Take your kids fishing

Real-life story from Geoff, dad of two

My daughter caught her first fish off a pier when she was three years old using a plastic bait-catcher stuffed with leftover lunch bread. We watched the sprats nose their way around the plastic cylinder until they found their way into the ends and there they stayed when we hoisted them up. Back home we split them and removed the guts and then butterfly-grilled them with olive oil and salt. She ate some after I’d removed the bones. For some kids, fishing may seem a bit complicated with its knots, rod, line, reels, sinkers, everything waving in the air while they try to fasten a piece of smelly bait to a hook which keeps impaling itself in their finger. But I believe catching and eating your first fish is a kind of rite of passage for a kid. Some will not pursue it further with much enthusiasm. Others will be hooked.

So for parents who haven’t discovered the joy of taking their kids fishing yet, here’s a simple guide.
The first consideration with fishing is always – where to go? My recommendation is the local pier, if you have one. It has the advantage of allowing you to fish out over the water without having to bob up and down in a boat while doing it. Piers generate diverse marine habitats which can make fishing from them rather exciting. Some of the fish you will catch may also be edible.

1438123-boys-on-the-dockI speared my first fish as a skinny 10 year old off the rocks near Kaikoura, duck-diving down into the clear water with a small speargun. I can remember the tension in the rubber catapult and being careful not to bump any part of it because it had a habit of slipping off the notch on the spear and I wasn’t yet proficient in loading it while floating in the water. The fish was a leatherjacket and not very big. This meant, as I explained to everyone, it was a really, really good shot.

The second consideration is gear. This can seem complicated and even I find the array of fishing technologies available in a store bewildering. Fluorescent silicone creatures swimming in plastic packets like some alien spawn. Spiky sinkers. Sabiki rigs. Your kids will love it. There might be a fish tank or some rusty old gear from a sunken wreck and you can easily spend half an hour wandering round the fishing store with the kids on a wet Saturday and call it a special treat. Buy yourself a couple of cheap rods or hand lines. The hand lines will probably have the hooks and sinker already attached. Ready to go. The rods may also. If not, ask the store person to set the rods up for wharf fishing. Also ask them to show you how to use the reel – how to release the line into the water. Not all reels are the same.

I remember discovering a slow overgrown stream full of lazy kokopu beside the campsite we were staying at. I was about 10, I guess. The kokopu were milling about and I couldn’t resist trying catch one. I assembled my rod, tied on a small hook and pressed on some white bread as bait. I carefully dangled the hook into the water in front of a kokopu and within seconds it was hooked. I lifted it out, re-baited and quickly caught another. I caught six. I proudly went to show my father. He was very cross. What did you catch them for? We’re going to have to eat them now. He helped me gut them, toss them in flour and fry them. They tasted like they looked – slimy – but we ate them. He didn’t like them either but he didn’t complain. I learned the lesson – don’t deliberately try to catch something you aren’t going to eat.

Third consideration – plan the fish and fish the plan. You need an old chopping board, an old towel and a knife. If you have an old chilli bin or polystyrene chill box, grab that. Pack in the gear, add the kids and head off. On the way, stop at the petrol station for a packet of pilchards and if you’re feeling good – and let’s face it with an afternoon of fishing with the kids lined up why wouldn’t you be feeling fine? – get yourself a pack of ice for the chilly bin. Fish always, always taste better if they’re iced down as soon as they’re off the hook. Park up and find a spot on the pier. See which way the tide is going and fish the side with it running away from the pier. You don’t want your lines going under you. Open the pack of pilchards. They’ll be rock hard. Saw one in half and bait the hooks. Put the hook through the eye socket and then bend it around and press it into the body. The idea is to try to hide as much of the hook in the bait as possible.

Okay, now let the kids drop the line over the edge of the railing and down into the water. It will sink until it hits the bottom. You’ll know when it’s on the bottom because the line will go slack. Wind it up a turn so they can feel the sinker weight and the line is taut. Hey, look at them – they’re fishing!

I always enjoy watching people fishing on the bridges or piers of their cities. There’s something serene and timeless about their presence that makes me feel happy. I’ve seen them on the weir across the river Arno through Florence, on the prow of the IIe de la Cite in Paris. I remember waking up one morning beside the sea at Valencia and watching a man traverse the beach, throwing out a fan-shaped hand net and pulling it, catching anchovy. The pier at Manhattan Beach LA is full of kids holding rods and waiting for a bite.

The final thing to consider is what to do in the event of success or failure. If they are lucky, and hook up with a fish, and they’ve wound it in and it’s flapping on the wharf decking, grab it and lay it down on the towel. By some trick of the universe, this calms them and you can place a hand on the body to hold them while you remove the hook. Now you have a decision – is it a keeper? This means – are you going to eat it? If it’s an eating species – ask one of the fishermen nearby if you’re not sure – and it meets the size requirements for the species – again, ask if you’re not sure – then you’re in luck. Throw it into your chilly bin. Bait up. Get back in the water. The fish are biting! If you are not going to keep the fish, let it slide back into the water and explain to your kids that it was just a baby or it wasn’t good to eat. Either way, celebrate the catch! They’ve just caught their first fish!

I love fishing. I love the equipment, the engineering of a monofilament line, the curve and acid sharpness of a hook, the flexible strength of a rod. I love the preparation of it – ice check, bait check, knife check, tackle box check, food and drink check. I love the smells – the amine smell of bait, the sea, two-stroke fuel, wet wool. I love the freedom and solitude. I love the friendships and conversations that form between people fishing. I love the mystery of what is circling my bait. I love the sense of favour you feel when you land a keeper. Take your kids fishing this summer, they may love it too.

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