Cassius “Gus” Chamberlain gave me one of the best fishing days of my life on a family vacation in Delaware recently. He did everything I taught him correctly in terms of casting, rod handling and hooking and releasing fish. But Gus actually took me fishing, scrambling over the rocky jetty I couldn’t navigate to land and release fish I hooked, and couldn’t get to then rebaiting my rigs and bringing the rod back to me.
OK, we “only” caught some croaker, spot, dogfish and crabs, but it was Gus’ actions that were so rewarding to me. Maybe it was just his natural maturing at age 11, or maybe he learned some of this from his 14-year-old brother.
But I’m going to take some of the credit because: 1. That’s what a grandparent does, and 2. It gives me a chance to share some tips with hopes you can have similar rewarding experiences.
Know your kid’s capabilities. Figure on bringing sunscreen, insect repellent, sunglasses, a hat, a basic first aid kit and a change of clothes. A cooler with drinks and snacks can later be used for keeping fish.
Two good starting points are on the internet with the Maryland DNR’s “Public Angler Access Map” and Rudow’s Fish Talk. Explore further with tackle shops and friends. The best fishing times are spring and fall and summer evenings. Moving tides are almost mandatory in tidal waters.
For beginners, look for shore spots and piers with casting room. Private boats are good if possible; party boats can be crowded and frustrating and outings too long for younger children.
Panfish are the best targets for beginners, offering fast action and less challenging quarries.
In freshwater, look for bluegill/sunfish, crappie, white perch, carp and stocked trout. The best basic rig is a bobber about 18 inches above a bug, bait hook or jig. Most people use components that are too big. The bobber should provide casting weight and sensitivity; an oval or tapered 1-inch diameter bobber is ideal. For topwater action, tie on a size 10 foam bluegill bug. A size 4 or 6 hook is a good starting point for bait, and a Trout Magnet jig and trailer works for most panfish. A small split shot may be needed between the float and hook or jig. A slip float can be useful for fishing deeper.
In salt water, the standard high/low rig (aka bottom rig) is the choice with a pair of snelled size 4 or 6 hooks and a sinker heavy enough to hold the bottom but still be easy to cast.
Use pliers to mash down the barbs on all hooks.
Standard baits in freshwater are a piece of night crawler, In salt water a piece of bloodworm or squid are top choices. But artificial baits like Fishbites in freshwater and saltwater shapes, colors and “flavors” also work and avoid the “ick” factor. Baits can be added to jigs as well as bait hooks.
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Young children may be attracted to colorful, themed spincast outfits, and these may be OK to start. But as the child’s skill develops, standard spinning tackle is the choice. A rig that is versatile and will serve for years consists of a 6 to 6 1/2-foot, medium-action graphite spinning rod with a good quality matching reel loaded with supple 6 to 8-pound test monofilament line. I do not recommend braid for beginners.
Teach how to hold the rod and reel, i.e., for spinning reels, two fingers above and two fingers below the shaft between the reel seat and reel mechanism, not four fingers below. Show how to set the drag and anti-reverse on the reel. Teach how to run the line under the reel bail then through the guides. Doubling the tip of the line before threading it through the guides makes this easier.
Casting takes some practice. Begin with a smooth, not violent, overhead swing then a release. Beginners often cast too high, sometimes straight up. One trick that helps is using the forefinger that holds and releases the line as a pointer. Releasing the line as the forefinger points to the target is a good way to start building accuracy.
Setting the hook on a fish also takes practice. Beginners tend to haul violently on a slack line. The proper technique is to reel in the slack then use the rod to make a short sharp lift, preferably to the side not overhead.
A photo can document the catch for catch and release fishing and release can be accomplished without even touching the fish. Simply grasp the hook with fishing pliers or forceps and remove the hook with a quick flip of the wrist. (This is another advantage of barbless hooks.)
For fish that are to be kept for the table, dispatch the fish with a sharp rap on the head then immediately put it on ice. Show by example how to clean and cook their catch. Most panfish are tasty. Carp are not favored by most people in this country. In Maryland, the DNR considers most catfish, except smaller blue catfish, unsafe for consumption.
Subtly point out the beauty of the fish, the surroundings and other creatures. Enjoying the day is the important thing; catching fish may just be a bonus. If a youngster wants to follow after squirrels, feed birds where allowed or skip stones without bothering other people, fine.