Packable Tackle

Fish more seems a good New Year's resolution. If you don't fish or, even worse, you find fish but left your tackle at home, you miss out on pleasant, low-cost recreation that can make a critical difference on long trips where a short break rests and refreshes. A typical fisherman spent 20 days on streams, lakes and bays. So you know someone is finding fun, and all you need to join this happy crew is some tackle and a nearby body of water.

Since nobody catches fish if their tackle is home, "packable tackle" that stores in your vehicle lets you enjoy fresh and light saltwater fishing without busting your budget. A solid, flexible choice for beginners, compact outfits suit experts as backpack or backup tackle too, but they do have one small drawback. They eliminate the "I left my tackle home" excuse for getting skunked. Of course, if you own decent tackle and know or are willing to learn a few basic techniques you will rarely get skunked. The keys to a good catch are tackle that's ready when you find fish in your travels and a few basic casting and rigging skills, plus a basic knowledge of fish behavior. As full-time outdoor and travel writers, my wife and I fly a lot, and fishing turn up at odd times in odd places, such as the bridge in downtown Boston where I caught big bluefish last summer on my way to Old North Church. Of course, we missed the first service, and I must have looked a little silly fishing in a suit, but those blues sure were fun to catch1 Fishing breaks also help blow away travel cobwebs on business trips.

Do realize that, as with photo equipment, good gear assures quality results but only beginners pay list price. Tackle is widely discounted. Shop wisely and you can save 30 to 50 percent. I've found the lowest prices either in mail order catalogs you can order through fishing magazine ads or in discount stores where tackle from "nam" manufacturers such as Garcia, Diawa, Fenwick, Shakespeare and others offers roughly equal quality in any given price range -- plus the access to parts and repairs you might find expensive with off-brand gear.

While blister-pack beginner's outfits can get you started, a spincasting, casting or fly rod that breaks or telescopes down into a 14-inch or 16-inch package to fit luggage makes tackle "packable." Spinning lets you cast small lures or baits best and is the typical all-around choice. Spincasting suits children and those who enjoy minimal casting fuss at the price of limited casting range and line capacity. Baitcasting allows heavier lines for larger fish and trolling without line twist. Flycasting magnifies the fight of small fish and provides its own special pleasures if you have time to practice casting skills.

Fiberglass rods fit the tightest budgets and suit beginners' needs; experts find more expensive, yet lighter weight, graphite and/or boron rods increase sesitivity to better detect light bites and reduce casting fatigue. Good rods use graphite or fiberglass instead of metal ferrules.

A reel to match your rod comes next. Most manufacturers suggest their own matching reels, but you might save by mixing rod and reel brands. For example, any spring reel that holds 200 to 250 yards of four-to six-pound test line fits the typical all-around spinning rod. Look for full bails and skirts that reduce the chance of line loops snagging on reels. An extra reel spool lets you carry both four- and ten-pound test line to meet changing conditions.

Six- or eight-pound test line is a good choice for all-round use; flour-pound test suits trout and panfishing. Interchangeable spools aren't available on spincasting reels, but are common on single-action fly reels and available in baitcasting reels to make it easy to switch line when needed.

Most fishermen buy their monofilament line in hundred-yard spools, but a quarter-pound bulk spool lets you fill the family's reels and change lines every five or six trips to reduce the chance of tangles and fish lost due to frayed lines. Fill your reel spools to one-eight inch of the lip to maximize your casting range, and load line off its spool in the same direction as it goes on your reel spool to avoid line twist.

Fly fishermen need a simple single action reel that need not be fancy, because it's used for line storage. A quality tapered line to match your rod is a must because it's the weight of the line, not the lure or sinker, that casts your fly. Numbered line ratings are marked on almost all rods; beginners often find a line a size heavier than the rating - #7 instead of #6, for example -easiest to cast. Shooting heads are an option worth exploring and Scientific Anglers and one or two other line manufacturers offer special line tapers for beginners.

Add tapered seven-and-a half to nine-foot-long leaders and a selection of flies -- see sidebar for suggestions -- for a couple outfit. Do realize shorter fly casting range usually means you need either to wade or boat to reach fish.

With our rod and reel rigged, you need add only your terminal tackle -- hooks, sinkers, lures, etc. -- and you are ready to fish.

Bait fishing remains the easiest, least expensive approach for casual fishermen and beginners. A small plastic box of loose hooks in assorted sized from four to ten offer considerable savings for bait fishermen you can tie a simple fisherman's knot, because decent ready-snelled hooks are sometimes suspect. If you fish with salmon eggs for trout, add some size 14 salmon egg hooks, and, of course, your salmon eggs. Other effective baits include: red worms or nightcrawlers, crickets or minnows in freshwater; and marine worms, shrimp or baitfish in saltwater.

Add some small sinkers and/or split shot for casting weight. Two or three conical plastic floats or bobbers let you drift bait over fish nearer the surface and add casting weight you need to cast flies or very light lures on heavier tackle. An assortment of split shot and small sinkers completes your basic bait fishing outfit. Spares let you keep fishing in case you lose tackle to fish or snags.

However, you can catch more or larger fish on artificial lures or flies at times and, even if you can't, artificials offer a most delightful way to fish. Spinning, spin casting and bait casting outfits let you use a wide range of surface, shallow and deep running lures (see Sidebar). I'd suggest you buy a few carefully selected lures such as Kastmaster spoons, Mepps spinners and Storm plugs, plus spares, instead of a "one of" collection. Most carry lures in small multi-compartment box.

Other odds and ends include fish knife and/or scaler, a small scale with a ruler so you can weight fish to impress your friends and measure them so you don't run afoul of size limits. A hook remover is useful, too, and some bug repellant is handy. A small outfit is all you need to start; it'll grow on its own soon enough if you get hooked on fishing.

Some fishermen use big tackle boxes to hold everything. that's okay for those who fish from piers or boats, but a smaller selection of quality gear in an inexpensive fabric creel frees your hands and saves your back if you either fish from the bank or wade.

Add lightweight stocking foot waders such as Royal Flyweights that roll up into the size of a newspaper for transport if you wade, and buy wading shoes if your budget permits. Otherwise wear sneakers and take care not to slip. Don't forget to add a pair of socks between your waders and shoe to reduce wader abrasion. Breathable waders are worth the cost for serious summer anglers.

Whatever the method you select, casting practice before you leave on trips can save lost time and lost lures at the water. Buy a hookless practice plug or, with fly gear, add a tuft of yarn to the end of your leader and spend an hour or two once or twice a week casting into cardboard boxes or targets on your lawn or driveway.

However you fish, it's equally certain that you won't find a more relaxing, more enjoyable recreation that returns food for the table in exchange for happy time spent at or on the water. So, stash your packable tackle in your car or briefcase and you need never miss a chance to fish again.