First Casts

How to help a child become an angler for life.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Do you remember your first time? In the tapestry of a sportsman's life, few things compare to the surprise and wonder of catching that first fish. Having a rod (or, for many of us, just a plain cane pole) suddenly come to life with the pulse and pull of an unseen bass, panfish or bullhead is a thrill that stays with us forever. But here's a little secret about that life- altering event. As exhilarating as hauling in that bluegill was for you, it was nothing compared to the swell of pride that washed over the parent or grandparent by your side.

I started planning my daughter's first fishing trip well before she was born. As excited as I was about the prospect of having a baby girl, I was equally excited about the idea of gaining a new lifelong partner for my adventures afield. I was so determined to transmit my love of the outdoors to her that I planned to have her first baby picture taken with me, in full fishing garb, holding her up like a trophy catch above the waters of my favorite steelhead run. My wife, a remarkably indulgent woman when it comes to my fishing and hunting, gently nixed the idea, pointing out that a chilly (and, in November, almost always rainy) Pacific Northwest salmon river wasn't the best place to take a newborn.

Even so, with my daughter's arrival I had a future fishing buddy-or so I hoped. The trick was to introduce her to the sport in the right way. But what exactly was the right way? One of the biggest problems for fishing fanatics is that their intensity can overwhelm, intimidate or otherwise quash the budding interest their children might have in the sport. Sure, any son or daughter will happily tag along the first few times, but if that interest isn't nurtured correctly it can wither instead of take root.

That said, there's nothing particularly tricky about making a youngster's first fishing experiences positive ones. Here are a few simple guidelines.

Fun Before Fish
Every step of the trip, from planning and pulling together the tackle to reviewing the day on the drive home, should be fun for the child. Even if you don't hook a fish (but we'll help make sure you do), your first day on the water will be an unqualified success if your child enjoyed it otherwise.

Probably the best way to keep a child happy is to make sure that he or she is comfortable. You can't pay too much attention to this. Have plenty of your child's favorite food and drink on hand. Don't plan to do too much or make the fishing so complicated that you tax the child's energy and patience. Just as important, make sure the child has the proper clothes and protection from the elements. (See "Dos and Don'ts," page 49, for more pointers.)

When to Start
What is the right age to take a child fishing? That depends partly on the youngster's personality and attention span. By the age of three, most children are ready to spend some time on the water, but certainly not all day. An hour or two is probably the longest you'll want to commit yourself to pursuing fish with a little one in tow.

My daughter Ava's first real fishing trip-where she was able to handle her own rod-is a good example. Fishing at one of the lakes adjacent to Disney World and using frozen bits of hot dog for bait, we were catching bluegills on every cast. But after her fifth or sixth fish, Ava was starting to tire (those were some hard-fighting one-pound 'gills!), and I knew it was time to call it quits. So we switched gears and relaxed and broke out a juice box in celebration of our success. The guide took us on a boat ride around the lake to look at the ducks, and all was well with Ava. As your child gets older, you'll be able to lengthen the fishing trips, but don't get so wrapped up in the action that you stop paying attention to the telltale signs of flagging energy and enthusiasm.

The Right Stuff
When it comes to selecti tackle for a child, the overriding issue is to use age-appropriate gear. If the tackle doesn't fit their young hands and small bodies, it isn't going to be as much fun for them to use. Our tackle timeline (see sidebar, below) gives a rough breakdown of the most fitting type of equipment for any age group. But there is one important caveat to consider: Kiddie-size gear isn't usually the best fish-catching equipment out there. So even though a downsized spin-cast rig is the right one for your five-year-old to use, it puts your child at a disadvantage when it comes to landing fish.

How to work around this? In the case of panfish, for example, make the best use of that tackle by fishing with small bits of cut worms or whole wigglers on small hooks and with light line. Chances are you'll get more hook-ups with smaller terminal tackle and baits. And though a standard red-and-white bobber certainly can hook fish, consider using a float system that allows you to detect (and connect on) more subtle bites. You want a float that is properly balanced with split shot, as opposed to a softball-size globe of plastic that requires a small submarine to pull it under the water's surface.

Another smart tactic is for you to fish with high-tech gear alongside your child. When panfishing, for example, I use a sensitive ultralight graphite rod paired with a high-quality spinning reel. This rig (a G. Loomis/Shimano combination) is worth several hundred bucks, and while I wouldn't give it to a five-year-old for a day on the water, it's great for passing off to them when I hook a fish. This way they can beat up on their gear (and they will) but still have the benefit of your superior equipment. An ultralight rig is especially nice because it will fit their physiques better than a full-size spinning or spin-casting outfit.

Where to Go
If you're fortunate enough to live within a short drive of a slam-dunk fishery, you've got it made. And what qualifies as "slam-dunk" with kids is any place where a fish is considerate enough to impale itself on a hook. For beginning fishermen, size doesn't matter. Not only that, but in some cases it is even better for the fish to be small. While you may drool at the thought of easy-to-catch largemouths that run three or four pounds, for an angler under the age of seven or eight that might be more fish than he or she is ready to handle. As a rule of thumb, the more basic and less technical the fishery, the better. A put-and-take trout lake where you can catch a no-brainer limit by floating PowerBait off the bottom is, in all likelihood, a better destination than the blue-ribbon (and artificials-only) trout stream you dream about visiting on your own. Any river, lake or pond that is ready to yield fish without too much fuss is just the ticket.

Vacations also present a great opportunity to introduce a kid to angling-but don't get carried away with your own vision of what makes a great fishing getaway. A lodge or resort that is very comfortable (no fly-in spike camps) and offers plenty of non-fishing diversions for kids to enjoy is what you're after. For a list of some specific destinations, see the sidebar opposite.

Positive Thinking
The attitude you bring to a child's first fishing adventures can make all the difference. No fishing trip is so bad or miserable that a creative mind coupled with a positive outlook can't turn it into a good time. (Send your examples proving me wrong to This Happened To Me.)

Remember, having a good time in the company of your child or grandchild is the ultimate goal. In many respects, the very first fishing outing with my little girl was a bust. We were dangling some shrimp off a dyke in a saltwater pool in South Carolina and nothing was going according to plan. No fish even so much as sniffed at our baits, the spinning gear I had was too awkward and heavy for my three-year-old to handle and some unusually warm winter weather had awakened the no-see-'ems. So I reeled up our shrimp and we went for a stroll through the live oaks, following some of the deer tracks that dotted the sandy soil. As we walked, my daughter and I told each other stories about the deer that made the tracks and we spent a wonderful, albeit fishless, afternoon together. I hope all our future fishing trips are as much fun.

[XLINK 451217 "Click Here to Continue"]e unusually warm winter weather had awakened the no-see-'ems. So I reeled up our shrimp and we went for a stroll through the live oaks, following some of the deer tracks that dotted the sandy soil. As we walked, my daughter and I told each other stories about the deer that made the tracks and we spent a wonderful, albeit fishless, afternoon together. I hope all our future fishing trips are as much fun.

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