CATCH A FISH
"Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you're lucky if he even comes home for dinner."
When I was growing up, the only time I had my father all to myself was when we were fishing. My brothers fished too, but they weren't obsessed with it, like my dad and I. He'd creep into my room before dawn to tap me on the shoulder, and I'd wake up instantly, as if I'd been waiting for that moment all night long. Then we'd sneak out of the house together and load up the car in the dark.
We'd reach the lake with the sky aglow in the east and the birds just beginning to sing. Often, we'd hear the faint sound of a splash across the cove.
"You hear that?" my dad would whisper. "They're hungry!"
After that he wouldn't say much. That's how he was--more comfortable with silence than conversation. That was fine with me. I was happy just to sit with him by the water and watch the sun come up over the trees.
Years later, when I was in medical school, I came home one weekend for a visit. Since my brothers and I had moved out, my father had gone on to new interests, and our little rowboat hadn't gotten much use. On a whim I asked him to go fishing with me.
He came to wake me an hour before dawn, and I was up as soon as he tapped my shoulder. That morning the fish really were hungry. In just a couple of hours we caught a stringer-full of fat bass. We headed home early, triumphant hunters, with the quiet of early morning still hanging in the air.
I was surprised when my father broke the silence.
"You know," he said, "we probably didn't tell you this enough, but your mom and I have always been very proud of you and the things you've done."
I turned to look at him, but he was staring straight ahead. Behind him the sun flashed and flickered on the lake as we drove along the shore.
"That's okay," I said. "I knew."
WHEN TO START
There's no easy answer to this one. Mostly, it depends on your kids. If they love being outdoors and they're fascinated by little critters, fishing is an easy sell. But remember, the younger they are, the shorter their attention spans. Fishing can involve a lot of waiting, and some kids aren't good at that. Later on I'll give you some tricks to keep their interest, but you still have to be realistic about how long they can sit in one place. If you think they can hang in there for at least an hour, then give it a try.
WHAT YOU NEED BEFORE YOU START
A Place to Fish
This is the most important part of your preparation. When you take a kid fishing for the first time, you're looking for one thing, and one thing only: action! What you want is a place where there are lots of hungry little fish to gobble up anything you dangle in front of them. The key is to go after the fish that serious fishermen ignore. These are called "panfish."
Panfish are the little fish that gather in the shallows of lakes and ponds. They're the perfect quarry for beginners. The most common are little members of the bass family, known collectively as "sunfish." They all have the same rounded shape and seldom grow much larger than eight inches. Also common is the yellow perch. There may be others in your particular region, but sunfish and perch can be found almost anywhere. They're good eating and easy to catch.
Some ponds and lakes are stocked heavily with hatchery fish, usually trout. This is a good choice too, especially at the beginning of the fishing season, but you may have to fight the crowds.
To locate a good fishing spot, call up a local bait shop or fishing tackle store. You can also try your state Fish and Game Department. Tell them you want to take your kid where it's easy to catch small fish. Ask if there's a dock or a clear stretch of shoreline where a beginner can cast without getting hung up in the trees. You probably want to stay away from boats with younger kids, both for safety's sake and to allow a quick getaway if they get cranky and want to go home.
I've suggested ponds and lakes because rivers and saltwater are often harder to fish, but there may be exceptions where you live. In any case, check out whatever spot you choose before you actually go fishing, to make sure it's both safe and accessible.
One last alternative is to find a local "U-Fish" place. These are private ponds where you pay to catch stocked fish. They can be expensive and crowded, and they won't give you much of an outdoor experience. On the other hand, you'll usually catch something--and your first time out with a kid, that's a big advantage.
Every state has its own regulations on who needs a license, where and when they can fish, and what they can fish for. You can buy a license at most tackle or bait shops, but call ahead to make sure. A booklet with your state's regulations should come with the license.
There's no end to the amount of equipment you can buy in the name of catching fish. For diehards like me, that's half the fun. But to start with, you need only a few basics.
*Rods and reels. These come in a dizzying range of shapes, sizes, and prices. As you get into bigger fish and special conditions, you'll need better equipment. But for little fish and quiet water, it almost doesn't matter. For your first attempt at fishing, this is what you should do.
Walk into any discount department store that carries fishing equipment. Buy a couple of cheap, lightweight rods and spinning reels with the fishing line already on them. The rod and reel are often sold together as a "combo." Get one of the shorter, thinner rods--it should be flexible and whippy, so even little fish will give it a good bend. Don't get the really cheap one that looks like a toy. Get the next cheapest one that looks like a real fishing rod.
If your kid is younger than six, you might get a combo with a spin-cast reel. The push-button mechanism is a little easier to handle, and the covering over the spool is supposed the keep the line from getting tangled. On the other hand, regular spinning reels cast much farther and aren't that much harder to use. And with a child that young, you'll probably end up casting for him anyway.
*Hooks. Get a box of number 10 hooks. The larger the number, the smaller the hook, and these are pretty small. Remember, little fish have little mouths.
*Sinkers. Buy a box of small, round, split-shot sinkers. Get the ones that are about the size of small green peas, with the little wings on the back that make them easier to open and close.
*Bobbers. Get at least four red-and-white plastic floats, also known as "bobbers." The bigger the bobber, the harder it is for a fish to pull it under, so get small ones. About an inch in diameter should do.
*Extra line. Get a spool of cheap replacement line. Four-pound test strength would be more than enough for little fish, but six-pound will help you pull free from weeds and snags.
*Tackle box. Actually, a shoe box would be sufficient, but a small plastic tackle box doesn't cost much. It helps keep your stuff organized, it has a handle for easy carrying, and it makes you feel like a fisherman.
*Other stuff. All of the following will come in handy: nail clippers, needle-nosed pliers, a pocketknife, a bucket with a handle, a few rags. If you live in an area with lots of mosquitoes or black flies, bring some bug juice that's safe for kids. And don't forget a camera to record the first catch for posterity.
There are lots of artificial lures that will catch fish, but they all require repeated casting. When kids first start fishing, casting is the source of most problems. Lines get tangled, people get impaled, trees get snagged--you get the idea. For a first fishing experience, especially when you're after little fish, bait is the way to go.
I've caught fish on everything from cheese balls to strips of bacon fat, but your best bet is probably that old standby, the common earthworm. For whatever reason, even fish that have never seen a worm instinctively know that it's good to eat. You can buy worms at a bait shop, but I recommend collecting your own. Kids have as much fun catching worms as they do catching fish.
You can dig up a supply of worms in any rich soil--a garden or compost pile are both good bets. These days, many people keep worm bins to process their kitchen waste. (See Chapter 18: Grow a Garden if you want to try it yourself.) The little red worms in these bins make great bait.
During the summer you can go out at night with flashlights and gather the big worms called nightcrawlers. They come out onto your lawn to mate. Your kids will love hunting for them, but whole nightcrawlers are too big for small panfish, so you may have to cut them up.
There's a novel way to catch worms that's sure to be a hit with your kids. If you drive a stake into reasonably wormy ground and then whack it with a stick, any worms that are right beneath the surface will come to the top. I've never heard an explanation for this, but my guess is that the vibrations make them think it's raining, so they come up to avoid the flood. In any case, give it a try. You won't get enough to fill your bait container, but your kids will be very impressed.
It's best to collect your worms the day before you fish. Put them in a plastic container with a little moist earth and some moss or grass on top. Punch a few breathing holes in the lid, and store them in the refrigerator, clearly marked so no one mistakes them for cottage cheese.
For the squeamish, bait is also sold in jars at bait and tackle shops. I don't recommend the preserved salmon eggs, because they don't stay on the hook, but the brightly colored "dough" baits like Power Bait can be very effective. They're especially good for hatchery raised trout that are used to eating food pellets.
With a little planning you can have a great time even if the fish aren't biting. When was the last time you just sat beside your kid in a beautiful place and enjoyed her company? If that isn't "quality time," what is?
Bring along a book to read out loud. Or maybe a field guide to local trees and wildlife. Lean the rods over a branch and take a short walk. When you get far enough away to not scare the fish, turn to Chapter 12 and practice skipping stones. Look for animal shapes in the clouds, or animal tracks on the ground. Tell some stupid jokes from the end of this chapter. Enjoy the luxury of being together with time on your hands.
Whatever you do, don't forget to bring food and drink. Nothing tastes as good as food eaten outdoors. And bring along a little candy or some other treat for a surprise. Make it an occasion.
Step 1: Rigging your line
The day before you go fishing, take out your rods and reels and get them set up. Kids love having their own rod, and rigging it up early not only helps out later, it starts the excitement a day ahead of time. Have them sit beside you and copy what you do.
*Put the rod together. Usually, a rod comes in two sections. Put them together and line up the guide loops so they're all on the same side. From this point on, remind your kid to be very careful about the tip of the rod--it breaks easily, and it has a nasty way of wagging around right at eye level.
*Thread the line. Take a look at the spinning reel (see drawing). The metal bar is called a "bale." It keeps the line from unraveling freely, and guides it back onto the spool when you reel. Pull a couple feet of line off the spool and bring it under the bale.
On the body of the reel is a little lever that has two positions. With the lever in the locked position, the reel will turn in only the direction that reels in line. When it's in the unlocked position, you can turn the handle either way. Unlock the lever to let out some line.
Thread the line through the guide loops along the rod. The reel will be turning slowly as it lets out line. When you get past the last guide loop, pull off another few feet of line, then click the lever to stop the reel from letting out any more.
If you have some time and enough open space, it's a great idea to practice casting. Just attach a few sinkers to the end of the line and skip ahead to the section on casting. Try aiming your casts at different targets and a variety of distances. Just the act of casting can be a lot of fun, and the skill you gain will be a big help once you get on the water. But if time is in short supply, continue rigging your line.
*Tie on a hook. Thread the line through the eyelet of a hook and twist the hook around several times. Bring the loose end of the line through the loop beside the hook, and tighten the knot by pulling the line from both sides (see drawing). This is called a "clinch knot." Trim the loose end to about a quarter inch, using your teeth or a nail clipper. Obviously, the hooks are sharp, so this is a task for grown-ups or older kids.
*Attach sinkers. About a foot above the hook, use some needle-nosed pliers to pinch on a couple of sinkers. These will get the bait down to where the fish are.
*Attach a bobber. If the fish are on the bottom, you may end up using sinkers alone. However, there are a lot of weeds and snags down there to get hung up on, and bobbers help you avoid them. Also, a bobber gives your kid something tangible to watch and allows her to see every little nibble with her own eyes. That alone makes it worth using.
Excerpted from Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite by Jeffrey Lee. Copyright © 2004 by Jeffrey Lee. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.