Learning to Fish Using Old Boy Scout Handbooks: How Hard Is It?

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I began putting my Go Bags together about two years ago. Like many new preppers, I bought some stuff I thought could be useful.

One of the things I bought was a mini pocket fishing rod and reel. It really is kind of cute, but there’s no line or rig with it, and I had no idea how to use it. In any case, I tucked it away in the Go Bag just in case.  

So, what is it about prepping, survival, and fishing that is so important? The more I got thinking about this, the more I decided that learning to fish is a skill I should learn in spite of never fishing, even as a kid.

So why should I learn to fish?

First, I like to eat fish. I like Walleye, trout, catfish, perch, and other varieties.

Second, we like to camp and travel in our RV, and fishing seems to be something others in the RV scene seem to enjoy. Plus, many state parks have great fishing opportunities.

Third, if we’re ever stranded somewhere and near a body of water, then I have a fair chance of catching food if I have fishing skills.

I have access to loads of resources for learning to fish, but my first step was to pull out one of my old Scout handbooks.

woman learning to fish with bamboo pole holding fish on a line

What can you learn from Scout handbooks?

My home library has all the Scout handbooks passed down from my mom and dad, my brothers, and my sons. Anytime I want to expand my prepping knowledge, I first check out one of the handbooks.

So far, I haven’t found a prepping subject they didn’t have something to say about. Of course, allowances need to be made for filtering out defunct, archaic advice like trenching around a tent, using old equipment, or past practices for First Aid (sucking snake venom from a bite wound comes to mind. Yuck.)

The Boy Scout Handbooks, and especially the Boy Scout Fieldbook, are a wealth of information on campcraft, survival, and understanding the environment. They include outdoor survival skills such as how to navigate the backcountry from reading a topographical map to properly packing the backpack. (Boy Scout Fieldbook, 1984.)

Comparing both the Girl Scout Handbooks and the Boy Scout Handbooks, I found that the Girl Scouts have lots of great information about camping but nothing about fishing.

Learning to Fish at a Young Age

The Boy Scouts start introducing fishing at an early level. The Wolf Scout handbook had a great introduction to get started. It starts with the fish—what they look like, who they are, and where they live. 

image: Wolf Cub Scout Handbook
Copy of the 1986 Wolf Cub Scout Handbook

The manual shows the difference between a bluegill, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, and bullhead catfish. Next, it describes how to set up a fishing pole—not a rod and reel—a pole with a line, bobber, sinker, and hook.

image: interior pages of wolf cub south handbook showing learning to fish
Wolf Cub Scout Handbook (1986) showing the first pages of fishing elective.

None of this, I had any clue about.

It also introduces fishing safety—watch where that hook is. Then it shows how to use the rod and reel. It describes how to cast, how to play the fish, and how to land it.

image: Wolf Cub Scout Handbook, 1986, showing some of the lessons about fishing
Wolf Cub Scout Handbook (1986) shows some of the lessons about fishing.

All of this is geared toward second-grade boys. I figure if they can do it, so can I. (Fishing is one of the survival skills your child should acquire!)

The Boy Scout Handbook doesn’t have any more details but does have the merit badge requirements. These are extensive.

Can I learn all of this?

If I do, then I think I will be competent.

Fishing Merit Badge Requirements (excerpt from the Boy Scout Handbook):

  1. Do the following:
    • Explain to your counselor the most likely hazards you may encounter while participating in fishing activities and what you should do to anticipate, help prevent, mitigate, and respond to these hazards.
    • Discuss the prevention of and treatment for the following health concerns that could occur while fishing, including cuts, scratches, puncture wounds, insect bites, hypothermia, dehydration, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and sunburn.
    • Explain how to remove a hook that has lodged in your arm.
    • Name and explain five safety practices you should always follow while fishing.
  2. Discuss the differences between two types of fishing outfits. Point out and identify the parts of several types of rods and reels. Explain how and when each would be used. Review with your counselor how to care for this equipment.
  3. Demonstrate the proper use of two different types of fishing equipment.
  4. Demonstrate how to tie the following knots: improved clinch knot, palomar knot, uni knot, uni to uni knot, and arbor knot. Explain how and when each knot is used.
  5. Name and identify five basic artificial lures and five natural baits and explain how to fish with them. Explain why bait fish are not to be released.
  6. Do the following:
    • Explain the importance of practicing Leave No Trace techniques. Discuss the positive effects of Leave No Trace on fishing resources.
    • Discuss the meaning and importance of catch and release. Describe how to properly release a fish safely to the water.
  7. Obtain and review the regulations affecting game fishing where you live. Explain why they were adopted and what is accomplished by following them.
  8. Explain what good outdoor sportsmanlike behavior is and how it relates to anglers. Tell how the Outdoor Code of the Boy Scouts of America relates to a fishing sports enthusiast, including the aspects of littering, trespassing, courteous behavior, and obeying fishing regulations.
  9. Catch at least one fish and identify it.
  10. If regulations and health concerns permit, clean and cook a fish you have caught. If you are unable to catch a fish for eating, acquire a fish, clean the fish you acquired, and cook the fish you acquired. (It is not required that you eat the fish.)

Content in the Boy Scout Field Book About Learning to Fish

The Boy Scout Field book has more extensive information and devotes an entire chapter to fishing, including:

  • finding fish
  • fishing methods
  • casting systems
  • fishing lures
  • rigging the tackle
  • cleaning the fish for cooking
  • fishing conservation

It’s very comprehensive. However, I wanted to see if there was anything else available.

I found the current BSA Fishing Merit Badge pamphlet on Amazon, but I also found another Boy Scout-endorsed book, The Scout Guide to Basic Fishing. It’s a goldmine of information for the novice. Since I’m an older adult learner, it has become my virtual merit badge counselor.

image: wolf cub scout handbook chapter 27 showing boy fish on edge of lake
Wolf Cub Scout Handbook (1986)

Learning to Fish

The Merit Badge requirements mention a counselor. I needed to find my coach/counselor so I nabbed my nearest and dearest, my husband, although he hasn’t fished in over 30 years. His dad took him and his brothers fishing when they were kids, but he got away from it as an adult. However, now that I’ve expressed an interest, he is remembering more and more how he did it back in The Day. So, now I have a fishing coach. You can use whoever makes sense for you.

I read and took notes and read some more to get a feel for what to look for in fishing gear. Finally, it was time for a shopping trip.

My Coach, aka Dear Husband (DH), and I went to Walmart. They have a good sporting goods section, and their prices are usually reasonable.

DH had researched some rod and reel combos online and decided that the medium-weight rod with a 10 # test line would be a good beginning setup. He recommended the Zebco brand, and we bought a Zebco 202 fiberglass rod. It came with some tackle—hooks, lures, bobbers, and split-shot sinkers. The Scout Guide to Basic Fishing concurred.

image: blonde woman selecting fishing gear in walmart aisle
The author selects fishing gear at Walmart.

Putting Together My Fishing Tackle

To hold my gear, I planned to use an old tackle box I once kept first aid supplies in. When we got home from our Walmart trip, I set it up, also adding in some bug spray and sunscreen. DH put the rod together for me.
Fishing tackle box and tackle


Then I spent some time practicing my fishing knots with some old mini-blind cord; I wanted to see what I was doing before using the harder-to-see monofilament.

Now I was ready to fish, but I didn’t know how to cast. I had looked at the pictures in both the Wolf book and the Field Book but hadn’t tried to actually cast.

Fortunately, we were going camping and met up with my son and daughter-in-law at an Ohio state park. My son, who is an Eagle Scout, became my other “merit badge counselor.” He showed me how to set up the line with a bobber and some split shot weights and then helped me to cast the line. He patiently worked with me until I could cast accurately, at which point it was time to actually drop a line into the water.

Enough Reading–Let’s Do It!

Merit Badge requirement #7–review local regulations.

I can’t fish without a fishing license!!

I learned that each state has rules and regulations that govern fishing, and each license has a fee. In Illinois, I can get a license for $7.75, being a woman of a certain age.

image: cover of the Illinois Fishing Pamphlet showing fish jumping out of water
The Illinois Fishing Regulations Pamphlet

Additionally, there are local regulations to follow also, such as catch limits.

image: wooden sign displaying daily catch fishing limits
Sign showing daily catch limits for fishing.

However, during my camping vacation to Ohio, I was a nonresident, and it would cost $14.00 a day or $25.00 for three days. Therefore, I chose not to fish while in Ohio.

Actually, the money from licenses helps to maintain the lakes and rivers for recreational fishing, so it’s a good way to contribute to the sport. 

The Big Day–Goin’ Fishing!

My Fishing Coach (DH) and I picked a nice sunny afternoon to go to a local lake and drop a line in the water. First, we needed to buy bait, which we found at a local sporting goods store. A container of 18 nightcrawlers fits the bill.

When we got to the lake, we set out the tackle box and put our rigging on the line. Rigging is the hook, weights, and bobber. It clips to the main line via a swivel. The swivel looks something like a safety pin.

I baited the hook by sticking the worm on it and cast out into the lake. Then I began to learn that things do not happen quickly.

In fact, not much happened at all.

DH Ken showed me how to read the water. If I looked closely, I could see some minnows swimming around my bobber.

I could see the concentric circles where a fish came to the surface.

I could see the tiny bubbles in the water.

The fish were in the lake.

I could see them.

My bobber bobbed up and down, up and down, but all I did was feed the minnows a tasty worm snack.

We stayed there for about an hour then decided to try another spot. This time it was a pond.

By now, I was really getting the hang of it. I could bait the hook, I could cast, and I could read the water a bit. The worms were eaten right off the hook, but no fish were caught.

Oh, I also discovered how much aquatic plant life was in the lake and pond as I brought it up on my hook. All in all, it was a dirty, slimy bit of business, and I had a great time.

Can we learn skills with the Scout manuals?

The information in the Boy Scout handbooks and other resources helped me learn the basics of fishing, enough to help me prepare for my first fishing venture.

The resources I found the most helpful were the actual Fishing Merit Badge handbook and The Scout Guide to Basic Fishing. I used the equipment these resources recommended and learned how all the little bits of tackle are used and how to tie the knots that hold it all together. It’s like having a private tutor sitting beside you every step of the way.

My first official fishing trip was fun despite not catching a fish. It was really more about the process and developing skills than catching fish.

Next time I will try some different things–I’ll need to check my Boy Scout books to see what they recommend. 

What have you used Scout manuals to learn?

6 thoughts on “Learning to Fish Using Old Boy Scout Handbooks: How Hard Is It?”

  1. Between Three Centuries

    I saw the one picture of a law enforcement officer and the Cub Scout and thought it was a twenty first century illustration and that the scout was being arrested for fishing while white and not having a national ID card and his digital dollar tattoo on his arm.

  2. Once you get the hang of fishing with a rod and reel, try it with a cane pole set up. Learning that will only require you to carry the bare minimum of fishing tackle, as the pole can be any long, green stick you find near the fishing hole.
    Should you want to carry a ready made rod an reel, The “Dock Demon” (Zebco brand?) is a solid investment (WallyWorld carries them). There are also a bunch of hand reel set ups on the interwebs. Those work without the need of a rod or a pole and take up less space in a bag.
    Another great fishing technique is bank or limb lines. Used mostly for catfish, it allows you to “fish” while you do other chores, or just conserving energy in a survival situation.
    Now that you started fishing, as you get better at it, you’ll be hooked for life…….. (That’s how I end the session when I teach the Fishing Merit Badge, you can hear the eye rolls…)

    1. The Survival Mom

      I have an old set of children’s encyclopedias and keep them for the same reason. Great info, easy to understand, and most is still relevant and accurate.

  3. I learned to swim from an old Red Cross manual.

    The Boy Scouts taught far more skills than the Girls’, although I value my Girl Scouts experience deeply. A good Boy Scout manual is now on my flea market shopping list.

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