To say that fishing defines me would be an understatement. As a preschooler I was pulled out of swimming lessons because I refused to do anything but try to swim underwater. When asked why I wouldn’t try to do the back float or swim on the surface, I promptly said, “There are no fish on the surface.” At the age of five, I nearly drowned while swimming at a local lake trying to catch perch with a small net. When dad asked what happened I said “Well the fish breath underwater, so I tried it.” Having grown up a little since then and now in the process of raising my own four kids in the outdoors, there are principles that I learned from my dad that make raising an angler a lot of fun and even more rewarding. What shocks most people is that my dad rarely fished and when he did, he was almost never successful. This article and the “Raising an Angler” series is meant to give parents, grandparents and mentors the tools to raise kids to love and respect the outdoors through positive fishing adventures. You don’t need to be a great angler or even know how to fish at all to accomplish this, my dad is proof. What you do need is the desire and patience to teach and learn with the kids in your life. So over the next year let’s learn together what it takes to “Raise an Angler”.

When I am out on the water and in the sporting good stores there are a few things I keep seeing over and over again. First, are young, inquisitive kids that want to look and do absolutely everything. Second, is adults that are so focused on catching fish that they forgot how to have fun. Then, there is the group who wants to catch fish, have fun and have a story to tell at the end of the day, but don’t have a clue what they are doing. Finally, there is the poor soul that got drug to the lake and spends the entire time wishing they were anywhere but there. Now if you mix any of these groups together, things tend to go bad. This is important to understand because most family fishing outings mix these groups together. If you don’t recognize this up front, the trip won’t be fun, it will leave wounds. I have friends that hate to fish to this day because of the ramifications of not understanding how these groups mix. Understanding these groups will help you make decisions that will leave kids and adults longing for more time in the outdoors.

What makes a kid tick? Well for starters, kids are full of energy and have a rabid passion to learn. Mix in a little desire to please others, some curiosity and a hint of selfishness and “wallah” you have a kid. That is until adults squeeze these qualities from them. Whether you like to believe it or not, every action an adult takes molds the kid that is watching. For good and/or for bad. Each kid is unique and will react differently. It is our job as adults to listen to and watch each kid to see how they tick and act accordingly.

First thing to look at is each kids’ ability level and not their age. This is really important when you are planning a trip, setting expectations and picking out equipment. All four of our kids learned to cast in about the same span of time, but at different ages. Size, muscle structure and hand/eye coordination are elements that need to be looked at, before age, when making decisions about each hunting and fishing adventure.

Next, you need to watch and understand a kid’s attention span. This is not a trick, it’s critical. Many years back a buddy asked me to help take his son on his first fishing trip. So we picked a nice summer day in June on a relatively quiet lake in southern Minnesota. Everyone was so excited to get out on the water to do some fishing. We launched the boat, we found the perfect bluegill spot and got some lines in the water. No joke, the ripples were still being created when the bobber was ripped from the surface with a splash. The battle was on and young Josh had his first fish. This went on for about five fish when without any warning Josh put the hook on the eye of the rod, placed the rod in the rod locker and announced “I am done, let’s go home.” Dad had the predictable reaction, “but we got you a rod and a tackle box with all the stuff you wanted and we drove all the way to the lake and asked Geremy to come with and and and you’re done?” This story is not unique, it happens all the time because the attention span of kids is different than adults. This is why when a kid says, “I’m done” you need to take a break or quit for the day. The future of the sport relies on it. Kids that were forced stay out all day fishing and hunting make up a grown group of people that stay at home and watch TV because fishing is boring. 

A learned skill for anyone working with kids is how to stretch them while still having fun. My son Peter and I fished a charity tournament one cold, rainy, miserable April day. The other adult in the boat and I figured if we could get 5 fish in the boat we would call it good. We knew Peter wouldn’t last long in the conditions so we gave him the job to determine what five fish were big enough to call it quits for the day. Well we started catching fish and at eleven o’clock we had enough fish to go weigh-in, get dried off and get a warm meal. We stretched Peter and I think he stretched us too, it was cold and miserable. A couple years later my sons Dan, Peter and myself were fishing a charity tournament on an equally miserable day in July. About 9am with not even a bite, Peter asked if we should call it a day and Dan and I were thinking the same thing. We decided to try one more spot and give it 30 minutes. Well much to our surprise, we started catching fish, lots of fish. We took turns reeling in fish, baiting hooks, netting fish, and bailing water that was filling the boat. We couldn’t feel our fingers and the rain gear was soaked, just like us. With a lot of hooting and hollering and over a hundred walleye later we almost missed the three o’clock weigh in. We all stretched ourselves together and had a lot of fun while doing it. Stop while its fun and you can stretch kids and yourself further than you could ever dream.

Now you did hear me right. My boys and I were making noise and fishing. Raising kids in the outdoors is more about relationships than hunting and fishing success. If you do it right, you give kids a reason to use the  outdoor skills they are learning in public.  My wife and I never once said, “use your inside voice” and then were disappointed when they didn’t. We did say “this is a place to practice your hunting voice” and watched them compete to see who could whisper the quietest. One day I was on the Missouri River with the boys and we couldn’t keep the fish out of the boat. Another boat came zooming up the river and stopped next to us. I asked the gentlemen in the boat how I could help him and he replied ”I heard all the hooting and hollering a mile down river and I came to see what was going on.”  Peter replied “We are catching fish!!!” Don’t let unnecessary rules get in the way of fun and use outdoor principles to help kids learn why rules matter.

Don’t try to be fair. Nothing in nature is fair and you will waste a lot of time trying to make it fair. Each kid is different, each day ends up different than you planned, and mother nature does what she wants. When you try to be fair you breed resentment because it pretty much never works. I have found that it is much more important to teach this principle, “put others before yourself.” It is a joy to watch kids offer the next fish to an adult who hasn’t caught a fish before taking one themselves. 

Finally it’s about having fun and learning together. It took me a few years to learn that I should stop telling Dan and Peter how to fish and instead have fun learning with them. What I learned is that the fish act differently than I thought. I can’t tell you all the dumb ideas Peter had that we use all the time now because the fish agreed with the kid and not the adult. 

Spend some time getting to know the kids in your life, meet them where they are at and have some fun learning to fish together.

Original Published in Midwest Outdoors January 2018

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