Outside: Let’s Go Fishing!

Spring is a great time to introduce a child to the art of angling
By Tim Traver

Children and fishing: it’s a natural combination. Sure, fishing can be slimy, muddy, wet and even scary when a child first feels a tug on the line. But, from a kid’s point of view, what could be more fun than mud and slime (other than astonishment)? Fishing conjures memories of youthful forays with family that will stick for a lifetime.

Why teach a kid to fish? Because fishing is a great foil to the modern age of electronic gadgetry — though, to be sure, it has its own very cool gear, too. Fishing promotes values we hope our children will adopt: self-reliance, lifelong learning, patience, confidence and a love of adventure as well as of the chase. The pastime strengthens family bonds and opens doors to the marvels of the world that surround us.

Every fisherman knows fishing connects bugs to the phases of the moon and everything in between. Fishing is not only about catching and keeping fish. There’s a small conservation lesson in releasing a fish that connects to some big concepts and more grown-up conversations about sustainability later on.

Parental Guidance

While parents can be vital catalysts when it comes to teaching a child to fish, honestly, we are not necessary. Sometimes facilitating does get messy — I remember my mother skinning an eel, all the while reading about how to do it in a tattered wild game cookbook she had rescued from the ancestral family farm (you parboil them and the skin pulls off the end like a rubber sleeve) — but, usually, there’s little demanded.

Even my father could manage the role. He was, to put it mildly, a reluctant angler. But he did get us started. Baiting the hook was about all he had to do. We did the rest by catching scup — a banded, iridescent saltwater fish that has some small bones though it makes good eating.

A passionate golfer, my father understood the value of fishing culture. When helping my parents move into assisted living, we found my father’s school papers from second grade. Included was an illustrated story in crayon of a fishing outing he took with his father. It was 1927. They caught scup with hand lines in Buzzard’s Bay. Deep down, I think, he understood fishing as a rite of passage. Passing it along was a type of initiation.

I have followed in his footsteps. When my daughter, Mollie, was 13, I gave her a fly rod, reel and fishing vest with the fervent hope that at least one of my kids would one day share my passion for fly fishing. I think we went fly fishing together maybe twice before she decided it wasn’t for her.

However, my wife snapped a photo of us creeping along a scenic trout stream together in the Big Horn Mountains during that stage of her childhood. The photo still sits on Mollie’s desk today and when the subject of fly fishing comes up, I know that on some deeper level she considers herself an angler.

Boiled down: all parents have to do is help kids catch their first few fish and link the experience to fun and together time. Embrace this iconic parental role with its long history and its redolence in metaphor and your children will bring you fish for years to come.

Safety First

The first lesson in fishing is learning to swim. The earlier, the better. In years past kids began as “Minnows” and advanced to “Sharks” in cold and mandatory summer camp swimming lessons. However it is they learn these days, make sure they can swim like fish before trying to catch one. There are other safety tips, but this one trumps all. Before you say “yes” to tweens and young teens who want to ride their bikes out after school to fish at places like the Mascoma River during the first few months of trout season, make sure their swimming skills are strong enough that they can haul themselves out after they fall in. They will fall in.

Simplicity is Key

The other fundamental principle when it comes to children and fishing (in my book, anyway) is to keep it simple and fun. Patience is a virtue; so is catching fish. Keeping it simple and fun helps insure there isn’t too much of either patience or catching fish required. Don’t discuss the finer points of fly-fishing, for example. That’s not to say children can’t learn to fly fish, but simple and fun is best when it comes to learning to fish.

The simple and fun rule extends to gear. Wayne Barrows — owner of Barrows Point Trading Post on Route 4 in Quechee, Vt. — stocks beginner set-ups in the $25 to $35 range. He recommends a 4- to 6-foot fiberglass rod, a closed face reel, fishing line, swivel, sinkers and hooks (size 8). I think even the bobber is included. Barrows suggests a three-foot distance between bobber and hook with swivel and sinker in between, so kids can swing out a cast. For an 8- to 10-year-old child who’s just starting, a beginner package and some worms dug up in the backyard are all she needs.

Other costs are minimal. Children under age 15 may fish for free in New Hampshire (under 16 in Vermont). I recommend at least one parent acquire a fishing license to fish accompany the child (available at vtfishandwildlife.com or wildlife.state.nh.us or purchase at a local convenience store). You (the adult) do not need a license — as long as the child does the fishing and you stick to untangling lines and unhooking fish. An in-state resident fishing license in New Hampshire costs $35. Vermont in-state license fees are $25.

Until the Ice Melts

Since ponds can remain frozen over into May, I suggest you choose April to purchase a beginner set-up and get the kids casting in the backyard. First, remove the hook and tie on a lightweight nut or, even better, use a plastic practice lure with no hooks (search online for “improved fisherman’s knot”) —  something that allows them to retrieve the line without getting hung up in the grass.

For your child’s first outing, the best show around is a free fishing derby — learn-to-fish events for parents and children sponsored by local service organizations and the state Fish and Wildlife Department. They take place across the Upper Valley. All fishing derby dates can be found online at vtfishandwildlife.com or wildlife.state.nh.us

For the beginning angler, whether parent or child, fishing derbies can’t be beat because catching a fish, if not guaranteed, is close to a certainty. The state stocks the ponds with fish before the event. Even more important, there are trained volunteers to teach, untangle and encourage. Some lessons — a few knots, necessary gear, casting and how to treat fish that will be released — are far better to learn in-person than read about in a book or online.

Last but not Least

Don’t forget your camera! I also recommend a small cooler with ice. If your child catches a few fish, bring them home for dinner. Fish, high in omega 3s and low in saturated fat, is good for you. There are fish consumption guidelines online that apply especially to pregnant and nursing women and children under 7. The trout and pan fish we most likely will catch tend to be quite low on the mercury spectrum.


Longtime resident of the Upper Valley, Tim Traver is past director of the Upper Valley Land Trust and COVER Home Repair. Author of the salt marsh biography, Sippewissett, he lives with his wife and family in Taftsville, Vt. 

Originally published in the April-May 2015 issue of Kid Stuff

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