What makes a good first fishing trip with your child? Is it the number of fish you catch, the time you spend on the water, or even the conversation you have?
Perhaps it’s all of these things. But perhaps it’s something less well defined, more mysterious—and more lasting.
Living in a part of the United States where I have water on three sides means that fishing is a part of my mental makeup. It took a long time to realize that I needed to make time to go fishing. I guess I figured that since my dad never seemed to have time, I didn’t either.
I do remember one occasion when my father took me along on a fishing trip with a client. I was around 10 years old, and all I remember was that Dad kept telling me to be quiet, that I was scaring the fish. I remember thinking, “You mean the fish didn’t hear us come roaring up in this boat?” I knew that if I ever had a kid, I was going to be different.
Though not always easy, fishing is one of the few diversions that can keep youngsters' attention for long. (Photo courtesy of LADW&F)
As soon as my son Matthew was born, I began planning all the things we were going to do. Fishing was going to be one of those magical experiences that would bond us together; I couldn’t wait until he was old enough to go.
It wasn’t until Matthew turned 7 that he began showing an interest in going with me to fish. The day finally came when I thought he was ready, and we headed off to a fish management area that I knew was well stocked. I had the best gear, tackle and bait that money could buy. Since it was a catch-and-release pond, I knew it was going to be a wildly successful and memorable day.
The entire day was a disaster. No matter what I did, I couldn’t keep Matthew’s attention on fishing. He was loud, and took great delight in throwing twigs into the water. He liked tugging gently on the line so that the bobber would go under, just so he could see me get excited. We went home an hour later without either of us catching a thing. Maybe he was still too young, or maybe I wasn’t as patient as I thought I was. Maybe he needed a little more time. Or maybe I did.
Later that same year we went to the Frank Sargeant Outdoor Expo, a two-and-a-half-day event that celebrates the great outdoors here in Tampa, Florida. Among all the clinics and new products were activities designed for educating people new to the outdoors experience. I took Matthew with me thinking that he would enjoy the giant aquarium brought in by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The aquarium was incredible, showing off the kind of monster bass that have made Florida fishing famous.
The sooner you can familiarize a child with a rod and reel the sooner fishing will become second nature. (Photo courtesy of LADW&F)
As Matthew and I wandered toward the back of the expo, we found that the Commission had set up a kids’ fishing derby around a small lake. All along the lake’s bank were fishing stations, each complete with a rod and reel, bait, and an enthusiastic volunteer who baited the hook, and when the child caught a fish, took it off the hook and let it swim free.
It was here that Matthew began to understand what it meant to fish. I watched his face; he was intent on his task. His first cast was off to the side and over the next kid’s line. I helped him separate his entangled line and he tried again, this time perfectly. He had been given little pieces of hot dog and bread balls for bait, and while he dangled them in the water he whispered questions to me about what fish eat and how do they sleep.
I was already caught up in the magic of Matthew’s first real fishing experience, but then it became even more magical. The fishing derby was designed so that each child had 30 minutes to fish before they had to make room for another child. Matthew had caught several small bluegills, and had even gotten to the point where he wanted to put the bait on himself, and take the fish ever-so-gently off the hook and release it back into the lake. With five minutes left, Matthew made his last and by now very respectable cast into the center of the lake and stood up to do battle with the monster he was absolutely sure he was going to catch. I was my true adult self, just as certain that he was done for the day, that he would catch nothing more.
Suddenly Matthew yelled, “Dad, help!” as his rod bent and the line went straight; the look on my son’s face told me that there was no way that fish wasn’t coming to the bank.
Once a child is exposed to the joys of fishing, he or she is usually hooked for life. (Photo by Craig Johnson, KDWP)
It doesn’t matter how much you know about fishing: when it’s your kid, your skill level goes into prayer mode. It all happened so fast. Despite my interference, Matthew landed an 8-pound tagged bass that won him his very own rod and reel.
Now Matthew is a student of fishing. He keeps a log of the baits he has used, and the tide and water conditions for all the big fish he catches. He’s given reports on fishing at school, been mentioned in fishing magazines and has had wonderful photos taken of him with some of his fish. And in his room and on my desk is the same photo, a picture of a 10-year-old with his first real fish.
Despite the fishing knowledge I brought to the game, I was a rookie when it came teaching a child how to catch fish. Matthew has learned a lot since that first outing, and so has his dad.