I have, since the birth of my daughter, Kaya, who is now the age of four, taken on a whole new view of a topic which – in the wrong writer’s hands – used to trigger my gag reflex. Remembering my own former disdain for cheesy, moralistic prose, I have no trouble imagining certain readers rolling their eyes and preparing to fire this magazine across their living rooms: C’mon, Zach, I can hear them saying, “What happened to your testicles, man?!”
I get it. So I’d like to clear a few things up right here at the outset, lay a few basic ground rules, make myself accountable. First, I will refrain from using the phrases “special youngster” or “teeny tiny fishy” or “darling little sweetie-poo,” and promise I won’t under any circumstances discuss tearing up with pride or joy, crying over the plight of a cute little sea robin, or otherwise sissifying up an honorable pastime enjoyed by the likes of Ted Williams and former Primus bassist, Les Claypool. At no time will I lapse into modified baby-talk (e.g. Who’s-a-boo-boo? Hoosabooboo…. Fishy-wishy).
Furthermore, if you, goodly reader, detect even the faintest whiff of that obnoxious, high-handed my-kid’s-smarter-than-your-kid-and-speaks-three-languages-and-plays-the-violin tone some parents assume, I hereby grant you permission to remove one of my fingers with a pair of bolt cutters.
Truth be told, the credentials that make me so uniquely qualified to tackle the well-traveled topic of fishing with kids have precious little to do with my time as a dad—and everything to do with the 12 or 13 seasons I worked deck on four-hour weekday-afternoon Take-A-Kid-Fishing Specials aboard a party boat.
When you have watched 35 or 40 sugar-addled Cub Scouts compete in an event we’ll call Synchronized Projectile Vomiting during a 60-knot afternoon squall, you may well discover that your notions about hell have grown strangely specific — mine will have merit badges covered in bile-soaked hotdog tidbits and one deck hose losing water pressure in perpetuity.
I have watched fathers and sons, aunts and nephews, grandpas and granddaughters lay strong foundations for life-long bonding out on, in, or be- side salty waters. I have also witnessed every conceivable type and degree of ill-fated family fishing trip. It’s almost painful to watch a hopeful Dad realize that his son isn’t just “not into it”—he’s about to lose the battle with seasickness three minutes past the harbor jetties, will probably never set foot on a boat again.
The emphasis here is on the fine details of no-B.S. strategies to snatch youth fishing success from the jaws of probable failure—some things you should absolutely do and a number of others you should avoid like a shellfish bed beside a raw-sewage out of low pipe.
Market the fishing trip ahead of time—even if it’s going to be a 15-minute foray to the local farm pond—as a conspiratorial adventure laced with minor danger and intrigue. Give them time to get excited about it, but don’t make any bold claims about catching.
Manage your own (adult) expectations. On the first trips,choose highly-accessible spots you can evacuate quickly, put a very short time limit on the outing, and leave before the whining and boredom have time to set in. Better to drag them back to the car too soon— leaving them hungry for more — than to have them pleading with you to go home. Quit while you’re ahead.
Fish to catch. You may fish mainly as an excuse to rest awhile outside the main current of adult life with its incessant demands and regular disappointments. Your kids go fishing to catch fish. Do everything in your power to make that happen for them — and do your zen-and-the-art-of-surfcasting thing on your own time.
Keep a sharp lookout for cool things — a blue crab, a great blue heron, a school of baitfish, etc. —and answer every single question with unwavering patience.
Drop your hierarchy of worthy gamefish. I used to hate it when mates absently tossed back what was likely a child’s first catch ever. Make a milestone of every single catch, whether spider crab, skate, bergall, sea robin, or striper. Let them inspect the catch and make a fuss.
Help inconspicuously, and let kids own their victories. I used to hate watching obnoxious dads underscore how much help they’d provided, minimizing their kids’ accomplishments and teaching them to be helpless.
Do whatever you can to line up trip timing to coincide with likely periods of peak action; avoid places and conditions that are uncomfortable, frustrating, or fish less.
Get them simple gear they can control and teach them to use it by way of visual aids. Working deck, I used to find a kid who’d gotten the hang of what we were doing, and get younger kids to watch him/her carefully. Most kids learn activities like casting, awaiting a bite, or fighting a fish—fine-motor tasks— through watching and imitating (modeling).
Spare them the life lessons and character-building. Patience, perseverance, respect for nature, and confidence are great traits fishing might one day instill in your kids, but first you need to catch them fish and nurture their interest. Kids can detect grown-up B.S. in parts-per-million concentrations; as soon as they sense a textbook Dad sermon brewing, eyes gloss over, fidgeting gives way to complaining, and fishing takes on an aura of powerful lameness.
Again, a big part of fishing with young kids is checking your own hopes and plans at the door. Best you can do for them is to answer every single question with utmost patience, watch closely and try to stay ahead of likely frustrations. Above all else, always be ready to call it a day when they’re ready.