Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bringing A Kid To The Game

     In the year I was born, automobiles had been available to the general public for about forty years, and in many regions of the rural U.S. the roads were so bad that it was still easier to travel by horse. Television was just coming in, and you had to live near a big city with broadcasting towers to get any reception; and for those who did get reception, programs about pioneer outdoorsmen on horseback were among the most popular. Subsistence hunting and fishing were still fairly common in rural areas. The newly spreading urban landscape was populated with grandparents who’d arrived by wagon or clipper ship; and their children, the young parents of the baby-boom, were still more connected to an agrarian past than they were the Post-WWII oil-fueled boom culture accelerating through the Jet Age ‘50’s and into the Space Age ‘60’s.  Kids played outside. When we misbehaved, we were kept inside as a form of punishment. We roamed the parks and neighborhoods, the nearby woods, ponds and streams. Outdoors was considered the province of independence, and a very desirable place to be.  

Most boys where I grew up fished, (sadly, funny ideas about gender roles prevailed in those days, and girls, though not entirely left out, weren’t generally encouraged) even if only on Opening Day of fishing season. Everybody fished Opening Day, which was right up there with Christmas in popularity. But those were different times.

The population of the U.S. has almost tripled since the year I was born. Urban sprawl has taken much of the woodland we used to play in. Per capita, fewer of us fish, and those who do, increasingly, come to it at an age somewhat beyond grade school years. And that’s probably a good thing, because if fishing was as popular now as it was through the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, with our present population, our resources probably wouldn’t hold up to the pressure – frankly, I am not a zealous recruiter of new anglers. On the other hand, I love nothing better than to observe a kid learning and putting that knowledge together to achieve a pleasing result. As the father of four sons, and grandfather of a mixed bag of five grandkids, I am constantly involved in the process, and I’ve outlined a loose working method, of sorts.  

A prospective mentor might ask: What is the best age to start a kid fishing?

And I’ve found no firm answer to that question. It is a thing that needs to be intuited as you go along. Each case is different. Indeed, I think it best to not ‘start’ at all, but rather, phase into it – ‘acculturate’ the young prospect to it through immersion. Set the scene before engaging in any activity afield. I call this stage ‘The Pump, and it may be the most important stage, particularly if your prospect is very young. Of course, this process is far easier accomplished in rural families where there might be one or more adult anglers in a child’s life, and fishing junk decorating the living room walls – though more difficult in urban families where there is little angling extraneii or even conversation about angling. But that can be remedied, and the fix will do the instructor some good as well. Exercise your storytelling talents. Kids, no matter how jaded by media, still need and love stories and mythology. A good thing. As all that is worthwhile in tradition is passed down through stories and myth. And remember: its okay to stretch the truth with kids provided it serves our purpose. Supply your prospect with natural history books aimed at their age level, and make sure those books have a lot of cool illustrations of fish. And, along with the books, supply outrageous fish stories.  

So, we see, the act of angling need not be the initial activity. I almost ruined my first son starting him too early and keeping him out too long. I think it better to foster a curiosity for the outdoors and nature before tackling the mechanics of angling. It is an easy thing to play outdoors with your three year old. Pack a lunch or some snacks and go to the beach or lake or stream on a nature expedition. Kids are naturally militaristic and love an official mission, so prepare for the outing with a sense of gravity. Let your young compatriot know that we are going on a special mission – and appoint each trooper involved a particular job integral to the mission. And of course you’ll need some weapons. A good sized aquarium net or pool skimmer is the weapon of choice for these early missions. Kids are born naturalists and I’ve not met the child yet who doesn’t enjoy catching nymphs, crayfish, frogs and minnows with the net. Explain that fish eat the little critters, & they make good bait. Keep the trips afield short and fun, only stay as long as your protégé is energetic and interested – never pressure a kid to stay afield. While you make these trips, talk about angling. Let the child know that to be among the fraternity of anglers is a special thing. Plant seeds. But hold off, at least a few trips, before putting a rod into the kid’s hands. Let them anticipate that.

I was given my first fishing rod, one of my grandfather’s old bamboo flyrods, at the age of four, which I think might be a little too young for most kids these days. I had the advantage of living on a lake heavily populated with bluegill that were easy pickings from the family dock. I’d started hand-lining at three. I was a lake kid with a lot of fishing mentors living around me. So environmental factors do come into play. And keep in mind that some kids possess more natural adeptness than others. Generally, from my own experience teaching kids, somewhere between the ages of six and eight seems about the best time to start them, again, depending on the kid.

There is very little I remember from my fourth year, yet receiving my first rod was a right-of-passage I remember vividly. I see a lot of young kids receiving cheap “Snoopy” poles with push-button reels as their first rod – and you’ll often see the thing in the spidery corner of a garage or even tossed into a toybox with a bunch of other plastic ‘toys’ – and this gives me pause to look back and appreciate the wisdom of my grandfather, a halo of cigar smoke around his head, who presented me one of his old bamboo flyrods (which smelled like brook trout and was imbued with the mojo of a hundred streams and ponds) with much gravity, impressing upon me that it was not a toy. He showed me how to set it up, applying nose grease to the ferrules. He tied a short mono leader with a bait hook to the old silk line, clipped on a bobber, and we headed to the dock. On the way down he instructed me in the proper way to carry the rod, cautioning me to mind the delicate tip. At the water, he showed me how to cast, peeling some line from the reel then swinging it out there, the weight of the bobber and doughball-baited hook easily pulling the line through the guides for a cast that was more than sufficient. When I wasn’t fishing with it, that rod hung in the rack with my dad’s rods, and my folks made sure there was no lapse in the rod’s care. I fished with that old bamboo until I was nine, when it met its sad end broken twice over the knee of an irate Millbury cop who’d already busted me twice down at the pond, ditching school (and then he ran my bike over for good measure, throwing a massive but temporary wrench into my action).

To my mind, there is nothing better than an old (or new) flyrod as a kid’s first rod. The flyrod is actually more foolproof and much easier to use than the troublesome push-button rod decorated with cartoon characters. The flyrod will teach a kid the basics of rod handling, tosses and simple casts. My grandfather and I trolled with streamer flies a lot, a game that is easy and fun for kids, and an effective method on early season trout lakes, usually providing a lot of action, so a great way to start a kid out. But, in those early years, other than trolling flies, I used my flyrod to fish bait, mostly, and it was through presenting live baits that I learned the nuances of presentation. Rigged with a splitshot and a hook baited with a garden worm, grasshopper or caddis larva, a flyrod is the ultimate stream fishing tool. If your student is squeamish about pinning live critters on the hook, salmon eggs or cheese bait might be a viable alternative, though usually not as effective on wild trout. That said, if you know of a stream or pond where a kid can catch them on flies relatively easy, then fish the fly. But I suggest not playing the purist with kids. Again, keep it fun. Mix it up using both flies and bait, as you ascertain the situation justifies. And this will teach your protégé the valuable lesson that a fly is really no different than a bait. Take it slow, keep it fun, and you will find yourself at the game in the company of an enthusiastic fishing buddy. ~

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