Don’t force it on them

Go at their pace when trying to get kids involved in fishing. (Photo by Chris Burrows)

I was about 25 years old when I either developed a soft spot for kids or just realized that I had one. Now I’m a 43-year-old single father to a beautiful daughter who, at the time I’m writing this, is just about to turn 4 years old. You had better believe that the soft spot is still there! I’d be way out of line to try and give parenting advice in a fishing column, but I believe I can give a bit of fishing advice where it ties in with parenting.

Our charter boat was booked for a tournament trip one day, and while I was getting things ready (as the mate) I was questioning whether we were even going. It was too late for the event organizers to call off the tournament, but conditions were looking well worse of “sporty.” A hard north wind was switching to the northeast.

Then I looked up and saw that our charter party was coming down the dock. A dad had brought five kids and they were all boys. The oldest looked to be maybe 13, the youngest couldn’t have been older than 4 or 5. This marked the first and only time I tried (as a mate) to talk the crowd out of going at all. Even though it was to be the first trip ever for three of the sons, I simply wasn’t persuasive enough. The father stated that he had paid his money, including the entry fee for the tournament, and if other boats were going (they were) then he was going too. Very well then.

The youngest boy started crying as we cleared the inlet and found 6-foot seas. I can’t say that I blamed him. Within 30 minutes, four of the five boys were seasick. The youngest asked his dad over and over: “Can we please go home? Can we please go back?”

This went on until his dad had heard it enough and screamed “We’ll go back in 8 hours!”

I was the lowly mate and knew better than to say anything to this guy. But the looks that the captain and I exchanged confirmed that we felt the same way about this guy. That evening, at the awards ceremony, one of his kids actually won a Junior Angler Award, but I don’t think that was nearly enough to reverse the damage that had been done. I saw the dad again on the charter docks, but never again with his kids. I still occasionally have nightmares about that trip. To some degree, those kids were probably all emotionally scarred for life with regards to fishing.

I recently got to take a really nice vacation with my daughter in offshore fishing paradise. We had short runs to good water, and we stayed in a house on a canal, with the boat ready to go at all times. The weather for the days we were there was perfect. On the first day, Adelaide jumped at the opportunity to “go fishing with Daddy.” So that’s what we did. We zoomed offshore, jumped from weedline to weedline, and lo-and-behold, Adelaide caught her first dolphin, a small bailer on a piece of squid. Perfection. The trip held her interest for a good amount of time, but she eventually got bored, hot, and tired. Snacks became much more interesting than fishing. It can be a long day out there, and we called it early, with the mission accomplished.

Adelaide’s fishing trip produced her first dolphin while “fishing with Daddy.”

On day two of the trip, I asked her what she wanted to do, and rolled out fishing as an option. She wanted to do something else, so we slept in a little, wandered off, and were tourists for the day. Not a problem. I don’t get real vacations often, so I have no problem with diversity.

I figured that by day three, she would be ready to get after the dolphin again. I even rigged up my 10-weight fly rod, as I’m still trying to cross that personal goal off my list.

My buddy and I sat down and drew it out. We’d find the right patch of grass, pull a spread from one side of the boat, with the left rigger deployed and the right rigger stowed. A couple of squid chains would be out there. If the dolphin we found were small, we’d let Adelaide catch a few. But if we saw some bigger ones, I’d hop up on the port gunwale and throw the fly. My buddy’s wife even volunteered to take over parenting duties for a few minutes if/when we saw the big bull, just to keep Adelaide safe and buy me a few minutes to get that dream shot.

Then it would be back to dolphin-whacking per normal. It all sounded easy, and the sea was even going to stay flat. I went ahead and set my alarm for early. Except that I had forgotten the most important thing.

When we woke up, Adelaide simply didn’t want to go fishing. She said she didn’t want to be on the boat “all day,” even when I explained that it was only for a few hours. She just didn’t want to go. For a split second I started to bargain with her, to override what she wanted. Then I remembered that customer from long ago. It stopped me in my tracks. I told my friends to go on without me and climbed back into bed for a bit. Then it was off to be a tourist again.

I want my daughter to be a fishing partner of mine for life. I sometimes must remind myself that the most fun and gratifying recreational activity that I know of, looks a lot different to her now than it will in a few short years, and what it looks like to me now in my 40s. I could wait all day in a fairly rough cockpit for a single blue marlin bite and love every minute. That same experience for her would be, at best, extremely boring, and at worst, torture. I can’t live with that. I’m not a “helicopter” parent, and I strongly believe that sometimes you have to challenge and push your kids to get the best out of them. But not at this age.

As fishermen, we end up taking a lot for granted. The shark that ate your ribbonfish is just a pain in your rear if you’re an experienced king fisherman. But to a young child, that may very well be the coolest thing they have ever seen, or the first live shark they have ever encountered.

Porpoises just off the beach may not cause any reaction when we’re fishing with our buddies. But if you have kids on board, it probably warrants a brief side trip, just so they can see what lives just beyond the breakers. You never know what really inspires their interest, so show them what the water has to offer.

Fishing is supposed to be fun! Plan their initial trips around something that you feel you can catch a lot of. Even better if they get to hold the rod for most of the time so they feel like they are really participating.

Explaining the concept of trolling to a small child is tough. Keep the trip short if you can. Even better, quit while you’re ahead. If there’s ever a time to leave a hot bite when you sense they’re getting tired or bored, it is now. Maybe you’ll leave them wanting just a bit more, and just maybe that’s where the spark comes from. I’d love for that spark to become a flame with Adelaide. It melts my heart whenever she says, “I want to go fishing with Daddy.” If she grows up and it becomes a passion, that would be great. It could also turn out to be an occasional thing, or an activity she wants nothing to do with. I’m just fine with those alternatives as well. Whatever it turns out to be, it won’t be because I forced her to go on days where it was really just me that wanted to go.

Snack time:

Hardcore anglers can go all day with little to eat, but when trying to get kids involved in fishing, make sure you have plenty of snacks on hand. And when their interest in snacking is greater than their interest in fishing, head back to the docks.

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