As a new father, I couldn’t wait to get my first-born son out on the water for a day of fishing. We’ve all seen the vision, it’s idyllic, father and son spending long days on the water catching fish, talking, laughing and spending time together. It’s a right of passage. Well the dream day finally arrived as I felt Will was ready for our first, much anticipated father/son fishing trip. My 3-year wait was finally over, as we shoved off from the dock, everything was great! Wonder and excitement present in both our eyes. After about 10 minutes, I soon realized this fishing trip was turning into a complete disaster. Here are some of the valuable lessons I learned fishing that first summer with my 3 year-old son.
First and foremost, these first fishing trips are vital in paving the way to develop a love of the sport that will last a lifetime. And it’s these first few trips where it’s important for you to realize it’s not about fishing – it’s not about the fish and it’s not about Mom or Dad! Sounds crazy I know, but the focus should be on FUN. I can’t think of anything more deflating than a young child sitting in a boat bored to tears (literally) not catching anything (literally) and having Mom or Dad growing increasingly frustrated (literally) because the kids aren’t “getting” how great fishing is. Make wise choices before you venture off to ensure the day is as successful as possible. Lets start with the basics.
Whether you fish salt-water of fresh water, choosing the proper day to fish is key. It may not be the perfect conditions to catch fish, but it should be a day that is the most comfortable for your little fishing buddy. Remember, youngsters will be wearing lifejackets so weather that is too warm or too cold will make them very uncomfortable. Keep wind in mind where you choose to fish. Giant rollers or gusty conditions can make some people sick, make casting difficult and be generally unpleasant. And needless to say, sun protection is key. Nothing worse than a scorching sunburn on the water, from the sun beating down and more importantly, the sun reflecting up off the water! The more comfortable your child is, the happier they will be, which will increase the amount of time you’re able to keep them out.
Keeping track of your time on the water is key. Rising early, seeing the sun come up and casting for 14 hours in relentless pursuit of fish isn’t the best way to approach fishing with kids for the first few times. First trips should only be as long as they let you go for. If they want to go back to the dock or house after only 10 minutes on the water, take them back. I made the mistake of asking Will to be out for an hour with me while I selfishly fished away, he asked me to go back after 15 minutes. The damage was almost done. The next time I asked him to go fishing, he refused because he said it wasn’t fun. My own selfishness almost ruined his fishing career from the get-go. Also, these first few fishing trips may not include fishing! Keep them in their bathing suits, swim off the beach or boat, go exploring in a swamp, fishing is about all the outdoors has to offer – take full advantage of all outdoor activities when you have their unbridled attention.
And if you DO get to fish, keep in mind you want to have them catch something! Target species is always key when taking first timers out. When I finally got him to get out again with me, we decided to target perch, rockbass and sunfish. Namely because they are overly plentiful in my home lake. Panfish are often willing to take many forms of bait as well. They are manageable fish for Jr. and they can be a high percentage quarry for you. Though it’s not about numbers of fish, catching something is key – even if it’s just one. Here are some ways to maximize your fish catch ability with young or beginning anglers.
Equipment: Ensuring your child isn’t overpowered by a giant fishing rod is important. Some considerations are size appropriate purchases that are fun for them such as a popularly branded spin-cast systems or ever letting them use one of your ice fishing rods.
Tackle system: I witnessed frustrating moment after moment with Will his first time out. I had him set up fishing with minnows on a “J-style” hook. I didn’t realize how much practice it would take for him to get the hook set timing right. As a rookie angler, he missed every bite he had. I solved the problem by using a circle hook. These hooks are designed to allow fish to basically hook themselves. A big thunderous pro-bass hook-set isn’t required as with circle hooks, the fish can swallow the bait, swim away and have the hook harmlessly exit the gut and imbed in the corner of its mouth. No angler action needed. It’s great for catch and release, and it’s great practice for the kids. A circle hook on a drop-shot rig is perfect for kids to catch panfish.
Bait: For heaven’s sake bring live bait, be it worms or minnows, crickets – whatever. You’ll very quickly increase your child’s interest, knowledge and ability to catch fish if you use live bait. Often, the kids will put the rod down and happily have worm races or play in the minnow bucket while you do your best to catch them a fish.
Bring an extra bucket: Panfish are perfect for kids to catch and learn from. Put any panfish you catch in the bucket and watch the kids gravitate to it. They will soon discover shapes, sizes, dorsal fins and the great colors these fish have. This also is a teaching moment about keeping water fresh, and keeping them alive if you choose to let them go. In having a bucket, they can examine their catch up close and ask you a million questions. “Hey Dad, Do fish fart?” I had to look it up. Use the googler, you’ll be amazed.
About the googler – This is a tool that can assist you in a great many ways. First of all, it’s a resource for you to find fishing activities, festivals, derbies and seminars in your area. Many states and provinces offer “free fishing weekends” where families are encouraged to get out and try it on a local lake or body of water. This is an amazing way to see if your child would even be interested in taking up the sport. You don’t need a license, and many times, the organization supplies you with tackle, rods, reels and bait to use. It’s a perfect way to introduce families to the sport we love.
Bottom line, to get kids fishing, they need to start somewhere and to keep them fishing, those first few times are critical to long term love of the sport. Comfortable, fun and easy are the keys to getting anyone on the water and keeping them there.