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Rod Fishing in China

I was walking on the banks of Qian Lake at the base of Purple Mountain in Nanjing. On this warm spring day there were dozens of fishermen with their lines dangling in the water. Men were leaning over a decorated concrete railing and fishing side by side in a long row all away around the periphery [...]

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I was walking on the banks of Qian Lake at the base of Purple Mountain in Nanjing. On this warm spring day there were dozens of fishermen with their lines dangling in the water. Men were leaning over a decorated concrete railing and fishing side by side in a long row all away around the periphery of the lake. Their lines hung idly as they stared off into the distance. None of the fishermen were really talking, their faces were as still and tranquil as the surface of the lake, the sky, and the green mountain beyond.

The more complex rods were a retractable type made up of cylindrical sections of fiberglass or aluminum that taper down thinner and thinner from the handle to a little ringlet at the tip top. When contracted, the smaller sections of rod fit into the larger ones and the entire thing slides down into the handle like a telescope; when extended, it looks like a long tapering pole. At the top of the rod a line is tied — there are no reels, and apart from it being retractable, it’s basically just a stick.

The simpler fishing rods really were just sticks that had a line tied at one end.

Chinese fishing rod

Chinese fishing rod

The bait consists of mashed balls of sea stuff, crab meat, store bought bait paste, or miscellaneous bits of leftover dinner. Each fisherman kept a small bucket full of water at their side which I mistakenly took to be for live bait at first.

Chinese fishing supplies

Fishing supplies

I found myself walking by the fishermen with a middle aged guy who seemed to have taken an interest in me. “What type of fish are they fishing for?” I asked.

He responded simply that the men with the poles were fishing. I’m unsure if he was sure of what I was asking.

“Are they fishing for big fish?” I asked, simplifying the question.

At that the guy burst out laughing, and walked briskly towards one of the fishermen, waving for me to follow. He lifted up the lid from fisherman’s bucket and showed me the how big the fish were that they were after. I peered down and saw a handful of small, three to four inch long silver and brown fish flopping about in some murky water. Where I come from we call these fish minnows, and we only use them for bait. I’d previously assumed these little fish were being used for the same purpose here in China, but I was wrong: these were the fish that these guys were trying to catch as they fished the shallows of the lake. They were fishing for minnows.

I’d made this same error some years earlier when watching fishermen in Istanbul.

Fish in a bucket

This is what they were fishing for

“Do you eat such small fish?” I asked the fisherman.

He shrugged and said that he did, but it was clear that he was not out fishing to tame his hunger. It would take a very large catch to do this.

“Those people fishing, they only do it for fun,” a friend in Taizhou later told me.

Though on occasion I have observed fishermen pulling out larger fish like carp from rod fishing, they are mostly just catching minnow — and they are doing it for recreation in the urban areas of Jiangsu province. It is my impression that the subsistence or professional fishermen, the ones that are in it for their dinner, leave their rods at home and use nets.

Qian Lake Nanjing


Chinese fisherman

Chinese recreational fisherman

Read about net fishing in China here.


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Filed under: China, Fishing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • alf July 25, 2012, 1:03 am

    I recently bought a telescopic rod and joined the fishermen in Istanbul. I did not catch anything, but it was interesting nonetheless as the locals helped me set up the line like they do (with 5 or more small hooks every few centimeters, and a big lead tear at the end).

    Being the clueless foreigner trying to learn the local hobbies is a great way to earn the sympathy of the residents, meet people, and acquire new skills. Now I plan to take my rod and imitate the setup of the locals everywhere I go.

    In Bulgaria they eat these minnows, deep fried, in a platter of over 50 to share along with beers, like fries, but salty and still with their head on. Their bones are so tiny you can eat them. I love them.

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    • Wade Shepard July 25, 2012, 1:24 am

      Sounds excellent. Yes, once you have something in common with the people you meet when traveling it’s much easier to make friends. Good on ya for carrying the fishing pole.

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  • Ruth November 12, 2012, 2:42 pm

    Great story! Anecdotes like this make me feel like I’m living in a novel by John Steinbeck or Pearl S. Buck. Fishing for the sake of fishing is something I used to do with my father when I was a child. Though I have fallen out of the habit, I can vividly remember how calming it was to sit by a river casting lines and enjoying the stillness and the silence. I think we can all use a reminder from time to time that not everything needs to be done for a practical purpose; some things you just do for the soul.

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