How to take your kids on their first fishing trip

I never enjoyed fishing as a kid. It was boring, early, long, and we didn’t catch much. Now that I’m a parent, however—and a regular fisherman—I’ve been teaching my kids to fish. Though I never would have imagined it as a child, I’ve come to treasure those hours out on the lake, and know they will as well.

If you’re not an avid angler yourself, but want to get the family involved in the sport, you’ll need to make sure it’s fun for them. That means catching fish—lots of fish. Kids just starting out would much rather catch 40 little sunfish than the biggest bass in the lake like you or I would. Fishing with children is all about quantity over quality, and there are several ways to increase your chances of having a big day.

Do your research in advance

The odds of just showing up to a lake, casting out from shore, and catching fish are not very good. Before taking your kids out for their first trip, spend some time together learning about fishing in your area. “Studying fishing is a huge learning opportunity,” says Brian Kearning, former fishing boat mate, fishing guide, and founder of BoatEasy, a website that serves recreational boaters. Even if your kids ultimately gravitate away from the sport, fishing-related research touches so many areas of science. Learning about the feeding habits and behaviors of specific fish teaches lessons in biology and the food chain. Knowing where fish might be hiding helps to understand how ecosystems work. And every angler always keeps a close eye on weather patterns, both to understand how they will affect the fish and to stay safe and dry.

Fishing is also hyper-local, so focus on gaining knowledge about your area, not three states away. One way to do so is to find a fishing guide, says Kearning. This could be a friend or family member (I was lucky enough to have my father-in-law), or someone you hired. Fishing guides can tailor your experience to the type of fishing you want to do, familiarize you with your equipment, and give you specific tips for how to catch fish in your area. A guide can eliminate much of the trial and error in learning to fish, and get you and your kids catching faster.

YouTube is another wonderful platform for getting local fishing information, Kearning adds. There are thousands upon thousands of fishing videos there, and there are certainly dozens that feature fishers in your area—maybe even on your local lake, river, or shoreline. These videos can give you a sense of what types of fish are available; where in the water they spend their time; some of the best tackle, lures, and baits to catch them; and the best time of day to try.

Tyler Brady, a former charter fisherman and founder of afellowfisherman.com, recommends looking through TakeMeFishing.org, a federally funded site that offers a variety of resources about fishing. One of the most valuable is the map of the United States that shows the location of just about every lake in the country and provides information about what has been caught on that lake, and when. The map syncs with the Fishbrain app, which allows users to share pictures and information about their catch. This app is available through your browser and free to download for Android and iOS. Monthly upgrades start at $10.

Keep the equipment simple

There’s almost no end to the breadth, depth, and nuance of all the different types of fishing equipment out there. When you and the kids are starting out, don’t worry about all of that. Head over to your local sporting goods store or bait shop and pick out an appropriately sized rod for each child with a kid-friendly push-button reel. Then just pick out the tackle that will work best for the most common fish in your area—a bobber, barbless hooks, and worms are often all you need. And don’t be afraid to ask—anglers love to talk fishing.

Also pick up some practice weights, particularly if your kids are younger. It’s far safer to practice casting for the first time in the backyard without a hook than on shore or out on a boat.

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Finally, make sure you have scissors or clippers to cut the line, a fishhook extractor and pliers, a fish identification guide for your area, a ruler, and a trash bucket or bag to collect your garbage.

Beyond the fishing equipment, bring life jackets if you’re boating, sunscreen, bugspray, hats, and sunglasses. In my family, we wear sunglasses when fishing with the kids regardless of the weather or time of day. The 6-year-olds can cast by themselves, but they’re still pretty unpredictable, and I don’t want them to hook one another or me in the eye.

And don’t forget your license.

Have a plan for when the fish aren’t biting

As my father-in-law loves to say, it’s called fishing, not catching. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t find them. Those long, boring periods can destroy a kid’s interest. Make sure they have something to do while you’re waiting for the fish to come back on the bite.

One of the easiest ways to keep children happy and entertained is snacks. I never take the kids out without a pocket full of snack bars, fruit snacks, or trail mix. When fishing slows down, the food comes out until we can find the fish again.

Nature is also all around you, waiting to be explored. Brady keeps binoculars and a bird identification book on board. When the fish disappear, his kids start bird-watching. My kids love to look at the lily pad flowers and try to spot the turtles and frogs hiding on the shoreline. Kearning keeps a facemask and a snorkel on his boat. Weather permitting, when the kids need a break, they mask up and jump overboard to explore the lake from a different vantage point. Similarly, my kids and I sometimes fish from shore near a beach. When the fishing slows down, the kids go swimming.

Finally, don’t be afraid to cut a trip short. Sometimes you just need to call it a day and get some ice cream.

Respect the environment

When you’re fishing, minimize your impact on the environment. Collect your trash, recover lost lures and lines, and don’t disturb the ecosystem. Try to leave the lake as clean or cleaner than when you arrived.

Respect for the environment also means having a plan for what to do when you catch a fish, says Brady. It’s very easy to accidentally kill fish. Know how to take a hook out of different kinds of fish mouths. Catch a bass, for example, and you can usually just remove the hook with your hands. Other fish, like pickerel, have large, sharp teeth, and you’ll need to use a pair of pliers or a hook extractor. And it’s a different story when the fish swallows the hook.

Also decide if you want to keep or catch and release. For the most part, we catch and release. As part of that, we try to get the fish back in the water as quickly and with as little damage as possible. We bring them into the boat, take the hooks out, take a picture, and throw them back. If you choose to take home any of the fish you catch, Kearning says you should first ensure it’s legal to do so, then dispatch the fish humanely and quickly.

Learning to respect and conserve aquatic ecosystems is the best way to ensure that they are healthy and enjoyable for everyone for years to come. Maybe your kids will want to cast a line with their kids someday.

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