How do you communicate your passion for fishing and encourage children into the sport? There are a few things to consider, says Tobias Coe
I became a father a couple of years ago, which, as most parents will attest, is a journey of exhaustion, elation, frustration and (most recently) half-finished apples strewn around the house. One of the aspects of parenthood I have always looked forward to is the opportunity to introduce my child(ren) to my passion for fishing.
I have already started introducing my son, Ted, to rivers, ponds and their inhabitants. The first steps were a handful of short fishing excursions with him in a rucksack on my back during a paternity-leave trip to New Zealand. He gurgled away behind me while I wandered happily up the river, spotting trout and even managing to catch a couple. He’s now two and a half and we’ve moved on to netting minnows and juvenile roach in a little stream not far from home, as well as some (very) brief float-fishing sessions for suicidal perch.
To try and maximise the chance that Ted will follow in my fishing footsteps, I’ve started to ask friends and friends of friends who have children who fish how they have managed to get their children excited about fishing. Several of their comments rang true for me, even with my limited experience in this area. So, how does one go about instilling in children a passion that will find them, decades later, crawling through the grass beside a river so they can make the right cast to a trout lazily slurping down mayfly duns in a back-eddy behind a willow tree?
An opinion I have heard several times is that children will only get enthused about fishing if they actually catch fish. Charles Jardine, founder of the highly successful angling outreach programme Fishing for Schools, described this need for catching fish succinctly for the modern generation of children: “Everything in a child’s life is driven by immediacy. Phones, television, social media, email and instant messaging mean that this is true now more than ever. Fishing must, at least at first, offer this same immediacy. Patience and a desire to expand their fishing, perhaps to catch bigger or different fish, follows.”
Jardine has seen this with hundreds of children and has adjusted his approach, from an initial plan to introduce them via fly-fishing, his own passion. “I quickly realised that fly-fishing is not the best way to get children into fishing. It’s too complex and requires too much patience. Keep things simple and understand that children require the certainty of catching.”
In the case of Fishing for Schools, this realisation has fed through to the current tactics used to introduce young people to fishing. Introductory days are run at commercial fisheries, where stocking densities are high and there’s the certainty of catching at least a few silvers using float-and-maggot tactics.
My own plans to introduce my son to fishing have shifted to reflect this kind of advice. He is enthralled by our trips out to net minnows and roach and, with the weather warming up, I plan on heading to a nearby lake with a pint of maggots and a simple float set-up. It might not entertain him for long but there is a good chance we will catch at least a handful of perch and silver fish. Once summer arrives, mackerel should become plentiful around the coast and a hour or two spent catching them off the beach or from my dinghy, followed by mackerel cooked over a fire on the beach, will tick a lot of toddler boxes.
Every child is different
As will be obvious to any parent, the personality and innate preferences of a specific child will have a huge bearing on whether they do or do not take to fishing. Charles Brownlow, a sporting agent based in the Borders, has two young sons who are keen anglers. However, they enjoy fishing in different ways. “My eldest son, Harry, loves to fish. He caught his first salmon last season and will go fishing any time, often if it’s only just the two of us. My younger son, Alfie, loves fishing if it is part of a broader day of a picnic or barbecue and an opportunity to hang out with friends,” he explains.
A good friend of mine, Mat McHugh, has two sons who are the polar opposite. The youngest is fishing obsessed and is forever nagging his dad to take him fishing. For him, fishing is about catching a fish, bonking it on the head and then eating it. I can attest to this desire as I’ve never seen a bass go from sea to coolbox quite as fast as when they were out fishing with me last summer. The eldest will go fishing but prefers if it is part of a larger social event.
In these anecdotes lies an important message, emphasised by Jardine: find out what it is that the child you are taking fishing wants to get from the day. It might be to catch as many fish as possible or a certain type of fish. It might be just to watch the clouds go by. Ask them what they would like to do and, perhaps most importantly, ensure that it is them that is fishing – don’t just give them a rod and a few instructions and then go fishing yourself.
When and how
The general advice seems to be that you can start introducing children to the concept of fishing from a very young age. However, they are unlikely to develop the patience and coordination to fish with a rod until they are about four or five. If introducing them to fly-fishing, you might have to wait until they are at least eight (Jardine thinks 10 might be more suitable).
There are, as ever, exceptions to the rule and Brownlow introduced both of his sons to fishing through fly-fishing when they were a fair bit younger than this. Fishing with a small brook rod, he credits family holidays with their initial introduction into the sport. Staying near to a river or stream while on summer holidays in Scotland meant that they were able to nip out for a quick fish, mess around in the river and play around with a fly-fishing set-up.
Once a child is old enough to start fly-fishing, the general points raised above are still important and hours and hours of supervised casting practice on grass is unlikely to get a child enthused about the sport. One trick that is a variation on this theme was passed on to me by New Zealand photographer Stu Hastie, who has two teenage boys, both great fly anglers. One of his tricks when the boys were learning to fly-fish was always to leave a rod strung up by the garden door, with a bit of yarn tied to the end of the leader. Curiosity and sibling rivalry did the rest.
Although the basics of fly-fishing seem simple to those who have been doing it for years, for anyone starting out, particularly a child, it can feel complex. Getting the basics of the cast sorted is a hard thing to teach unless you understand thoroughly the mechanics of fly-casting. As for an adult starting fly-fishing, if you are serious about getting a child started in fly-fishing, it is worth seeking out the help of an instructor, if only for a lesson or two.
Once a child has some idea of how to move a fly rod and translate that movement into a vaguely controlled movement of the fly-line, Jardine’s comment on immediacy still holds true. Get them onto a water where they stand a good chance of catching a fish. This could be a small, stocked stillwater filled with rainbow trout, or a tumbling highland stream with a healthy population of unfussy wild browns.
The right kit is key
Getting a child introduced to fishing successfully requires them to have the right kit. If you are thinking about the coarse fishing route, then the Fishing for Schools approach is to use a simple whip set-up. Some anglers might not thank me for the comparison but its concept is, in essence, that of a simple stick and piece of string. This is all that is needed for days of fishing for small coarse fish species, such as roach, rudd, perch and small carp in a lake.
If you are introducing a child to fly-fishing, a 7½ft- to 8ft-long, 3wt or 4wt trout rod rigged with a floating line would be a good starting point. ‘Over-lining’, by using a line one size heavier than that stated on the rod, can help feel when the rod is loading more easily during the cast. If using a double-handed rod, a shorter 11ft or 12ft switch rod should be manageable for children once they reach the age of about eight. Brownlow’s sons fish with a 12ft double-hander for salmon and it was on this rod that his eldest landed his first salmon last year, at the age of 10.
The importance of the right equipment extends to that often yawnsome subject of health and safety. Water can be and is dangerous for children. The number one rule (fairly obviously) is to ensure that any children you take fishing remain in eyeshot. If fishing a river, think about how you or they might get out if you fall in. Make sure they wear sunglasses, particularly if you are taking them fly-fishing, and pinch down the barbs on any barbed hooks. If heading out on a boat, ensure they (and you) wear a lifejacket. Always.
The final take-home message is one that I have had emphasised to me as an essential by virtually everyone I have discussed the topic with over the years: know when to pull the plug. Children have short and often fickle attention spans. It might be mental torture to have to walk away from rising trout or pack the tackle away just as a swim you have been carefully feeding for a couple of hours starts to fizz with tench bubbles, but if you are serious about helping that spark of interest flourish then you must focus on the child in question. They are the future of this sport, so leave your rod at home and allow them to fish. At the end of the day, if you do a good job you might end up with a new fishing buddy some way down the line.