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Beginner's Guide

Fly Fishing For Kids

by Tom Rosenbauer   |  January 3rd, 2016 1
Fly Fishing For Kids

Photos: Tom Rosenbauer

Passionate fly fishers dream of having their kids turn into their best fishing buddies. It often doesn’t happen at all, and when it does, the expectation seldom fulfills the dream—at least at first. Fathers dream of sons or daughters who spend hours on a Montana trout stream with them, quietly and patiently matching hatching mayflies with perfectly tied imitations they made themselves in the winter months. Mothers imagine the whole family on vacation in the mountains of North.

Carolina, bewitching wild trout with flies that own colorful names like Royal Wulff and Pale Evening Dun.

Dreams don’t always come true. Sometimes it’s just mom and son, like my friends Jane and Ronan Cooke. Jane came into fly fishing from an unusual direction. As a young landscape architect, her mentor was Alice Ireys, who created many major public garden spaces, including designs for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, but later in life was unable to walk. Jane was her legs. One day Ireys had Jane inventory some plants along a river, requiring that she wear a pair of chest waders. She fell in love with the sound and feel of the water and decided on the spot to learn to fish, and it seemed like learning to fish on a stream meant learning to fly fish for trout.

Jane’s first husband had no interest in learning to fly fish, but after a divorce Jane attended the Orvis Fly-Fishing School in Manchester, Vermont, and then took to the sport with a passion, developing a circle of friends in New York and dating a noted fly-fishing author. When she remarried, her second husband, Patrick, already had plenty of hobbies that kept him busy, like cars, motorcycles, lacrosse, and reading, and had little interest in fly fishing, but he encouraged Jane to take her young son, Ronan, on fishing trips. First he just dapped a White Wulff around the dock at their lakeside cottage, still in diapers. “Doing that actually requires less motor skills than using a spinning rod,” Jane told me, “so it seemed like the right way to start.”

Even though Ronan began fly fishing at an early age, it was not a straight-line path and he still picks up a spinning rod if fly fishing gets too difficult or the wind froths the water. And Jane learned some tough lessons along the way. Figuring that since Ronan picked up fly fishing at such an early age, when he was five years old she decided to risk a saltwater fly-fishing trip to the Florida Keys with him and her friend, guide Paul Dixon. But all Ronan wanted to do was play with the live shrimp Paul had brought along for chum. The savvy guide taught Jane a valuable lesson, telling her, “It’s OK—all kids gotta start fishing with their head in the bait bucket.”

Patrick now accompanies them on fishing trips close to home, but Ronan is now twelve and he and his mom search for more exotic challenges like tarpon in the Florida Keys and trout and salmon in Alaska.

“We’d take him [Patrick] along more often because he likes to be with us on the water and read, but some of our trips are more remote and expensive, so we have to leave him home,” says Jane.

It’s worth the effort to involve your kids in fly fishing. Justin Coleman, a fly fisher and predoctoral intern in Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of California, Merced, looks at fly-fishing relationships both as an angler and as part of his professional development.

Fly fishing is a great way to examine the interactions between couples, and between parents and children. When I asked him to give me a professional overview of the idea of a family fly fishing together, this was his assessment:

Fly fishing with your children, spouse, or whole family not only provides an opportunity to have fun and bond over a pleasurable activity but can also have benefits for your children’s development.

Research indicates that parent role modeling of healthy physical activity and outdoor participation has a significant relationship to the amount of time that children spend playing outside and exercising (e.g., Beets, et al., 2007; Bois, et al., 2005). Through positive modeling and instruction in fly fishing, parents can encourage their children to exercise and develop a lifelong interest in the sport.

Fly Fishing For Kids

If kids want to catch frogs in the middle of a fly-fishing trip, let them!

Kids under Ten—Short, Sweet, and Simple
It doesn’t start with fly fishing—it should start with just plain fishing. In fact, as Ronan proved to his mom on their Florida trip, it may not always be about fishing at all. Nearly all kids are fascinated by nature and the animals they encounter, and fish are only one kind of creature they can catch. If the fish are too difficult, they’ll settle for frogs or turtles, and you ignore that fascination at your peril.

My father infected me with the fishing virus, not with a fly rod but with a worm and bobber, and for bullhead catfish and white perch in the bays along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. But my real quarry was frogs. Fish took too much patience for a four-year-old, but the frogs were always handy, just waiting to be pounced upon. I remember my father complaining to my mother that “all he wants to do is chase frogs.” Dad was not patient enough for the circuitous path I took to becoming a serious angler, and by the time I was ten, he had moved on to golf, even while I was spending all my paper route money on rods and lures, getting up at dawn to ride my bicycle to find new fishing spots that were miles beyond the boundaries my parents had set for me.

My own son, now seven, fishes with me, but most of our fishing trips turn into turtle expeditions and frog safaris. I can only hope that eventually he’ll develop the patience to fish for longer than six minutes, and I assume that he will develop the motor skills to cast a fly rod. Some kids can learn to cast a fly rod as young as three or four, but few have the patience to really fly fish in a serious way until they are over ten years old.

When I tell people in the presentations I do for fishing clubs that I believe a kid should be about ten before any expectation of serious fly fishing, invariably someone corrects me and calls out that their son or daughter has been fly fishing since they were in diapers. It may be true and prodigies do exist, but I wonder how many seven-year-olds are really serious about fly fishing for longer than a half hour.

Developing a child as a fly-fishing buddy takes years to ferment. It’s about nature first, then just fishing by any means, and finally fly fishing.

I have argued that, contrary to the way fly fishing is usually taught, with casting lessons on dry land for hours on end before getting fish on the line, the first step should be getting a fish on—otherwise the whole exercise makes no sense. And nowhere is this more important than with kids.

It is possible to start kids out right away with a fly rod. Find that spot where sunfish congregate near a dock, give your child a fly rod with a dry fly or tiny popper tied to a short leader, and let them dap for sunfish, where they can see the fish come to the fly, inspect it, and then finally inhale it. Dapping is done by just lowering the fly to the water directly under the rod tip, with no line or leader on the water. Only the fly touches the water. Dip the fly into the water, lift it out of the water, dip it in again, and then let it sit. This drives sunfish nuts, and they hardly ever resist it.

Fly Fishing For Kids

Jon Luke’s boys, Ben and Caleb, enjoy fly fishing with their dad because he started them out with lure fishing, and for their first fly-fishing trips he had them troll their flies behind a canoe, thus eliminating the complexities of casting.

Start With Bait
If you can’t find a suitable spot where kids can dap for sunfish with flies, grab a push-button rod, a hook, and a bobber. Go out and catch worms or grasshoppers. Don’t buy your bait at a bait shop, as catching bait is half the fun for most kids, and sometimes more fun than the fishing itself.

Worms are found by digging in rich soil, turning over logs and rocks in damp areas, or by going out after dark to catch night crawlers—if you’ve never done this, your education as an angler is not complete.

Water your lawn until it’s soaked, or find a golf course where they water regularly, and then go out after dark with a flashlight with a piece of transparent red film over the lens. The flashlight should not be overly bright because too bright a light scares the night crawlers back into their holes. Grab the crawlers as close to the ground as possible, and don’t pull immediately or you’ll break the worm in half. It will pull hard against you, then will relax its muscles—that’s the time to pull in order to get the entire night crawler out of the ground.

Grasshoppers seem to prefer the edges of fields and along paths or roadsides, and if you go after them in the morning, before the sun warms their bodies, they move slowly and are much easier to catch. Once the sun warms the grasses, you will be better off using a butterfly net to catch them. And you will need a butterfly net on all of your fishing trips, as you should ensure that you have something handy so kids can go off and catch critters as soon as they get bored.

Take a fly rod along on these bait-fishing trips and just treat it as another way of catching fish. Make sure you take a box of flies with bright colors and patterns that really look like mice or frogs or minnows. Show your child the flies, tie one on, and make a few casts. If they’re at all interested in fishing, they’ll soon ask if they can use the fly rod, too.

A word of caution on rods for children: Don’t be tempted into buying a really short, novelty “kids’ fly rod” and don’t make a tiny fly rod out of just the tip section of a longer rod. These short rods are much tougher to cast and will only frustrate your child. A rod between 7½ and 8½ feet long for anything from a 3-weight to a 5-weight line will be perfectly fine for even the smallest child, and it will be easier to cast. Even the biggest rod in this size range will weigh less than 3 ounces, and although the reel also weighs a little more than the rod, once the reel is attached to the rod, the balance point when the rod is in hand reduces the overall weight a child has to handle to less than a good-size frog.

Fly Fishing For Kids

When fishing with kids, never forget to bring a push-button rod in addition to the fly rod. The objective is for the kids to have fun fishing by any means.

Holding Their Attention
Gauge both the time of fishing trips and time with the fly rod in hand to the age of the child. When kids are under eight years old, thirty minutes of total fishing may be the maximum attention span, with perhaps an additional five minutes of fly fishing thrown in. If your kid shows an inclination to spend more time fishing (even some very young children have the patience to sit on a dock for hours), then by all means keep going. But never push it, never keep a kid fishing longer than they show interest. It’s not about you at this point.

Parents should avoid fishing or fish sparingly on these trips. Resist the temptation to “show her how to do it.” Demonstrate once and turn the rod over to your child, whether it’s a fly rod or a conventional rod.

They learn better by discovering in their own way, on their own time.

And when they start peering into the cattails by the end of the dock, looking for frogs, it’s your cue to take out that butterfly net and suggest a frog or turtle hunt.

Fly-fishing guide Colin Archer, in a letter to me, expressed the regrets of a father who taught his kids the wrong way. He wrote with the hope that he might guide the way for parents of future fly fishers. It was a poignant exclamation point to the idea that, especially for kids, fly fishing is just another way of fishing.

I realized I screwed up. I am a fly fisherman. I am a fly- fishing guide. I love fly fishing. I believe in catch and release. I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to bait fishermen and using things other than flies on “sacred waters” where I fish and guide. I have felt this way for about 10 years.

I started trout fishing about 25 years ago in New Jersey. I started with worms. I moved into spinners. I graduated to mealworms.

Then PowerBait came out. I used to leave the streams and rivers with full creels almost every time out. I had more thin aluminum foil coffins in the freezer with hatchery trout fillets than I could eat.

I was a harvester. I had a blast. Then I started fly fishing around 1990. Soon after, the movie A River Runs Through It came out and I was gut-hooked.

I married and had kids, two boys, and two years apart. If I could have I would have named them Norman and Paul after, you know, the two sons in ‘The Movie.’ As they got older and out of diapers I introduced them to fishing and of course they loved it.

Then I moved them quickly into fly fishing. I got them neoprene waders. I had Fran Betters custom make them rods at his shop on the West Branch of the Ausable. They had the vests and hats to boot. I taught them bugs. I taught them hatches. I taught them trout. And here and there they would catch a stocked trout or two.

I could never take them to the ‘big’ rivers like the Upper Delaware because they weren’t ready for that, even though I always see kids throwing big Blue Fox spinners into the West Branch and catching big browns!

It took me a few years before I realized they didn’t want to go fly fishing. In fact they didn’t want to go fishing at all. When we would go away for a week in the Poconos I would take out my fly rod and catch 300,000 sunfish and bass. They didn’t care. They made me get worms and hooks and bobbers. My thick head didn’t get it, until I got it. I robbed my kids of all that fishing was and is supposed to mean.

I fish all the time, for work and pleasure. I live blocks from the beach. When and if I have one of my boys in tow when I go out with the fly rod, they look at guys throwing poppers and plugs and metal during a blitz while we’re getting skunked on our fly rods and they ask me, “Dad, don’t you like to catch fish?”

I have done more harm introducing my fishing “ways” to my boys than I know. I hope they don’t make the same mistake with their kids. If I now want to spend quality time with my sons I have to sit down with an Xbox controller in my hand and play Call of Duty.

The reason I wrote this today is today is my son’s 15th birthday, and I fished alone.

Hopefully you’ll be in a better position to get your kids excited about fly fishing. My friends who have sons and daughters as their fishing buddies are some of the happiest, most fulfilled people I know. It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of a shared passion between parents and children. When I pressed Colin to summarize what he would have done differently, here’s what he told me:

If I could do it over again, I would have kept them with their push-button rods longer and then moved them into spinning rods. I would have started them on worms and lures, and then introduced poppers and slowly worked in flies. I would have mixed in some stream and river fishing with more pond and lake fishing. I might have even taken them to the Upper Delaware for a chance for a big brown on a spinner! I would have focused on the time spent between a dad and his kids, not on entomology or casting lessons. Fishing should have been an experience, not a task.

In general, the best way to get children interested in fly fishing is to follow their lead and offer gentle guidance. If you’re already a fly fisher, resist the temptation to delve into every minute aspect of fly fishing while they’re young, as Colin Archer learned. If you’re learning together and want to attend a fly-fishing class with your youngster, I’d advise holding off on a full-blown multiple-day school, which often involves some classroom time, until your child is about ten years old. Instead, look for a short, one-hour casting lesson, and although you will enjoy the shared experience, don’t criticize your child’s progress. You’ve hired a professional for that, and it will go down much easier coming from someone else.

Regardless your own skill level, here are some suggestions to help guarantee success.

1. Keep all fishing trips short at first. When your child’s attention span begins to wander, pack up the fishing gear and move on to something that holds their interest.

2. When picking a fishing spot, find a place that also has good frog hunting or turtle chasing or minnow netting. These critters are usually found in shallow, weedy areas, so avoid deep water and quick drop-offs if possible. Don’t forget a butterfly net!

3. Find a location with a playground or other kid-friendly attraction nearby so you can quickly move on to something else.

4. Pay attention to the way you dress your kids so they’re comfortable. Slather on the sunscreen. Pack extra clothes if they fall in, and take long pants and a sweatshirt in case it gets chilly on the water.

Take child-friendly bug repellent. Make sure they wear hats and sunglasses to protect their eyes from hooks, especially when they first pick up a fly rod.

5. Take drinks and snacks. Pack a cooler. Kids get hungry and thirsty much quicker than adults.

6. Let kids fish with a fly rod any way they want. Put a worm or live grasshopper on the leader. Let them just dap for sunfish. Watch that they are at least safe with that fly whizzing around in the air, and then step away and let them make their own mistakes.

7. Never take kids fishing with only a fly rod. Kids need action and your goal is to get them catching fish by any means. Pack a spinning rod or push-button rod, bobbers, and some bait.

Preteens and Teenagers—Make It Hands-On
You’ll be happy to learn that from the youngest child to well into the teenage years, there seem to be few gender differences between boys and girls when it comes to fly fishing. The sport requires some hand-eye coordination but little upper-body strength, and professionals who teach children fly fishing have seen few variations in how boys and girls pick up the sport. This is not the case with adults, where real gender differences in how men and women learn and enjoy fly fishing are observed, but kids are kids when it comes to the natural world.

If you want to introduce a teenager to fly fishing, hopefully your child has already shown some interest in fishing with conventional gear.

As Colin Archer learned, conventional gear should always be close at hand, even if you want your fishing trips to be pure fly-fishing trips. And you have to understand that some kids take to fishing and some don’t, regardless of their parents’ interests. You can find kids from completely urban households where no family members have ever shown an ounce of interest in fishing who just seem to decide, out of the blue, that they want to go fishing. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find kids from fly-fishing families that want no part of it—but in that case it’s probably because they’ve been taught the wrong way in the past.

Evan Griggs, a fly fisher who is now in college studying environmental education, founded a high school fly-fishing club in inner-city Minneapolis and can vouch for the appeal fly fishing has for teenagers, even among those who did not have a parent or grandparent to take them fishing when they were younger. He saw that kids today were too busy with other activities to think about fishing, and it never even crossed their radar screens. He showed them videos like the Trout Bum Diaries, which are more like snowboarding movies than what we usually see on Saturday-morning fishing shows. Before he knew it, he had 15 to 20 kids at every meeting, and soon they were out on the water casting, helping with river surveys, and even helping state crews with their electroshocking fish-sampling gear. Evan’s secret was to get the kids immediately out in the field one way or another. “The worst thing you can do is drive three hours to a trout stream to fish for an hour and then come home,” he told me. “I got them right out onto lakes in the city limits fishing for bass and sunfish.”

Of course, learning from their peers is an ideal way for teenagers to learn fly fishing, but few places are lucky enough to have someone with the vision and organizational skills of Evan Griggs. But we can learn from his wisdom. “Get them out on the water. The more hands-on, the better,” he advised me. “And don’t preach to them. They’ve just spent six hours having teachers talk at them, and the last thing they need is another structured lesson.”

Simon Perkins, who ran a kids’ fly-fishing camp in Montana, has seen mistakes parents make in his experience as both a soccer coach and a fly-fishing instructor and guide, and he agrees. “The last thing a kid needs is to be lectured to or learn the way his parents learned,” he tells me. “It’s so natural for parents to pressure their kids, but it’s a terrible thing to witness from the outside. My best advice to the parent of a teenager is to let someone else start them out. It could be a formal class or camp, but it can also be a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or fishing guide. I’ll often guide a kid and parent together and I’ll make a suggestion on the kid’s technique, and often it immediately fixes the problem. The parent will say, ‘That’s exactly how I told him to do it,’ but it’s always better coming from someone other than the parent.”

Embrace the Complexities With Older Kids
Unlike their younger siblings, teenagers thrive on the complexity of fly fishing. Caleb Parent, whose relationship with his father has blossomed since they both learned to fly fish together, feels it helps him deal with the immense pressures looming over today’s teenagers. Even though Caleb lives in northern Vermont, no high school today is a Norman Rockwell painting. “I like the freedom of it,” he told me. “I like to be on my own. I don’t like the commitment of high school sports. When I’m out there fly fishing, my mind and body are so involved, I can’t think about homework and grades. It’s a good stress reliever, it’s a healthy outdoor thing, and it’s good exercise.”

He likes fly fishing as opposed to conventional fishing because it’s more involved, more hands-on. He loves the complexity of the sport.

“You’re not just sitting there. You’re casting, reading the water, picking out the right fly. It’s just more fun. And although it’s a good bonding experience with my dad and a good self-bonding experience and helps me deal with family and emotional issues, I still get frustrated. I get my leader tangled, or I go out multiple times and get skunked. But it’s the great days that keep me coming back.”

If you have any doubt about the appeal of complexity to teenagers, look over the shoulder of a teen playing a computer game. Their minds thrive on solving complex puzzles, and rather than complaining about how much time they spend on the computer, it’s our duty as parents to gently guide them into something that provides an equal degree of problem solving and complexity, but completely removed from any electronic device. Fly fishing does fit the bill.

Today’s teenagers have peers as fly-fishing role models, unlike kids in past generations. What was once the province of old guys smoking pipes and drinking scotch has been discovered by the ski and snowboard crowd, particularly in the Rocky Mountains. In the winter you’ll often find fly fishing and snow sports coexisting in the same areas. Every ski resort in Colorado has a trout stream nearby, so naturally some of the ski bums in the area, who were already outdoors-inclined, discovered something fun to do when snow conditions weren’t perfect, and fly-fishing requires a little more mental stimulation than running or mountain biking.

And they made movies that mimicked the high energy of skiing and snowboarding films, with fly fishers traveling to places like Mongolia and living in yurts, or fishing their way across the United States in a fashion that would make Hunter S. Thompson smile.

Not all of the films coming out of this renaissance have been home movie quality. Fly-fishing movies by such brilliant filmmakers as Felt Soul Media have won film festival awards across the United States and Canada, and they are as artfully produced and as visually attractive as any modern documentaries. And filmmakers have given back to the resource. Felt Soul’s Red Gold was a stunning, crafty rail against a monster gold mine planned for the Alaskan wilderness, and did more for raising awareness about the fight against Pebble Mine than any other form of media.

If you have a teenager you’d like to interest in fly fishing, I can think of nothing better than renting a copy of one of Felt Soul’s fly-fishing films, like Running Down the Man, The Hatch, or Eastern Rises. They’ll take you and your child from Colorado to Baja to Kamchatka, and your teenager will see fly fishing in a whole new light, from their own generation’s perspective. The personalities in the films aren’t teenagers, but the excitement level and production techniques are more in tune with music videos than A River Runs Through It. And don’t rule out the value of fly-fishing videos on YouTube and similar crowd-sourced media venues, in terms of both entertainment and education. Granted, the educational value of many YouTube fly-fishing videos is a crapshoot, but many of the 20-something fly fishers I know learned most of their fly fishing from YouTube.

Tom Rosenbauer is vice president of marketing with The Orvis Company of Manchester, Vermont. He is the author of many important books, including the best-selling The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, which was revised and updated in 2007.

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