Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

May 1, 2024

Fishing on a Budget

When it comes to accessible activities, fishing is hard to beat. It is an activity that people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds can participate in. It is also an excellent reason to get outside and join Illinois’ 1 million anglers at one of the state’s 1,300 public waterbodies.

One of the best aspects about fishing, especially for new anglers, is that it is budget friendly. Despite what outfitters, tackle companies and hardcore anglers might have you believe, functional fishing gear can be purchased for the cost of an oil change or fancy haircut. With proper care, fishing gear including rods, reels and lures, can be used for decades.

Where does one begin when it comes to purchasing fishing gear? What gear, or tackle, can a beginning angler purchase for the best value and variety of species? I’m glad you asked fellow angler! Before you take a trip to the store and buy a 10-pound tub of stink bait or lures in 10 shades of yellow (known by anglers as “chartreuse”), check out these tackle tips on some budget friendly gear that will have you outfitted and catching fish for just $50 (or less!).

First, a Fishing License

Before you can hit the water, you will need a fishing license. For residents 16 and older, an annual license can be purchased for $15. This license is good from the date of purchase to March 31st of the following year and allows anglers to legally fish throughout the state. A 24-hour license can be purchased for $5 if someone wants to fish for a day. Licenses can be purchased at many outdoor retailers and bait shops, or online at

Licenses are important for several reasons. Rest assured the penalties for fishing without a license greatly exceeds the cost of the tackle outlined in this article! Learning and following state fishing regulations will avoid potentially uncomfortable and costly moments. Published each year, the fishing digest outline statewide fishing laws, as well as site specific regulations. Paper copies of the Illinois fishing regulations can be found at outdoor retailers and bait shops, with digital copies available at

Fishing licenses are also important because the funds from license sales go directly to fisheries projects that conserve and enhance the state’s aquatic resources. License fees help pay for fishery and hatchery management, habitat development and protection, fishing and conservation education, lake maps and other publications, and many other valuable programs to support fish and fishing in Illinois.

The Right Rod (and Reel)

Three fishing reels on a laminated wood tabletop. One of the reels is attached to a rod.
Photo by Frank Sladek.

Once you have your license in hand, it’s time to gear up. The first gear to purchase should be a rod (pole) and reel. To target a variety of sportfish species, rods with medium power in the 6 to 7 foot range work wonderfully. These rods can handle lures or fishing rigs of 1 ounce or less and are rated for 6 to 12 pound line. Anglers can catch everything from bluegill to catfish on a medium power rod, allowing the most bang for your buck. When purchasing a rod, make sure to look at the rod’s base, just above the grip, for recommended line size, lure weight and whether the rod is for spinning or casting reels (look for a S or C on the rod base).

Another budget-friendly rod option is a cane pole. Cane poles are long, limber rods that are made of fiberglass, wood, or other flexible materials. They range in length from 8 to 20 feet. While this may sound long, cane poles come in multiple pieces or have segments that fit into a tube-shaped base. They are also meant to be used without a reel, with the line tied to either the tip of the rod or fed through the length of the rod. Cane poles allow anglers to drop baits right next to cover where sunfish such as bluegill, crappie and bass may be hiding. The trade off with cane poles is that they are not meant for casting baits or lures.

For anglers looking to cast, spin cast or “push button” reels are an easy to use, affordable option. Spincast reels have line inside the reel body, protecting it from the elements and tangles. Novice and skilled anglers alike rely on these reels to catch stringers of panfish and catfish every summer. Their ease of maintenance and coming “pre-strung” (line already on the reel) makes them ready to fish right out of the box. Spinning or “open face” reels require just a little more coordination but are a solid choice. Spinning reels in sizes 2000 and 3000 are good options when paired with a medium power rod to target multiple species of fish.

To get the most out of your rod and reel purchase, consider a combo. Combos are a rod and reel that are sold together and cater to anglers of different ages and budgets. They allow anglers to purchase a rod and reel as a set, with many fitted with fishing line on the reel. Spinning and spin cast combos in the 6- to 7-foot range are great multi-species set ups, especially when spooled with proper fishing line. Combos can be purchased at most stores for $15 to $25.

Speaking of fishing line, anglers have many options. Braided line offers sensitivity and a thin diameter, while fluorocarbon offers a nearly invisible attachment to your bait or rig. However, these lines are costly and not without disadvantages, which is why good old monofilament is a great all-around option. Combos are usually spooled with mono in the 8- to 15-pound range, with 8- to 12-pound test in clear or green recommended for common fishing applications.

Terminal Tackle

 A photo collage with one image on the left of two fishing hooks, one image in the middle of three different fishing weights, and one image on the right of four different bobbers.
Photos by Frank Sladek.

After purchasing a combo, tackle is relatively simple. All you need to catch fish is a hook, sinker and bait. Bobbers or floats can be used as well but are not necessary for many types of fishing.

For hooks, two styles should be staples in a tacklebox. Baitholder hooks are J-shaped hooks with several small barbs on the hook “shank.” The barbs allow baits, including worms and minnows, to stay hooked firmly and not slip off. Aberdeen hooks are small, often gold-colored, hooks with a long shank. With their long length, these lightweight hooks allow easy removal from a hooked fish and can bend straight when snagged, allowing anglers to retrieve their rig. Hooks are quite inexpensive, with many packages of baitholders and Aberdeens costing $2 or less. These style of hooks in size 2, 4, 6 and 8 will catch most sport fish in the state.

Sinkers are used to get more distance from a cast, to fish off the bottom and to help baits stay below a bobber. In addition to lead, non-toxic options are available at most stores. Split shot, which can be attached or removed from line using a pair of pliers, are a must have in a tackle box. Size #7 (1/24th ounce), size #5 (1/13th ounce) and size #3 (1/10th ounce) are the most used. Bell or egg sinkers can also be used for bottom or river fishing. Sizes ¼, ½ and ¾ ounce are most used. If you want a hook and weight all in one, buy a package of unpainted jig heads in 1/16-, 1/8- or 1/4-ounce size. This gives anglers an option to attach soft plastic lures to the hook.

A small clear plastic tackle box sitting on a black tabletop.
Photo by Frank Sladek.

Bobbers or “floats,” are one of the most common tackle items used by anglers but are not necessary for many types of fishing. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors and are made of materials like foam, wood and cork. A good all-around bobber is a pencil style made of foam or balsa wood, but a classic round bobber in a 1-inch size is a great option as well.

To store all this newly bought gear, a small tacklebox will be needed. Don’t worry about buying a large or overly complex box. For a couple of bucks, a small, plastic box with multiple compartments will hold your hooks, sinkers and bobbers, as well as a few lures if you choose. Even a zipper storage bag or grocery bag will work for the most frugal angler. Two packs of hooks, split shot, a few bobbers and a small box will cost around $10.


A white styrofoam box of nightcrawler worms for fishing bait.
Photo by Frank Sladek.

Keep it simple on bait. Head to the local bait shop and buy a cup or box of night crawlers. The worm is the way! They are a great all-around option that can be used whole or in small bits for small panfish. Worms will also catch everything from bass to bowfin. A box of worms costs between $3 and $5 at most stores.

Live worms can also be used to catch small fish like sunfish, suckers and chubs, which can then be cut up and used as bait for catfish. Such activities are subject to the possession limits and size requirements of the water you are fishing on. Bait caught in this way should only be used in the waterbody where caught. “Cut bait,” as it is called, is a super effective catfish bait and does not have the strong smell associated with other catfish lures or attractors. Small sunfish can also be fished under a large bobber for bass, northern pike and muskie. Check the Illinois fishing regulations for more information on live bait use (see page 2 of the 2024 Fishing Regulation Information guide).

Frugal Fishing

Recently, IDNR Division of Fisheries educators offered a class to students on tackle crafting. It involved taking items commonly found in “junk drawers,” including wine corks, ear plugs, safety pins and tin foil, and turning them into functional fishing gear. It was a well-received lesson about fishing fundamentals and frugality, with many participants already using their bamboo cane poles and “pop top” fish attractors. You’d be surprised what you can turn into tackle!

An advertisement promoting the 35th Annual Two Rivers Family Fishing Fair. There are multiple photos of people fishing and logos on the graphic.
Graphic courtesy of Frank Sladek.

If you’re not feeling crafty or wanting to clear out the junk drawer, there are several options to cut costs on fishing gear. Thrift stores, pawn shops and garage sales are great places to find all sorts of tackle. Cane poles, spin cast combos and old tackleboxes are common finds that can get you outfitted and fishing in a hurry. There’s a good bet that aunts, uncles and grandparents will also have some old tackle lying around that may be able to be borrowed or bought for a low price, or a few family favors.

Need bait? After a good rain, or a few minutes with a shovel, you will have more worms than you know what to do with. Fishing for panfish? Buy a cheap butterfly net at the corner store and net some bugs! Grasshoppers, crickets, fly larvae and caterpillars (specifically tomato hornworms and catalpa worms) catch some big bluegill and catfish. The net can also be used to dip in the local pond to catch aquatic organisms including leeches, worms and insect larvae.

Access to Fishing Program

For those who don’t want to purchase fishing gear, the state’s Access to Fishing Program provides rental tackle to residents at more than 120 locations statewide. The program began in 1997 to introduce new anglers to fishing without the cost of tackle, while providing fishing gear to underserved communities in urban areas. Rods, reels and terminal tackle (bobbers, hooks, sinkers) are available at park districts, libraries, bait shops and lakeside marinas. Equipment is checked out and returned much like books at a library.

Free Fishing Opportunities

For anglers who are just getting into fishing, there are several free options available. Every year, the IDNR hosts Free Fishing Days. For three days in June, residents 16 and over can legally fish without a license, and any associated stamps (trout and salmon). Keep in mind that license-free fishing is only allowed on these three days each year. In 2024, Free Fishing Days will occur on June 14, 15, and 16.

An advertisement promoting the Illinois Division of Fisheries Free Summer Fishing Clinics. To the right overlaying a close-up of a fish are three photos of children fishing.
Graphic courtesy of Frank Sladek.

Free Fishing Clinics

In addition to loaner tackle, the IDNR Fisheries Division also offers free fishing clinics and classes to schools, summer camps and youth groups. Through the state’s urban fishing program, students, and children under 16, can participate in fishing clinics at stocked city lagoons and other public access sites. There, participants learn about a variety of topics including creel/length limits, native and invasive species, fish handling and basic fishing skills (knot tying, casting). Bait, tackle and instruction are provided at no cost. To learn more, contact your regional urban fishing program coordinator, listed in the box of this article.

Community Fishing Events

Finally, if you are wanting to go fishing with your family or friends, forest preserves, park districts, conservation organizations and law enforcement agencies organize fishing derbies and community fishing events during the summer. These events are normally free of charge, with bait, tackle and giveaways provided to participants. A popular event held at several locations is Cops and Bobbers, put on by local law enforcement agencies in partnership with IDNR and other fishing groups. As always, make sure to follow the state’s fishing regulations as the length and creel limits can vary at different waterbodies.

Fishing is an excellent way to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors. It is a great activity for the mind, body and spirit, giving anglers an opportunity to explore nature while catching a healthy dinner for their family and friends. With a valid fishing license, a few basic tackle items and a box of worms, anglers can experience the state’s diverse fisheries at an approachable cost, with plenty of options for free fishing experience along the way.

So, instead of splurging on a new video game or those new sneakers, grab a greenback and get outfitted to have some fishing fun this summer!

Frank Sladek is the urban fishing program coordinator for northern Illinois. The urban fishing program offers free fishing clinics and aquatic resource classes to Illinois residents, including school groups, youth organizations and summer camps. When he’s not teaching students how to make cane poles and cast, he is presenting on Illinois fisheries and recreational sport fishing at career fairs, conferences and community events. Sladek still uses much of the same tackle he used growing up, with some of his rods and reels going on 20 years of service.

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