Fishing 101: A guide for beginners

People fishing from boat Sean Hobson

Rods and reels, lures and licences, bait and bass—for a first-time angler, it can be hard to know where to start. Read this basic primer, then get out on the water!

First Things First

In order to fish in Ontario’s lakes and rivers, you need a fishing licence. Well, that’s not entirely true—you could fish illegally, but you will face fines and could have your equipment confiscated. Here’s how to avoid this.

Your first step towards getting a fishing licence in Ontario is to get an Outdoors Card. You can apply for both of these online, by phone at 1-800-288-1155, or by visiting your nearest ServiceOntario location. If you already have an Outdoors Card, just visit an authorized issuer of fishing licences, or apply online.

Note that provincial and territorial permits are not valid in national parks. To fish there, you’ll have to obtain a day permit or a season’s permit from the park.

Wondering how much this’ll cost you? Check here for a breakdown of fees for Outdoors Cards and fishing licences in Ontario.


Now that you’re official, you’ll need some essential equipment. According to Bob Sexton, Managing Editor of Outdoor Canada, your first step in getting set up is to think about the size and species of fish you want to catch. This will help you determine the type of line you need. For example, to fish for walleye and bass—two species common in Ontario cottage country—a 6-10lb test line is recommended. However, “If you’re going to be going after 25-lb lake trout or muskie, you need heavier gear,” says Sexton.

There are also many different line materials available. Monofilament is the classic variety. This line is less visible to fish, making it ideal for line-shy species like brook trout, but it tends to be less resilient. Braided or “superlines” are generally stronger and more resistant to abrasion, so they’re a great choice for weedy or rocky conditions.

Next, you’ll want to match the line to the rod. Every fishing rod has its recommended line class, lure weight, and other information written right on it.

Here are a few important criteria to look at when selecting your fishing rod:

Action – This refers to how much the rod flexes. The faster a rod’s action, the greater its sensitivity, and the more easily you’ll feel vibration in the rod. Fast action rods have the most extreme taper from butt to tip and the most flexibility, allowing you to sense even the tiniest nibbles, but don’t have the strength to pull in big fish. Slow action rods can do the most heavy lifting, but are also the stiffest. Sexton recommends a medium action rod to strike the right balance for those new to fishing. “It still has what they call backbone—it has some strength to pull in a big fish, but it’s not too heavy.” When testing out a rod in the store, make sure it feels comfortable in your hand, and pay attention to how much it bends.

Length – The ideal length for your rod will depend on the type of fishing you’ll be doing. “For fishing from a boat in the open you can go with a longer rod,” says Sexton. However, if you plan to stick to the shore or other areas that might have low-hanging branches for your hook to get stuck in, a shorter rod is best. Sexton recommends something around 5 ½ – 6’.

Reel – The two most common types are spinning reels, which are attached below the rod, and baitcasting reels, which are on top of the rod. A baitcasting reel requires you to adjust the tension on the spool in order to avoid “backlash”, or tangling. Because of this, Sexton suggests that a spinning reel may be easier for a beginner to handle.

There are many options for rods to choose from—cork handles, graphite, or fiberglass, for example. You can visit a local outdoor equipment retailer to investigate all your options.

Lures and Bait

“If you want a general, catch-all lure, a jig is probably it,” says Sexton. However, he adds that “if you want to target certain species, you’ll want to go after them with the right lure.” Here are a few common fish you’ll find in Ontario cottage country, and how best to attract them.

Walleye – For this fish, a jig is probably your best bet. Sexton suggests trying it with a curly-tailed grub as bait.

Pike – Try a type of lure called a spoon. There are a few different types to choose from, such as the five of diamonds or the daredevil.

Smallmouth Bass – You can find these fish in Canadian Shield lakes, and lure them with tube jigs.

Largemouth Bass – These fish are often found in warm, shallow, weedy areas. In this case, a topwater lure—one that floats—is ideal.

For more lure options, Outdoor Canada has a list of the best lures for fishing in Canada.


When using a spinning reel:

1) Hold the line against the rod with your index finger.

2) With your other hand, open the bale (the wire cage that opens and closes the reel).

3) Throw the lure out, letting your finger off the rod as you cast to release the line. The weight of the lure is what sends the line out.

Looking to improve your chances of catching something? Practice makes perfect. “You’ll only really get one, or possibly two casts before the fish is frightened away,” says Sexton. This means that you’ll want to be as accurate as possible the first time. Even if you’re not near the water, you can still get in some target practice. Find an open field, put down some rings as targets (hula-hoops work well) and try to cast into them. Remove the hook from the lure first to maximize safety, and ensure you’re always aware of your surroundings. By improving your aim, you’ll increase your chances of getting a bite.

Where to Go

To find the perfect fishing spot, you can use Outdoor Canada’s Hot Spot Search feature. Just enter your location and desired species to find a list of bodies of water anywhere in Canada.

Another useful resource is Fish Online, provided by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. This interactive map allows you to search by water body, fish species, and GPS coordinates to find your fishing destination.

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