I remember fishing when I was a kid, it was always something that seemed like it ought to be fun but it seldom turned out that way. In spite of that, I kept trying, and one of the reasons I spent so much time hiking the back woods was because I could see on my map that the first backwaters of the nearest lake were only 20 miles away. If I could have built my speed and my endurance to the point where I could have traveled that rough 20 miles, done some fishing, and still have been home for supper, I’d have been fine with it. But the most I ever managed to travel in one day before I was 12 was 10 miles out and 10 miles back, and when I did drag myself through the door half the family was out searching the woods for me, thinking I was dead. Fishing always required the company of an adult, because none of the farm ponds available had any fish. I checked. Fishing where you know there aren’t any fish is just sad. Sometimes a big bug will pull on the bait and give you false hope.
***The Fish Eyes Rod & Reel: Here’s a wonderful thing to take along when you’re still sorting out the children. Everyone, including you, will enjoy playing with this underwater camera disguised as a fishing combo. The Fish Eyes looks like fishing gear, and a few stubborn people have actually caught fish with it, but it’s primarily entertainment. The line is actually a slender video cable, and a device that looks like a fishing weight is actually a camera. The reel holds a video screen that lets you see what the camera sees, although in some lakes that’s nothing more than murky water. There’s only 25 feet of line and if you snag the symbolic hook on submerged brush and break the gear, it’s all she wrote for the Fish Eyes Rod and Reel. But it’s still fun and your non-fishing children will have a great time with it, looking at plants, mud and possibly fish with equal joy, until the new wears off. Your actual fishing children, the ones with that immortal streak of fisherman genetics built into their DNA, will quickly want some real fishing gear.***
Bringing adults along on fishing trips was usually a big mistake, because all the adults in my family wanted to catch fish themselves and didn’t have much time for children. I was perfectly willing to tackle the problem with my own limited skills, but if I ever did get lucky at it and start catching fish, the larger people would find some logical reason to take my spot and put me in some favorable but unproductive location. Possibly this is why ever since the legal age of solitary fishing I have preferred to go where other people don’t go. Of course, those places are hard to find today, and on occasion I’ve been in some remote fishing spot taking a private moment to answer Nature’s call and pee in the brush, only to find six embarrassed people in a bass boat ten feet offshore staring at me when I turned around. You just can’t count on solitude today. (Fishermen please note, always zip up before you turn around).
About twenty years ago when my nephew was growing up and reaching that stage of life where suddenly fish became interesting — some odd offshoot of hormone production, I suppose — I had the opportunity to introduce him to fishing. His father didn’t fish and didn’t care to, probably the reason his father was financially stable, and my sister asked me if I would take the boy for a day and give him this important stage-of-life instruction. I immediately remembered all the long days I’d spent as a child, staring at an unproductive bobber because my father thought there were fish in the area. I remembered the freezing cold summer nights when we sat in a wet boat on a wet lake in wet cold air wearing freezing wet clothes, looking for mystical fish that also never happened. I looked at my nephew and wondered what sort of fisherman he might be, whether he’d put up with unlimited horrors in hopes of someday catching something, or be actually interested in doing something fun. A full day of fishing seemed like a gamble.
My decision, wisely made, was to take everyone for an afternoon at a nearby trout farm where for a very reasonable price you could put a hook in the water and catch a decent fish. Afterwards we brought home the fish and had fish for supper. It was the sort of fishing trip you see in movies. We all had a wonderful time, even though in terms of fishing it’s about as sporting as tossing a chicken up in the air and shooting it with a shotgun. My nephew didn’t know any better and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. His interests quickly shifted to other, vastly more profitable things and I doubt if he fishes for anything that doesn’t come in a can, today. Either you’re a fisherman or you’re not and there’s no way to force the issue in either direction.
When you take young people fishing, you need to do so without stressing the all-importance of catching fish. Your first few fishing trips with children should focus on entertaining things, because those things quickly run dry. About four trips to the lake with fishing gear should adequately sort the fishermen from the real children. Actually catching a fish is fun for most people, and ecstatic for kids, but for a huge part of the human species that’s as far as it goes. Fishing that involves bad weather, hours and hours of boredom, catching no fish, or having to clean the fish you do catch, attracts no one but fishermen. You’ll be able to tell the fishermen from the other people in surprisingly few outings. After that, find alternative entertainments for the non-fishing people and go fishing with the people of like mind. Everyone will be happier for it.
***When you do discover the fisherman in a small person, it’s best to set aside the toys and other childish things and just get down to business. Small fisher-people need simpler and lighter gear, but want gear that works well, so walk past the toys and go for real fishing gear. A six-foot spin-cast pole of medium strength usually won’t overtax the tiny fisher-person, and even if it does so, they probably won’t admit it. Reels needn’t be expensive, but if you start someone out with a cheap baitcast reel that requires more expertise to use successfully than a baitcast reel costing hundreds of dollars, you’re doing no one any kindnesses. The Zebco 33, one of the most reliable and troublefree fishing reels, works just fine, and fishermen progress away from it only because we’re embarrassed not to. I prefer spinning reels now, but I’ve tried many other types, and I wouldn’t start someone out with anything but a Zebco 33.***
In many ways I never got along well with my father, but the few times we did harmonize all concerned fishing. One that I remember particularly clearly was a terribly miserable day in April when by all standards of decency the weather should have been idyllic. Instead, low gray overcast set in, shedding a constant cold drizzle almost metallic in appearance, and I’m sure we’d have spent the day indoors drinking either hot cocoa or beer, depending on our age, had the white bass not been running. Since the white bass follow their own peculiar schedule and wait for no one, we joined the neighbors and went fishing. It was a truly miserable fishing trip. The warmest, driest place we found was in the creek, immersing ourselves to neck level in the slightly warmer water. The creek wasn’t too cold once you’d been in it for a couple of hours. Twelve or fourteen hours later when we gave up and came home without fish, both of us equally suffering from hypothermia, I could tell my father was proud of me, even though he never said so. “All day long, he never complained,” I heard him tell my mother. I hadn’t thought of complaining. We were fishing. Any moment, when you’re fishing, you might catch a fish. That’s why you’re there.
If you can enjoy a day like that, you’re a fisherman, even if you’re still a bit small.