Do you remember your first fishing trip? I sure do.
My father and grandfather took me to Stopyro’s Brook that sunny May morning. They cut a suitable branch, wrapped some braided line around its thin end and set me up with a hook, sinker and a cork bobber. My first fish was a shiner, followed soon after by a nice bluegill. Each catch in turn was yanked from the water and flung over my shoulder into tall grass, where it flopped until grandpa found it. When it was time to quit, the adults practically had to drag me back to the car.
In those days, kids couldn’t wait to go fishing. That first tug on your line was not merely exciting; it was a rite of passage.
Times have changed.
Youngsters who might have drearned to wet a line in my era have other things to occupy their leisure nowadays, and different kinds of problems, too. When my friends and I were kids, we didn’t have computers, hand-held electronic games, I-Pods or any of those other high-tech toys that fascinate children — and mystify so many adults — in the present age. Heck, when I first went fishing, my family didn’t even have a television set!
My childhood lifestyle would no doubt astonish modern kids, too. Today, the national divorce rate is approximately 20 per 1,000 women over the age of 15, and nearly four kids in 10 do not live with their fathers. In contrast, all my friends lived with their moms and dads — both, not one or the other. Their parents showed up at school events and occasionally took them to a movie, but kids who wanted to go somewhere didn’t ask their moms for a lift. Instead, they walked or rode their bikes. Quite a few of us, having first been introduced to the sport by our elders, frequently pedaled to Stopyro’s or some other fishing hole, where we looked for snakes and turtles, horsed around and kept a casual eye on our drifting bobbers. We were lucky to live in a small town, with lakes, ponds and streams close to home. City kids had to go a little farther and try a bit harder. They still do, and there are more city kids now than ever.
Today, parents are apt to have a difficult time introducing their children to fishing, for the reasons I’ve listed above. About now, I could break into a Broadway-style rendition of "Kids" (as in "Kids, what’s the matter with kids today?"), except the problem is on the other side of the Generation Gap.
I’m convinced an enthusiastic angler is hiding deep inside of each one of those sullen-looking teenagers who spend Fridays and Saturdays texting each other and wandering the corridors of the local shopping malls. Unfortunately, it often takes a very clever adult to lure that young fisherman to the surface.
Having successfully raised a son to walk in my hip boots and now in the process of initiating three grandchildren and several nieces and nephews into the rod-and-reel fraternity, I know a little about passing on our sport to succeeding generations. Perhaps I can be of assistance to fellow anglers who would like to imbue their young ones with a passion for fishing.
Some of the advice I offer may sound old-fashioned, yet it never gets old, because it recognizes the essentially unchanging nature of kids throughout time. Other things I have to say, however, reflect the special circumstances faced by today’s parents and children.
My first recommendation may come too late for many readers. That is, if you want to guarantee your son or daughter will be an avid fisherman, start the process early. That first fishing trip I told you about a few paragraphs ago took place when I was three years old. You don’t have to start your kids off that young, but my father had begun to reel me in even earlier, when he let me watch as he dug worms and assembled his tackle before climbing into his car and driving off toward a magical place I knew only as "the creek." Upon his return from these outings, I would eagerly waiting to see what jewels were tucked in his wicker creel. Dad was primarily a trout fisherman, and the browns and brookies he lined up on the cellar steps had a fresh, clean smell and brilliant colors that filled my senses.
By the time Dad allowed me to tag along, I was already hooked.
Start your own kids off by inviting them to experience your pre- and post-fishing rituals, too. Let them pick a few nightcrawlers with you, and bring home a few fish for the family to eat, even if you are mostly a catch-and-release angler. Clean your catch while your boy or girl watches, and explain the fish’s anatomy as simply as you can. Select an easy recipe — deep frying, for example — and serve it with plenty of catsup.
Along the same lines, encourage your little ones to pick up one of your rods once in awhile. Practice casting in the yard or driveway, and when Jack or Jill ask to give it a try, offer an inexpensive spinning or spincasting rig along with a few pointers. Do this a few times, and maybe you won’t have to spend most of your kid’s first fishing trip freeing errant lines from shoreline trees and bushes. By the time she was 7, my oldest granddaughter could cast a worm-and-bobber combo nearly as far as I.
If you don’t plant the seeds before your kids are in school, the task of raising up a new angler will grow more challenging with each passing year, due to the double whammy of peer pressure and competing recreational opportunities.
At some point early in life, around age 8 or 9 in my experience, kids stop turning on every word of wisdom their parents utter and start giving more and more weight to what their friends think about things. As a result, if your son isn’t already an avid fisherman by the time his best buddy declares that fishing is cruel, icky or simply boring, it may be too late.
Luckily, the peer pressure thing works both ways. Get to know your children’s friends. Let them watch your fish-cleaning performance, too, and inquire whether they are fishermen — or would like to be. Maybe they even have a parent or parents who enjoy the sport. Such kids should be welcome visitors at your house, don’t you think? And when you take your young angler fishing, it wouldn’t hurt to invite one of those friends to join you. Just be sure the expedition includes enough adults to keep an eye on everyone and tie all those knots.
While the disapproval of a child’s peers can steer him or her away from the sport, such influences pale compared to the addictive effect of electronic toys. Since computers became as ubiquitous as television in American households, the average kid has spent an ever-increasing share of his wakin
g hours staring, zombie fashion, at electronic monitors or viewing screens.
The text message culture has become so pervasive among high school- and college-age kids that we can’t hope lick it — but maybe we can join it. Instead of letting every new mode of communication bully its way into our family lives with no show of resistance, we anglers ought to open the door just a crack, analyze what we’re up against, and then turn technology to our advantage.
If Junior is inclined to sit before his computer when he crawls out of bed late on Saturday morning, tell him to eat his breakfast first. Sweeten the pot by serving his favorites in front of the TV, which just happens to be running a fishing show.
So Bobby prefers hand-held games? Buy him one or two with fishing themes. Search tackle manufacturers’ catalogs for cast-and-catch video games, too.
Assuming you can guide your angling protégé through the modern minefield of peer pressure and technology, plenty of other road blocks must be crossed in order to get from dream to stream.
What should that first fishing trip be like? Once you have your child’s interest, how do you maintain it? What if you’re a single parent, with limited time and little money to spare? And where can angler-parents find resources to help them bring their fishing lessons to a successful conclusion?
Your child’s first fishing trip should be fun, at the least, and, if you plan it thoroughly, ought to feature plenty of rod-bending action. Remember, the younger the child, the shorter the attention span. Pick a fishing spot that is jammed with fish and is readily accessible via your car and a short walk. My boyhood brook was ideal, but any lake or pond you know of which has a robust population of panfish will serve just as well.
Use worms or small grubs for bait, and select a rod and reel (or maybe even a simple cane pole) that your youngster can handle with ease.
Praise every cast and catch, and cheerfully re-tie knots and re-bait hooks, as circumstances dictate. Coach, but don’t over-coach. Let the pupil ask questions before you burden him with answers.
If, despite your careful planning, the fish aren’t biting, you can expect a bit of restlessness. Please don’t force your rookie to keep fishing. Take a break for lunch or to turn over some logs and rocks in search of critters. If a young angler feels like chasing butterflies, let him chase, but when the fish start feeding, call him back to business.
Bad weather or unbearable hordes of biting insects should signal an end to the outing and inspire you to buy ice cream on the way home.
Create good memories with your fishing trips, and kids will come back for more, whether their stringers are heavy or not.
Single parents should follow the same guidelines, with a little help on the side. I know divorced mothers who have set out to introduce their kids to angling even though they were themselves neophytes. They succeeded because they weren’t afraid to ask for advice at local tackle shops or take out beginner-level fishing books at the public library. Some asked neighbors for tips, too, and were rewarded with donations of used tackle that saved them from breaking their already-tight recreational budgets.
Angling derbies, such as those held at thousands of rod and gun clubs across the United States, are good venues for a first fishing trip because they tend to place experienced sportsmen and raw beginners side-by-side. Help and advice are close at hand, and the derby sites are often stocked with fish just before the big event.
As worthwhile as derbies are, however, the worst thing an adult angler can do to the aspirations of a young fisherman is to make that contest his one-and-only annual commitment. Derbies should highlight a busy fishing season. They are no substitute for regular, frequent trips shared by parent and child.
Sometimes, after months or even years of mutual adventures, a child may hurt his elder companion’s feelings by inexplicably losing interest in fishing. Don’t be discouraged if this happens to you.
My son fished with apparent joy until he was 15, and then put his fly rod aside in order to focus on the electric guitar. He was a Led Zeppelin fan and a talented musician. I thought he was finished with my pastime, but one spring when he was in his early 20s he surprised me by digging out his old gear and going trout fishing. Since then he has fished so hard, at times, that he reminds me of myself.
If I can do it, so can you.