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How To Fish Without Bait (A Step By Step Guide)

For many people, fishing entails using some sort of live bait affixed to a hook and enticing a fish to bite the bait and hook themselves. However, that isn’t the only way to catch fish. For many anglers, and for centuries, fishing without bait has been the preferred option.

The 6 steps to fish without bait are:

  1. Pick how you want to fish
  2. Select the type of fish you want to catch
  3. Select a body of water
  4. Choose a method for fishing
  5. Target and position
  6. Test and fine-tune

Unfortunately, the other end of the equation is that fish want to stay alive. This means no matter what method you choose, catching a fish is not necessarily going to be easy. Below, we’ll give you tips to fish without bait with ease, but let’s start with the history of fishing.

The History Of Fishing

Evidence of humans ingesting seafood dates back 164,000 years. They primarily ate shellfish, but there is evidence that suggests they also ate shallow-freshwater fish. Since then, man has been adapting fishing methods to create new ways to catch fresh and saltwater fish.

It’s worth noting that fishing at this point in history, and halfway through the last century, was almost entirely for food. Leisure fishing did not emerge as a hobby until just a few decades ago, and “catch and release” only became popular in the late 1980s.

An early angler from any period would find the idea of catch and release unbelievable. This is because fish were such a vital part of their diet. Catching a fish for fun or sport would seem to almost everyone prior to our current day to be wasteful.

Ancient Fishing Methods

While fishers have undoubtedly used some sort of bait to catch fish for as long as humans have fished, the first record of using hooks dates to East Timor 40,000 years ago. In fact, historical texts mention fishing as the primary way humans were able to secure an “easy” source of protein that was packed with vitamins and minerals.

In this case, the word “easy” is subjective. Hunting other sorts of protein could end up with the hunter injured or even becoming a predator’s food themselves. Fishing, even with the dangers associated with water and some predatory fish, was still a much less risky prospect when compared with being eaten by a bear, wolf, or mountain lion.

Examples where fishing is mentioned historically include but are not limited to:

  • Homer (8th century BC) describes fishing methods and sea life
  • The Bible mentions that several of the Apostles were commercial fishers
  • Texts dedicated to fishing and marine life written around the 1st century BC through the 2nd century AD by various authors (Pliny the Elder, Ovid, etc.)
  • Debates within Islam regarding when fishing is permissible or forbidden
  • Multiple accounts of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans using fishing equipment

Examples of early fishers using non-bait techniques include:

  • The use of nets
  • Driving fish into the shallows and spearing them (some accounts claim dolphins were used to “herd” fish into traps)
  • Setting pen-traps
  • Using poison to herd fish into traps
  • Training animals like otters to help herd fish into shallows, traps, and kill zones
  • Using kites and silk lures to entice fish

Early Modern Fishing Techniques

Europeans were among the first to commercialize fishing on a grand scale. One of the many benefits of explorers in North America was discovering vast populations of fish. The fish, like cod, mackerel, and herring, thrived in the waters off the Atlantic Coast.

Fishers in that period used bits of metal and both live and dead bait to lure fish into an area encircled by nets put out by men in dinghies. The fish were hauled up and thrown into holds on boats and ships.

Later, the fish were gutted, filleted, and salted before being stacked on the beach. The weight of the fish stacked on top of one another drained the liquid out of the fish and compressed their size. The fish were then packed in transport boat holds and taken back to Europe.

Other early techniques included using nets to corral fish in shallows, where they were picked up by hand or speared. Fishers in South America and Asia dug out corrals in the bank of a body of water and either chased or lured fish into them.

The benefit of the emergence of commercial fishing was that Europeans had a protein source that could be stored almost indefinitely and rejuvenated to an edible state by adding water to the slab of fish. For many, fish in this form was the only source of protein they could afford or get their hands on, particularly during the winter months.

Modern Fishing Methods

Many modern fishing methods don’t require bait. Forms of commercial fishing that require bait include longlining and traps.

Longlining

This technique uses a string of cable that covers a vast distance with hooks set at intervals with bait on them. The longline typically sets for about 24 hours. The average longline extends for over 20 miles, although the distance is regulated by some governments.

The bait “soaks” for at least as long as it takes a longline boat to set the line and then steam back to the starting point. At that point, each hook is retrieved and any fish that have been hooked are removed.

Traps

Traps are used for non-fish sea life. Lobster is the most commonly trapped animal. Fish traps are typically sunk with bait and left for 24 hours. Each trap is attached to the next trap by a tether. After the soaking period, the line is drawn up onto the boat as the boat moves down the line.

Any lobsters caught are measured and have their sex determined, and legal lobsters are set in a boat hold. Lobsters that don’t meet legal criteria are returned to the sea. At any point, Fish and Game agents can board a boat and check their catch to ensure legal compliance with length and age laws.

Modern commercial fishing methods that do not use bait, however, are far more prevalent. Here are a few examples of those types of fishing operations.

Gill Nets

These encompass several types of nets, some of which are illegal in US territorial waters and some of which are legal, but heavily regulated. The purpose of a gill net is to trap anything that runs into it. A gill net is strung across a stretch of water, and it ensnares any fish that swim into it. The net traps the fish when their gills get tangled in the nylon of the netting.

Many types of gill nets are prohibited because any animals that swim into them can become ensnared and die. Animals that have been unintentionally caught by gill nets include sharks, dolphins, turtles, and stingrays.

Drift Nets

Drift nets hang vertically with no tethering to the bottom of a body of water. Fish become entangled by the folds in a drift net that ensnarls its gills, fins, and tails. Drift net holes in the netting determinethe type of fish targeted. Drift netting is also heavily regulated.

Tow Or Drag Netting

One or several boats employ this type of fishing without bait, also known as trawling. A net is pulled behind a boat or along either along the bottom scooping everything up or off the bottom in the upper water column.

Bottom Trawling

This often involves a framed “net” that resembles more of a scoop. It can damage the seabed as well as stir up debris that can kill plankton or kick off an algal bloom. An algal bloom can harm both sea life as well as humans. Bottom trawling targets groundfish.

Midwater Trawling

This happens in the upper water column and usually targets a specific type of fish. Mackerel, herring, and hoki are all examples of this type of fishing. The downside to this type of fishing is that the netting can occasionally capture non-targeted fish, which can reduces a species’ population.

Midwater trawling or pelagic trawling utilizes a cone-shaped net that one or two boats drag across an area, capturing anything hanging out in that area. Catches are then sorted, and unwanted species are returned to the ocean.

Environmental Damage Caused By Commercial Netting

As mentioned, bottom trawling can be devastating to the sea floor. It leaves a swath of uninhabited, upturned seabed that can stir up pollutants and cause problems with the food chain. Additionally, bottom trawling tends to kill anything unlucky enough to get scooped, whether it was targeted or not.

Midwater trawling is slightly less toxic for some fish species but it still captures anything in its path. That can lead to endangered species becoming trapped and dying.

Another risk is when netting becomes snagged on something on the bottom and rips. This can leave giant swaths of netting hanging submerged but still capable of trapping sea life. Sea life that gets trapped in this type of netting usually dies.

In addition, broken off gill nets can trap sea animals and become wrapped around legs, heads, and parts of a fish’s torso. When that happens, a marine animal can lose a limb, suffocate, or slowly starve as it is unable to capture food and eat it.

Whether using nets for commercial or sport purposes, the utmost care should be taken in monitoring nets and removing unwanted animals promptly.

Non-Bait, Non-Commercial Fishing Methods

Nets

Throw nets are often used to capture fish in freshwater settings. Occasionally, a net will be strung across a stream or river. Fish swimming up or downstream will become ensnared in the netting. This type of net can be a gill net or a drift net. These usually require more than one person to use.

Traps

Most people think of nets when discussing fishing traps, but many cultures set actual traps, usually controlled exit corrals with natural or artificial obstacles that let a fish enter but prevent it from escaping. Traps can range from small to huge.

Traps are used to catch catfish, bass, and sunfish, along with much larger beasts such as giant catfish, arapaima, and sturgeon. Cultures across the world have used traps to corral and trap fish, even since before recorded history.

Topwater Lures

These consist of anything that sets or floats on the water and entices a fish to strike because it resembles injured or inattentive live bait. Each type of topwater lure has its own retrieval pace and each lure presents itself differently.

For example, jointed topwater lures hang the bottom third to half of the lure under the surface of the water. When a rod jerks or twitches slightly, the submerged part makes a back-and-forth motion. One-piece topwater lures typically make the same back and forth motion, but the range is larger.

Additionally, topwater lures can resemble aquatic animals like ducks and frogs. These lures are retrieved in a motion that resembles how each functions on the water. Often, they have a blade in the front or back that stirs the water as they are brought in.

Topwater lures are used in warmer water. In colder water, where fish are generally conserving energy, chasing down a topwater lure represents too much work for too little reward.

Crankbaits

Crankbaits are lures that can start out floating or submerged but stay underwater as they are being retrieved. A bill pushes the lure down as it is reeled in and the bait swings back and forth sideways, much like a topwater bait.

Most crankbaits have a “rattle” inside that makes noise as the lure is being reeled in. The noise attracts the attention of the fish. There are four types of crankbaits, although there are many variations within those four groups:

Shallow Water

These typically have a small bill or a square bill. The smaller bills keep them from diving much below 5 feet. Shallow crankbaits will usually float when not being retrieved.

Medium Water

These have a larger bill that lets them dive down to about 8 feet. These start out floating but are weighted to allow them to “suspend” and rise to the surface very slowly.

Deep Water

These have a large bill, up to 1.5 inches or more. These lures dive rapidly to allow an angler to get to the depth fish are suspended and then they are slowly reeled in.

Deep diving crankbaits work best when the angler uses the “pause and retrieve” method, or an iteration of it. Deepwater crankbaits also work in any type of water if the retrieval doesn’t outpace the temperature of the water and its effect on fish metabolism.

Lipless

Lipless crankbait has no bill. Its retrieval produces a tight wobble that resembles several baitfish when they are fleeing a predator or at the end of their lives and fighting to stay alive. Lipless crankbaits are effective in cold water but will work in all types of water.

Stick Baits

Stick baits are usually solid and use the same gyrating movement that crankbaits use. They can have a rattle, although many do not. Stick baits look like a solid “stick” type lure, usually resembling a fish.

A stick bait works best in cold water, especially if it is weighted to suspend. Letting a stick bait set in colder water for minutes at a time can sometimes entice a fish to take a chance biting it.

Buzz Baits

Buzz baits have propellers and are retrieved at the top of the water or only an inch or two beneath it. They are said to resemble baitfish when the baitfish are feeding or fleeing a predator. The trick with buzz baits is to produce enough topwater disturbance to attract a fish, but not so much that the fish gets wary.

Spinner Baits

A spinner bait has one or more blades that spin when pulled through the water. It resembles light flashing off the side of a baitfish. Spinnerbaits are some of the most popular baits in existence because of their effectiveness as well as being inexpensive.

Spinnerbaits work in about every type of water and attract every type of fish. These lures are effective in warm, moderate, and cold water and can be used to draw fish in or to provoke a reaction strike.

Spoons

Spoons are shallow blades that resemble the business end of a feeding spoon. They “flutter” and reflect light when retrieved. Spoons can be used on any fish in about any type of water and are some of the most effective lures used by fishers.

Plastics

Plastic baits cover a very wide range of soft plastic lures that resemble animals and insects a fish would encounter in a local body of water. The following is a partial list of plastic baits on the market:

  • Worms in varying sizes ranging from 2” up to as long as 9” or more
  • Crayfish
  • Salamanders
  • Snakes
  • Spiders
  • Turtles
  • Baitfish
  • Insects

That is just a partial list. Any type of bait an angler can pour into a mold can be made into a plastic lure.

Jigs

Jigs also cover a very wide array of lures. Effective in any type of water, jigs can be bounced across the bottom of a body of water, suspended and jerked, dragged across the bottom, and retrieved at a steady but erratic pace. A “go-to” choice for many fishers, jigs work anywhere there is water and fish.

Fly Fishing

Fly fishing generally uses small baits that mostly resemble insects a fish might see in a river, lake, stream, or pond. A specialized reel, rod, and line are used to allow the almost weightless bait to be cast great distances with precision. Flies come in both wet and dry forms.

Wet types of flies sink to the bottom and are hand retrieved slowly. Occasionally, they are weighted enough to remain in one place on the bed of a body of water. As the name implies, dry flies are topwater flies. A dry fly will resemble a flying insect, mouse, or any other food that will float for a period.

That is a very quick rundown of artificial lure options for most fishing scenarios. It is by no means comprehensive and only covers the most popular fishing methods and lures. But how do you fish without bait as a beginner?

How To Fish Without Bait In 6 Steps

1. Pick How You Want To Fish

Are you using a rod and reel? A trap? A net? How are you going to go about catching a fish once you have located where fish will hang out? What you choose is vital because it will set the stage for all the fishing decisions you make going forward for that trip.

For example, saltwater gear is different from freshwater gear. Fly fishing is very different from spin or baitcasting. Using a net or a trap in fresh or saltwater is a world apart from using a rod and reel. There is also the matter of whether you are fishing from a pier, off the bank, or on a vessel of some sort. Each demands different strategies and tactics to be successful.

2. Select The Type Fish You Want To Catch

This is a broad topic because very few fishers go after just one fish, and most will take any fish they can catch. Knowing a general range of types of fish, however, can dictate the non-bait options you have.

For example, some bottom-feeding fish are extremely difficult to catch with traditional fishing lures. If using bait is out of the question, these fish are best caught with a net. Some, though, will respond to certain stimuli, like slapping the water, so a trap is also a practical alternative.

Other fish are ideal for non-bait fishing but will not or will rarely respond to certain lures. Unless you know how to present a topwater lure to a muskie, an already infamously cautious fish, you will not have any luck getting one to strike. Once you know the type of fish you are targeting, it becomes easy to select your gear, strategies, and tactics.

3. Select A Body Of Water

This also will affect your fishing, particularly if you are fishing without bait. Ponds tend to be warmer in warm weather than rivers or lakes. Lakes tend to provide a mix of river and pond environments, opening the door wide to different strategies.

Rivers are great fun to fish, but to be successful you must approach every aspect of river fishing differently than if you are fishing in a pond or lake. In a one mile stretch of a typical river, the average angler can encounter every type of fishing environment in existence.

That means the fisher must be fully prepared for an extremely demanding and diverse setting. This is particularly true if the river dumps into the ocean. When that is the case, the chances of landing large fish rise considerably.

4. Choose A Method For Fishing

Much of this choice will be driven by season and, more specifically, the temperature of the water you are fishing. There are similarities between cold and warm water fishing, but there are also vast differences.

Cold Water

Colder water demands that everything must be presented more slowly. Some baits, because of that, get ruled out automatically. Buzzbaits can work in very cold water, but a particularly hungry fish usually must be in the vicinity.

Fishing cold water also generally yields larger fish, which means smaller baits don’t usually perform as well. A fish that is in slow metabolism mode will not likely go after a lure that is too small or too far away to make the effort worth it.

Warm Water

Likewise, warmer water will yield fish of all sizes and in many cases the fish are not particularly picky about what they attack. There are stories of bass that have had their stomachs opened and everything from nuts and bolts to keys and even a bullet spill out.

Topwater fishing also performs better in warmer water. The lure still must be presented properly, though. Mimicking a wounded fish or animal is a good tactic, but it must look realistic.

Type Of Gear You Use

In addition to water temperature, there is also the type of fishing gear you want to use. Baitcasting is great for flipping baits under and around docks and other obstacles. Spinning reels are better with light tackle or when it is windy because a spinning reel has no backlash.

Rod choices also factor into any fishing strategy. Fishing rods come in the form of fast, medium, and slow action tips and heavy, medium, and light bend ratios.

A trolling rod will be slower action and medium to heavy bending capacity. If you are fishing your local pond or lake, you want a medium to fast action tip because of sensitivity and a lighter bend threshold. If you are fishing in the ocean, you want slow action and heavy bend ratios.

For most anglers, staying on the lighter side with faster action is the way to go, but not if they are fishing at great depths, for big fish or trolling. Mismatching a rod can mean the fisher misses bites or fails to hook a fish on one hand versus having a rod that is overmatched by a big fish on the other.

5. Target And Position

Any type of fishing requires targeting areas of the water that is being fished and positioning oneself in the area most likely to yield fish. Positioning is particularly important if you are fishing with lures or using a net or trap. This is because bait attracts fish, while lures or a net are more opportunistic methods. A trap is all driven by position, especially you use it without bait.

Before casting a single lure, throwing a net, or choosing a place to put a trap, look over a map of the area you will be fishing. Try and find areas that offer:

  • Cover for hiding and ambushing pray
  • Access to deeper water for cooling off and security
  • Areas likely to attract baitfish and other food

These three characteristics apply to any type of fishing but are particularly important if you are using lures, a net, or a fish trap. Choosing an area that doesn’t offer all three very quickly reduces the likelihood you will find fish.

6. Test And Fine-Tune

Fishing is not a “one and done” prospect regarding strategies or tactics. This is particularly true if you are not using bait. Sometimes something as simple as the color of a lure can trigger a strike or mean you get skunked.

To that end, you must be willing to experiment and test what works best for you. If you try topwater lures and nothing happens, switch to a crankbait, spinner, or jig. If you are using a net and keep missing fish, try and fine-tune where you think fish will be hanging out.

As you gain more experience fishing, your fine-tuning will become more precise. You will quickly learn which lures are working and which ones don’t. You will also learn the characteristics of the places you fish, which will help you be successful in the long run.

Final Thoughts

Fishing without bait is generally the same as fishing with bait, but you must be a little more strategic. Choosing how you want to fish, the type of fish and body of water you want to target, what equipment to use and how to fine-tune your efforts, will always yield superior results. Primarily, however, remember to have fun!