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Sure, I'll take a kid fishing, but this time it's my kid

Every April, each red-blooded outdoors-oriented magazine feels compelled to tackle the “Take A Kid Fishing” topic in time for an entire nation’s opening day rituals. I have put in enough time myself editing various fishing magazines to understand that it’s a classic of the fish-writing genre.

Zach Harvey

For years, I read dozens of writers’ attempts to unravel the age-old problem of how best to pass on the love of angling to an increasingly unreceptive next generation. I used to hit these submissions — earnest, sentimental tales of other writers’ relationships with children I’d never met — with gallons of red ink and a tired, steely-eyed arrogance about clichés. I see now how arrogant I was.

But since my daughter, Kaya, arrived three-and-a-half years ago, I’ve spent an absurd number of hours considering how to most effectively open her eyes to an activity with direct ties to my soul. Suddenly, “Take A Kid Fishing” has a compact face, a head of unruly blond curls and a little pair of pink-and-zebra-pattern rain boots. Now on the back half of my 30s with far fewer snarky attitudes about parents and parenting in general, TAKF has come home. This time, it’s personal.

Actually, without realizing it, I’ve spent my entire deckhand career picking up and fine-tuning methods to help budding anglers find a solid footing in the sport. I’ve had a hand in a great many joyous beginnings in father-son/daughter fishing and witnessed horrific misfires as other dads tried to get it all right. I’ve gotten some unforgettable visual aids in both generations — beaming 6-year-olds hoisting 30-pound stripers and, regrettably, some eight-hour vomit-a-thons that landed “fishing with Dad” right next to “water-boarding” on the list of possible weekend activities.

Despite my own Ph.D.-level credentials as a kid’s fishing consultant, I’m terrified, frankly, that I’ll screw the whole thing up. As much as my experience has made me an ideal candidate to show a child the best of fishing, my wife’s career as a child-development pro has left me little wiggle room around the issue of when, age-wise, Kaya will be, in the phrase I’ve uttered several hundred times in the last year, “old enough to come with me.” For now, I’m taking responsibility for nurturing her apparent love for any body of water, puddle to ocean, and I’m trying to make myself quietly available for as many questions as she wants. In short, I’m letting her run the show while keeping my own hopes, frustrations and frequent impulses to control outcomes to myself, always with the knowledge that she could hate the whole ordeal or love it for the next five years, then leave me high and dry.

The challenge for most experienced fishermen is checking the normal agenda, the normal target species hierarchy, at the bulkhead and assuming the mindset of a kid leaving the dock for the first time, rather than barking orders. Everything in the world of boats and fishing and everything out past the harbor jetties is brand-new, and it’s exciting, even before the first bait hits bottom. Just remember that it will be largely up to you to determine just how exciting it all is — or is not.

Putting fish in the boat is the key to keeping young folks interested on board.

I’ve had to remind a few fellow mates in recent seasons — just as I once was, in my younger, tougher years, by the captain — that where kids are concerned, there are no “trash fish,” and every one that ends up in the boat should get the same enthusiastic reception for the child’s benefit. A matter-of-fact “nice fish” from the mate is a simple gesture that makes a 6-year-old feel 2 feet taller. A grunt and a quick, careless release lets a kid know, loud and clear, that there was no good reason for her initial excitement. Couple a ton of sublegal fish with a been-there-done-that deckhand, and you have the makings of one downtrodden kid. When you consider the average kid’s attention span here in the land of the iPod, it’s never been more important to highlight every catch, release or kill for the table as a mini-milestone among (hopefully) many others over the course of an outing you ultimately want to memorialize as a success.

The bad news is that catching something — better still, a bunch of somethings — in a rapid-fire bite is critically important; generally, the younger the person, the greater the need for results. Patience and perseverance are great and necessary life lessons fishing might eventually deliver, but not until you can set the hook solidly enough that Junior will remember the excitement can disappear at any second. Until that transition point, if things get that far, avoid the “life lessons” wisdom as though it were a 5-gallon bucket of deer ticks. Kids are young, not stupid, and if they catch you in some grandiose retooling of the pretrip hype or laying on the lofty grown-up fish lore before they’ve bent some rods, you’ll be left to watch helplessly as their eyes gloss over and everyone wants to call it quits.

As corny and self-evident as this probably sounds, there’s trust on the line during the initial outings, and I want desperately not to lose my daughter’s. Above all else, that means letting her control her own relationship to fishing. If that means fishing for 15 minutes at a time, so be it. My job will be to put us in a pile of hyper-abundant and cooperative critters, bait hooks and cheer my favorite little person on.

I have secured a fine 28-inch pink rod from an offshore lobsterman friend who offered no believable explanation for his ownership of the thing. The rod is significant because pink is important, but not as important somehow as keeping Barbie and the standing army of Disney princesses separate from Kaya’s and my future time at the local trout pond. Pink-no-princesses — you’d be amazed how scarce a combination this is — seems like a perfect meeting point between her interests and my own. I need her to see that girls belong on the water just as much as daddies do. A big part of that is providing her with gear of the proper size, as cumbersome grown-up tackle is a major source of frustration.

The most important point — the one common thread connecting all of the advice I’ve gathered on the subject — is that it’s absolutely critical to suspend my own expectations, immediate or 10-year; focus on generating excitement over any aspect of the sport that catches her fickle eye; and be ready to move along to the next thing on her cues. Fishing, for Kaya, may initially be about ducks, a toad or ready access to abundant awesome rocks she can throw into the water. Again, she will be in control — as though she weren’t already operating me like a marionette — and so long as I live up to my end of the bargain, time should sort out the rest. When the time comes, I’ll pass her the rod to “hold for a sec” after inconspicuously setting the hook on a fish when some action seems like the right thing.

Even now, it’s happening. I ought to know better, do know better. It’s just that, I mean, how could my own daughter not see how awesome it all is and how important? All I need is enough wiggle room to do everything just right in exactly the right order, and there’s no way she’ll get away from me. Surely she’ll get it. Won’t she? I just hope I’ll be as understanding when she makes her decision, one way or the other.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

September 2013 issue