The fishing rod flies back and forth in cyclical arcs, cutting the air with a hiss as it sweeps to starboard, nearly brushing the T-top while passing through its apex, clipping my own rod's tip, and coming within inches my head when it swings back to port. I duck. It completes the circuit in less than a second then begins anew, as the angler holding this rod swings her hips back and forth in a rhythmic dance reminiscent of the Twist. Her motion seems graceful yet uncontrolled at the same time; instinctual and unpretentious. I duck again.

I thought something like this might happen, and that’s why I've given her the shortest rod on board. To limit the Arc of Destruction. Such things are to be expected—and adored—when there’s a five year old girl aboard.

girl fishing

Her line goes slack then taut, slack then taut, and the hapless baitfish I’ve placed on her hook probably won’t get eaten since it’s being snapped backwards in a patently un-natural way.

And then it does get eaten. Whether due to fate, dumb luck, or the captain’s excellent job of boat-positioning (my top choice, since I’m the captain), Mindy’s baitfish has intersected with a striped bass that’s either very hungry or very dumb. Her rod bends over and the drag starts screaming, but not nearly as loudly as Mindy does. I help her steady the rod as she cranks, squeals, grunts, and cranks some more. Soon the net slides under the striper, it’s dropped wriggling onto the deck, and Mindy flings her rod aside as she dives on the fish. Hugs and kisses.

Nurture Vs. Nature

It’s easy to belabor the whole “take a kid fishing” thing. We all know that kids are the future of fishing, we need to get them interested in the sport, and blah, blah, blah. Yet when you look around at the boat ramp or marina, you’ll see that ninety percent of the fishing boats leave without kids aboard. I’m not merely guessing; throughout this past season I kept track of what I saw while launching and retrieving at the four different marinas I regularly use; I recorded 71 fishing boats pulling away from the dock. Only seven had kids aboard who were obviously around 10 years old or younger. And that age range is key.

kid fishing

It's imperative to get kids out on the water at or before 10 years of age, when the experience will have the most impact.

According to psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., the greatest experiential impacts occur at or prior to this age. “Brains are especially plastic during the first ten years of life,” she said. “Children come into the world with some hardwiring, but the brain actually grows like a muscle and gets bigger in areas with time. So, the question for parents becomes, what is changeable and what isn’t? What should children spend time on during their formative years when the brain is most stretchy?”

In other words, our best chance to get them hooked is when they’re young. And there’s no doubt that involving youth in fishing has benefits that go well beyond our selfish self-interest in promoting the activity we happen to love. According to the Kolb & Kolb 2008 study The Learning Way: Meta-Cognitive Aspects of Experiential Learning, direct hands-on experience “can serve as both the inspiration for, and outcome of, inquiry-based processes that harness a child’s questions to advance their learning.” The report Children and Nature (Charles, Louv, et al, 2009), states outright that “children’s daily exposure to natural settings improved their capacity to focus and enhanced their cognative abilities.”

So we know for a fact that taking kids fishing when they’re under the age of ten will have the most impact, and that doing so has benefits for the child well beyond recreation.

Unfortunately, fewer children are gaining these benefits today than they were in prior decades. We know from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey (performed every five years) that although the number of anglers went up by three percent from 2006 to 2011, participation prior to 2006 was down by a shocking 12 percent. In the five year period preceding the 2001 report, it was down an additional three percent. In fact, overall nature-based recreation peaked between 1981 and 1991 and then declined at a rate of between 1.0 and 1.3 percent per year ever since, until the recent but modest up-tick.

With nine out of ten of our fishing boats casting off with zero children onboard, we shouldn’t be surprised at this sort of decline. Nor should we be surprised by the “epidemic” of obesity, ADHD, and other issues that stem from our culture’s failure to expose our kids to more outdoor recreational experiences.

Was my head count of boats leaving the dock a scientific survey? Of course not. Might the results be different in other parts of the nation, or in freshwater versus salt? Absolutely. But the point is that all of these child-free fishing boats represent missed opportunities. Lost chances to (at the risk of sounding cliché) take a kid fishing.

Spreading the Gospel

Right about now, I’m sure many of you think I’m preaching to the choir. After all, if you’re reading this there’s a pretty good chance you’re a serious angler, and you probably already expose your own kids to fishing. But this is where the message often falls apart, because taking your own kids fishing simply isn't good enough. Especially with today’s much smaller family sizes, we can’t depend on ourselves alone to replace the fishing population. We need to think about taking out other children, as well. Our kid’s friends. Our friend’s kids. Those who don’t regularly have access to boats and fishing spots, but still have a spark of interest that you can light—and pour gasoline on. Mindy.

At this point, some of you are probably wishing I’d just plain shut up. Our waterways are crowded enough as it is, and good hotspots can get burned by over-fishing in a single weekend. You have a point, and I feel your pain. But consider this: in some towns in America, fishing has such little support and such a muted voice that it’s actually been banned. Brookhaven, NY enacted such a ban in 2008 (which fortunately was later rescinded). In 2012 all of Laguna Beach, California was designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA), shutting down the entire town to fishing. And up until last March, Biscayne National Park was pushing to ban fishing in 10,000 acres of water.

boy fishing

What's the best way to ensure good fishing access for the future? Minting new anglers is the key.

“I know a lot of guys who have really been hurt by the shutting down of fishing grounds due to MPAs in California,” said life-long angling enthusiast Ron Ballanti, a resident of Chatsworth, CA. “It’s been a long fight and some would say it’s still not over, but we anglers and angler’s groups always feel like we get the short end of the stick. Our voice isn't loud enough to overcome the politics of it all.”

If you want to make a difference—enhance that voice and ensure that fishing remains a respected and popular activity in our fast-changing culture—it will take an active effort. You’ll have to go out of your way, and you may have to purchase some new equipment. You could find it necessary to forego the gas split your buddies usually chip in for. You’ll have to reach out, and find Mindy. When you do, don’t forget to minimize the Arc of Destruction.

10 Tips for Minting Mindy

Taking an inexperienced child fishing is nothing like heading out with “the boys”. You’ll have to modify your tactics and carry some different tackle, to make the day a success.

  1. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, postpone the trip. Nothing will turn off a future angler as quickly as a bout of seasickness or struggling to hold on in rough seas. Bide your time, and keep your powder dry until the conditions are better.

  2. Stick with low-skill forms of fishing. That can mean using bait instead of lures, or trolling instead of casting and retrieving. It may not be your ideal form of fishing, but you need to keep things simple and easy.

  3. Minimize equipment size. Many young children can’t even wrap their hands around a regular-sized fishing rod, much less hold the rod upright and crank the reel. Consider rigging up a few short, stout, light rods with line that essentially out-classes it. Put 20-pound test on a 12-pound spinning rod, for example, and it will reduce the amount of skill needed to play a fish to the boat successfully, while also reducing the physical size of the rod and reel.

  4. Young children need personal attention on a boat. This may mean you put down your own rod for a while, or it may mean asking one of the older children onboard to lend a hand. You may be surprised at how much the older kids like helping out; my own teenage sons take more pride from netting a little kid’s fish than from reeling up one of their own.

  5. Focus more on numbers than on size. Most newcomers will get just as much of a thrill reeling in a six-inch fish as they will from six-pounder. Besides, keeping them busy with constant action is key to keeping them focused on the fishing, and in this regard, large numbers of small panfish can be just the ticket.

  6. If the bite is slow and the kids become bored, entertain them with other boating and fishing-oriented distractions. A few minnows in the livewell or bucket is a sure hit. A quick cruise or a trip to the beach is another way to break up the day.

  7. Leave the treble hooks in the tacklebox. Yes, they are effective, but they’re just too dangerous to have swinging around on the end of a newcomer's line.

  8. Use circle hooks whenever possible, to avoid the need for timely hook-sets.

  9. Position kids away from the outboards, trim tabs, or other items you might expect an angler to work the line around. You can’t assume they’ll have the knowledge or the physical ability to avoid those snags.

  10. Stay away from braid lines and fast-action rods. A little extra stretch and a little extra bend is a good thing for kids, who can’t be expected to maintain tension of the line as reliably as an experienced angler.

girl catching panfish

SURPRISE BONUS: The unadulterated exuberance and joy those little kids will get from fishing is infectious—you might not come home with the biggest catch of the fleet, but your own face may well have the biggest smile.