“Dada it’s going to pull me in!” my daughter screamed after I handed her my fly rod with an energetic 20-inch Utah rainbow on the other end. My four-year-old tried a few turns on the reel and then promptly handed rod back requesting that I be the one to bring it in.
My two-year-old son wasn’t exactly winning any fishing bravery awards either this trip. I had rigged up a small black leech underneath a bobber and found a school of pumpkinseed. I would cast his tiny spinning rod and let him slowly reel it back. Every time he felt a tug he too handed the rod back saying “too scary!” He promptly wanted me to cast again and again though and was happy reeling in until he felt a fish pull or saw the bobber start to wiggle.
Since I was a little boy fishing with my own parents, I’d rank fishing as my all time favorite hobby. Many of my fondest memories include bushwhacking to lakes surrounded by vegetation that would make the Amazon jungle proud, summer evenings catching bass on the surface, and even waking up early on Saturdays to fill a stringer with hatchery trout from suburban lakes near our home
As I now have two little children of my own I’ve sought ways to pass on this tradition that has brought me so much joy. I seek ways to integrate fishing into the family routines in every way I can. These five simple rules have helped give both my kids and me more time on the water.
1) L.A.G.s – Low Achievable Goals
A close friend of mine works for a major multi-national company. His firm uses an acronym to guide their work: Low Achievable Goals, or simply LAGs. This is also sage advice for parenting young fishers. By low goals, I’m not talking aiming for at least one fish over 16” on a dry fly that day. I’m talking making it to the river and back without breaking out the first aid kit. Parenting requires flexibility and patience while at home on the couch, let alone when out in the wild with sharp hooks, inclement weather, and potty training in progress. I’ve found setting low expectations for the actual fishing that takes place and being flexible to the game plan are super important to having fun with both the kids as well as the parents.
This is one of the golden rules of all types of fishing, and frankly, if this sounds like news, you likely have much to learn about fishing. I typically bring some special treats the kids don’t normally get to help prime their anticipation as well as maintain their happiness on the trip. For every kid I’ve ever known, any day is a good day when there are treats, even if there were no signs of fish and it rained most the time.
3) Age-appropriate gear
A few years ago, I thought it was the time my daughter learned how to fly fish. She had been watching me cast and knew that she had to swing the rod back and forth. I did a short cast and handed her the rod and started bending down to help show her the old ten and two. Before I could make it to my knees she jerked the rod back and the size 14 bead head pheasant tail was hurtling towards our heads and just missed us both. Barbless hooks? Check!
We also use short spin-casting and spinning rods that are simple to reel and cast. These smaller rods are much easier to handle and it was fun watching the progression from not even figuring out how to reel in, to almost casting on her own now. We’re working on stripping in fly-line too now. This past weekend a 9” rainbow pulled the line out of her hand and promptly ran out all 20 feet of slack. We have ways to go, but it’s fun watching them learn. Someday, when she can cast better than me I’ll still be able to tease her that a 9” fish schooled her.
4) Kids feed off your enthusiasm
It’s no secret that kids feed off the excitement of their parents. If you’re excited about it, they will be too. Every time my wife or kids ask what we should do that evening/day/weekend my knee-jerk response is always “go fishing.” I’m being serious, but it’s become a running joke in our family. “Dada you always want to go fishing!” my kids say. I even get excited when a new fly tying catalog arrives in the mailbox, or I stumble on a YouTube fishing series I haven’t already watched three times yet. The kids notice, and they always want to sit on the couch and watch with me. The occasional fishing trips I take by myself or with friends usually end up with at least one kid screaming at the door that they can’t come unless I can sneak out at 5am without waking anyone up. I think the enthusiasm transfer is working!
5) Keep the big picture in mind
Thoreau probably said it best when he remarked that many “go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” For me, fishing has always been a means for exploring new places, shared experiences with people dear to me, and snacks.
Sometimes the best fishing memories happen well away from the water too.
We had a miserable rainy winter here in Portland, OR this year and a weekly Saturday morning ritual became reading fly fishing catalogs from cover to cover with my kids over a casual breakfast of pancakes and orange juice. My daughter, in particular, liked the pages with flies on them the best. One day I asked her which one was her favorite. She confidently pointed to the bright pink squirmy wormy. My heart sank—I tried to explain to her that many fly anglers don’t consider that a fly at all and she might as well become a bait fisherman if that’s what she wants to use. I don’t think she understood at the time. She frequently brings up squirmy wormies in every-day conversation now and I love that I have an inside joke with my 4-year old daughter about silly bright pink “fly”. And somehow I have a few pink squirmy wormies in my fly box now…I tell myself it’s just so I can show them to her in real life.
Overall I hope I’m planting a seed that grows in each of my kids so when they’re older, they too will long to carry their float tube through the brush with me to our secret trout lake.
In closing, just to ensure I wasn’t missing something important here I asked my kids what the most important rules about fishing with kids are. Here’s what they said:
“Keep your rod tip up when walking with a fishing rod.”
“Don’t throw rocks where you want to fish”
“Hold fish tight so they don’t flop away”
“Don’t throw my toys in the water” (note: we’re still working on this one)
“Bring treats” (great advice, see above)
“Don’t throw my shoes in the water” (also working on this one still)
Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for! Tight lines.
Danny Warren, is a Portland-based photographer, outdoor enthusiast, and most importantly dad. You can find more awesome content from him on Instagram. @DannyWarrenPhotography