Take (Someone Else’s) Kid Fishing

Tyler Wallace displays his catch at sunset.

By Jeff Little

I’m giddy. I get to take my son fishing tomorrow. From the moment my wife told me the good news that she was pregnant, I looked forward to taking my kid fishing. But I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not all giggles, smiles and tight lines. My ideal day of showing my son how it’s done and having him take to it quickly never really played out. We’ve had some really great days, but there have also been moments when one of my sons has placed the rod securely in a holder and declared, "I hate fishing!"

I had both boys on the water in backpack carriers as soon as they could hold their heads up. Half the joy of those trips was watching them be wide eyed in one of my favorite places—the river. The sounds of water gurgling through submerged grass and the sudden eruption of a kingfisher’s call must have been a lot for a toddler’s mind.

When they got older, we practiced casting in the front yard, so that when we could get out on the water, there was one less barrier for them to enjoy the sport as much as I do. I’ve taught countless kayak anglers how to ferry cross current, or how to one-hand paddle to stay on a slow drift along the current seam while dragging a tube. I’ve taught people how to recognize push water upstream of a ledge drop and line up a cast with that prime predation corridor. Certainly I could convey all of this to two eager-to-learn boys.

They are eight and ten now, and I’ve learned that they are indeed eager to learn, but not from me. One son truly enjoys catching fish, and his older brother merely tolerates it. He will fish for my approval more than does for fish. I had thought that my intensity on the water had turned them away from it. Many parents do this—push their kids into sports that they love and fail to notice that the kid just isn’t as into it as they are.

At some point, I thought that’s what I had done. I figured that it’s a parent’s job to help their kid find their "fishing," whatever it might be. For my younger son, it’s basketball. Despite being 6’4", basketball isn’t my sport. I enjoy watching it, but my younger son’s basketball vocabulary and understanding of the game has eclipsed mine in three short years of his playing. I’m happy to take Cooper to the neighborhood court and stand under the hoop, passing the ball back to him so he can practice his 3-point shot. My mom did the same—taking me to whatever new pond or stream I heard about at the tackle shop.

But then I started taking my kids on fishing trips with my buddies. Suddenly fishing was cool again. They were learning how to pop a jig off the bottom in 23 feet of water, how to entice a striped bass to inhale a 7 inch soft plastic jerkbait. They were learning how to not set the hook on a blow up on a buzzbait until they felt the weight of the fish. Both of these concepts are ones that I had previously taught them, but the message fell on deaf ears. When reintroduced by someone other than their father, the lesson was taken with intent concentration, then replicated immediately and perfectly. I am lucky to have smart, independent-minded kids.

Any frustration of the fact that they could take fishing instruction from my buddies, but not me, dissolved as I watched my sons enjoy fishing because they were catching. They weren’t watching their father bring in fish after fish, saying "Do it like this!" Their father was watching them progress and enjoy the catching. I recall thinking, "Not how I saw this happening, but I’ll take it."

Then it occurred to me. I need to teach other people’s kids how to fish. I have always done this, recognizing how the process of a kid’s long journey to gain independence from their parents involves lots of other adults. Young people increasingly need to feel a sense of accomplishment without their parents’ direction.

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The author’s son, Cooper Little.

An opportunity to help a kid do just that presented itself this spring. I had fished with Tyler before, so I knew he was an accomplished angler in the Maryland Junior Bassmaster Tournament series. But exposing him to the striped bass on the Chesapeake provided a new skill set for him to master. I modeled the technique of concentrating on the taught line pendulum swinging the 1 oz jig to the bottom, awaiting the jarring smash of a hit. He did it perfectly the first time and caught his first striper within minutes, just as my son had done with a friend’s instruction the previous fall.

Watching babies become boys and girls, and watching boys and girls become young men and women puts perspective on our own progress through life. Kids start out eagerly seeking the attention and teaching from our parents. Then kids want to show the parents, "I can do it!" (on my own). Before long the kids are teaching the parents things that they missed back when they first learned.

Somewhere in that mix is a host of surrogate teachers. These mentors have a unique opportunity to show a young person something new at the moment that they are primed to learn that lesson. Look for your opportunity to be that surrogate mentor. It’s easy to be proud of your own kid, but being proud of someone else’s kid is pretty cool too.