Gone Fishin: tips on taking children fishing


Snagged hooks, tangled nests of fishing line, no fish and lots of moaning and groaning — fishing with kids doesn't have to be this way.

Instead, each experience should be a jaunty, wet-footed adventure with ooey-gooey bugs and pretty fish in hand. That's the outlook of John Fraley, coordinator of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs program, and John Cloninger, the program's "fishing fanatic" who guides hundreds of schoolchildren to local lakes and ponds every year. Cloninger, who has seen nearly every kind of fishing disaster that a kid can produce, has basic advice for parents who are introducing their children to the angling arts. "In one word: patience," said Cloninger. "Don't get uptight. You have to have patience." Fraley agrees. "A lot of times, kids would rather catch turtles and bugs than fish," he said. "You just have to have patience and let them do that. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a big part of the fishing experience."


Children love to fish. Photo by David Reese, Montana Living

Cloninger and Fraley agree on another important tip: "Keep it simple." Cloninger has found that for beginners, the proper tackle is a short rod and a closed-face reel rigged with a bobber and split shot. At the end of it should be a hook fixed with a piece of worm, maggots or power bait. "If it's the first time fishing with the kids, take them out and get a practice bobber or a washer tied at the end, so they can practice casting," Cloninger suggests.

A hula hoop or a rope laid in a circle makes a good casting target in the yard. "That's one of the first things we do," Cloninger said. "We introduce them to the rod and reel." Next, beginners should be taught how to bait their hooks and how to carry a rod. "They often let their line dangle," he said. "They need to hang onto their line. If they don't, they'll have a real mess." Once the bait is in the water, youngsters must keep their lines tight, so they can effectively set a hook. Cloninger and Fraley recommend ponds or lakes for young anglers, especially those with wide-open shorelines with lots of room for casting. Swift-moving rivers and streams can be dangerous and hard to "read" where fish may be. Spinners and other artificial lures tend to be more difficult for beginners, Cloninger said, but he recommends that parents have more than one weapon in the tackle box.

"Don't get stuck on one way of fishing or one type of bait," he said. "Try everything, and eventually something will work." But if fishing is slow, Fraley says, children's attention will naturally wander. "Make sure they wear something that they can get wet, because they're going to get wet," he said. "Let them do it. Let them get wet and dirty. That's all part of it." Fraley recalls being fascinated as a child with all the wildlife around a typical pond. Turtles, frogs, birds and countless insects make interesting diversions.

He suggests that parents bring a colander or a net for a fish tank to strain shoreline vegetation. "You would be amazed at what you can catch with a net, because there's all kinds kinds of aquatic life that you can't catch without them," he said. This is good groundwork for a future fly caster, to identify nymphs that will eventually emerge as May flies, caddis flies, dragon flies or damsel flies. If kids catch and keep fish, Fraley said, they can extract the contents of the fish's stomach to see what it has been eating. "They can compare that with what they found in their net," he said.

Each year, more than 1,500 students from northwest Montana schools participated in the regional Hooked on Fishing program. Cloninger advises the youngsters to clean up messes they may leave, and never to take more fish than they need. "If you can teach them to fish, they'll have a lifetime skill," Cloninger said. "It will never go away. All they can do is add more to it."


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