As the father of a young old son, I can tell you that outdoor experiences have formed some of our fondest memories: the first bass we caught together; the time we watched a bear rummage through our campsite; the magic of water; the complex simplicity of the interplay of seasons.
Here are some suggestions for what you’ll need if you decide to spend a day fishing with a youngster.
Patience: Let’s make one thing perfectly clear - taking a kid fishing means that your fishing experience is going to take back seat to the kid’s. There are going to be bird's nests (that’s fishing jargon for hopelessly tangled lines), snags, sunburn, stings, and scores of questions.
Low expectations: If you build your experience around the expectation of the number of fish that you’ll catch, you’re really setting yourself up—and your kid—for disappointment. Before heading out, create a set of reasonable expectations that you’re sure can be met. Talk about the beauty of the place, the wildlife you’ll encounter, what you’ll carry for lunch, where you might stop for ice cream on the way home. Remember this; make it your mantra: the fishing is always good; the catching sometimes stinks. Be certain that you and your kid understand that catching fish isn’t the most important part of fishing.
Equipment: If you’re a seasoned fisherman, you probably have a spare rod and extra tackle. But if you’re new to fishing, there are some pitfalls that you want to avoid when outfitting your young angler. Don't buy one of those plastic, colorful rod combos that feature Bart Simpson or Snoopy. They are designed to hook shoppers, not fish. You want your kid to have fun with the gear, but you also want to stress that fishing equipment is a different kind of toy.
There’s another, more practical reason: Those Bart and Snoopy gizmos are closed-face reels. The working mechanisms in them are housed within a removable plastic shell, making it much more difficult, time consuming and frustrating to untangle the tangles that surely will occur. With cheap closed-face reels, the line tends to snag on reels’ greasy little gears. And you’ll have to take apart and reassemble the reel every time the line gets trapped inside it.
Choose instead an open-face reel. They’re trickier when it comes to learning how to cast; however, they are much easier to service in the field. You can get a decent open-face reel and rod combo at sporting goods stores for less than $30. Teaching a kid to fish with an open-face reel means he won’t have to learn something new when he outgrows junk equipment.
Practice: Before venturing out for the first time, it’s a good idea to teach your kid to cast. Tie a rubber weight to his line and let him practice casting outside. The weight shouldn’t be too heavy — just an ounce or two. And the rubber will mean that the neighbor’s windshield is safe. Casting can be tricky even for experienced outdoorsmen. And when they’re out near the water, kids want to fish; they don’t want to practice fishing.
Bait: This decision comes to two choices: live bait or artificial lures, which can fairly bristle with razor-pointed treble hooks. Artificial lures need to be cast and cast again to be effective. You might prefer time-tested bait-and-wait techniques. You can float your live bait—such as minnows, night crawlers, or meal worms—under a bobber. Or you can remove the bobber, add a little extra weight and fish the bottom. Bobber fishing is fun when it’s not windy. Bottom fishing is fun too, but you’ll run into a frustrating number of snags if you choose to fish anywhere on the three rivers in Pittsburgh. There’s just too much junk on our river bottoms.
Common sense and preparation: As with all outdoor activities involving children, common sense should prevail. If you’re fishing from a boat or near fast-moving water, make sure kids wear personal floatation devices (PFDs). On the one hand, a little preparation can go a long way. Like when you remember to take sunscreen, bug repellant, or a bag for trash.
On the other hand, over-preparing (and having to carry and protect all of that stuff) can unnecessarily complicate a day on the water. Here’s a tip that will help you to decide what to take: When you get home from your first fishing trip, separate your stuff into two piles — the things that you used and the things that you didn’t. Don’t nix the first-aid kit just because you didn’t use it, but you might want to think twice before lugging that folding chair again.
A destination: Tailor your first outing based on what you and your kids already like to do. If you enjoy hiking, try one of the area streams. On a stream, the view changes around every bend, and you’re less likely to get bored if the fish aren’t biting because streams’ meandering nature provide a natural opportunity for relocating.
If you’re more the sedentary type, stake out a spot on the shoreline of a lake or river. Be warned though: fishing the three rivers presents its own specific set of challenges. But that’s a lesson for another day.