The lake was modest, only a few acres, and the stocked trout held proudly by my grinning son didn't outstretch a ruler.
James had been zipping around on a Hobie pedal kayak, having too much of a good time to stop and fish. Then I'd hooked the trout. Moments later the rod was in his hands, face cutely scrunched in concentration.
I netted his small trophy after a short fight. The kid was thrilled, all four and a half feet of him puffed up. I was happy too, but for a different reason. He hadn't touched his portable game player since the start of our summer Sierra vacation.
James isn't unique. In my experience most kids don't care whether they're 'battling' put-and-take trout or hooking one tiny panfish after the other. If they're catching, they're having fun – and we are making memories built to last.
Our children are grown and gone in an eye-blink. We have only a short while to share our love of the natural world, the real world. If we want them to revel in the briny taste of salt spray, or thrill to the sight of an osprey silently snatching up a trout, it's up to us to show the way.
It isn't always easy. There's an undeniable hassle factor. For many of us, kayak fishing is our once in a week escape from responsibility. Taking the kids means subordinating our needs to theirs. Trust me, it's well worth the effort.
What makes for a successful outing? More than anything, remembering to put the child first.
Most kids crave action, especially those hooked on computers and video games. Let them catch every fish. Hand over every fish you hook; make the day as lively as possible.
Stick to the small water, at least at first. Find a quiet lake or bay free of scary waves.
If a kid is tired, too hot or cold, or stuffed into an ill-fitting and uncomfortable PFD, an outing will devolve into cranky complaining. Yes, decent gear costs, and doubly so when you know it won't fit your fast-growing squirt in a month or two. A good result is worth the investment.
Work within the limits of your child's attention span. Let the kid determine the schedule lest she remember your outing as a dull time better skipped. Find time for splash battles, kayak tag, and other games and diversions. Who knows where a youthful imagination will take you?
Don't forget drinks and a snack. Your kid might not be a fish-obsessed ironman now, but if you put in the time that might change some day.
Got a kid who can't sit still? Keep the scenery moving. Make the day a fun one. A positive experience is the only score that matters.
Now let's talk kayaks for kids. Sit-on-tops, because these recreational boats are favored for fishing.
A perch up front on a tandem is a good place to start a young new paddler. Examples include the Cobra Tandem + 1, Ocean Kayak Malibu II XL, and Wilderness Systems Tarpon 130T. As a bonus, these boats allow the front seat to be rigged facing backwards – much better for threading a new bait on your child's hook, landing fish and just goofing around and having a good time together.
The Hobie Mirage Drive kayaks like the one favored by my son are superb rides for kids. Pedal-powered much like a bicycle, there's virtually no learning curve. Kids can hop on and go right out of the gate, leaving their hands free for fishing. Hobie has several models to choose from including tandems; all but the bulkiest are excellent for kids, but expect to pay roughly twice the price of a typical kayak.
When a child is ready to solo, choose a kid-sized model. Start with lighter 'yaks in the 8 to 12-ft range, not overly wide. Kids should be able to reach the water with a paddle without leaning out unnaturally. Examples include the Ocean Kayak Scrambler, Caper, or similar. Match the boat with the proper down-sized paddle.
Never leave your patience at home; go at your young paddler's pace.
Expect to lose equipment. Kids crash and fumble. Leash anything you want to keep, add floatation, or use unsinkable gear.
Experience kayak fishing anew from your child's eyes. The time you share will be a gift to yourself.