“Dad! Dad!” my son yelled, trying to get my attention.“Not now, I’m bit,” I begrudgingly responded.“Dad, look. Really!”
I’ll never forget the huge grin on my young son’s face as I turned to see TJ holding a nice 20-pound yellowtail in his arms — his first big-game fish landed without my help. It was a timeless scene that’s been played out for many a father and son.
As we grew through our early years together, my son and I were tight, but I was still searching for that bond — that experience that would bring us even closer and burn these years into our memories. As for my father and many fathers before me, fishing did the trick, and it did it very well. Now at 10 years old, TJ is a veteran of many long range fishing trips with me. He loves the sea and loves fishing and we have a great time together.
But it wasn’t always that way. Over time TJ and I learned how to fish together and work toward his ultimate goal of tagging along on a long range fishing trip.
Fishing is a wonderful recreation for all kids, both boys and girls. But I recommend that you take your kids fishing in freshwater or out on a bay before introducing them to the relatively rugged and dynamic environment of the ocean. Remember that especially for younger kids, it’s more of an outdoor experience and playtime rather than a fishing trip.
Start them off on an easy trip so they have a good time and get inspired to catch more fish. During this introductory time, patience is king. Kids have a very short attention span and if you are hoping to fish hard yourself you’ll both be frustrated.
Once your child is comfortable and excited about fishing, consider a half-day trip on the open ocean. A half-day boat is in many ways the same environment as a long-range boat. The fishing is often excellent and your kids will learn the basic skills.
As far as gear is concerned, keep it simple. At this point I would tend towards lighter, user-friendly spinning outfits.
Until you’re confident of the child’s swimming ability, please insist that they wear a life jacket. We were fishing at a local lake when we watched a 3-year-old girl fall off the pier and immediately disappear underwater. The panicked father leapt into the water grasping blindly for his sinking daughter as I followed to assist. The desperate father literally felt his daughter underwater and grabbed her and we were lucky enough to pull her to safety. I will never forget that experience.
Safety should always be a priority on any boat and I am always on top of my son’s location. I make sure he knows how to find and use the safety items on the vessel and what to do in an emergency, including a man-overboard situation. I personally thank the crew before the trip for having an increased awareness of my kid.
You’ll also want to evaluate your child’s propensity for motion sickness. Many kids have issues with this and it should be at the forefront of any parent’s mind. As always, consult your physician, but if you elect to utilize preventative medication I would start with Bonine or Dramamine (generic is fine) the night before your trip. One-half to one pill is the recommended dosage for children. Both come in a chewable form that most kids like. Be prepared for your child to be drowsy. You may ask your doctor about the Scopolamine patch, but this is not typically prescribed or recommended for children. There are a variety of homeopathic remedies that can be explored, as well. Check with your pharmacist or even your tackle shop.
Definitely work your child up to the longer trips. Trust me, a long-range trip is no place to find out that a child gets seasick. At best, the child will be miserable. At worst, he or she may become seriously ill and need medical treatment, a serious risk offshore.
Once your child has a comfort level on the half-day boats, you’re ready for a trip on a three-quarter day boat, or possibly an overnight sport boat. These vessels will really test their sea legs and improve their angling abilities. I made a calculated decision to skip the three-quarter day boat with my son and went straight to an overnighter. The boat left at night and I figured he would acclimate better as he slept during the generally calmer night ride to the fishing grounds. The overnight boats tend to carry fewer and more experienced anglers so I thought it would provide a more efficient learning environment. This tactic seemed to work for us.
The step to a multi-day trip is perhaps the biggest move in your child’s progress. By now he or she should be prepared to take on some stronger fish and fairly confident in their own abilities. I would recommend you familiarize them with a conventional reel at this point (two-speed reels can make a big difference).
Teach them how to pin on and deploy a live bait, some basic fishing knots and maybe even make some short casts. I am not saying that the kid has to be totally self sufficient, but they should have a good concept of the process and etiquette. It will make the experience more fun, and they’ll feel somewhat independent and work in concert with the other fishermen.
Any time you bring along your kid, your primary focus should still be for them to have fun. You’ll also find that the excitement and stress of a hot bite compounded at times by a critical father can be a lot to handle for a young child. I have to admit that I’ve pushed TJ too much here and there. It’s a fine line, and you’ll be easily reminded that feelings are easily hurt under too much pressure.
As you consider longer trips, an honest evaluation of your child’s behavior and maturity level really becomes important. If your child is patient, respectful, interacts well with others (especially adults) and observes proper fishing etiquette, he or she will be welcomed and appreciated by the vast majority of fishermen. Let your instincts be your guide. You’ll know when the time is right.
LONG RANGE — THE BIG LEAGUES
Next up is the true long-range trip of five to 10 days. A lot of considerations come into play here, the most important being true patience and the desire of your child to be out on a boat in possibly adverse conditions for several days. Furthermore, are you prepared to watch and nurture your child the entire trip and often give up your own fishing time?
I spent several years fostering TJ’s angling abilities and experience before going on a long-range trip with him. He became so engrossed that he probably knows more about fishing than I do. He’s going to be a real technician. It’s just a matter of continuing to apply his knowledge. We’ve spent tons of time at home and on the water before I was confident that he was ready.
I have to admit that its pretty cool watching my munchkin confidently work the rail, shoulder-to-shoulder with all the big guys, especially when the fish light up. We’ve found that experienced fishermen are very happy to accommodate and assist him when they recognize his level of ability and courtesy.
There’s a lot of travel and down time on the longer trips. Be prepared to entertain your kid. I bring board games, cards, etc. TJ is the best nine-year-old Texas Hold ’em player I know (sorry, Mom). Many long-range boats, including our favorite, the Qualifier 105, offer DVD players in every stateroom. Movies are a good way to pass the time.
The bait wells can sometimes be a bit high for kids to get a bait. Your child can wait around until you or a crewmember helps out, which is not very efficient. I used to bring a small bait net so TJ could catch his own baits more easily. Some long-range boats utilize the more accessible bait baskets and have nets handy as well.
Encourage your son or daughter to ask questions and learn from the crew and other fisherman. There is so much knowledge available on these trips that it’s like a fishing camp for you and your kid.
I typically offer TJ different options and approaches to the current fishing situation. I generally let him decide how to rig up and execute for the given conditions. I want him to gain confidence and learn to rely on his own knowledge. We’ll often explore his logic together and I’ll let him go with his decision as long as I think he has a reasonable chance of success.
As he moves up to longer trips and bigger fish, have your child fish with relatively heavier line strength and a rod and reel to match. They may get fewer bites, but most kids don’t have the skills or strength for finesse fishing. Until you’re very confident in your child’s abilities, I would also shy away from the short top shot Spectra rigs and go with at least 100 feet of the more forgiving monofilament on top. The other anglers will appreciate these courtesies, as well.
One of the greatest ways to get your kid hooked up on any trip is to hand them the rod after you’ve hooked the fish. I still hand off fish to my son on occasion. No one ever taught me this but I can tell you from experience, when handing off the rod make sure your child continues to aggressively turn the handle on the reel to keep maximum pressure on the fish. We lost plenty of fish during the handoff until we perfected the technique.
I started my son on circle hooks. I thought it would be easier since you do not set the hook, and just turn the handle. The savvy fisherman never sets the hook on a pelagic fish with any type of hook, just point the rod at the fish, aggressively reel out the slack, lift the rod and fight the fish. Just as with a circle hook, you’ll find your J-hook set snugly in the corner of your fish’s mouth 90 percent of the time. The application of this technique makes things so much easier and efficient for kids. If you insist on teaching your kids to set the hook, have them reel out the slack first!
Handling the rod and reel during the fight presents some challenges for little guys. Help your child practice shifting the two-speed reels from high to low and back again. It can be difficult for kids to stabilize the rod laterally while they turn the handle of the reel. This will improve as they get bigger and develop the capability and technique to palm the reel. It can be helpful in the mean time if you simply hold the butt end of the rod for them. Often they won’t even know that you’re helping.
Here’s a huge technical tip that will help your kid battle larger fish. You may have heard the saying, “The rail is your friend.” If you believe this, then the rail is definitely your child’s best friend.
Learning to utilize the rail as a resting point and a fulcrum for the rod is an invaluable skill for kids to learn. On most boats the rail is the perfect height for kids to utilize without having to bend over or kneel down. TJ has had good success by sitting on the rod butt and using the rail to fight stronger fish.
You might be wondering if all of this means that when you take a kid on a trip that you don’t get to fish much. On the contrary! I’ve spent even more time on the water. My son can come along now and he’s mature enough to understand when I go on a trip without him.
There is no doubt in my mind that the memories are well worth any effort or expense. Each time I hear “Dad! Look! Look!” I realize that my own obsession to catch a huge fish cannot compare to the satisfaction I get from the grin on my son’s face.