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July 21, 2008

Short-Attention-Span Anglers

Nine tips help you lower the bar to kid level and turn tough days into great memories

If there's nothing more fun than sharing a boat with happy little anglers, there's nothing more disheartening than being stuck in a boat with unhappy little anglers. The former situation makes for days you never want to forget; the latter, for days you only wish you could forget.

Having had it both ways, it's my intent to encourage Sport Fishing readers to get kids out on the water - their kids, grandkids, nephews/nieces, neighbor kids, friends' kids and whomever - in a way that makes every outing memorable. Toward that end, I've called upon professionals who are often asked to take out diminutive anglers and ensure them a good time, persuading these guides to share some hard-earned expertise with the rest of us.
 
Such wisdom should be considered and valued, because if you want to ensure your pint-size fishermen have a great day, you'll need to throw out your usual game plan. Meeting the expectations of a couple of 6 year olds is an entirely different ball game than simply planning a day on the water with your regular (adult) fishing buddies.
 
For the purposes of this feature, "kids" generally means those no older than 12. While adolescence brings its own unique set of problems, as smaller anglers reach that stage, they become considerably more self-sufficient. 
 
1. Action on the Set!
If this entire feature were boiled down to the single-most essential word, it would have to be: action. The old busy-hands-are-happy-hands adage never applied more. Our experts all agree on this point.
 
"Kids want action, and they want it now!" laughs Capt. Tony Murphy of Key West. In his waters, nothing beats live shrimp because "everything eats 'em." Bait your small anglers' hooks accordingly; then, "put a chum block in the bag and have at it." On the other hand, Capt. Ken Roy of Crystal River, Florida, says in his area, bait stealers can be a problem when using shrimp, so he cuts Fish Bites into half-inch squares. For similar reasons, Georgia skipper Billy Bice generally brings a pound of squid that, he says, attracts most bottom feeders and stays on the hook far better than shrimp.
 
Susan Gros, who outfits fishing trips throughout Louisiana, likes putting baits beneath a cork or float when possible. That makes the action immediately visible.
 
Really comprehending the rule that action is king requires serious adult anglers to look at things in a completely different light. Steve Martin's advice to "get small" takes on a whole new meaning. See the world through the eyes of a tyke and things change.
 
"Remember that size is relative," advises Capt. Chris Myers, who fishes central Florida's Indian River estuary. "If kids have never really caught fish before, a 2-pounder is big to them."
 
Adopt the attitude of Bice. "Our main target [on trips with young kids]   is ... anything."
 
"Just keep those rods bent!" says Gros. "Go somewhere you know the action will be steady, whatever the species."
 
Another advantage of lowering the bar to kid level: It makes getting skunked  (definitely a bad thing) pretty darn unlikely.
 
Bice also points out that it pays to have all the gear rigged and ready to fish before leaving the dock. "I want us to start fishing ASAP when we drop the hook - no waiting around."

2. Redefine "Trophy"
Curb your trophy lust. Wait for another day to spend hours trying to hook one or two big fish. Consider every fish to be a  trophy; your young charges sure will. Share their enthusiasm, advises Capt. Ed Walker, who has been making little anglers happy on Florida's central Gulf coast for many years. "Get excited about their catches no matter how small the fish are." Avoid setting very high expectations, adds Roy.
 
A 3-pound jack or ladyfish, species shunned by some experienced inshore anglers, may evoke the same excitement on a child's rod that an 80-pound tarpon would offer you. Myers points out that, "Ladyfish can be huge in the eyes of a child - and they jump!"
 
And then there are sharks. Never     forget that - glamour species be darned - hooking any shark will immediately ratchet up the excitement meter several notches. "There's something about kids and sharks," says Murphy. And if a shark is longer than the angler, that'll give most kids bragging rights for weeks.

3. Make it a Team Effort
Unlike adults, who may be perfectly happy to be waited on, kids like to be involved and feel important. So from the get-go, "bring excitement to the trip," says Capt. Frank Bourgeois of Spring Hill, Florida. "Teach the young ones to help out with   the chores of preparing and launching the boat. Let them hold the rope with a parent or, if they're old enough, on their own."
 
Then, for that ultimate thrill, help them try their hand at the helm. "The most memorable part of a kid's fishing trip may be driving the boat," says Bice. (Caveat! Before letting a mini-angler take the wheel, "I've already attached the kill switch to my belt and made clear that    I'm the only one allowed to touch the throttle!" Little hands, he advises from experience, just love to go fast.)
 
On the fishing grounds, kids can be involved in most phases of the day, including pulling the anchor ("though usually with a little help from me or another adult," Bice says). Involving kids in such things takes a bit of mental discipline at the outset because generally we want to get where we're going. That means it's fastest and easiest for us to haul up the anchor while the kids sit in the cockpit. But taking extra time to let them feel instrumental in getting an anchor into the boat can be well worth some extra time.
 
Even helping keep the cockpit deck clean can be a task appreciated by small hands, says Gros.
 
If part of your day requires catching bait with sabiki rigs or just small baited hooks, most pipsqueaks will be thrilled to help (review the concept of action being king, above).
 
Show little anglers how to net a keeper and help them do that when someone else reels a fish to the boat, Gros advises.
 
When Bice says, "I explain to kids about the Intracoastal Waterway when en route to fishing grounds," he hits on a key term. Explain things throughout the trip.
 
"I never do anything in a boat with a child that I don't explain to him or her as far as how and why I am doing it,"  says Capt. Marcia Foosaner of Palm City, Florida.
 
And, Bourgeois adds, "Help kids learn how to fish instead of doing everything  for them."
 
"Explain about the fish they're catching," reminds Gros on yet another point that experienced adults might neglect.

4. Explore Everything
Begin by making clear to your peewee fishermen that your outing "is about having fun, and the captain isn't going to get mad if they want to hold a live bait or play with the soft plastics," says Walker.
 
The concept of exploration seems to be tied in closely with bait, from the experience of most of these professionals. Live baits are fun for little anglers to play with, observes Gros.
 
"The livewell is always one of the biggest attractions for kids on my boat," says Walker. Kids may even forsake fast action for the livewell. And that's OK, Walker says: "Don't take young kids away from the bait tank and make them fish if they're not keen to."
 
Plan to check out whatever comes up in a cast net, if you throw one: "The seahorses, starfish, crabs, shrimp, baby fish that you and I would normally throw back without a second thought are fascinating to kids."
 
No livewell? Take a bucket, suggests Gros. Putting some live baits in does a marvelous job of keeping small hands occupied.
 
"Take time to point out and tell them about birds and other wildlife that you see along the way," says Capt. J.R. Waits of Charleston, South Carolina.
 
"Getting close to a pod of dolphins or a group of manatees, or even just a big stingray, is at least as exciting to most kids as is catching a fish," Walker says.
 
Such normally mundane matters as a jellyfish or a pelican diving can be points of excitement, Bice says.
 
If you're going to be offshore where you may run across floating sargassum weed, take a small mesh dip net, says Gros. "Scoop up some of the weed, and let the kids carefully explore all the neat fish and crustaceans [living in] that nursery." Of course, this is fishing too - just on a smaller scale!

5. Keep it Brief
Another point of complete agreement involves the duration of a fishing outing when your anglers are of the Lilliputian sort. Keep it short! What "short" is exactly depends on whom you ask, but three to five hours seems about right, per our panel of experts.
 
"No matter how good the fishing is, I find that young kids typically lose interest after a few hours," says Waits.
 
"After 3 1/2 or four hours, small kids are ready for something else - and so am I!" laughs Bice.
 
And if you're fishing inshore waters with islands or very shallow flats, your small charges will charge out of the boat eagerly given the chance; Foosaner says that's a very good thing to do at some point. "Ever see a kid who's sat still for too long?" she muses, rhetorically.
 
If mom's along, let her make the call about heading in, Murphy advises. "Mum will have you all back to the dock before the whining train comes down the tracks. But if dad's running the show, he can be very competitive" and keep young anglers out longer than they really want.

6. Put Safety First
Make clear before you leave the dock that safety is paramount. Myers makes sure kids know that a boat is not the place for running around or general horseplay such as trying to balance on gunwales. ("Pet peeve," says Murphy: "Kids who think my T-top is a set of monkey bars.")
 
Life vests are required on young children on the water in most states, at least when under way. Some skippers note this as a good time to broach the importance of keeping life vests on while aboard, since it would be a shame to see anyone get arrested or ticketed for breaking the law.
 
Hooks, of course, present another safety concern with inexperienced but enthusi-astic anglers: "Remove the barbs from hooks" by pinching them down, advises Bourgeois. That way, a hook stuck in a small hand will be a temporary trauma versus a major disaster. (Also, the skipper points out, the lack of a barb "helps catch fish because less pull is needed at the hook-set, and it makes removing fish a breeze.")

7. Pack Essential Supplies
Here again, keep in mind that your young anglers likely have sensibilities   different from peers who fish with you. I recall vividly being in the middle of a hot bite and, even as I was obsessed with   getting another cast into the fray, my young son, Gabe, watched happily for some time as he worked on a cheese sandwich. First things first.
 
Accordingly, all the experts concur: Don't leave the dock without plenty of food, including snacks, water and drinks. Other recommendations include:
 
? footwear - preferably nonskid deck shoes

? cap - especially in a boat without cover on a sunny day

? sunscreen - a must (and do everyone a favor: Make sure it's a kind warranted not to sting eyes!)

? coloring books and crayons - a couple of pros say they carry 'em and have, at times, been glad of it.

8. Be Patient
This may seem like a "Duh!" but kid-experienced captains will tell you that anglers not used to taking small kids fishing may need to make an effort to remember this rule. Expect tangled lines and rigs at the outset; then, advises Bice, you can be ready to laugh it off. "Never show anger to children when fishing," he urges. Waits similarly cautions against allowing yourself to become frustrated on the water.

9. Odds 'n' Ends
How young is too young? Of course, that depends so much on the kids, the boat, the type of fishing and so on that there's no hard line. But most pros, like Foosaner, say 4 or 5 is about where they draw the line.
 
Heading offshore can provide a marvelous experience - but avoid it   with small novices when it's rough; you may not even notice it, but they're more likely to, Walker says.
 
Explain the concept of catch-and-release, suggests Gros, and give young anglers the option to release fish.
 
Avoid a crowd, especially with smaller kids who may need extra room (including when they cast).
 
Don't hesitate to pass off a rod with a hooked fish: "Never mind who hooked it; if a kid reels in a fish, he or she caught it!" says Bice.

Ultimately, how much fun kids have on a fishing trip often has much to do with the attitude the kids bring aboard, which is often a function of how they're raised. "I'm not usually much worried about what kind of kids are going to show up" on a fishing day, says Murphy. "It's what kind of parents."
 
For those who adapt their fishing per the suggestions above, generally, kids are easy, says Walker. "I'd rather take out kids with an 'everyday dad' than an expert flats fisherman with sky-high expectations."
 
In the final analysis, Bourgeois says getting young anglers out on the water is about far more than just a fun time. "The future of fishing is our ability to show kids that there's more to life than their Xbox."