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Hand Fishing
© 2006

Hand line fishing is using a fishing line in your hand to catch fish, without using a pole, rod or reel. Obviously, you have to have a hook and some bait on the wet end. The trick is to use the right hook and the right bait for the area you are fishing in. But, more people fish around the world WITHOUT rods then WITH rods. It's mostly the "sport" fisherman who uses the rod and reel. And the sport fisherman pays out millions of dollars a year for that privilege. You don't need all that stuff.

There are very fancy hand line rigs for sale on the net but you can use a plastic coke bottle or just about anything you can control to wind up the fishing line without tangling. Tangling. That's a great word. When I was a camp counselor that's what we called it when the little kids would take their cane poles to the river to go fishing. We spent more time "Un-tangling" than we did fishing.

The great thing about hand line fishing is that the space and weight it takes to pack it into an emergency kit is almost negligible. A few lead sinkers makes up most of the weight. It fits right in your pocket.

The drawback to hand line fishing is that it is hard to get the line "way out where the lunkers are". You have to twirl the line overhead like a cowboy rope to get it to go "out" anywhere. It is best used when the line is dropped overboard from a small boat or flotation device. Or through an ice hole. Most sales brochures from the companies that sell hand lines fail to mention that holding a fish line in your hand while a 10 pound bass is running away will put a cut into your palm you won't soon forget. Monofilament line cuts skin. Gloves help here. The "old-timers" have so many calluses on their hands they don't need gloves.

Once you seriously get involved with hand line fishing you will want to buy or make a wind-up reel that won't cut your hands while you try to bring home dinner. Florida surf scenario: You catch a big fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but cut your hand bringing it in. You reel in the fish and get eaten by the shark attracted to your blood. Not a good scenario.

There are lots of commercial links to find some very good hand line reels. What I can't figure out is why more people don't use this very inexpensive fishing system. The end result is the same, fish in your skillet. For some reason, there are a lot of advertisements from the United Kingdom? I don't know why.

The rod and reel do give the sport fisherman a mechanical advantage over the hand line fisherman. But the rod and reel fisherman will have spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars to catch his or her fish...the hand line fisherman gets off with about $20.00 spent. If that. The rod and reel fisherman has to spend his vacation time moving large amounts of equipment back and forth between secure areas so it won't get stolen. The hand line fisherman puts it in his pocket and goes about his business.

Both people catch fish.

In a SURVIVAL situation, you don't care about "sport" want to eat.

In Vietnam we invented the "sport" of grenade fishing. Start with one body of water...add 1 live grenade...explosion under water...dead fish float to surface...dinner time. No sport involved unless you consider netting a sport. Just dinner. VERY ILLEGAL in all states now.

Hand Line Fishing

The simplest of the fishing rigs: a line, a hook, a weight, some bait, and a can or coke bottle. Variations of this arrangement are used all over the world by local fishermen for whom owning a fishing rod and reel would be considered very much a luxury. It works on the same principle as the basic spinning reel. The line is secured to and wrapped around the can or bottle, while the weighted and baited end is swung overhead generating speed, and released toward the water. The line then peels off the bottle or can with as little friction as possible. I am always amazed at what a considerable distance can be achieved by fisherman tossing a weighted hook by hand.

When using this method it is important to use a strong line since you will not have the mechanical advantages a rod and reel afford. I have had the best luck with 35-pound test monofilament line or stronger.

The amount of weight you attach to the line is dependent on how far you want to toss it. In the surf, a one-ounce lead weight is an ideal weight to start with. It affords ample resistance to surf action as well as being manageably flung. With larger surf weights up to two ounces can be considered.

Any kind of hook can be used. Ideally, since (in this example) we are fishing in salt water, a stainless steel hook would be preferred. However, the regular steel hooks will last long enough to catch many meals before they are lost due to bottom snags, strong fish, or rust. Stainless steel hooks cost 5 to 10 times a steel hook costs, and, in my opinion, are no better than the steel ones.

The exact manner in which the above hook, line, and lead weight are arranged on the line is distinctive to each fisherman. Some use multiple hooks, three-way swivels, and/or special knots. Some secure the weight at the end of the line, some prefer the hook at the end of the line. Some fisherman, in order to increase their casting distance will use a stiff leader, up to 100-pound test monofilament. Below are some of the simpler arrangements:

The arrangement to use is the one that works. Watch people fishing near you. If they are having better luck, try and find out why, and make the corrections needed. This is dinner you're talking about.

Hand Line Fishing with a Kayak

Handlines offer the advantage of being more compact and less complicated than rod and reels. Because you bring the fish in right alongside the kayak, they are also more stable to fish with - reassuring for beginners. On the other hand, because you cannot cast with them, they are best suited to jigging for fish that live and feed on the bottom, such as cod, rock cod, and kelp greenling, and less suited to fish that roam, such as salmon. Bottom dwelling fish are near the top of their local food chain, so you're not likely to find them on barren, sandy bottoms. Better places to fish for them are around the edges of seaweed colonies or rocky cliffs with a bit of current. You can make your own handline from an appropriate weight of fish line wound around a small kite line spool, or you can buy pre-made ones at marine stores. Carry a pair of plastic pliers (also available at marine stores). Unlike metal pliers, plastic pliers won't rust and seize up in the salt water environment or sink if dropped overboard. Your local fishing shop will be able to advise you on suitable lures for the fish in your area.

Recommended reading: Boots 'n All Fishing Article

Survival Rules vs. "Normal" Rules

Fishing in normal times usually means fishing licenses, catch limits, size limits and seasons for politically correct fish. Under Survival Rules, you catch and eat whatever is available. The other option is starvation. To practice your survival skills, you have to follow the rules for "normal" conditions because to do otherwise invites expensive citations from over-eager law enforcement. I guess there is some sense in it. Every time you throw back a 14 1/2 inch fish because it isn't the required 16 inches, you can say to yourself "In other situations, you are lunch".

Under emergency or survival conditions, you don't throw any food away, regardless of what the "normal" rules say. Don't brag about your catch, just hurry up and eat it. Fish spoil quickly unless its below 40 degrees (F.) outside. It's doubtful that you will have an ice chest available under survival conditions, so eat the fish quickly.

Hand Lines and Sailboats

The hand-line is frequently a better choice than a rod & reel aboard a Sailboat. The guru of this website is a sailor of note and I am sure that he will tell you that you just can't stop on a dime every time a fish hits your line. Sailboats don't stop on dimes.

With a rod & reel, if the fish is big enough - and you'd be surprised how often that is - and you're running wing-&- wing, or worse yet, under the evil influences of the spinnaker, then you are probably going to loose every inch of fishing line off your reel before you can stop the boat and fight a decent fish.

The hand-line relies instead upon the brute strength of 100-pound test line and a big bungee cord to stop a fish cold - not releasing a drag. The main problem with some hand-lines is that they come rigged with too little line. The solution, add more line. Add enough to reach the point where the wake is no longer interfering with the fish's ability to see your lure. Most of the Big Three you're going to catch (tunas, dolphin, & wahoo) are surface feeders.

Watch the Surf

On a clear but windy day in California, I was trying my hand at hand-line fishing. I had the line set up with what I thought was the correct weight. I had a great cast out and on the very next big wave back in, the wave brought my entire rig, hook, line and sinker and set it back at my feet. I needed more weight. After a half hour "un-tangling", I added more weight and had better luck.

Lure Selection from a Long-time Sailor:

"Here's where it gets really subjective. A live chicken with a hook inserted in it will catch fish. My advice is to go out and buy any lure you fancy. Usually, as long as a fish manages to see it, they'll take it. However, I have been fishing from sailboats for over 30 years and 100,000 miles, and no lure has ever out-produced what I was using last fall - I call it Big Pink. Trust me on this one; this lure is death to anything with a tail. It's a hollow, soft plastic squid in a lurid pink and purple, about ten inches long, with big white eyes. Find this lure, and you will find yourself on your knees, fillet knife in hand, cleaning so many fish, your knees will bleed!! Explain that to your significant other!" Wow...that's an endorsement!

A lot of the articles on the internet rave on about hand fishing trophies caught in their area. This a lure to get people to visit their exotic hotel and spend a lot of money to sit in the southern sun. I'll leave these out. It is still amazing to me how FEW people in the United States use handlines compared to the entire rest of the world. It must be the economy. Most American fishermen would rather be caught dead than be found fishing with a handline. It's just too cheap. This is a male - ego - macho - testosterone thing. Too cheap.. NO GOOD! Most fish caught in the world: By NET.

While researching this subject, I found lots of ideas about how wind-up rigs should be made. There's some pretty neat ideas out there, if you look close enough. I think the thing I like most about them is they're very small in size. The whole thing fits into a pocket. My kind of survival equipment. I can't wait to make up a bunch of sets and see how they work. Here in Florida we have both fresh and salt water fishing. There are a couple of special fishing piers in the salt water which would be great for working a handline. Maybe I'll use one of those pink squid.

When I sat down to design the kind of rig I thought I wanted, I listed the criteria it had to meet:

1. Light weight: Nothing heavy
2. Easy to assemble: Simple construction from easy-to-find parts
3. Cheap: The less the better
4. Flotation: If I'm wading in a river and drop it, I don't want it to sink and lose everything.
5. Strong: It has to hold up to pulling in a large fish.

After browsing all over home depot, I came to the plumbing section. I chose to make my first rig out of schedule 40 PVC. I would use standard plumbing fittings to assemble it. Here's my parts and cost breakdown: From this list I was able to make 2 wind-up rigs. I have lots of 1/2" tubing left over, as well as a lot of cleaner and cement. I need to purchase more elbows but I have enough Tees for 3 more rigs. Right now, the rigs cost me $6.39 each. More than half that cost is for the cleaner and cement.

Buy 8 more 90° Elbows to make up two more rigs. That's an extra whopping $1.84.

Item Cost Each Total Needed Total Cost
10' x 1/2" Tubing 1.58 1 1.58
Bag 1/2" Tee Fittings (10) 1.90 1 1.90
1/2" 90° Elbow .23 8 1.84
1 Can PVC Cleaner 4.49 1 4.49
1 Can PVC Cement 2.97 1 2.97
TOTAL: $12.78

What is this PVC Creation?

A. Scrap parts from my sink.
B. Musical instrument for Blue Man Group.
C. Parts of Hand-held Wind-up Rig before Assembly.
D. Don't recognize this's probably junk.

The correct answer is C. When you cut all the little pieces of tubing and clean it all up it turns out like the photo, below. I found it easiest to clean and prime all the PVC parts before assembly. Do all this outdoors because the cleaner/cement stinks. Your wife will yell at you.


The sizes of each piece are shown as indicated. There is no special size but I found the ones indicated below to be the easiest to cut, assemble, and use as a finished product.


1. Clean and prime all parts with PVC Cleaner solvent.

2. Glue piece A (4-1/2") to two 90° Elbows making sure they face in exactly the same direction.
a. Glue one 1-1/2" piece of PVC tubing into each of the 2 90° Elbows making sure it is pushed all the way in.

3. Glue Piece B (4-1/2") to the center tee opening as shown on the right. Make sure the tees are parallel.
a. Glue the bottom piece A to the middle piece B using the remaining PVC tubing (3/4") sticking out of the 90° Elbows of piece A.

4. Glue piece C to two 90° Elbows as you did with part A.

5. Glue the remaining 3-1/4" tubes to the 90° elbows, making sure you push them in the full distance into the elbows.

6. Glue piece C, with the elbows and tubes glued on, into the top opening of the tee fitting. You have to be fast here. The solvent dries quickly and if the tubes are only a little bit off, may be difficult to wrestle into place. You have less than 1 minute to play with it before you get to start all over again. With a little effort, you can get it into the tees OK. Push the tubes as far in as possible. You may have to hold these pieces together a bit since you have air trapped inside pushing the pieces apart. Hold the two pieces together for at least two full minutes.


The reason that all the tubes are pushed in as far as possible is that you want the largest gluing surface possible for maximum strength of the joints. I have not load tested these joints yet, but I will. I feel very confident it will hold up to a 10 pound bass.

I will probably design some sort of cloth or plastic bag to fit inside the space between A and B, above; the handle area. It will hold more weights, bobbers, hooks and other fishing stuff, including the pink squid.

Securely tie the end of the line to whatever piece of the wind-up rig you desire. Then start winding. The rig above has about 125 yards of 80 pound test line on it, with a DS-8 fishing weight attached. I don't attach hooks until I'm ready to actually fish.