Magnet fishing is not a new pastime. In fact, I did this when I was a kid visiting the St Lawrence River. It has grown in popularity and adds a fun new dimension to outdoor activity, whether or not you’re into metal detecting. Let me walk you through magnet fishing, what you can find, and things to watch out for.
Magnet fishing is simply tying a cord or rope to a powerful magnet, lowering or throwing it into the water, letting it drag across the bottom, and retrieving the magnet. The magnet will grab hold of ferrous metals (those containing iron) and generally skip over non-ferrous metals like copper, lead, zinc, gold, aluminum, nickel, tin, silver, and platinum.
You’ll be surprised at the things you can recover while magnet fishing. A lot of stuff has been lost or dropped into the water over time! It’s not unusual to find lockboxes, phones, jewelry, tools, bikes, bullets, guns, knives, nails, and more. Metal detecting and magnet fishing both share the thrill of the hunt, that sense of exciting anticipation over what’s down there.
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Magnet fishing is a popular search topic in the US
Worldwide online interest in magnet fishing
What do you need in order to go magnet fishing?
Magnet fishing basics
To go magnet fishing, you’ll need the right kind of magnet and a cord or rope to retrieve the magnet with. The basic idea is to lower or throw the magnet into the water. Once it hits the bottom, you need to move the magnet along the bottom and then retrieve it. Rinse and repeat.
If you’re just lowering the magnet from a pier or bridge, you’ll need to walk a little bit to let the magnet cover some distance along.
If you’re throwing or “casting” the fishing magnet, simply retrieving it allows it to travel along the bottom. If casting, it’s a good idea to try a few casts to the left, middle, and right. Then, take a number of steps in one direction and cast again using the left, middle, right “V” pattern. This will give you pretty good coverage overall.
The right kind of magnet for magnet fishing
- A popular magnet is one referred to as a “neodymium” or “high-strength” magnet.
- Neodymium magnets are sometimes called rare earth magnets or retrieval magnets
- Rare earth magnets are many times more powerful than a normal magnet (like you’d use on your refrigerator or whiteboard.) Even a 1 or 2 lb neodymium magnet has a pull strength of several hundred pounds. A rule of thumb is to use a magnet with a pull force of less than 300 pounds, and really no more than 500 pounds.
Magnet’s “Pull Force“: the force needed to separate the magnet from the object when lying flat against it
When magnet fishing you need a powerful magnet because, after years of lying on the bottom, many objects won’t be lying flat and will likely be covered with rust, algae, etc. Powerful retrieval magnets give you the best chance of making contact and dragging items out of the water.
- Something to keep in mind: Objects you latch onto could be very heavy. If your magnet is too powerful, you might not be able to separate it from the object.
Magnet fishing rope – how to choose
You need a rope or strong cord. A rope is less likely to hurt your hands if you’re trying to haul in a large object because the rope has a bigger diameter and won’t cut into your hands. For all practical purposes, you could use twine or string to haul in items, but you’re much better off with a rope.
One other good option is paracord because it’s light, strong, a little elastic, abrasion-resistant, and keeps a knot in place.
Your rope should be between 25 and 50 feet. That makes for good handling, a decent throw, and easy coiling for storage. If you’re magnet fishing from bridges, a 100′ rope is a good choice.
A diameter of about 3/8 ” seems to work well for any length, as you don’t want a rope that’s too heavy.
TIP: A favorite rope for magnet fishing is ski line, because it’s strong, lightweight, and doesn’t absorb water and get heavy. Another good choice is climbing rope.
Here’s a very nice, feature-packed magnet fishing kit from Amazon on my Recommended Gear page
Here are some of the better-known magnets among magnet fishing experts:
I’ve provided links to each of these on my Recommended Gear page
Is magnet fishing against the law?
Legal general conditions for magnet fishing
From my research (and I’m not a lawyer, this info is for informational purposes only), it doesn’t appear to be illegal in the US. Of course, you should watch for any posted signs describing activities that aren’t allowed, and respect those.
Don’t trespass on private property, and have an understanding of what constitutes an artifact. In some parts of the world, legitimate artifacts are illegal to keep.
In the UK, it’s a bit different. For example, some rivers need a permit and there are a lot of locations that have undiscovered WW II ordnance, some of which could still be live.
I’d advise doing your own research. Try searching online for “magnet fishing laws in” and add your location (the US, the UK, Africa, Australia, etc.)
What makes magnet fishing dangerous?
In and of itself, it’s not dangerous. Neither is bike riding, skateboarding, or hiking but all of them have risks. To make things as safe as possible, consider the things that could go wrong:
- Falling in the water, the potential for drowning
- Slipping on rocks and twisting or breaking an ankle
- Being careless while trying to retrieve the magnet when it’s stuck on something and won’t release
- Fishing too close to other fishers, which can lead to some heated disagreements, especially when two people grab the same item. Try to leave some distance between other parties.
- You might grab onto dangerous weapons or explosives. If you do, treat them with the utmost respect and call the police to handle it from there. Many times people have latched onto hand grenades and live ammunition in the water.
- Keep the neodymium magnets away from the body in general. They’re very strong and can produce a serious pinching injury if you get loose skin, fingers, etc. caught between the magnet and metal. They could do some serious damage to electronics, so read up on that. Research about magnets and pacemakers, cell phones, calculators, two-way radios, etc. Better to be safe than sorry.
Planning your magnet fishing trip
Magnet fishing can be done in rivers, lakes, creeks, swamps, dams, canals, and even old wells. Towns with a lot of history are nice locations to magnet fish, just look for posted signs about any historical property so you don’t break laws.
Some people have been bold enough to attach waterproof video cameras and lights to the top of their magnet to film what’s down there… this works better in wells or really clear bodies of water of course.
Try to find a place where there aren’t a lot of people. This includes people in or under the water. Casting your magnet could possibly injure someone in a raft, swimming, snorkeling, or diving. You certainly wouldn’t want to get a SCUBA diver tangled in your rope or have it stick to something like an ankle knife.
Make certain you’re not trespassing, or on posted land with stated restrictions.
It’s courteous to avoid fisheries even if not illegal.
You’ll likely find more items closer to populated areas. Bridges are popular places for people to ditch things. For magnet fishing, it’s better to find older bridges since more stuff has been dumped over time.
If people are enjoying regular fishing, stay away so you don’t mess up their relaxing day (and scare away the fish.)
Like in metal detecting, there are a few accessories worth having with you for magnet fishing
- Gloves to protect your hands from cuts and abrasions
- Waterproof shoes and/or pants
- Sunblock and/or hat
- Mosquito repellant (since your location might be a little swampy)
- A container to hold the items you find. A pail or big-box hardware store bucket works well
- A sealable container for smaller items you want to keep (or at least remove, to make the environment better than when you arrived.) Examples are fishing lures, nails, small tools, keys. etc.
Magnet fishing technique
Drop it or throw it, pretty basic.
If you’re on a pier or bridge, it makes sense to just lower the magnet to the bottom, drag it a ways, and retrieve it.
If you want to cast into a body of water, throw it out, let it sink, and drag it across the bottom as you retrieve it. There’s more risk of snagging on something underwater with this method.
You can also try casting the magnet, drag it a little, and then give it a pull to sort of skip it over potential snags. repeat that until it’s been retrieved.
Magnet fishing safety tips
Avoid the following:
- Cuts: The things you retrieve will almost always be made of iron and steel, which of course get rusty. Don’t cut yourself. A pair of gloves can help.
- Explosives: If it looks dangerous, it probably is. Contact the police to handle things.
- Loss of your magnet fishing gear: It’s not the end of the world. It happens. Sometimes you get it stuck on something you can’t retrieve. Don’t risk your own safety to get a magnet and a piece of rope.
You’ll want a strong knot to make sure you don’t lose your magnet and whatever haul you’re recovering. Here’s an example of a simple yet effective knot (maybe ask steve to demo one)
Magnet fishing etiquette
- If you have that feeling you’re disturbing those around you, you probably are. Simply find another place.
- If people ask what you’re doing, reply kindly so they understand it’s a fun hobby and it actually helps clean up some of the junk that accumulates under the water
- Comply with any posted regulations.