Let's Go Catch Some Fish!

Let's Go Catch Some Fish!A basic guide to taking kids fishing (for adults who don’t have a clue). By Dave Hagengruber

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May–June 2009

One of life’s simplest—and least expensive—joys is to spend a day fishing with friends or family. You get to be outside, enjoy the natural world, and maybe even hook a fish or two. Fishing is especially fun for kids. They love learning to cast, exploring the shoreline, and seeing birds and other wildlife near the water. And if they catch fish, get ready for some major noise. There are few sounds more exciting—to kids or to parents—than “Mom! Dad! I got one!”

Fishing also offers kids time away from television, computers, and cell phones. It takes them to places where family members can talk without distraction, or just sit quietly and enjoy the silence together. Kids learn a lot more than how to tie a knot or cast a line.

By fishing, they develop patience, problem-solving skills, and an awareness and appreciation for the natural world.

Unfortunately, many parents don’t know much about fishing. That makes it difficult to introduce kids to the sport. Going fishing isn’t as convenient as walking down to the playground and kicking a soccer ball around. But it’s also not nearly as difficult as it looks. Over the years I’ve taken thousands of school kids fishing. By following the tips provided here, you and your kids can be fishing this weekend—and having a great time doing it.

MAKE A PLAN
Step one is to figure out where to fish. That determines everything else, from the gear you’ll need to the likelihood of catching something. Look for a pond where you can catch sunfish or stocked trout from shore. Fish size or species is not a big deal to kids, at least when they are first learning. They enjoy catching a dozen tiny sunfish or perch in an hour far more than spending the entire day trying to catch just one big fish. Sure, lunker walleyes and trout are glamorous, but to a beginner, any fish is a good fish.

Ask friends and co-workers for advice on kid-friendly waters where a youngster has a decent chance of catching fish. A few towns have Children’s Fishing Waters. Biologists with Montana Fish, Wild­life & Parks manage these ponds to provide fishing opportunities for young anglers. Find a list on the FWP website at http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/fishingmontana/fishingponds.html. Also, check FWP’s on-line Fishing Access Guide to find the closest lakes or ponds. Or call the nearest FWP office and ask a fisheries biologist or game warden what local waters might work best.

Try to stay close to home. When your fishing spots are nearby, your kids have more opportunities to go fishing.

Schedule fishing trips for when fish are most active. In spring and fall, fish tend to bite almost any time of day. But in summer, plan to fish in the morning and evening, when cooler temperatures and lower light levels stimulate feeding behavior.

GEAR UP
You can outfit a kid with everything necessary to catch fish for less than $25. Go to a local bait shop or sporting goods store on a weeknight when the staff isn’t as busy and has more time to answer questions. Tell the salesperson you want a beginner’s spin-casting outfit and related gear.

Nothing catches fish better than live bait such as a worm, grasshopper, or half a night crawler on a small hook suspended below a bobber. (And kids love watching bobbers float on the surface.) Pick up a carton or two of bait from a local fishing shop. Or dig worms from the backyard or catch ’hoppers in grassy fields in late summer. Many kids like collecting bait as much as fishing.

Stay on shore
The best place to introduce kids to fishing is from shore. They have more room to move around, and everyone has easier access to restrooms, drinking water, and your vehicle. It may seem like every Montana angler fishes from a boat, raft, or canoe, but you don’t need them to catch fish.

The trick to shore fishing is to not stay in one place too long. Fish are relatively stationary. They won’t come to you; you have to find them. Move along the shoreline trying new areas until you find where fish are biting. If the weather is warm enough, wear old tennis shoes, shorts, and a life jacket and wade in shallow water along shore. That helps you cast farther into the pond.

To find fish, learn to think like a fish. Besides finding enough food to survive, a fish’s main concern is to avoid being eaten by predators. Cast to deep water near rocks, logs, and weedbeds, where fish feed while hiding from herons and ospreys. Fish avoid shallow water off sandy beaches because they are too exposed, which is why you rarely catch fish in swimming areas.

Help, but not too much
I’ve seen too many parents spoil a family fishing trip by “taking over” when their kid is having trouble casting. The adult commandeers the rod and reel and spends the next hour doing all the fishing while the child sits there, bored. Find a balance between offering enough help so the trip is a success, but not so much that you do all the fishing. After showing your kids the basics, back off a bit while they figure things out for themselves. Let kids know you are there to help—but only if they need it.

Enjoy the surroundings
Don’t get so caught up in the fishing itself that you and your kids miss other attractions. Show them the different bird species—such as kingfishers, herons, ospreys, and ducks—attracted to ponds and streams. Let your kids catch turtles and frogs in the shallow water. Or turn over rocks to find bugs and crayfish. Sure, all that splashing might scare fish. But so what? It’s still fun.

If you return to a fishing spot several times during the year, point out where reeds and other plants along shore have grown taller as the summer progresses. Talk about cottonwood leaves turning yellow in late summer, or how creek and pond levels rise and fall with the seasons. Every fishing trip can be an opportunity for discovering something new about the natural world.

Have a picnic
Food and drinks are essential for a successful fishing trip. A simple picnic lunch outdoors can be as much fun as the fishing.

Keep trips short
Kids have short attention spans—even when fishing. It’s always better to cut the trip short and leave kids wanting more than to stay too long and hear the dreaded, “We’re bored!”

Plan for the catch
Kids love to look at pictures of themselves holding their catch, so always take photographs. Many kids also like to eat their catch. If you plan to keep some for a meal, bring along a small cooler and ice. Clean the fish quickly, get them on ice, and try to eat your catch that same evening. Fish taste best when both the meat and the memories are still fresh. If you choose to release fish, be sure to let your child help put them back in the water.

Be safe
Fishing is fun, but it involves hooks and water, so safety is always a top concern. Bring a life jacket for each child—even when shore fishing. Also, bring sunscreen and brimmed hats, as well as sunglasses for eye protection (polarized sunglasses also help you see fish in the water.)

Don’t worry if you don’t catch fish, because it happens, even to experienced adult anglers. The day can still be successful. Kids can have plenty of fun skipping rocks or looking for frogs. Maybe they’ll see a bald eagle soar overhead or a mink scamper along the bank. Or they finally learn how to cast, or they tie their first clinch knot.

It’s not always easy to take kids fishing. I’ve seen more than my share of tangled lines, spilled tackle boxes, and broken rod tips. But it’s always rewarding. By introducing kids to fishing, you can instill a lifelong love of the sport and a desire to help protect and conserve Montana’s lakes and streams. Just as important, you’ll create memories your family can share for years to come.Bear bullet

Dave Hagengruber coordinates the FWP Angler Education Program.

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