Kids Can with Cane

by George Lucido

Adults view fishing as a contemplative game of patience, and wait hours, even days for trophy fish. Kids view fishing as action, and delight in lots of fish, lots of activity and a chance to blow off steam.

So if you take a child out with a new drugstore fishing outfit, and expect a quiet wait until a big fish bites, the child ends up bored and restless. You end up frustrated after a day untangling lines, fixing reels and teaching casting skills. Fortunately, there is a better and much, much cheaper way!

The answer is a return to basics, a step back in time to the simple cane pole outfit of grandfather's day. Kids, cane poles, a bobber and bait suit each other. A simple swing solves casting problems. The bobber sets the bait depth off bottom snags and gives the child something to watch expectantly between bites.

Live baits avoid lost lures and attract panfish from a distance. After a bite, the child's natural reaction is to raise the rod and cooperative panfish swing into grabbing reach. Best of all, cane poles float if dropped into the drink.

When I teach parent and child fishing classes I find that the best fish to catch are either cooperative freshwater panfish such as bluegill, perch or sunfish or saltwater panfish like tom cod, smelt, perch and other plentiful school species. These come in bunches and maximize action.

I also find that two children to one adult seems about right, as kids keep each other occupied between fish. More than three children per adult is a bit much to handle except for ex-Marine Drill Instructors equipped with leg irons.

Don't let the kids school up - friends tend to bring friends. I once took 73 children fishing with the help of four mothers. Three of the mothers wouldn't touch worms and I was the only one who knew how to clean the 243 bluegills we caught in a little over one hectic hour.

Start by building anticipation early. Don't buy tackle, buy the parts. Then allow each child to assemble his own gear. Start with some 12- to 14-foot cane poles from your local tackle store or nursery. Most cost $2 to $4. Add snelled long-shank hooks in size 8 (small hooks snag tiddlers for more action) small bobbers (cork, even split wine corks, seems more durable than red and white plastic bobbers), and a frying pan assortment of split shot plus a 100-yard spool of 10- to 15-test line for the group.

First, if the pole tip is thinner than a lead pencil, cut it off just above a node, or knot. This reduces the chance of broken poles and crying kids. Now allow the child to tie one end of a 30-foot piece of line to the butt (thick end) of the cane pole. Help the child spiral wind the line up the pole with wraps about a foot apart. Tie off a second knot at the tip. You should end with a free section of line 12 to 15 feet long. Help the child thread the bobber on the line and form a loop a foot from the end of the line. This will hold a snelled hook best added at the water. Finally, add enough split shot to the end of the line to sink the bobber half way. Note: kids enjoy testing this in a pool or tub before hooks are added.

An important final step is to allow each child to paint his or her initials or name on the butt of the rod with paint or fingernail polish. This avoids the "that's mine" problems with unmarked rods in groups. Besides, most kids will take better care of tackle if they know it's theirs and if they know they will fish with it next time.

Next, locate a nearby site. Kids bore easily so try to drive less than 30 minutes. Urban and suburban reservoirs and farm ponds, sloughs and natural lakes usually work better than rivers. On the coast, piers in bays have railings that are closer to the water than ocean piers, and protected shore areas such as seawalls without strong tides offer convenience and safety. Kids' fishing piers like those operated by the San Francisco Police Department at Lake Merged are ideal.

Tackle shop employees always help find a productive panfish area -- even the most close-mouthed fisherman opens up when asked about good spots for kids. If you have a choice of species in fresh water, try either bluegills or crappie. If you live in trout country, fish for planters with bait. It takes too long to wait for wild trout. In salt or brackish water areas look for jack smelt, shiners and other perch. Trips seem most productive if scheduled on incoming tides. Always scout before the trip to find bathrooms, emergency munchie sources and activities such as bird watching that save days if fish do not bite. Consider bird and shore guides so you can show kids how to identify birds. This helps reinforce the idea that books hold interesting answers to kids' questions.

If you can, find your own bait. Worms dug after rains or night crawlers rounded up off the lawn after dark eliminate the "gooshy bait" problem at the water. Worm tips: Use a fork, rather than a spade to dig red worms. Put a piece of red translucent plastic over a flashlight, and your nightcrawlers will stay within grasping reach rather than duck for cover from bright light. The trick to catching nightcrawlers is simple -- don't jerk! Grab and pull. If the worm won't come out of the hole, wait. It will relax and you can pull it free.

If you plan saltwater trips to hit the beach or bay at low or, better, minus tides, you can glean natural baits like sand and pile worms from sand or gravel and pry mussels or goose barnacles off pilings. You save money on bait, and kids learn that baits neither bite nor come packed in Styrofoam containers.

We add another step. The night before the trip we drag gear out to check it; then tie long cane poles on top of the car. We also pack lunches; kids can help here. Those over 10 can, and should, pack their own lunches. Adults should tote extra dry clothing for each child, towels, bug dope and Band-Aids.

All this activity may seem a bit much, but it builds anticipation and helps form good habits for later. Finally, after the usual arguments over who sits where, it's time to head out. We draw straws to see who rides where and reverse the choice of seats on the way back. If you reach the water fairly early in the morning or moderately late in the afternoon you can enjoy prime fishing periods. However, panfish don't discriminate and can be taken all day in most areas. If you like, and it's legal, you might chum with bread crumbs or other baits.

Kids who scrounge their own bait have few problems baiting hooks if you show them how to thread worms on so they lie evenly along the shank of the hook with only a quarter-inch dangling. Kids unwilling to bait their hooks are no problem. Bait their hooks to start. Then, after they hook fish, slowly unhook fish and stall before you bait their hooks. In the heat of the action when a school of panfish moves in most kids will bait their own hooks.

Do let kids make mistakes. Show them how to unhook panfish. Then, unless the child is very small, let him do the job. Some get stuck with fish spines; now and then one might get a hook in a finger. If you use new, clean hooks each trip and know how to back a hook out of a finger by pulling it in the opposite direction you can handle the situation. You might ask about hook removal at the tackle store if you don't know this trick.

TIP: if all the fish go on a single stringer or into a fish bag, mark fish by trimming different fins for each child to avoid arguments about who caught what.

Plan to have kids clean and eat the fish you catch. We make cleaning a "passage rite." Small fry use a scaler. Older, more responsible children get "trusted" with a knife and cleaning. Still older children get to sharpen their own knives and supervise the smaller fry. Give each child a bag to tote the fish he caught and cleaned to avoid arguments.

It's important that kids learn that it's only proper to keep fish if they plan on eating them. If kids will not or have not eaten fish it is often because they simply are not sure how to deal with bones and such. A simple solution is to cut the backbones out of smaller fish, cut off heads, fins and tails and run the rest through a meat grinder. Add cracker or bread crumbs to onion and garlic salt and moisten the mix with an egg and you have the makings of dandy "fishburger" patties. Kids gobble these down.

If you plan ahead, organize and, above all, leave your own tackle home so you pay full attention to the small fry, you can insure kids will have fun on that all-important first trip. Just don't stay too long. Leave when kids are still excited and anxious to return and you will have willing partners next trip.

This simple approach has worked for 20 years. Today, I often get the children of kids I taught years back in my annual classes. As adults they fish all over the world, and most own expensive gear, but they almost always say, "If I hadn't started with a cane pole I might not be fishing today." That's the best recommendation anyone can ask.