In our family, no getaway is complete without the boat. And no boating is fun without some serious fishing. So, last summer, we invited my brother, his kids, our friends and their two boys to the Gulf Coast north of Clearwater, Florida. We promised shark fishing and thought we'd have an offshore fishing fest of epic magnitude.
Wrong. What we got was one hurler blowing chunks like Cheerios, one who wanted the soft drink we'd left onshore, two who were bored and three who were fairly entertained by watching the adults try to wipe up breakfast while keeping the other kids' hooks untangled.
Clearly I had gone wrong somewhere in the plan. We motored back three miles into the pass, dropped anchor in calmer waters, forced soda crackers down the chummers to settle their stomachs and started the real chumming for fish — any fish. Not trophy sharks or kingfish, but crummy little grunts and croakers. Bluegills of the ocean were trophies that day, and it made me remember something I knew from fishing with my kids in the beginning when we were trying to get them absorbed in angling. Lower your expectations to increase the fun.
Fun. That's what I needed to get better at, and once that desire came to light, I realized there were five experienced saltwater-angling editors within an easy toss of an AP Style Manual. Most of them have kids or were bitten by the fishing bug when they were kids. That's where I went to bone up on my strategies for keeping kids fishing, and what they told me was so simple, I felt foolish for not tying them into the trip.
Dave Ferrell is a nationally respected angler whose skill in the fighting cockpit makes him a favorite among his readers and his viewers on the Sunshine cable station in Florida. He was bitten by the bug as a kid and has had the fun of taking many kids, including his own, for their first excursion.
"It's hard to get kids who've been bored to death to say, 'Sure! I'd love to go fishing.' But, if you ask them if they want to go shark fishing or barracuda fishing, kids love it. They wanna go after something with sharp, nasty teeth and a cool name."
"Use bait. You'll always get something biting when you use bait. Soak shrimp on the bottom. You can use dead shrimp, live shrimp, it doesn't matter; all fish eat shrimp."
"Stick a 2/0 circle hook through the shrimp's tail, dead or alive, and weight it down with enough lead to get it to the bottom. In shallow water with a low current, that can be ¼-ounce split shot. In deeper water, or water with a current, it can take an ounce or more of lead."
"Don't expect a kid to use the same size tackle you use. It's tough enough for them to manage a fish on the line, but if they have to do it with oversize offshore tackle, forget it. A bass-size rod of medium action and 10- to 20-pound line is plenty big enough for them and the fish."
Editor, Salt Water Sportsman
Ted Lund is a charter captain and learned from the toughest kind of charter captain — his dad, a Key West operator who did it for decades. As a kid, naturally Lund wanted to go along, but in the charter business, catching fish is business, so tougher rules applied.
"I was invited every time my dad went out. But, I had to make a promise: no whining." When the boat leaves the dock, the anglers are in it until it's over. Setting down the ground rules in advance and getting the kids' agreement on it in the future did one important thing according to Lund. "It taught me the patience I needed to learn to fish — and to accomplish other things in my life."
His dad had another requirement. To "buy his way" on his dad's boat, Lund had to learn one new fishing knot every time they went out. "By the time I came back in, I knew it perfectly and could tie it myself. It refocused the event on learning something, not just on catching fish."
"Dad told me to write down the name and date of every fish I caught, big or small. Adding to the list is always fun for kids, giving them a sense of accomplishment, even when nothing large or exciting is caught. I still keep my list and enjoy adding another species to it whenever I can."
"Don't underestimate a kid's ability to catch a 250-pound billfish. Teach them to do it, then let them fight the fish themselves. They'll learn more from the ones that get away than the ones they catch."
Editor, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters
Mike came up through the ranks of anglers like most kids, starting out small and working his way up to ever more complicated forms of angling. He thinks most anglers start kids out on fishing endeavors too hard to handle.
"Kids love catching bait better than fishing with it. Give them a Sabiki rig and let them learn how to handle it, and themselves, while fishing."
Sabiki rigs are available at any coastal tackle store. They have five to eight small hooks with a feather or strip of colored plastic attached to each hook. Tie one end of the rig to the rod's fishing line and hang a sinker from the other end, and have them bob it up and down near pilings or buoys. After an hour of hoots and laughter, and often catching as many baitfish on the rig as there are hooks, the livewell is usually stocked well enough to go for big game — if you can peel the kids away from the bait hole.
"Don't get focused on trophies. They'll come soon enough. The challenge is keeping them focused on the day with little successes. To do that, go for easy fish to catch. All summer long bonito run up and down the beach, and you can usually lure them right up to the boat by chumming — throwing your dead bait around the boat — then slip a hook in the middle of the chum."
Editor in Chief, Sport Fishing
"Both my dad and grandfather were fishermen. It was in my upbringing. When I was 2 or 3, I was running around the Mississippi River while my grandfather set out lines. When I was in high school, we'd head out on Friday after school and camp out on the river. We couldn't wait to go fish."
"The key is action. You just have to change your perspective. Those trash fish you want nothing to do with can become great fun. Teenagers may recognize a half-pound hard head catfish as no big deal, but to smaller kids, it's a big deal. Kids are absolutely happy to catch anything they can catch. If you are willing to settle for anything, there are always fish to be caught. Holding out for a trophy fish and getting little or no action is the kiss of death. Getting them to go once isn't that hard, but if you don't make it a good experience, getting them back is hard."
The easiest way to keep them fishing is with bait, not lures. But sometimes Olander uses lures with kids. "Choose a lure that requires no effort on the kids' part to impart any action besides reeling them in. Spinner baits work and so do spoons. But," Olander acknowledges, "bait is best."
"There's no magic lure," says Olander, "but I like the idea of pinching down the barbs. If you do get snagged on a hook, you can get it out without a trip to the emergency room. It's a lot less trauma."
"Keeping kids out too long is the biggie. Adults are happy enough to spend a long day on the water to get away from the office. For kids, four hours is plenty. End with them wanting more, not thinking, 'When are we ever going to leave?'"
When All Else Fails
Sometimes nothing you do goes right. The weather, the bugs, the action peters out or never starts. Sunburn, fatigue, seasickness or just not having the snack on board the kiddos want. And you still want to catch one darned fish. What do you do? There were some surprising answers to this one.
1. Bribe 'Em
"I'll take a big old tube, tie it to the boat and tell them, 'Fish for 30 minutes, and I'll pull you on that tube for 30 minutes,'" says Ferrell. "You do what you have to, to wet a line."
2. Scientific Expedition
Our family had fished for hours without a bite on one trip. We'd pulled my youngest daughter through seasickness, but after the sandwiches, snickers and soda were gone and only water bottles were left to distract, my daughter picked up a fine mesh landing net and started snagging balls of weeds. She flipped the net over in a bucket and dumped out dozens of minute shrimp, sea horses and leafy looking Saragossa fish. She mentally catalogued them all and dipped them safely back into the sea one by one.
3. Let 'Em Have Their Way
Boating Life editor Robert Stephens is the father of three girls, all of whom are well on their way to becoming true anglers. While most anglers tell novices to keep their hands out of the bait bucket, Stephens is more practical. "I let 'em play with the worms or shrimp." Hard to picture, but his girls keep dragging out the tackle. You never know what will trip a kid's trigger on an outing. Sometimes you're better off nudging the boat up on a sandbar and letting the kids chase starfish. If there's tackle onboard, it's still fishing — and that's what your kids will tell their kids about when they give them a rod and reel for Christmas.