Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Simple, Minimalist, and Ultralight Approach to Catching, Cleaning, and Cooking a Backcountry Fish Dinner

By Will Rietveld


I don’t always fish on wilderness trips in the mountains, partly because my “ultralight” fishing gear, consisting of a lightweight and compact spinning rod and reel and 2-3 lures, weighs 10 ounces, which is significant. It really works well to catch and release trout in alpine lakes. However, for me, fishing is optional, and fishing gear adds weight to my pack.

Fly fishing with my 1.6 ounce handline system at an alpine lake.

Enter the handline. I didn’t invent it; Rik Christensen did that (read his article “Ultralight Tic Tac Fishing Kit” on the Gossamer Gear Blog). His kit consists of a plastic Tic Tac mint container with fishing line wrapped around it and a few spinning lures inside. He doesn’t give the weight, but it’s obviously very light.

I first met the Tic Tac handline when Glen Van Peski (Gossamer Gear founder and Master of UL backpacking) joined me on three backpacking trips in my backyard, the Weminuche Wilderness in southern Colorado. On the first trip I caught lots of fish with my spinning outfit, but Glen had little success with his handline, so we took turns catching fish with the spinning rod. However, on our most recent trip Glen was catching fish with the handline; he had mastered the technique. That opened my eyes, and my mind.

I reasoned that it is difficult to retrieve fast enough with a handline to keep the lure from snagging the bottom, so using a handline with a spinning lure is challenging. My aha! moment was when I realized that the handline might work much better with a fly and bubble, because the bubble and fly float on the surface.

Success; I found a bubble and a fly works better on a handline (for trout at least) than a spinning lure. The bubble and fly float on the surface while being retrieved, while a spinning lure sinks to the bottom where it can easily become snagged.

In this article I describe my own version of an ultralight handline for fishing on wilderness backpacking trips, and how to clean and cook fish without the need for any special cutlery or cookware.

The Handline System

This is my version of an ultralight handline. It consists of a round plastic 50 milliliter mini liquor bottle, 50-75 feet of 6 pound fishing line wrapped around it, a mini fly fishing bubble, and a few dry flies with leaders. The bubble and flies are stored inside the bottle.
The complete system weighs 1.6 ounces, including the stuff sack. A small plastic bag would work just as well as a storage bag.

Finding a mini liquor bottle is easy; empty ones are usually readily available along the roadside, or purchase a full one at any liquor store.

Making the handline is easy:
  1. Remove the bottom from the plastic bottle, and discard the cap.
  2. Tie the fishing line around the neck of the bottle and tape it down.
  3. Wrap 50-75 feet of fishing line (I use 6# line) around the outside of the bottle, and hold it in place with a strip of painter’s (blue or green) masking tape.
  4. Thread the other end of the fishing line through the bubble and then tie on a mini swivel.
  5. Select 2-3 popular artificial fishing flies for your locale and tie a 4-foot long leader on each one, then tie a loop at the other end. It helps to wind the fly and line on a small piece of lightweight foam as shown.
  6. Store the bubble and flies inside the plastic bottle.
  7. A tiny stuff sack is handy to contain the handline, but a small plastic bag will work just as well.

The fishing technique is also easy:
  1. Attach a fly to the swivel.
  2. Fill the bubble about 2/3 full of water to provide weight for casting.
  3. Remove the painter’s tape holding the line in place and pull off about 2-3 feet of line above the bubble.
  4. Holding the bottle in one hand, fling the bubble and fly out with the other hand (this takes a little practice).
  5. Slowly retrieve the line by wrapping it around the bottle while carefully watching the fly beyond the bubble.
  6. When you see a swirl at the fly, pull on the line to hook the fish.
  7. Pull in the fish. It’s hard to maintain tension on the fish by winding the line around the bottle, so you may need to put the bottle in a pocket and pull the line in hand over hand.

Cleaning Fish

Most backpackers carry some kind of folding knife or multi-tool for whatever need that comes up, including cleaning fish. However, from an ultralight backpacker’s viewpoint, a conventional knife is overkill and extra weight. I use a simple single-edged razor blade. That’s all I need; it’s cheap and ultralight (0.1 ounce).
To prepare fish for cooking I gut the fish, cut off the head and tail, and then cut up the fish into pieces about 3 inches long. Another type of lightweight knife is shown in the photo.

Cooking Fish on an Alcohol Stove (or any cooking system)

I avoid starting a fire to cook fish or bringing a frying pan to cook fish because I don’t want the extra weight or environmental impacts.

My method is to simply poach the fish in my cook pot. In my case that’s a Trail Designs Caldera Keg-F cooking system (which uses a 25.4 ounce Foster’s beer can for the cook pot), or more recently a Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System (shown, which uses a shortened version of the same pot).

Again, the method is very simple:
  1. Put sections of fish in the pot, leaving at least 2 inches at the top.
  2. Fill the pot with water to cover the fish about 1 inch. Put the lid on the pot.
  3. Fill the stove’s burner with enough alcohol to heat the fish plus water to boiling.
  4. Start the stove and bring the water to boiling.
  5. Leave the fish in the hot water about 10 minutes (this is the “boil and set” method I use for all of my camp cooking).
  6. Drain the water and take the fish to a nice clean rock to serve as a plate.
  7. Eat and enjoy the scenery.
Another view of the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System, which is about 3 ounces lighter than the Trail Designs Caldera Keg-F system. It uses a smaller more fuel-efficient burner, shorter cone, and shortened cook pot. The minimum weight of the Gossamer Gear cooking system, including an insulated cozy/carry bag is just 2.9 ounces. I will publish a review on the Gossamer Gear system in the near future.


Catching a fish for dinner is a fun activity at a wilderness camp, and it doesn’t need to add weight to your pack and complexity to your trip.  This overall technique makes catching fish and eating them as simple and lightweight as possible.

Taking fishing gear on a backpacking trip is no longer a decision involving a weight penalty; now I include the handline as part of my basic kit, and it only adds 1.6 ounces.

Overall my new fish catching, cleaning, and cooking gear, as described (a handline for catching fish, a single-edged razor blade for cleaning fish, and the new Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System for cooking fish), has reduced my base weight by 11 ounces compared to my previous system. That’s a lot.

Handline fishing works well for catching dinner, but it is a bit tedious for sport fishing.

I’m looking forward to getting out a lot more this coming summer, developing my skill with the handline, and eating more fat trout to supplement my dinners.


  1. This is very interesting & I will make one. Having some small experience with handlining I know that a heavier line is needed than with a rod. What test line do you use? TIA. Hikermiker.

  2. Would a small fireball bottle work or is the round shape of the bottle part of the functionality (like rolling?). Friend had a mini fireball bottle on hand.

    1. A small rectangular plastic bottle would probably work okay (Rik's handline is based on a Tic-Tac container), but I think the line would spool off of a round bottle a little better.

  3. Will, thanks for writing this up. I have always been skeptical about the hand line for the same reasons you had troubles. I don't know why I didn't think about the bubble - my Uncle use to use one with his fly rod back in the fifties (he could cast that thing a mile).
    I'm going to have to add this to my kit.

  4. I think you must mean 5-7 yards of line, not 50-75!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Whoops, your comment made me think about it more. That should be 50 to 75 feet of line, not yards. I will edit the article to make the correction.

  5. I did a day hike up to an alpine lake near my home one day with the wife and dogs. After packing in dog bowls, my wife's mystery novel, some libations, and an obsessive amount of fishing tackle, I managed to forget my fly rod. Realizing this once on the trail I decided to make the best out of the situation. Once at the lake I procured a pine limb and fashioned a tenkara or dabbing setup. I used the front end of an extra fly line I carry and a new leader with some tippet. Casting distance was limited but it was easy to use and effective. A backpacker down the bank was getting ribbed by his friends because I was catching pan size brookies with a stick and his lw spinning gear had yet to land a fish.

  6. I really like your take on the issue. I now have a clear idea on what this matter is all about..

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I Will Design Unique Creative Minimalist Logo In 12 Hours
    In Cheap Rates Order Now

  9. These little clear floats come in many sizes... what size are you using?

  10. thanks for the tips and information..i really appreciate it..
    fishing tackle