Survival Fishing Part 3: Reading the Water

Welcome to our third installment of My Patriot Supply’s survival fishing series.

Today, we are going to discuss a very particular and valuable skill.

It’s called “reading the water.”


Once you’ve found a piece of water to fish, you need to be able to find the fish.

This is not always obvious and takes some practice to learn. Just like learning to read a book, it might seem strange at first, but will become second nature if you keep some guidelines in mind.

Let’s begin the learning process.

Start with what God gave you:

We have been blessed with five senses and a powerful brain to make sense of all that stimuli. We must rely on these first and foremost to find fish. In a survival situation, we must assume any sort of fishing “technology” like fish finders will not be practical.

Luckily, the fish that will be our first targets will be the ones we can see. This is like learning to read with picture-books first. When you see fish, take mental note. How many? How big? What do their surroundings look like? These notes will help us find fish we can’t see later.

However, not all fish reveal themselves so readily. In fact, if you can see fish, chances are they see you. Which means they might be harder to catch. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it might be worth “leaving the scene” and approaching with more stealth after you give the fish some time to forget you were there.


Your ears can also lead you to fish. Splashing on the water will cause you to instinctually find the source of the sound. More often than not, splashing means fish are feeding or trying to escape being eaten. You’ll want to cast or set your lines/net near the action to get in on it.


Break It Down

Besides looking and listening for fish, focus on the rest of the ecosystem too. Predatory birds that are hovering, swooping and diving are a dead giveaway. Turtles and frogs also tend to have similar diets to or are eaten by fish, so wherever you find them, you’ll likely find fish.

If you’re fishing a big lake or pond, or from the surf on the ocean, it can be intimidating. The amount of possible places to find fish can seem daunting.

If you break your piece of water into a grid or even a few sections, it can be easier to pick apart. It is a simple change of perspective, but it works wonders. It turns fishing from hoping to reel something out of the great unknown into feeling confident that you’ve put yourself in the best position to catch fish.


As such, reading the water is as much about knowledge as it is about mental and emotional toughness. Cultivating this skill will serve us well beyond the realm of fishing.

Look for Changes

Whenever we arrive at a new piece of water, we want to spend some time using our human senses first. It should be noted that during this time, you’re not fishing yet, you’re scouting.

The next step in reading water is noting and identifying changes in the features of the water. There are many of these kinds of changes:

  • From shallow to deep water
  • Fast to slow water
  • Where fresh meets saltwater
  • Where the river meets the muddy bank
  • A boulder in the middle of a stream
  • A sunny spot to a shady spot

“Look for changes” is a simple prescription. It’s easy to remember, and you don’t need to be a marine biologist or trophy fisherman to use it.These “changes” provide a lot of the things that fish and other aquatic organisms need. The changes often provide structure or cover, which I will go into more detail on in a moment. Putting your bait, lure, net or trap on the edges of these changes will increase your catch rate.

Structure/ Cover


One of the biggest reasons to fish the changes is because these changes provide structure or cover. As tool-using animals, we can build our own structures for survival. Fish have little means to do this, so they use the natural structures in the water for their habitat.

Structure provides cover for fish, which serves two basic purposes. Many fish are ambush predators, so structure provides cover for them to not be seen by their prey until it’s too late. If you are using lures or bait, you’ll need to get them near enough to that structure to illicit strikes from these fish.Structure can be seen in the form of objects in the water – rocks, Lilly pads, jetties, piers, docks, logs, overhanging trees, cuts in the banks.

Cover also means protection. Protection from other predators, like birds. A log makes it near impossible for a diving bird to get the fish underneath. It also makes it near impossible to throw a casting net to fish near these kinds of structures. Cover also provides protection from the sun or heavy currents.

Once you find structure and cover, go back to step one. Use your eyes and ears. Break this piece of structure down into a grid.

Soon enough, you’ll find fish. Watch and observe a little longer before getting in on the action. The last thing you want to do – especially in a survival situation – is blow a shot on a fish. It’s a waste of all your effort in reading the water, and it wastes the energy you need to reserve to find more fish. You should focus 99% of your efforts on finding fish, the last bit on catching them

Check Your Watch and Calendar

The season and time of day will also have a big effect on where you look for fish, and your chances of success.

As an angler, I recognize that I fish when I am able. I use my free time to not only pursue a sport and passion I love, but to enhance my skills related to this oft-forgotten primitive pursuit.

That being said, certain times tend to be better than others for fishing. Remember the “look for changes” advice above? That applies here too. The break of day. At dusk. Many anglers swear by fishing at night in the days before and after full and new moons.

In the middle of summer, fish may head to deeper water where the temperatures are cooler. Some species become less active when they make this move, meaning they’ll be less motivated to eat your lure or bait. Using a net or bow might be an option for these lethargic fish.


Another example of seasonality has to do with “the spawn.” When fish breed, they can be easier to catch. Many species tend to expend a lot of energy during the spawning season and therefore tend to feed more. Species like bass and panfish tend to also build beds and guard them with fierce territoriality. Essentially, all you have to do is get something they can eat on their turf and you’re sure to catch a few.

For most freshwater species, the spawn will begin in spring and is always triggered once water temperatures reach a certain threshold. Talk with the pros at your local tackle shop to learn when this takes place in your area. They’ll often give you signs to look for, like when certain trees bloom. I follow this ancient wisdom more often than the “scientific,” because it’s much easier to remember.

Putting it all together

Today, I’ve given you 5 tips for learning to read the water. There are many more, but I do not want to overwhelm new students. People who overcomplicate fishing tend to enjoy it a whole lot less. If you have a tip on reading the water that you find particularly helpful, please share it in the comments section below.

To sum up: use you God-given senses, make a mental grid of the water to break it down, look for changes, find structure and cover, and follow the seasons and time of day.

If you are just learning to read water, this will take intentional practice. The best way to do this is to go “fishing,” but leave the rod and reel, hooks, line and sinker at home. If you bring your fishing gear, you won’t be focused on your true objective.

Learn to slow down. Observe. Focus. Then, think about a strategy to catch that fish – next time.

Tapping into this ability will become second nature after awhile. Because it is in fact our true nature. We are omnivorous animals. Reading water is an instinct we’ve forgotten as we built the structure of our world from the ground up. Luckily, this instinct is easy to get back in touch with. And doing so makes us more prepared and self-reliant.

Stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll be discussing how to properly kill, clean and dress fish. Along with the best part – cooking and eating! We’ll even share a couple of recipes you can make with our emergency survival meals.

Until then, stay alert, and start practicing reading the water!

In Liberty,

Grant Miller

Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply

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