Native Fishing: How to Build a Primitive Fish Basket Trap

Native Fishing: How to Build a Primitive Fish Basket Trap

It’s early spring as your boots make contact with the rocky bottom of a fast flowing river. You make your way to the sandy bank just in time to see your kayak disappear around a bend downstream…along with your gear.

You immediately grab your side as you emerge from the freezing water and are relieved to find your knife still in its sheath and attached to your belt. All is not lost. However, the sun is slipping below the horizon, it’s getting dark, and you are soaked to the bone and getting hungry. It’s time to make a plan. Thankfully you’ve had some basic survival training, so your focus now shifts to food. And what better source for dinner than the river you just came out of.


As opposed to actively fishing (assuming you don’t have any fish hooks), a fish basket trap is, for the most part, a one-time calorie and time expenditure. Aside from checking the trap a few times a day, the occasional repair, and adding more bait when needed, a basket trap is like having a buddy that fishes for you 24 hours a day. This frees the lone survivor to do the less glamorous, but more essential tasks, like shelter- building, purification of water, and the constant chore of gathering firewood. Another huge benefit for building any style of live trap is that live food doesn’t spoil.

An odd number of poles are placed in the ground forming an upside down conical shape. Small flexible vines are then woven around each of the seven poles in an over/under fashion. When a vine runs out it is jammed into the vines below it, which then keeps it in place.

An animal caught in this style of basket trap can be kept alive for an extended period of time as a form of food storage. The construction of a basket trap can require up to several hours from start to finish; however, when built properly from choice materials it should outlast your survival ordeal…hopefully.

As the basket is woven upward, the space in between poles increases allowing for the use of the larger, and often less flexible, grape vines. Larger vines are more prone to gaps. However, with attention to detail, they can drastically speed up the basket- making process.


The first step to building a fish basket trap is to decide how big of a trap you’d like to build. The scale of the trap is typically determined by the size of the animal you intend to catch. This basket trap measures roughly three feet in length and is a great size for catching small pan fish. Once you’ve decided on the size of the trap, cut an odd number of strong green sapling poles that are about three quarters of an inch in diameter. An odd number of poles is required for the over/under weaving technique to work properly.

Only five poles are need to make the funnel for the trap. They are placed in the ground similar to those of the basket, however, a small opening is left in the bottom of the funnel. Once the funnels is woven, trim up the ends of the poles or remove vines as needed

For this particular basket, seven poles were cut and stuck into the ground in an upside down conical fashion. Be sure to place your poles in the ground so that they touch or even slightly overlap on the bottom. This ensures that the basket trap is closed on the back end to prevent dinner from escaping. The tops of the sticks can be manipulated inward or outward as you weave to produce the desired width in the front of the trap.

Grapevines tend to shed their fibrous bark as they are being woven into baskets. This bark can be gathered and used to plug any gaps or holes in the basket.


The majority of Bushcraft tasks seem to inevitably involve searching for the ideal piece of building material and then collecting a lot of it. This trap is no exception. Gathering the vines and other materials that are needed for weaving the walls of this trap is without a doubt the most time consuming part of this project. It’s good to collect a variety of different sizes of strong vine as smaller vines will be needed at the back of the trap where the most flexibility is required. Don’t limit yourself to only using vines. There are plenty of other options if vines aren’t in your area such as green brier, cattail leaves, roots, or the small shoots of some trees.

The funnel is placed inside of the basket and a wreath is made from cedar bows to ensure a tight fit. Several sticks are then wedged through both the basket and funnel to bind them together.


Once you’ve gathered the needed weaving materials, select a small piece of vine and begin weaving in an over/under fashion between the poles from the ground up. When a vine runs out or snaps, simply tuck it into the wall of the trap and begin from that point with a new vine. For this trap, small tree shoots were used for the first six inches or so where a lot of flexibility was needed. As the spread of the basket grew wider, grape vines were then used once less flexibility was required. Continue this process to the top of the trap making sure to consistently push the woven vines downward, keeping gaps between vines as small as possible.

Keep in mind that larger vines typically will mean larger gaps in your basket. If you plan to catch crawfish, a slightly smaller trap made of only small vines will work best.


The funnel is placed inside of the basket and allows fish to swim in thru a small opening in search of shelter or food. Once inside the main chamber of the basket the fish then becomes disorientated and can’t find its way back out of the trap. To create the funnel, place and odd number of sticks in the ground only this time leave a small opening. Weave the funnel in the same over/under pattern all the way to the top before pulling it from the grow and sawing the poles so that they are flush with one another.

If no other options exist, worms or guts can be packed into pine cones and carefully place in the back of the trap and used as bait


The funnel can then be placed into the basket and held in place by a “wreath” made of either vine or in this case cedar bows. Jam a few sticks through both the basket and funnel to insure the front of the trap doesn’t loosen once placed in the water.


When it comes to baiting a primitive basket trap you really just have to work with what you’ve got. An old piece of chicken or hot dog held in place by a cotton bag would be ideal, however, when you’re trying to catch fish in a basket, resources are probably limited. In the case of this trap, a handful of worms were stuffed into a couple of pine cones before being tossed into the back of the trap. A cotton bandanna makes a great vessel to hold bait or guts inside the trap.

Once the trap is baited, several small stones are placed in the back of the trap to help drop it to the bottom on the lake. The trap is then walked out from the shore and placed on the lake bottom facing the shore. Two poles are then driven into the mud on either side of the trap to form an “X” which pins the basket to the bottom of the lake.

The beauty of this trap is that the guts of any fish that are caught can be tossed back inside and used as bait when resetting the trap. This also helps to conserve your worm supply…just in case things get really bad.

The trap is pulled from the water front first to make sure no fish escape through the tunnel. Once ashore the funnel is removed to reveal a small fish caught in the trap.


The biggest challenge in setting a basket trap is the buoyancy of the trap itself. For the trap to be fully effective, it needs to rest on the bottom of the lake or river. A great way of doing this is to toss a couple of small stones into the back of the trap and drive two long poles on either side near the front of the trap so that they cross to form and X. This will not only keep the trap secured to the lake bottom, but will also mark where the trap is so you don’t have to play Marco Polo every time you check the trap.


Basket traps typically perform better when left overnight so checking the trap first thing in the morning and in the evening should be sufficient. When removing the trap from the water, you’ll want to lift the trap top first and get the entire trap on land as quick as possible to prevent any smaller fish from falling through gaps in between vines. Then remove the funnel from the basket and collect your bounty.

Common North American

Though there are hundreds of varieties of fish plying the waters of North America, there are a some very common species, many you might remember catching as a kid. Here are some easy-to-catch and easier-to-cook examples that can be found all over North America.

Freshwater Fish

Black Bass

Black Bass is a popular fish for sport fisherman to catch. It can be cooked in a variety of ways, is easy to gut and filet, and has a slightly fishy flavor. Bass can be found in most all North American waters.


Bluegill Called

Bream in the South, Bluegill can be found in almost all of the waters of North America. They are small—normally under a pound— but they cook well gutted, scaled, and fileted, either pan seared or grilled. The meat is white and flaky and has a sweat flavor.



There are many Catfish species found in most North American waters, and they can grow to a variety of sizes. The off-white meat has a very slight fishy taste, and it is common on restaurant menus in the South. Its meat is an off-white and not as flaky as others.



The ubiquitous trout exist as many varieties in North America, from the rainbow to the spotted cutthroat. It is said that a trout caught minutes before being cooked is the best fish a person could ever eat. The meat is darker and has a definite fishy taste.



In competition with the trout for best flavor is the walleye, a cold-water fish commonly found in most northern states and Canada. Its meat is white and sweet with little fishy flavor, and they can be prepared in a wide variety of ways.


White Bass

Found in many of North America’s freshwater streams and lakes, the white bass is a freshwater version of the striped bass found in the sea. They grow to be only a couple of pounds, and the meat features a dark red stripe (called a bloodline) and has a very strong fishy taste.



Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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