One of the many benefits of becoming a fisherman is the ability to procure your own food. While this often evokes images of stacks of salmon fillets coming home from Alaska, or a father and son bringing back a limit of bluegill, the fortunate reality is that fish can also be eaten while roughing it, without the need for a kitchen and stove.
To feed yourself with fish you caught is satisfying in itself, but it’s especially satisfying while you’re on a long camping or backpacking trip. The knowledge that you’re providing for yourself on such a trip is a reward that’s hard to match.
The question then becomes whether you should plan to feed yourself with fish while on the trail. I’ve heard people mention that they took up fly fishing to be able to feed themselves on long camping or hiking trips. While I think that’s great, it’s also important to ask yourself both whether it’s feasible, and whether it makes sense to attempt. At the end of the day, it’s fishing, so there are no guarantees.
Fishing is no guarantee
The most obvious issue you’ll face if you want to feed yourself with fish while backpacking is that fishing isn’t guaranteed.
We’ve all heard, and probably cringed at, someone say “I guess that’s why it’s called fishing and not catching!”
In all honesty, that phrase is probably used a lot mostly because it’s extremely accurate. Although catching fish in the backcountry tends to be easier than catching heavily-pressured fish in town, there are still a lot of unknowns.
Even if you’ve reliably caught fish somewhere before, you never know what might be different this time. Weather may throw a wrench in the plans, an unexpected winter kill could wipe out an entire area, or populations may have declined for other reasons. In any case, catching fish isn’t guaranteed.
This means that, unless you’ve recently been somewhere and have lots of options for places to fish in the area, it may be a good idea to not plan your meals around the assumption you’ll have a hefty slab of fish at every meal.
Of course, an easy way to get around this if you have some room in your pack is to bring some backup meals. That way, if you’re able to catch your fill while backpacking, you can do so and save your meals for next time. And, if you end up striking out, you’ll still have something to eat.
It’s not always enough
It’s a romantic thought to picture feeding yourself with your hard-earned fish as you live in the woods, even if temporarily. Something to remember on longer trips though is that people include variety in their diets for a reason.
I once had someone mention to me, “I wanted to learn to fly fish so I wouldn’t have to carry food on my climbing trip this year.” I know where the person was climbing, and based on the area I don’t think catching a fill of fish would be particularly difficult. That said, the next thing that comes to mind is whether someone would actually want to eat nothing but fish for a week or more.
Granted, I’m sure she didn’t mean she wouldn’t carry any other food with her, but even with snacks in between, fish as the main course for three meals a day, probably cooked the same way, isn’t exactly the pinnacle of wilderness dining experiences. Especially on long trips, being able to look forward to a meal with excitement is a huge morale booster and can keep a person motivated. If you’re eating fish for every meal, it might become hard to look forward to it after just a few days.
In addition to simply wanting a variety of flavors, your body will probably want a variety of food as well. Fish is good for you, but nothing’s that good for you if it’s the only thing you eat. Some fish may be a good source of protein and fat, but leaner fish won’t be providing much fat either. You won’t be getting your fill of carbs with fish, and some don’t provide a ton of calories either.
In general, but especially for this point, planning to eat only fish on a backpacking trip is probably never a good idea. For the sake of this article, though, I’ll assume most people aren’t trying to get by on only fish even if they plan to mostly feed themselves angling, and will also have some other ingredients or snacks available. In this case, the goal would be to know the species you’re targeting, and plan foods around what that species lacks. If you’re catching fatty fish, bringing extra fat may not be as high a priority. If you’re fishing for lean ones, an extra jar of peanut butter isn’t a bad idea.
Even if you know you’ll most likely catch fish, something that’s often overlooked until it’s time to throw some in the creel is legality.
Make sure the area you plan to fish is open to keeping fish in the first place. The same goes for the species you’re targeting, specifically for the location as well. If you mostly fish catch-and-release, it’s easy to get by without ever learning what the laws are on keeping fish.
Even if you can keep fish in the area you’re fishing, remember that there’s more to it. You’ll be dealing with bag and possession limits, as well as potential size requirements.
The ability to catch fish only gets you so far. You also have to catch enough.
While you may be more than capable of catching 15 brook trout a day, you may only get two or three that meet size requirements. That’s not enough to sustain you.
And, even if you’re able to catch a ton within size limits, a bag limit of one per day will stop your meal plan in its tracks.
For many places and species, these things won’t be an issue, but it’s definitely something to research before leaving for your trip.
So what’s the verdict? At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s ever really a good idea to go into a backpacking trip under the assumption that you’ll feed yourself solely through fishing.
Between the unpredictability of fishing, dealing with government regulations, and the issues related to exerting a lot of effort in the backcountry on a fish-only diet, very few people will be able to go about backpacking trips as usual on only self-caught fish.
But, there are always good alternatives.
In my opinion, the obvious answer to balancing the impractical idea of feeding yourself on fish and the desire to provide for yourself in the wild is to attempt it, but always with a plan B.
Bring extra food along, and see if you can avoid most of it by catching fish instead. Not only will this get you out of a sticky situation should you come up empty handed, but it’ll also give you more variety on the trail. You can still feel the satisfaction of eating your catch, without being reckless and putting yourself in unneeded danger.