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How to survive and even enjoy a fishing outing with kids

By Larry Bozka

During the late ’70s, a journalism professor at the University of Houston encouraged me to “write what I know.” At the time, I was convinced I knew something about fishing.

Just to be safe, I took numerous classes on how to interview experts. Today, the world remains full of people who know more than I do about most everything outdoors. Seldom do I willingly accept the label of “expert.”

Two exceptions apply.

One is boating.

The other is taking kids fishing.

As editorial topics go, they are surprisingly similar.

Any writer who has not bought, towed, operated, maintained, bragged about and occasionally wished to set fire to a fishing boat is not qualified to write about boating. Likewise, to those who cheerfully relate the rapturous thrill of taking a 5-year-old fishing, never having once dealt with the first monster backlash or volcanic temper tantrum, I can only suggest the following:

Do it.

Then write about it.

Six hours of babysitting fees, even back then, bought a pretty decent spinning rig. By the fifth grade, young Jimmy had accrued enough on-the-water hours to apply for a Coast Guard license.

It’s a rare child who will go fishing without taking along at least one friend. I often demanded the same of my own father, so I rarely denied my son this privilege. The concept seemed simple enough. I’d take his friends fishing. They would go home and ask their parents to take them fishing.

Instead, no doubt wanting to save a few babysitting bucks of their own, Mom and Dad asked their little ones when Mr. Bozka was going to take them again.

Which I did. Repeatedly. With more and more kids.

Newton’s Third Law of Physics teaches that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Bozka’s First Law of Taking Kids Fishing teaches that for every kid taken fishing, there is an equal number who will want to come along next time, thereby proportionally diminishing the space available on a boat of fixed size.

By the second or third trip, unless you own a yacht, the First Law of Taking Kids Fishing moves the action to the nearest pier.

The novice angling instructor quickly learns many things. One lesson learned is that there is no such thing as “too much room.” Another is the reason why most kids’ first fishing trips begin with a lie.

“Don’t talk. The fish can hear you.”

It’s only momentarily effective. Still, if the action is slow, students learn the life skill of blaming something — or someone — if the fish are uncooperative. Fortunately, on a properly executed trip, the fish almost always cooperate. This is because, most often, the fish being sought are species that are usually overlooked by “serious” fishermen — those who invariably emphasize that it’s not the catching, but the fishing, that’s important.

Not for them, perhaps. But before they learn differently, it only makes sense to youngsters that one goes fishing to catch something. Ideally, the catching begins immediately and lasts until someone is going to be late for soccer practice if you don’t leave right away.

Kids have a lifetime to learn how to make catching fish as difficult as possible. If they stick with the sport long enough, they will someday learn to rationalize poor fishing with the convenient philosophy that “just being there” is sufficient.

Not today. Today it is indeed about catching, and catching as much as possible as quickly as possible. For this reason, in waters both fresh and salt, panfish are the ultimate kid-friendly species.

The “panfish” designation applies to a plethora of species. Sunfish like bluegills and redears are hugely popular freshwater panfish. The coastal spectrum is considerably broader — croaker and whiting, sand trout and Gulf trout, brightly-hued pinfish and the always-amusing, incessantly grunting “piggy perch.” All of these species and more share common and appealing characteristics.

Foremost, they’re plentiful. Mother Nature produces panfish in prodigious quantities so that larger predatory species have plenty to eat. Most panfish species are unregulated as to legal size and bag limit. In the mind of a kid who wants to take home proof of his or her catch, and when possible, eat it for dinner, that’s a major plus.

Panfish are rarely finicky eaters. Earthworms and nightcrawler pieces are irresistible to freshwater specimens. Fresh dead shrimp and cut squid have the same profound effect on marine species.

Countless kids have cut their angling teeth with a cane pole and bobber. Most, however, enjoy using a “real” rod and reel, a preference that’s easily accommodated with a close-faced pushbutton spincast rig. Cartoon-character combos are undeniably cute. Nonetheless, for both the money and the kid, a better-made spincasting rig is a much wiser investment. Priced in the $25 range (with line already on the reel), they’ll last far longer and perform much better than cheap plastic “kiddie” versions.

Round out the rigging with small barrel swivels, split shot weights, 10- to 12-pound monofilament leader, and most importantly, thin-wire perch hooks with long shanks and narrow gaps. The narrow gap makes immediate sense, given the tiny size of the fish’s mouths. As for shank length, long-shanked hooks are much easier to remove.

Though often difficult to find, barbless hooks are vastly superior to the traditional barbed versions. Should a kiddo get jabbed in the finger, a barbless hook slides right back out. Likewise, it inflicts less damage on the fish, many of which, due to their tiny size, provide a valuable lesson in conservation when released alive. A barbless hook also inherently hones the skills of a young angler. Kids learn to hold the rod high and keep the line tight while fighting a fish, a skill that will serve them well throughout (hopefully) a lifetime of fishing.

If barbless hooks are unavailable, it’s easy enough to modify barbed versions. Simply use a pair of pliers to squeeze the barb flat.

Point-and-shoot digital cameras are less expensive than ever, and they produce surprisingly good photos. No one … ever … should take a kid fishing without packing a camera. Have the young subject stand close, and use the zoom lens to frame the shot as tightly as possible (most shots are taken too far away). If a gimme cap is shading the youngster’s face, turn on the camera’s built-in flash to “fill” the shadows.

Hold the fish perpendicular to the lens. Keep its dorsal fin up and its belly down. With the sun at the photographer’s back and the subject wearing brightly colored clothes (and a smile), kid-with-fish photos can be better shots than the school photographer ever dreamed of shooting.

Live bait also provides a substantial assist, but not necessarily as bait. My young one often had more fun playing in the minnow bucket than he did holding a rod. It’s also utterly amazing how much joy a kid can derive from repeatedly inspecting a fresh-caught fish in a bucket. It helps to keep him or her entertained, and that is where fishing instructors most often tend to err.

A kids’ trip is just that — a kid’s trip, not a lame excuse for dad to go fishing. When I took my son and his friends in the early years, I probably didn’t make a dozen casts.

Then again, I didn’t leave the house intending to.

Kids take up the sport at their own pace. I’ve taken youngsters who wanted to try a fly rod next time out. Much more common, however, has been the little one who enjoys the excitement of watching bobbers dance, and most of all, relishes the long hours of undistracted attention.

That, I steadfastly believe, is the most important facet of a kid going fishing with a friend or family member. It’s the sheer, undivided focus of someone who, whether or not he wants to admit it, is having a great time fixing sandwiches, doling out fruit drinks and untangling backlashes that look like they were made by nesting pelicans.

Even if it’s with an 8-year-old, I learn something every time I go fishing. Topping the list is acceptance of the adage: “Patience is a virtue.”

I now understand why my father and his father both assured me that fish could hear me talking. At the age of five, when I caught my first fish off a boat dock in Kemah, I could talk the scales off a 5-pound trout.

Still, much of the joy of taking a kid fishing — and yes, there is immeasurable joy in the process — is not only listening to a talkative youngster but also seeing the world through his or her eyes.

If I really do know something about fishing, it’s that no one gains that vision by sitting on the couch and talking about it.

Do it.

Then talk about it — preferably, with an excited fifth-grader and his growing circle of friends on their third fishing trip of the year.

Rest assured, they’ll always treasure the advice of a bona fide expert.

Houston, we have a fishing trip

Every first fishing trip starts with an invite.

For the lack of one, a great many never happen. It’s with that in mind that a grassroots program called “Take Me Fishing, Houston” came about in 2004.

A cooperative undertaking between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), “Take Me Fishing, Houston,” as the name implies, is focused on spreading angling-related awareness and creating opportunities inside the urban confines of the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“The pilot project is built on the ‘Best Practices in Aquatic Education’ model,” says TPWD Aquatic Education Specialist Brenda Justice. “It’s based on sound science and re-

search, which has shown that cultural, social, family and peer influences influence whether or not someone will adopt the sport of fishing.”

The aforementioned “best practices” model consists of four distinct phases: awareness, interest, trial and adoption.

“Families are introduced to fishing through marketing, media and other outlets,” Justice explains. “We then offer them the opportunity to participate in fishing-related activities such as TPWD’s annual Wildlife Expo in Austin.

The trial phase includes skill building and participating in educational programs such as the TPWD Angler Education Program, where students learn about knot tying, casting, equipment, baits and lures, safety, ethics, fish identification, elements of good habitat and regulations. By the “adoption” phase, families have adopted the sport and feel comfortable about purchasing their own equipment and going fishing on their own.

“It’s a learning project for all of us,” Justice emphasizes. “Although, for the sake of our study, we are initially focusing on introducing fishing and boating to Houston’s steadily growing number of Hispanic families, we’re not excluding anyone.”

The program is assisted by community partners, of which there were 11 (four schools and seven nonprofit organizations) in 2006. Participating partners organized family fishing seminars, took kids on fishing field trips, held family fishing events at the end of the year, and assisted in many other ways.

“Our community partners helped train staff, taught fishing skills and assisted with events,” Justice says. “Program participants were invited to fish local community lakes. They were able to borrow tackle, learn about safety, learn how to cast and more. We had support from numerous TPWD divisions, including Communications, Law Enforcement, Coastal and Inland Fisheries, Wildlife and State Parks.”

Currently, participation in the project is limited to community partners and their constituents. However, Justice stresses that through a partnership with TPWD’s Aquatic Education Program, the program also helps facilitate fishing-related events for the general public at Texas state parks.

To learn more about the program, check the events page on the TPWD website at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/calendar/>.

For information on the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, go to <www.rbff.org>. There is also a wealth of information available for beginning anglers, and for their “instructors” as well, at <www.takemefishing.org>.

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