— By Andrew Johnson, Outdoor Forum Editor
As I was growing up, I was a busy kid during the spring and summer. Once school was done for the year, my daily routine consisted of playing baseball all morning at the town park for the city rec league, followed by swimming all afternoon at the pool, followed by more baseball at the friendly confines of Clark Field, a makeshift neighborhood ball diamond that we literally built from scratch on a vacant weed lot. If you’ve seen the movie “The Sandlot,” that was us — that was how we grew up in Dell Rapids, S.D., in the ’80s and ’90s.
Even though I have fond memories of playing ball and neighborhood life, my earliest summer memories are marked by the times my father and I went fishing. I would beg him to take me fishing down at the Big Sioux River for bullheads, or, if I played my cards right, he’d take me to old Doc Aspaas’ cabin on Lake Madison to fish from shore. Those are sacred memories I will forever cherish, and it’s my sincere hope that some day my kids will look back on fishing trips with their old man the same way I still do.
Today, however, kids are bogged down by electronics, which keep their eyes locked on a small, cold screen and impair their ability to see the big picture, such as the beauty and opportunities offered by the outdoors here in the Dakotas. Seeing a bobber go down and feeling the tug of a fish on the end of a line is something that can’t be replicated by a video game, and it’s also something that can’t be accomplished from the couch. That said, here are five tips to remember when taking kids — or any new angler, for that matter — on a fishing adventure.
1. Focus on Them
The most important thing to remember is to focus on the kids, as it’s easy for us as adults to get too caught up in fishing and forget about the children we’re supposed to be mentoring. The point of taking kids fishing isn’t so we can catch more fish or have more lines in the water. In fact, if you decide to take kids fishing, it’s not a bad idea to leave your own fishing poles at home for the day.
It can sometimes be hard for us to continually hand fishing poles over to smaller hands, especially if the fish are really biting. But remember that kids who actually catch fish will more likely want to go fishing in the future.
2. Let ’Em Be Kids
Plan on the fact that most kids won’t actually fish the whole time you’re out and about, and don’t force kids to fish if they’d rather be exploring the shoreline, climbing trees or even playing with the bait. Let them act like kids instead of expecting them to be your professional co-angler for the day.
Break up the downtime in between bites, and make time for activities other than fishing. Swimsuits and shoes or sandals that can get wet and muddy are a must, and take plenty of snacks to help pass the time if fishing is slow.
Also, if you’re fishing from shore, let the kids skip rocks. Or, if you plan to go out on a boat, take a couple minutes while you’re still on shore to search for skipping stones to take with you. There are far worse ways to spend time than skipping rocks.
While catching fish may be the day’s objective, it will be the smaller parts of the day that children will remember, for better or worse.
3. Keep it Simple
The latest and greatest fishing rods and tackle don’t do much for kids or anyone else new to fishing. Fishing gear for quick, kid-oriented trips should be simple and something youngsters can carry.
Allowing them to help haul and handle the gear empowers them and makes them feel more a part of the adventure. It’s also an important first step in teaching accountability, as caring for and learning how to use the tools of the trade provide teachable moments that should be part of the day’s itinerary.
Simple spinning rods or Zebcos will do fine, and lines tipped with bobbers, jigs, crappie rigs and other “beginner’s” tackle have been kid-friendly, fish-catching staples for years. And, what’s more, they’re easy on the checkbook. Breaking a line or two on a hidden snag or even in the trees overhead as children learn to cast should be expected and enjoyed, not a cause of frustration.
Keep the big picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small details or critique every move. Keep the mood fun, relaxed and light-hearted at all times.
4. Keep it Short
With younger children, fishing forays should be kept short. Kids can be impatient, and spending too much time at the lake after a beginner loses interest is never a good idea. It can turn him or her off to fishing in a heartbeat.
As a way to extend the day and help make it even more memorable, piggyback another fun activity, such as time at a park or swimming pool, onto the tail end of the trip. Supplementing the fishing excursion with another activity a child loves can go a long way toward saving the day, especially if the fish aren’t biting.
5. A Fish is a Fish is a Fish
While walleye and perch top the list for many anglers in the Dakotas, it’s important to remember that any fish is a good fish for a child. In reality, kids don’t care whether they reel in a trophy walleye or an 8-inch bullhead. They will just remember they caught a fish, plain and simple.
Starting small is usually the best route to take with first-time anglers or children. Large fish are often too hard to handle for many youngsters, and huge bodies of water, such as Lake Oahe or Bitter Lake, can churn up huge waves that can be intimidating for inexperienced anglers and boaters. Start small and make sure kids are hooked on fishing and comfortable with the idea before moving on to larger fish or larger bodies of water.
Also, the best time to try out new fishing spots or new gear is not when kids are along. Choose a location close to home where you know fish — any kind of fish — can be caught.
By keeping it simple and using a little common sense, you might just have a fishing buddy for life.
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