Fishing kits for survival, Part 1

Is fishing a critical function for a survival kit?  Pretty much every “survival kit” out there has fishing supplies, even though according to the “Rule of Threes”, you can go for 3 weeks without food and many of these kits are lacking supplies for aspects of survival critical within days or hours or even minutes.  The reasons “all” survival kits have fishing items is threefold:

1) The parts are small, light and cheap, so putting them in is a “no brainer”.

2) “Everybody knows a survival kit needs fishing stuff”, so a kit without might not sell well.

3) If you need to survive for more than a few days, fishing IS a good way to get food; food which is not only highly nutritious, but can be quite tasty.

There is a fourth aspect of fishing gear – once you have taken care of the more important aspects of survival, things can get quite boring while you wait for rescue or the situation to be resolved.  Fishing can keep you occupied and/or help to calm you down.

So, I agree.  Have fishing equipment in any survival kit you design, build, or “enhance”.  A fishing kit can be as small as a pill capsule on your keyring, or woven into a paracord bracelet.  It generally should NOT be bigger than an Altoids tin.  Not because more gear would not be useful, but because you don’t want to run out of space or money for something “more important” in the survival kit.

The first, and arguably the most important thing, is “fish hooks”.  There is a staggering number of variations, each optimized for a target fish and situation, and deciding on which to include as the most versatile is a daunting task.  Things to consider are size, material, style, and options.  One way to ease the decision somewhat is by having an assortment of hooks.  How many hooks then?  As many as will fit seems a first approximation goal.  After all, if you have one hook, you can catch one fish at a time, until you lose it, then you can catch “zero” fish (that is not strictly true, but bear with me).  Thus I would make every effort to have at least 3 hooks in any kit; more is better, particularly in bigger kits, although when you reach 15 or 20, you may want to start rethinking your choices.  More hooks mean you can catch multiple fish at a time, can afford to lose some hooks, and can optimize your chances of catching fish in a greater number of circumstances.

The first thing to consider is size (it does matter).  Hook size is specified as a number around an arbitrary and non-existent size of “0”.  “Simple” numbers (1, 2, 4, 6, 8 … 32) indicate SMALLER sizes; the bigger the number, the smaller the hook.  “Aught” numbers (1/0, 2/0, 3/0 … 18/0, 20/0) indicate BIGGER sizes; the bigger the non-zero number, the bigger the hook.  Thus 32 is the smallest size and 20/0 is the biggest size (commonly) available.  It is often stated that you “can catch a big fish with a small hook, but you can’t catch a small fish with a big hook”.  This is not absolutely true (in either direction), but it does have a enough truth attached to it to be a guide in survival fishing.  Since in a survival situation, you are not looking to win a prize, mount a trophy on the wall, or release fish because they are “too small”, you want to concentrate on the “smaller” hooks.  That is, of course, unless there is a fair chance your survival situation will be where there are large “game” fish which would break a small hook, and even then, don’t ignore the smaller sizes.

Some purists insist that there is a “correct” hook size for every fish; I’ve heard of a philosophy which makes more sense to me.  That is, that you choose the hook based only on the size of the bait.  The bait size is what is chosen for the fish you are going after.  Thus when choosing hooks for survival, I tend to think of the bait which might be available as a guide to hook sizes.

Oh, bad news.  Every hook manufacturer uses the size scale, however, there is no standardization, so a #4 hook from different companies can be different sizes.  When you buy hooks, it is best to buy them in person, or from a source which provides a full size chart of their hooks which can be printed life-size, or at least a list of measurements.  When a hook size is specified in a book or magazine, the odds are good that it is referring to a “Mustad” brand size.

Here is a sample chart of hook sizes (based on  Mustad’s O’Shaughnessy Sea Hooks):




I’d start with some 8s and 4s.   Then I might add some smaller ones, for smaller baits/fish or even going for “bait fish” (fish to be used as bait).  If  there is room, I might consider adding a couple 2/0 or 3/0 for “big” fish such as Largemouth Bass, Northern Pike and Walleye.

But wait, we’re not done.  Next, what material?  Stainless steel is good from a standpoint of storage after use with less chance of rusting, and is “more friendly” to the environment and the fish, but this is not important enough in a survival situation to compensate for them tending to be softer (bend more easily) and not holding sharpness as well.  Not that SS should be “thrown out”,  just that standard steel is usually a better choice.  Then the decision is whether to go with “bent” or “forged”.  Bent hooks start with wire and bend them into shape, whereas forged are “flattened” after forming.  This makes them stronger and very much more expensive.  For big game fishing, trophy fishing or competition, they may be worth the cost, but not in most survival kits.

And again, there is another decision to make, style.  The hooks shown in the size chart, above, are what people tend to think of when they think of fishing hooks.  These are known as ‘J’ style, for obvious reasons.  They are quite usable, particularly for “active” fishing, where the person fishing “sets” the hook when a nibble is detected.  Definitely, have some of these.  Another option is the “circle” style, “b” in the picture below.  At first glance, these may not seem to be of much use, since the barb does not seem like it would catch in the fish’s mouth.  And in fact, one of the advantages of this style is that it is less likely to get caught on things with the potential for the line to break and some of your tackle to be lost.  The real advantage, though, is for “passive” fishing, where this style helps the fish to set the hook themselves as they turn away after eating the bait.  I’ve never used these, but it sounds interesting enough that I’d include a few of these in my kit, space allowing.  Just be sure not to attempt to “set” these hooks yourself, or the odds of it being yanked right out of the fish is very high.


Be aware of the “X” factor.  Hooks are available in 2X and 3X strong, long and wide.  A “2X strong” hook has the wire size (and thus strength) of the next larger sized hook.  This sounds like a good thing in a survival hook.  A “2X long” hook has a longer shank; these are usually for hooks to be used for tieing flys, so it is not clear there would be benefit in a survival kit.  And a “2X wide” hook has a greater distance between the shaft and the point;  this is for special purposes so would seem of limited use in most survival kits.

And we are STILL not done choosing our hooks.  What about the barb?  there are actually 9 different barb options.  And barbs are important, right?  To keep the fish from slipping off the hook?  Actually, not so much.  The original purpose of the barb was to help keep the BAIT from slipping off the hook.  And that is of value in a survival situation, where you have to scrounge your bait.  The “standard” barb is more accurately known as the “needle barb” and should be just fine for survival purposes.  A “barbless” hook has one important consideration for survival usage for those who might be a bit “dextrous challenged”.  If you get a barbed fish hook stuck into you, the solution is to push it through until the barb is exposed, then cut off the barb, then withdraw the hook.  This does not sound like a fun addition to any survival situation.  A barbless hook can just be withdrawn.

Update:  About removing embedded fishhooks, an alternative to cutting off the barb is to mash it down; this has the advantage of not having the barbed piece of metal go flying, and can be done with pliers instead of cutters.  If the hook has additional barbs to hold bait in place, it might not be possible to back the hook out once the main barb is removed or crushed, so cut off the eye rather than the barb and pull the point the rest of the way out.

Update: I’ve come across a different method of removing embedded fishhooks, which, if it works, seems to require less fortitude (then slowly pushing the hook further into the body) and no wire cutters or even pliers.  It is called the “String Jerk” method, from the Ron Cordes Pocket Guide To Emergency First Aid.  This method states:  “Loop a line around the bend of the hook, ensuring that the line is flush against the skin.  Press the shank of the hook near the eye against the skin to free the barb.  Then give a quick pull on the line.”  I would insure that the “line” was at least 25 pound tensile strength, and I’d tie it to a stick or other handle so it would not slip or cut into me.  When doing the “jerk”, keep in mind that any upward force will tend to re-engage the barb, with the resulting additional pain and tearing, and the possible failure of the technique.  Whereas force along the surface of the skin will tend to maximize pressure on the outside edge of the hook.  Of course, make sure the part of the body which has the hook embedded is braced or blocked so it cannot move in the direction of the jerk.

Update:  There is a pair of videos on YouTube showing a guy demonstrating this technique with limited success.  One thing he found out was that if there is not line through the eye of the hook, the hook has a tendency for the eye to pop out from under the holding thumb and the hook rotates deeper into the skin.  After adding string, it generally took him 2 yanks per hook, possibly because he was no longer pushing down on the hook near the eye, disengaging the barb.

One final option is “baitholder” hooks.  These have additional barbs on the shaft to help keep the bait in place.  This is particularly helpful with worms or “chunk” baits.  I tend to prefer these hooks, although I have no proof they really are superior to standard shaft hooks.

It is often said that “no hook is sharp enough out of the package”.  If you get laser or chemically sharpened hooks, this is not true, so attempt to get such hooks.  Otherwise, sharpening a hook may be or may become necessary, but needs to be done with great care to avoid destroying the temper of the steel, or thinning the steel to the point of being to fragile to use.

When I started, I thought I’d dash off a quick description of the survival fishing kit, but apparently this needs to be a multi-part article.  Next up will be the other critical component, fishing line.




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