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Primitive Living Skills- Beyond the Basics-Fishing-

Bass Pro Shops

Fish on the Colorado Plateau

Since so many of us have fished at one time or another, it seems that a discussion of fishing in a survival situation is in order. Of course you must be in a location where you can take advantage of aquatic life. But even if you are not near a river such as the Green or Colorado, some permanent water sources in canyon bottoms have enough life in them to provide you with at least some little bit of food. Again, your goal is that your energy expenditure to procure this food should not exceed, at least by much, the energy you expect to gain. Also remember that the goal in a survival situation, in our scenario at least, where help is not expected, is to remove ourselves from the wilderness back to civilisation. The time involved to create fishing implements may be more than you want to spend. As always, the situation will dictate your response. If you have not eaten for days and come across a pond of fat sunfish waiting to be caught, by all means, stop and fish. If you have a days walk left till you reach a highway, have water, and another Cliff bar in your pocket, continue walking.

There are many different species of small native fish to be found in canyon bottom waterholes and streams. There are minnow, dace, chub, suckers, and bluegill, and also crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, and water snakes. Be advised though that there are many native species in Utah and across the Colorado Plateau that are protected or endangered. These include the humpback chub, the bonytail, the Colorado pikeminnow, and the razorback sucker. In the larger waterways, such as the Green or Colorado River, you might find such nonnative fish that are safe to catch as the channel catfish, bass, carp, and maybe even trout.

For a listing of fish that you might expect to find in southern Utah, click here for a fish checklist for the Glen Canyon Recreation Area- click on "fish checklist" for the PDF.
Click here for a fish checklist for southeast Utah- scroll to the bottom of the page where you see "species lists" and click on "fish" for the PDF.

For those interested in giving Utah fishing a try, visit the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website- the target page is the fee schedule for licensing. The Colorado Division of Wildlife website will give you all the information you need for fishing in Colorado.

Primitive Fishing Skills

If you have read our Survival Kit pages and packed a kit to carry along with you, then you might have all that you need for fishing- line, hooks and maybe even sinkers. If you have at least fishing line, hooks or gorges, also called skewers, can be made from hardwood twigs and small mammal or bird bones. The dead, dry branches of the Scrub Oak, Gambel Oak, or Mountain Mahogany can be used. If you happen by a packrat nest you will likely find some small bones that can be used as well.

In making a hook, look for a branch or bone that already has the correct shape to it. Skewers are just straight pieces of material, sharpened on both ends, and turned sideways for baiting. When swallowed they become lodged in the fish. For a thorough discussion and a great introduction to primitive fishing skills see volume 25, the Spring 2003 issue of the Bulletin of Primitive Technology.

fishing kit as part of waterproof match case and gaorge hooks made from deer bone
On the left in this photo is a military waterproof match case. Wrapped around the case is 30 feet of 18 pound test fishing line with a hook attached. It is held in place and protected by a length of bicycle inner tube slid over it. Inside the case, besides matches, are 4 more hooks, a few flies, and 3 swivel sinkers. On the right are two skewers, or gorge hooks. They are carved from splinters of deer leg bone and have leaders made from one strand of the guts from a piece of 550 cord. Once tied in place I burn the end of the cord to make sure that the square knot does not come loose. The skewers are about 1 1/4 inches in length. They took about 1/2 hour each to make by abrading on a flat piece of sandstone. I abrade a small notch across the center of the skewers to hold the tied leader in place.

detail of two deer bone gorge hooks This photo shows a detail of the skewers, or gorge hooks discussed above.


In canyon bottom streams, it is often easy enough to run the smaller fish into a shallow where they can be caught by hand, or by net. An expedient "net" can be made from your shirt. I always wear an Ex Officio Airstrip long sleeve shirt that buttons down the front. The shirt can be unbottoned, wet down so that it throws evenly, and tossed flat on a group of waiting fish in the shallows. You may get only a few small ones this way, but if you are hungry enough, they will be welcome. If you happen across crayfish, in shallower water you can approach them from behind, reach down slowly and pluck them out. Otherwise they can be coaxed out with bait stuck on a small willow branch. They will grab hold of the bait and can be lifted out of the water.

Other primitive fishing options, more time consuming and probably more tailored to a primitive living exercise than a survival situation, are fish traps, fish baskets, and forked spears. These implements are specific to certain locations as well- fish traps and fish baskets require rather shallow, narrow, running streams. To use a forked spear for fishing or frogging you need a standing body of water with vegetation along the banks that attracts fish or allows frogs to rest.

channel catfish caught on the green river using survival fishing kit- line, hook, and sinker carved from sandstoneThe photo to the left shows the effectiveness of a survival fishing kit. Although it is quite small, I caught this channel catfish on the Green River early one morning just a couple of minutes after tossing the hook in the water. The location was in the shallow water along the sandbar behind me in the photo. This would have been a perfect location to trap fish using willow sticks to channel the fish into the shallows. The abundant beaver on the Green River had already created all the sticks needed for the trap, saving the time of cutting them- beaver cut willows were found floating along the banks during the entire 120 mile trip.












Back to Top
Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Primitive Skills- Shelter
Primitive Skills- Fire
Primitive Skills- Food
Primitive Skills- Navigation
Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Primitive Skills- Fishing
Primitive Skills- Flintknapping
Primitive Skills- Tracking
Desert and Wilderness Survival and the Survival Kit Page
Choosing Your Survival Knife




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