How to teach a child to fish

Teaching children to fish is not easy. Between video games and social media, it’s hard to get a kid’s attention these days. So how exactly do you get to a point where your kids are eager to wake up early, get on the bait and spend the morning covered in sunscreen watching a bobber? You have to make it exciting.

Fishing guide Johnny Wilkins of the Chicago Fishing School knows exactly how to do this. He is a former competitive angler who has fished in three world championships for Team USA He currently holds the shore fishing world record for most fish caught in a 24-hour period with 2,011 fish on a hook. For Wilkins, teaching kids to love fishing is over 50 percent of his business. Here’s how he does it.

1) Keep things simple and keep things exciting

Wilkins’ number one tip is simple: Keep the action hot, and always get excited when a kid lands something—regardless of the species.

“They’re excited about everything, so don’t ruin their excitement,” says Wilkins. “They don’t know that a drum or a sheep’s head is not the most beautiful thing. Don’t say, ‘it’s rubbish’. I get excited about gold glitter, little mushroom, never mind. Size and species should not come into play. Just be excited.”

Wilkins also keeps his fishing setups very simple for kids. No wrapping. Just a pole, line, a pole float and a small steel shot (not wire frame) without bait barbs. “A smaller hook is your friend,” he says. According to Wilkins, smaller hooks are safer for kids but can potentially catch more fish, especially on a slow day. “A bass will eat flies all day long. They drink their food and if you are using a large hook it interferes with their eating mechanics. A small hook gives you more time to set the hook.”

Finally, make sure the rules are easy to follow. “I tell my kids to keep the tip of the pole low in the water, know where your hook is at all times, and don’t thrash around trying to set the hook or get the fish out,” he says.

2) Choose a quality place to go fishing

Wilkins suggests fishing out a place before bringing a child there to see if it’s a safe bet. Also, especially for younger children, make sure there is a playground or something else to do nearby. “Some of the younger kids I teach don’t have the attention span to fish all day,” Wilkins says. If the young person you know is like this, keep the sessions short.

Memorable fishing doesn’t have to happen on a big lake or at a destination fishing resort. Success can be found close to home—whether it’s in a farm pond or even a reservoir in front of a shopping mall. “Don’t underestimate yours [local] water,” says Wilkins. “There are fish there.”

Young girl with fish and fishing rod.
Smaller hooks open up more opportunities for a youngster to catch a fish. Jack Hennessy

3) Set your bait and tackle to catch multiple species

The more fish a child’s rod can catch, the higher the chances of success. To make this happen, it’s important to get your bait and tackle down. Smaller hooks, smaller bait and thinner line will catch more and potentially bigger fish. “Your setup has to be good enough to catch a shiny minnow,” says Wilkins. “Once you do that, you’ve opened up to 80 percent of the biomass in the water.”

Use thin steel hooks or fly fishing hooks, size 14 or 16 hooks, and 4-pound or 6-pound test with a 4-pound leader. Thinner line is harder for fish to see and creates less drag in the water. Also, on days when the fish are less aggressive and less likely to lure, they will feed on smaller baits throughout the day.

Fish respond to good bait, so you want to go out of your way for quality. “I use small grains: blue fly larvae,” says Wilkins. “I take my bait from outside. The ones here aren’t that big, but red worms are the next best option available.”

4) Fishing derby and paid ponds

When it comes to fishing derbies, Wilkins suggests going for the spectacle, but not expecting a ton of success. “Pisces aren’t smart, but they aren’t stupid either,” he says. “During a fishing derby, there is an attack of people on the shore. The fish will not behave as they normally do.”

His advice instead: Consider going a day or two after a fishing derby. If the local game or park rangers have stocked the lake, there will still be fish left to catch. A day or two will allow the fish to calm down, return to normal.

As for the pay ponds, Wilkins thinks they’re a great place to practice and instill a sense of enthusiasm for the sport. “It’s like hitting the batting cages for little league,” he says. “Why not go to a beautifully maintained pond where there are plenty of fish to practice with?”

Filleted fish on a cutting board next to a knife.
Before keeping a fish, make sure the water is clean and the fish is healthy. Jack Hennessy

5) Know your water quality before you keep your catch

You need to understand the water quality of where you fish before you take a fish home to eat. This is especially true in urban areas or even in farm catchments where there may be runoff from agriculture.

“For urban water, check for strange oil stains or strange colors,” says Wilkins. “Sometimes people dump antifreeze or old motor oil into public ponds. I’ve seen it happen [in the Chicagoland area].”

Your state’s directory is a good resource. There, you can find local fishing regulations and check advice on eating fish.

Read more: 6 ways to get kids to love fishing for food (Plus, a killer fish fry recipe)

6) Support your local ecosystems

If you are catching fish to eat and want to come back year after year, leave some big ones. “Take a few sizes off,” says Wilkins. “And be really careful with the crops. For example, take the male mushrooms home, but release the females, especially around spawning time. If you like a lake, you’ll want to come back to it. It is up to each person to protect their waters.”

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