hiking boot or the flashing blade of a canoe paddle. Top destinations include Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and New York's legendary Adiron-dacks, plus numerous routes in Alaska and Canada. Don't forget the West's high mountain lakes, as well as rivers in the South. Such boondocks are worth exploring once—at a minimum!
18. Pioneer A Fishing Technique
Where do the cutting-edge methods you read about in North American Fisherman come from? Anglers who thumb their noses at conventional wisdom. Drop-shotting, dead-sticking, indeed all tactics, were unheard of at one time, and evolved from a forward-thinking angler who figured out a better way to catch fish. Dare to think outside the box.
19. Learn To Tie Line To Line
So you can tie a Palomar with your eyes closed, with one hand in the livewell. Can you bind two lines? It's a handy trick few perform well. We recommend two knots, the Double Uni (lines same diameter) and Blood (leaders, tippets).
Click on Web Extras at the Club website for step-by-step diagrams, and you'll be tying these knots in no time.
20. Discover A New Water
Drainage ponds, golf course lakes, hidden streams—finding one of these gems and pulling big fish from it is about as fulfilling as it gets. Locating such spots isn't a no-brainer, but it's do-able. Check small waters near larger lakes, or seasonal tributaries of larger streams. Use topo maps and aerial photos to find hotspots off the beaten path.
21. Fish Channel Cats On The Red River
Of the North, that is. The slice from Lockport, Manitoba, to Lake Winnipeg is famous for trophy channel cats averaging 18 to 20 pounds, with an occasional 30. Near Grand Forks on the U.S. side, 10 to 15 pounders are relatively common and a 20 raises eyebrows. NAFC Life Member and big-cat guide Rusty Miller, of Crookston, Minnesota, plies it all. Call: (218) 280-0442 for details or to book a trip.
22. Handline Walleyes
Long practiced on Michigan's Detroit River, handlining is an excellent way to catch walleyes in current. It involves pulling stickbaits behind 3/4 to 2 pounds of lead weight, rigged to a "shank" below a wire main line on a self-retrieving reel. Two or three lures are attached to the shank on 10- to 40- foot leads of 20-pound mono. When a fish hits, reel the dropper to the shank, then haul in the mono by hand. Primitive, but effective.
23. Just Add Lard—The Authentic Shore Lunch
It's a tasty tradition, but considering the cholesterol content, once might be plenty. You'll need: fresh fillets, lard, breading (flour, cornmeal, pancake mix, crushed corn flakes) and a bed of coals. Melt the lard, bread the fillets and throw 'em in the pan. When they're golden brown, enjoy every morsel. If you're health conscious, heat a can of beans or fry up some potatoes. Veggies, you know.
24. Participate In A Fisheries Enhancement Project
Fishing makes our lives better; why not give something back to the resource? No matter where you live, there's a chance to improve local fish populations through habitat enhancement projects that reverse damages from wetland drainage, pollution and other societal sins. Can't physically participate? Support groups such as Wildlife Forever, Conservation Resource Alliance, FishAmerica and others.
25. Catch A 50-inch Muskie On A Figure-8
Few experiences deliver the extreme adrenaline rush enjoyed when a monster muskie shadows your lure to boatside. Except perhaps keeping your cool enough to actually stick your rod in the water, scribe a figure-8 and catch the fish.
Here's how to do it: Reel your lure to within a foot of the rodtip and push the tip as far under the surface as you can. With the freespool button in and your thumb on the spool, sweep the rod in a wide, slow figure-8. Still no strike? Draw the lure across its nose.
26. Catch Fish On An Oddball Bait
This one's for fun and bragging rights. You know, "I'm so good I can catch fish on SPAM." Not long ago, we detailed odd baits for catfish, including grapes and a concoction including Preparation H. Strange bait is not limited to cats. Try catching trout on a strip of bacon. 'Gills on gum. Get creative—we dare you.
27. Teach A Kid To Fish
You know it's critical to the future of our sport to introduce young people the thrill of fishing. So do it. But don't just take kids fishing, teach them how so, when you're not around, they can tie knots and tell whoppers on their own.
28. Learn To Fly Cast
Forget esoterics and lines from "A River Runs Through It." Fly casting is sometimes the most effective presentation for any given species, not just trout. And it isn't nearly as hard as tweed-wearing, Izaak Walton wannabes make it seem. Master three basic casts—overhead, roll and double haul—and you can catch virtually any fish on almost any water.
CATCH A TROPHY FISH
The lure of landing a trophy gamefish is too large for one item in our Top 45, so we offer several NAFC favorites. Feel free to add your own pet species.
29. 6-Pound Smallmouth
Can you say Pickwick? If there's anywhere your odds of breaking or shattering the 6-pound mark are better, let us know. Yes, a host of waters from Maine to Oregon offer a realistic shot at the bronzeback of a lifetime. But it's a safe wager that Pickwick produces more brown bass topping 5, 6 and 7 pounds than any water on the planet.
30. 10-Pound Largemouth
For starters, focus on waters holding Florida-strain fish. Their northern kin lack the growing season and genetics to routinely top 10. Our money's on big-bass fisheries in Florida, such as famed Toho, Kiss-immee and Stick Marsh; Texas (where better than Fork?); and California, like the Delta, Casitas and, well, take your pick! Finally, don't forget about world-class Mexican impoundments like El Salto and Huites.
31. 40-Pound Flathead Catfish
NAFC friend and dedicated catman Keith Sutton keeps close track of the best waters for trophy flatheads. Sutton's favorite is the Arkansas River, in his home state of Arkansas, along with Conway and Millwood lakes, also in the Natural State. Other top choices for giant flatheads include Lake des Allemands, Louisiana, the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, and of course, South Carolina's famed Santee-Cooper.
32. 30-Pound Striped Bass
Top spots for large linesides include Tennessee's Cordell Hull Reservoir and Old Hickory Lake, as well as upper Lake Mohave, which separates Arizona from Nevada and produced a 63-pound behemoth for NAFC member Alan Cole. For a truly hardcore experience, fish Chesapeake Bay in late fall. Migratory females in the 30- to 60-pound class stage between the Virginia capes, and make frequent feeding forays into the Chesapeake.
33. 20-Pound Brown Trout
Yes, a 10 is big on many waters, but we want you to go for 20. One of the best places to bag such a behemoth is eastern Lake Michigan between Ludington and Frankfort, Michigan, from ice-out to Memorial Day. Or, try western Lake Michigan from Zion, Illinois, to Algoma, Wisconsin; the Lake Ontario shoreline and tributaries; Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Utah/Wyoming; Stampede Reservoir, California; Lake Taneycomo, Missouri; and Arkansas' Little Red and White rivers.
34. 20-Pound Northern Pike
Canada's Far North offers the best chance to break the 20-pound barrier. Fish Nueltin Lake on the Manitoba/Nunavut border, Reindeer and Wollaston lakes in northern Saskatchewan, Kasba Lake on the Northwest Territories/Nunavut border, plus a number of premier lakes and rivers stretching south and east. Let's not forget Alaska's Innoko River, where NAFC staffers have tangled with pike pushing 50 inches. In the Lower 48, try Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Lake or Minnesota's Upper Red.
35. 10-Pound Walleye
Ten-plus walleyes are caught throughout the species' range, but your best bets include Ontario's Bay of Quinte, Arkansas' Greers Ferry, the Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Lake Erie's Western Basin, Manitoba's Tobin Lake and the Winnipeg River, Lake Michigan's Bays de Noc, Michigan's Detroit River, Montana's Fort Peck Reservoir and Minnesota's section of Rainy River and Lake of the Woods.
36. Fish From A McKenzie Drift Boat
Built to pursue salmonids on the wild, western Oregon river that bears its name, the McKenzie Drift Boat's wide beam and ample curvature fore and aft make it a joy to row and maneuver. Plus, the hull is stable, so you can stand and cast.
To fully appreciate all fishing has to offer, one must experience it in other corners of the continent—especially customs revered by locals but virtually unknown outside a particular region.
37. North: Fish On Ice
Don't groan, Sunbelters, this deserves a try. Whether you end up loving it or loathing it, you need to spend at least one day (or night in a heated fish house) on the ice. You can't call yourself a fisherman if you have to ask what a tip-up is.
38. South: Brave The Bayou
Alright, Yankees, you think cold weather makes you tough? Try tangling with gators and bat-size mosquitoes in the black-water bayous of Louisiana. Catch abundant bass and crappies amidst endless forests of cypress and Spanish moss, while keeping an eye out for snakes. To ease your angst, hire a guide. Then, enjoy the experience.
39. East: Catch The Shad Run
Historians say American shad saved George Washington's Valley Forge troops. Today, you can taste the past and catch the excitement of rejuvenated shad runs on a number of East Coast waters. As ocean temperatures rise in spring, spawn-minded herring weighing 2 to 8 pounds migrate up rivers from Florida to Labrador. Top picks include the Delaware River in April and Connecticut in May.
40. West: Wrestle A Sturgeon
If you think a 2-pound black crappie is big, try reeling in a 400-pound white sturgeon. Giant sturgeon weighing upwards of that mark move into the Lower Columbia River along the Washington and Oregon border from late March through June. There's a science to the pursuit of these massive fish, so hire a qualified guide and prepare for battle.
41. Fish Tailing Redfish
Like challenges? Try putting your lure on a collision course with a pod of tailing reds. It's an exciting game played in skinny saltwater along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic Coast. One of the best places to try your hand at it is in Mosquito Lagoon, Florida. Contact: Capt. Jim Ross, (321) 636-3728; and Capt. Russ Rivers, (321) 795-6144.
42. Tie A Fly And Catch A Fish On It
Fly tying can be a passion unto itself, or an inexpensive way to replace flies lost to overhanging trees. Time-tested patterns for trout include: Royal Wulff, Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph, Elk Hair Caddis, Woolly Bugger, Muddler Minnow. Bass: Matuka Sculpin, Dahlberg Diver. Panfish: Royal Coachman, Black Gnat, Sponge Bug, Brown Spider, Popper. Northern pike: Mega Diver, Leech, Lefty's Deceiver, Clouser Golden Shiner.
43. Get The Picture
You spend countless hours and more money than you'd probably like to know in the hope of catching trophy fish. When the moment finally happens, don't squander it by taking a bad photo. Learn to take a good picture—you and your catch deserve it.
44. Jitterbug In The Dark
Gurgle, gurgle—kawoosh! It's hard to beat the rush of fishing bass on top at night. And few baits ring the midnight snack bell like a black Jitterbug. Now, where was that flashlight?
45. Catch A Carp On Purpose
Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying that carp get big and fight even bigger, providing a more than worthy adversary. To improve your odds of hooking a giant, target feeding flats with European methods such as float, "touch" and bolt rigs.
North American Fisherman staff Kurt Beckstrom, Ryan Gilligan, Dan Johnson, Steve Pennaz and Spence Petros; contributing writers Dr. Hal Schramm, Keith Sutton and Don Wirth; fishing industry representatives Chris Bahl, Cabela's; Glenn and Carol Chenier, Cabela's MWC 2003 Team of the Year; Mark Fisher, Normark Corp.; Chris Gulstad, PRADCO Outdoor Brands; Bart Schad, Ranger Boats; Jesse Simpkins, Plano Molding; T.J. Stallings, Daiichi Hooks; Ted Takasaki, Lindy Fishing Tackle; Larry Tankersley, Shakespeare; Dave Tonn, Luhr Jensen & Sons; Frank Wilhelm, Yamaha Motors.