How to Teach Children To Fish


Eric was only seven years old, but his grin was almost as long as the small rainbow trout that wriggled in his hand. It was his first fish on a fly rod, and he had also tied the small, brown- hackled wet fly. He had a right to be proud. But he couldn't have been more proud at that moment than I was after watching him cast his fly and hook and land that fish. It wasn't large; it was just barely of legal length, in fact, but the first fish on a fly is a very important fish.

And although that moment was brief, it, too, was very important, for that moment marked both an end and a beginning. It was the end of a long period of waiting for a small boy, and the beginning of his education as a fly fisher.

I suppose almost every parent who fishes with the fly looks forward to sharing the joys of the sport with his or her children. We stare in wonder at the wiggling bundle in the crib and envision our beautiful little daughter laying out her first perfect cast, or our son tying his first perfect fly, and we wait for that day. For some the day comes easily, for some it comes with great difficulty, and for some it comes not at all.

Teaching your own child to fish would seem to be a very simple and natural thing. It's no big deal: "Come on, son. Let's go fishin'." But don't be misled! Whether or not you end up with a lifelong fishing partner may well depend upon how you respond to the innocent question, "Daddy, will you teach me how to fly-fish?"

While the question may be innocent, it is significant because it indicates that the child has an interest in learning the sport. Normally, of course, this is no problem - kids love to fish. But occasionally an over-anxious parent will attempt to push a child into the activity before the desire is there, and this is almost guaranteed to cause problems. When pushed, the child will be a difficult student at best, and at worst he'll be completely turned off by the whole thing.

A better approach is to relax and let nature take its course. The exposure that your child has to the sport as you tinker with your tackle, tie flies and practice casting on the lawn should eventually pique his natural curiosity, and he'll probably be eager to try it. So - the first rule is: Don't push the subject, but wait until the interest is there.

This interest may pop up at almost any age, and typically it shows up while the child is still too young to really become a proficient fly fisherman. The young muscles simply do not have adequate strength or coordination for handling a fly rod, and the child lacks the necessary mental discipline to be taught the needed skills.

This leads to the next rule: The child must be physically ready to learn the sport. Unfortunately, there is no set age at which this readiness will occur. Some will be ready at five or six years of age, while others may be well into their teens before they have both the interest and the physical readiness. However, it's easy to tell when this stage is reached. The child will tell you. Or more correctly, he'll show you. I suppose my boys were about four when they first asked to try to cast as I was practicing on the lawn one day. Of course, I let them try it after a quick run-through of the basic points of a simple short cast. It did not take more than five minutes, however, to show that they simply could not handle the long rod. Sporadically over the next couple of years the whole thing was repeated. 

Finally, in rather discouraged tones, Eric asked, "When will I ever be able to do it?" I replied, "When you're ready, you'll know it. We'll try again another time." Then one day when he was seven, it happened. After the now-familiar initial instructions, Eric stopped the rod high on his backcast, paused, brought the rod forward and stopped again. Twenty-five feet of line straightened and fell to the ground in front of him. He looked up at me and beamed.

By coincidence, his younger brother, Jeff, was also seven years old when that eventful day occurred for him. As any parent knows, though, brothers and sisters are likely to be as different as night and day in almost every respect. Don't expect them all to be ready at the same age, or you may be disappointed.

Until the interest and the physical readiness coincide, it is important to feed and nurture the interest without allowing the child to become discouraged. They love to "help" Dad or Mom re- spool fly lines, sort hooks, clean tackle and do all sorts of small tasks, and such activities should certainly be encouraged. It'll be fun for both of you, and it will go a long way toward maintaining the interest that's so important.

Once it becomes apparent that the child is ready to begin fly-fishing in earnest, it is necessary to give adequate consideration to the tackle that will be used. For most kids, a modern, lightweight fiberglass rod, 7 1/2 feet long and designed for a 6-weight line will be ideal. Small hands and underdeveloped muscles need light-weight tackle. On the other hand, the precise timing required by rods of less than seven feet make them generally unsuitable for neophyte casters.

And don't make the common mistake of expecting the child to learn with old discarded tackle and mis-matched line. "Dad's old junk" has probably discouraged more kids (and wives, too) from learning the sport than any other single cause. If you can't use the tackle yourself, you really can't expect a beginner to learn with it. Another rule: The beginner's tackle should be properly balanced and of appropriate size.

Whenever possible, children should be given their own tackle. Pride of ownership will help them learn to care for it and will go a long way toward maintaining interest in the sport over the difficult early days. Perhaps the very best way to provide a suitable rod, and also the most economical, is to assemble one from a kit as a joint project. The assembly is very easy even if you've never attempted it before, and the value of such a venture is almost immeasurable. Regardless of the quality of the finished product, it will remain a treasure for a lifetime.

The child can, of course, begin to learn to cast with one of your rods before he actually has one of his own, and such instruction should occur well before your first actual fishing trip. There will simply be too many new things to learn the first time on the water to expect the child to learn to cast, too! So - the next rule is: Teach them some basic casting before you take them fishing.

Initial casting sessions on the grass or a pond should be short and fun. Children have limited attention spans, and they tire both mentally and physically rather quickly. The practice should never continue until they lose interest. It's better to leave them begging for more than wishing the whole thing would end so they could do something else.

Remember, too, that children learn best by imitation; that is, by watching and doing, rather than by long, involved, technical explanations. A discussion of casting arcs, tip speed, power application and so on could as well be given in a foreign language for all the good it will do most children. The majority of children's instructors talk too much. Take your rod along and show them what to do.

Even the simplest cast is made up of many components, and it is usually a mistake to try to emphasize all of these at one time. A beginner cannot mentally concentrate upon the grip, the wrist, the backcast, the pause, the forward cast, the turnover and the stop simultaneously. Therefore, after the child has been given a general introduction to casting, it is best to concentrate on only one component at a time. For example, have the child do a complete cast,

but concentrate only on the stop at the end of the backcast. Don't worry if the rest of the cast isn't exactly right - just emphasize the stop. Then, as that particular component becomes a fixed habit, start to concentrate on another aspect of the cast.

If it's convenient, a little practice every day is preferable to a long session as wide intervals. Twenty minutes a day, for example, is much better than an hour of practice every three days. The short practice periods prevent fatigue and maintain the child's interest, and they make it very convenient to emphasize only a single casting component each day. "Yesterday we concentrated on stopping the rod on the backcast. Today let's work on stopping it on the forward cast."

Such a teaching technique will help to insure that each component will become an ingrained habit before you move on to the next, and it will also prevent you form moving too quickly. If you try to progress too rapidly, the child's mental circuits will soon overload, and he won't be able to remember everything that's suppose to be done. The rule, then, is let one thing become a habit before moving on to the next.

Of course you shouldn't expect children to be polished performers with the long rod before they go fishing, but they should have mastered a few simple things. They should be able to perform basic cast of twenty-five or thirty feet with reasonably good form, and they should know how to retrieve and extend line. After that, it's time to catch a fish!

When taking the first fishing trip, there must be one primary consideration - do whatever you can to guarantee that the kids will catch fish ! Take them to an easy stream, let them catch little, stocked fish, or go bluegill fishing, but if at all possible make sure they're successful. Nothing generates excitement like a fish on the end of the line, and nothing produces disinterest and boredom more quickly than a long day with no action.

For example, all kids seem to love worm fishing. There's tremendous excitement in watching a colorful bobber dance and twitch as a small fish plays with the worm, and kids squeal with delight as the bobber dives out of sight. Even the anticipation is fun as they wait for the quiet bobber to make its first wiggle. Worm fishing is exciting! And if we expect to interest the kids in fly-fishing, this same excitement has to be present. Take them where they'll catch some fish - any kind of fish!

To avoid frustrations, make the fishing as simple as possible. This will usually mean wet-fly or streamer fishing with a floating line, simple across and downstream casting, and stripped retrieves. Take them where there are fish and they can't miss. Yes, even if you're a dry-fly purist, let them try it wet the first few times. This is an investment in the future, and they have to be successful.

The first days on the water can be trying times for both the child and the parent. Flies will snag in trees, lines will tangle, strikes will be missed, and tempers will flare. But remember, this is suppose to be fun. Don't expect or demand too much too soon. Laugh a lot and don't dwell on the mistakes that are certain to be made. Instead, give lots of encouragement by complementing the good things the child does. Constant harping on the problems is guaranteed to produce discouragement.

I'll have to bite my tongue as I say it, but don't get angry with the child no matter what happens. This is a tough one, and I've blown it myself more than once by getting upset at little irritations when I was trying to teach my boys to fly-fish. I suppose it happens when we lose the perspective of what it is we're trying to do, but such anger only leads to further frustrations for a child who is really trying very hard to catch a fish.

I can vividly recall one fine afternoon when I was fishing alone on a very difficult Western spring creek and was having relatively little success. I was sitting on the bank pondering my next move when my ears were assaulted by an angry shout from somewhere below me.

"No damn it! I said put it next to the bank, not two feet out!" A moment of silence followed, then, "You can't slap the fly down! You'll scare the fish!" Then it grew even louder: "How the hell do you expect to catch any fish if you won't do what I tell you, damn it!"

The harangue continued for at least half an hour, as I sat there feeling very sorry for the hapless student. I couldn't see the father and son just around the bend, but the lad had my sympathy. I don't know if he ever became a fly fisherman. I hope he did, but I'm sure it wasn't an easy process if he did. Unfortunately, teaching anything to members of your own family is often more difficult than teaching strangers. I like to think that I'm a pretty good teacher. In fact, that's my profession. But I know that I don't teach nearly as well when I'm trying to teach something to a member of my own family.

In the first place, I don't have the patience I'd have with someone from outside the family. I suppose that I take short cuts, expect faster results and am much more critical than I'd be with a stranger. At the same time, the family members, whether it's my wife or one of the boys, don't respond to my teaching in the same manner they would to another instructor. It's too easy for them to disagree, argue, or say no to me. Possibly they'd try a little harder for a stranger.

This, of course, is not to discourage you from attempting to teach your own children to fly-fish; it is merely to make you aware of some of the problems that may arise. If you're alert to the potential problems, you may be able to head them off before they occur.

I imagine it's too much to expect that we all could teach the members of our own families as though they were strangers, but that is a clue as to how to solve an occasional sticky problem. Swap kids for a day on the stream. I have had a number of opportunities to take the children of various friends for a day of fishing instruction on the water, and without exception, we've always had a great day. So if you find your instructional situation breaking down sometime, find a friend with the same problem and trade kids. It'll do you all good.

This also points up the advantage of enrolling your children in an organized fly-fishing class, if one is available in your community. Many Trout Unlimited chapters or Federation of Fly Fishermen groups or other local clubs, as well as YMCA's, high schools and colleges, camps or commercial fly-fishing schools, offer excellent opportunities for children to learn the art of fly- fishing. Or, if such a class doesn't exist in your area, one can easily be formed by a group of interested parents. You don't have to be experts at the sport in order to provide a very good learning experience for your children.

The first few times you take your children on a fishing expedition, it should be a trip for them. Keep in mind that the purpose of the trip is to help them learn to fish. All too often, the child is deposited on a handy sandbar or riffle and told to fish while Dad goes off in search of his own sport. Left to his own devices, the child will quickly tire of the whole affair, and the event will degenerate into one of frustration for all. Far better to forget about your own fishing and concentrate on teaching. It will pay many dividends in the long run.

Of course, a fishing trip should not become merely one long fishing lesson. There's more to being on the stream than simply fishing. When you stop to think about it, I'm sure you'll find that some of your most memorable fishing trips involved a great many experiences that really had very little to do with the actual fishing. If you expect your children to develop a love for the sport, there must be plenty of opportunity for them to share in the whole spectrum of events that create a successful fishing trip. In the words of a popular song, "You've got to stop and smell the roses."

"Smelling the roses" can take many forms, aside from its literal meaning. Insects, clouds and so many other things all deserve to be admired. The sound of bubbling water is new music to be enjoyed, and just sitting on a rock talking is a pleasure that many children and parents never have.

My youngest son, Jeff, still talks about "our" day on a small feeder stream of the Smith River in Montana. Jeff was ten at the time, and he was already a pretty fair fly fisherman. We'd spent the morning hopscotching up the little stream taking turns at its small pools and dancing riffles, and the fishing had been very good. The day had grown hot in the narrow canyon, and as Jeff lay on his belly for a cool drink of stream water following our noon lunch he said, "Boy, it sure would be great to go for a swim!" He didn't have to convince me, and I replied, "Let's do it." . "Do you mean it?" .."I sure do!" I said, pulling off my hot chest waders. We didn't spend much time skinny dipping in the icy water, but neither of us will every forget that day.

Nor will we ever forget the day in late August two years later when I took Jeff on his first float trip down the Henrys Fork in southern Idaho. Jeff had long anticipated the trip after hearing many of my tales of the river over the years, and we were both excited as we pushed the canoe out into the smooth water. The hoards of early-summer anglers were gone from the river. It was completely deserted, and we saw no one else for the entire day.

Unfortunately, as so often happens when sharing a river with someone for the first time, the fishing did not live up to expectations. Due to water release from the dam, the river was high and completely out of shape. It was one of the few times that I had ever seen the water discolored to that degree. Although a few mayflies came off the water throughout the day, we saw no rises.

We fished for hours without success. Changing flies, tactics, or our location on the river made no difference. Finally, in mid afternoon, a very small rainbow managed to attach himself to my fly, and it was to be our only fish. Jeff cast until his arm ached and his hand could barely grip the rod, but he caught nothing.

It sounds like a rather grim day, doesn't it? It wasn't. For as we sat on the bank of a small island, Jeff was able for the first time to watch a belted kingfisher diving into the water for food. We watched eagles soar in the bright blue sky, and we saw dozens of ducks and sandhill cranes. We watched long-billed curlews strut through the streamside grass and mayflies struggle in the water to free themselves of their nymphal cases.

As our canoe slid around a bend of the river, we both gasped when we saw a trumpeter swan swimming near the bank. We stopped paddling and the canoe drifted closer until the swan spread its wings and lifted into the air. Its wing beats hitting the water resounded like gunshots as the giant bird ran along the surface trying to gain flight speed, and we sat in awe.

Further down the river be both laughed and hollered as the canoe rushed through the boiling water of the last riffle and into the still water below. We were quiet then, too. It had been a long day with no fish, and we were tired. The silence was broken when the canoe scraped to a stop on the gravel bar above the Osborn Bridge; then it was quiet again. Finally Jeff spoke, "Gee, that was a great day, Dad!" I knew then that the family had another fly fisherman.

Yes, we teach them many things besides how to catch fish when we take our children fishing. They learn our philosophy and our attitudes about nature, conservation, streamside etiquette, other people and life itself. We may not even be fully aware that we are teaching these very important concepts. But we are. We teach them by our actions, which speak at least as loud as our words. In fact, it's quite likely that what we do and how we do it will be remembered after the words we have spoken are long forgotten.

The teaching of our children is an awesome responsibility and must not be taken too lightly. For in our children lies the future of clean air and water, wild fish, and the sport of fly-fishing.