When it comes to getting kids interested in the outdoors, fishing is high on the list of pursuits that can create a lifelong interest. The mystery of a bobber slipping below the surface is something that speaks to youngsters, and it can be such a simple gateway drug.
Fishing is also something that can go terribly wrong at any given moment. It can also be dreadfully boring. A sunfish spine in a child’s finger or a two-hour stretch with no action can prune any inkling of interest long before it grows into a true passion.
Some aspects of fishing are just up to the whims of Mother Nature, but others are totally in the parents’ control. As the father of twin 11-year-olds, I know all about it. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but my daughters love to fish, and that has taught me what to do to keep them interested and engaged.
It has also taught me what not to do.
In a past life, I chased the tournament fishing dream. It was fun sometimes, but mostly was a grind that somewhat ruined a thing I love. On a small scale, the same thing can happen when you take young kids out fishing. Essentially, if the children are having fun, it’s a win. If they aren’t, it’s not.
This might mean you should just fish for sunnies under the dock for half an hour. Or, it might mean that you need to try to catch something a little bigger from the boat. It might mean taking a break from fishing to catch frogs on shore, or it might mean it’s time to learn about the life cycle of nightcrawlers.
The best balance can be found by introducing the set and setting to your kids, and then letting them take the lead. If they are interested in the fishing aspect, great. If they get distracted by some other aspect of nature, great. The goal is to enjoy your time on the water, however that plays out.
One of the things my daughters taught me early on is that if they can catch bigger, sportier fish, they will. Silver-dollar panfish are fine, but why not try for hammer-handle northerns, or something even bigger?
My daughters are obsessed with bass, probably because their father is obsessed with bass. But the truth is, we fished for panfish, walleyes, stream trout, and a host of other fish when they were younger. They just gravitated toward topwater lures that sporty fish are likely to smash. They didn’t gravitate toward bait fishing for walleyes, for example, because it’s boring to kids when compared to other styles of fishing for other species.
Chasing bigger fish with different tactics also taught me something else. Like how often we totally hinder our kids’ abilities to fish because we give them crappy gear. Short, whippy rods are hard for adults to cast and set the hook with. Yet, that’s what we give kids. Worse yet, we pair them with reels that aren’t smooth, don’t cast well, and are prone to frustrating line loops.
Now, I get that most folks wouldn’t buy a high-end rod and reel combo for themselves, let alone a couple of six-year-olds. But, low-quality gear makes the whole thing exponentially harder and detracts from the experience. Real gear, not Disney-branded junk, goes a long way toward getting youngsters interested in fishing.
Humans are hard-wired for challenge, and without it, we fill the void in our lives by fighting with strangers on the internet, and other poor choices. A life that is too easy will spawn a desire for drama, and that’s no bueno. While this may seem like a stretch to tie to fishing with kids, it’s not.
If the fishing is too easy, it’s boring. Those dockside sunfish are great for half an hour, but when the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the interest will wane. New fishing spots, with new challenges, are the spice of a good life of angling.
While it’s a heck of a lot harder to cast in a small trout stream, or lob a sucker minnow under a bobber out on a deep weed line for big pike, the work is worth it. The challenge is worth it. Let your kids put in some effort so that when they do catch something, it’s special and it feels like it was earned.
Make it an adventure where there is something at stake, and the roots of a love of fishing will take hold. After that, go as often as they ask. Or at least as often as they’ll agree to.
For more advice on how to get kids into the outdoors, check out: 3 Things I Learned After Taking My Daughters On Their First Deer Hunts, What I Learned After 3 Months of Camping with a Toddler, and Catch A Crayfish, Count The Stars.