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February 10, 2012

Fishing With Kids

Canyon Critters: Tips on how to break your kid in right for a lifetime of angling enjoyment.

The phrase "take a kid fishing" has a whole new meaning when your destination is the edge of the continental shelf and your quarry is big game. Hours of running, rough seas and adult-size gear are all major stumbling blocks that Junior will have to overcome. Besides, can kids really handle fish like tunas, wahoo and big dolphin in the first place? You bet they can, as long as you’re willing to make a few special preparations and some minor adjustments to your game plan. So give those your budding anglers the trip of a lifetime — and get ’em hooked for good.

Age of Enlightenment
Just how old is old enough when it comes to taking a kid offshore? Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. You have to take maturity, physical ability and behavior into account and then consider the size and comfort level of your boat. On a 60-footer, you could probably tote your toddler to Toms Canyon, off New Jersey, without a problem. Try it on a 24-foot center console, and the kid will never want to leave the sight of land again. The solution is on-the-water experience. Start him off nearshore and work your way up to 20-mile runs, and you’ll know when he’s ready to make the long haul.

“I’ve taken out hundreds of kids through the years,” says Capt. Joe Riley, a 30-year veteran who charters a 46-foot Ocean Yachts, “and if people aren’t confident their kids can handle a full day offshore, I suggest they start out with something like a half-day bluefish trip. My son Shane was on the boat when he was still an infant; I knew he was ready to go offshore at 7; and by the time he was 10, he was good enough to mate.”

Talk to other full-time fisher fathers, and you’ll hear more of the same: Mate John Unkart’s sons were on bay trips as infants and made their way offshore by the time they were 7; offshore power-cat specialist Tommy Fowler took his son flounder fishing when the kid was 2 and to the canyons at age 9; the Rudow kids were fishing nearshore as soon as they could grasp a rod handle and graduated to became canyon critters at the age of 8. The more fishing fathers you talk to, the more this 7- to 10-year-old age range comes up.

For those familiar with childhood development, this should come as no surprise; according to a 2009 stages of development study by the Gesell Institute, the age of 7 represents a time frame when most kids show greatly improved motor skills and coordination while also transitioning to a calmer temperament. Put these factors together with individual experience, and it means that, generally speaking, kids are both physically and mentally ready for that first run to the canyon somewhere in between 7 and 10 years old.

Occupational Hazard
Regardless of which Captain or Dad you talk to, one common issue comes up: Nothing will turn a kid off to fishing more quickly than boredom. You need to be prepared in case the fish don’t cooperate to keep a kid occupied. “We keep kids involved,” Riley says. “We bring them on the bridge, let them steer and show them how to rig a ballyhoo. If they want to give it a shot, we let them rig one and maybe even catch a fish on a bait they rigged themselves.”

There are plenty of other tactics you can use to keep a kid entertained between bites. Give a 10-year-old a long-handled dip net, post him by the gunwale and let him scoop up sargassum as you troll. The shrimp, crabs and small fish that invariably end up in the net can be just as interesting as catching a fish. Or hand him some fishing line and teach him how to tie knots. For many children, knots are like puzzles, and practicing will hold their interest until they’ve perfected that improved clinch or palomar. Another never-miss technique is to ask a kid to jump into the fighting chair and crank in a line or two to check the bait, even when it’s not necessary.

When all else fails, adjust your game plan. Switch from trolling for tuna to bailing school dolphin. Kids will be every bit as excited by a 5-pounder dancing on the end of a spinning line as they will when they hook into a marlin on a 50. Or consider taking a drift over a wreck so he can reel up a few bottom dwellers, trolling a bit too close to the reef by “accident” so a barracuda gets on the line, or making your way inshore, where bluefish are swarming. Any way you can, get some action going.