Fishing gets a bad rap, but I see it as a basic hunting-and-gathering instinct. There's the lure of trying to catch a fish you can see, the surprise of catching a fish you couldn't see, and always a nice day on the stream or lake bank. Most fish species taste great, and if you are careful (barbless lures or flies) you can release fish you don't want to eat.
Rods: In many cases, the rod is the least important if most bulky necessary piece of fishing equipment. This is not true of flyfishing, or some drift-fishing set-ups where you need a very sensitive rod to feel a bite. Match the size and action of the rod to the fish and the water, and you should be fine. Many of the fish I catch could be targets for the old 10 foot cane pole that got me started, suggesting that getting one's line in the water is the most important part of fishing.
For light, finesse fishing for trout and panfish, I've got a 6.5' graphite rod (built by myself from a blank) and a Shimano AX-ULS ultralight reel loaded with 2# or 4# test line. Trout in clear water can be very line-shy, so I use the lightest I can get away with.
For bigger waters and places where there are lots of snags, I've got a heavier 6' cheapie rod (actually free, since I won it as a door prize at a fishing clinic) and matched reel with 8# test line.
I did a bit of steelhead fishing, and have a neat combo for it, but found it to be too expensive and not productive enough. I live closer to productive rivers now, so maybe I should try it again.
I also fly-fish occasionally, with a cheap 6-weight starter outfit. It's great fun, and I can catch fish on small waters and near shore, though I'm not that good at casting. I've heard that you can't get a really adequate fly rod for less than $100. I'm not biting in the near future.
Reels: I know zip about baitcasting reels. Spinning reels seem to either last forever or die quickly. My Shimano ultralight and two Ryobis have been good to me. Two Shakespeares (including a fly reel) and an Abu Garcia/Cardinal have been grief. Spincast reels are good to start out with, especially for kids, since they are so easy to cast with. Specifics on reels don't mean much to me. If it holds enough line, casts and retrieves well, and lasts, it's fine with me.
Line: Fly anglers live and die by their line, which is priced accordingly. Spinning anglers just die by their line. If it's too heavy, it will spook fish; if it's too light, you'll lose fish. Four pound test line is plenty for most fish. Even two pound will do for the fish, but any snags in the water quickly take their toll. I've lost several large bass when they wrapped my light line around snags, and I bet 8-lb would have covered me. Then there's the time when I was shad fishing and the guy next to me hooked a 15-lb salmon on 15-lb line. He landed it despite breaking every rule in the book about playing a fish. I would have been toast if that fish had taken off with my 4-lb. Expensive line is better, but you'll land plenty of fish on the cheap stuff that comes on 1000-yard spools (and rarely run out of line).
Terminal Tackle: I always like to keep the stuff on the end of my line small and light. I usually don't use a sinker in still water. This keeps the action of my bait or lure as natural as possible. In moving water, I use as much weight as it takes and no more. Small lures catch fish more often than big lures do in most cases. And that's what I'm usually trying to do: Catch fish. Not the biggest fish, which usually isn't there. Just fish.
It's hard to go wrong with worms. Almost any fish can be moved to hit a worm or replica thereof if presented in the right way. But bait has a stain on it, one that is unfortunately deserved. Fish will swallow bait more readily than lures or flies, so you'll kill some of them. If I'm keeping fish, I don't mind this. On catch-and-release trips, though, bait is off-limits. Cut bait and salmon eggs can be good baits, but are usually a cut below worms.
One lure has dominated my trout fishing experiences: Worden's Rooster Tail spinner. Get one in a greenish color, 1/8 oz. or smaller, and you've got a killer lure. Unfortunately, the things are getting progressively more expensive. Luhr-Jensen's Hot Tail is a little cheaper and comparably effective. Make sure to debarb the treble hooks on both of these to give released fish the best chance of survival. If you can find single-hook Rooster Tails, stock up on them. Sub-legal cutthroat trout have a particular knack for getting every point of a treble hook into them, and usually don't survive the experience.
The leadhead jig is perhaps the most versatile lure type around. Marabou crappie jigs work as well for shad or trout as they do for crappie. For panfish, I prefer really small ones (1/64 oz.) with plastic bodies. I usually stick a piece of worm on the hook and slowly jig it through the water.
While they cannot be considered a single lure type, artificial flies are even more versatile than jigs. Dry flies can be used on trout, panfish, and bass, and it is so exciting to see something come out of the water to hit your fly. Wet flies work as sort of a lure/bait hybrid. There are two approaches to fishing flies. "Matching the Hatch" implies that there is a specific type of insect at a particular life stage that the fish are feeding on, and the best way to catch fish is to imitate that insect. This approach means you have to carry many different fly patterns with you so you can have the right one ready at the right time. "Attractor Fishing" implies that there are some patterns that fish can't resist even when they're only halfway hungry, and that with just a few patterns you can catch fish almost anytime you go fishing. Attractor fishing is more attractive to me, not to mention less expensive. My list of attractor flies includes: Dries: #8-#16 Elk-Hair Caddis, #12-#16 Adams variants, #12 Bivisible. Wets: #8 Wooly Worms in several dark colors, #12 Muskrat, and the above dry flies fished with a little weight to sink them. I find that fishing flies with spinning gear and a floating bubble is about as effective as "the pure way", and despise the "fly angling only" rules. Almost got 'em last year... I'll use a dead drift to start out with, but attractor flies usually draw more strikes when skittered or jigged.
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