“How long have they been fishing with you?” he hollered. The old man leaned over the wooden railing of the walking bridge and gestured toward my sons who were wading upstream. As Joey fished some thin pocket water in the shade, Aiden searched the shallows for anything unusual to add to his daily rock collection. The sun-drenched day was warm enough for wet wading, and the boys had been out with me for about an hour.
I waded downstream and stopped under the walking bridge to visit with the stranger. We watched my sons and chatted for a while. He told me stories about his childhood in Connecticut, of rivers and rope swings and cheap fishing gear. When Aiden turned downstream to hold up a new prize from the streambed, and when Joey yelled down that he just missed another one, the stranger and I waved back and replied with big thumbs up.
“So, really . . . how many years have they been fishing?” He asked again.
“Well,” I said. Aiden is six and Joey is eight. I think they both started casting fly rods around five, but they cast spinning rods a little earlier.”
I explained that, from the beginning, Going fishing with these kids was less about catching trout and more about taking an adventure together. What can we see today? What will we find? Those are the questions to focus on rather than, How many fish will we catch?
Just then Joey hooked a trout on the shade line of a poplar tree — right where the fish was supposed to be. After a brief closing word with the stranger, I quickly waded upstream to help Joey.
That was about two years ago. And it was a good day — a memorable trip where Aiden found a piece of metal that he insisted was a sheriff’s badge, and Joey hooked two trout on a dry dropper rig.
But just a few months ago I had a parallel experience, at the same walking bridge, with my boys in roughly the same spot. Aiden was fishing this time.
I turned toward the voice when I heard some unsolicited advice from the bridge:
“Man, those kids are young. Be careful out there.”
Surprised, I stared back at the young couple crossing the bridge, and they nodded upstream toward my boys.
“Thanks.” I said flatly. And they walked onto the weedy path on the other side, disappearing into the woods.
What I’m about to argue should be taken with a generous serving of reason and caution. A lot of preparation and awareness goes into keeping kids safe around any body of water.
But with that in mind, I’ll say this: Don’t hold kids back from the experience. Put them in the right conditions, and kids can handle a river. I’m talking here about wading trout streams. Rules from a boat are different, and they can handle that too, but my focus is on getting kids’ feet into the creeks.
Without getting too grumpy about the good old days, I’ll mention that my Mom was a worrier. What Mom isn’t? And yet, she gave me the freedom to walk deep into our twelve-acres of forest and further into the surrounding land. I rode my bike on the road (yes, without a helmet), and I climbed to the top tier of the tall trees in our front woods. (Maple trees are perfect for a ten-year-old kid.) I also played in the small ditches and streams nearby. My boys do the same now, and sometimes they have a fly rod in hand.
Things that help . . .
Here are a few points to help worrying Moms and Dads feel a lot more at peace about fishing with kids.
If you fall, get up!
This is where it starts. It’s been my message to my sons since they were toddlers. My boys were never the type to lay on the floor after running full steam into the corner of the coffee table, because I stressed one message from the beginning. I’ve said it so many times that my wife just rolls her eyes now.
“If you fall, get up.”
Simple right? But that immediate instinct is what keeps kids safe in a trout stream.
We might assume that a kid who falls down while wading will react by trying to get his feet back under him. But it helps to teach him this point, over and over.
If they’re wearing waders, then a wading belt is a must. The belt seals off everything from the waist down, at least for a few moments. It keeps water from pouring in and dragging them down when they do fall.
The stability for my boys improved dramatically once I enhanced their traction. Studs, felt or both make a world of difference for all of us, and better traction lends new confidence to new wading anglers.
The Grip Studs that I wrote about last week are my favorite option. The short, auger style shaft doesn’t go all the way through the thin soles of kids’ boots. And Grip Studs hold tight in my boys’ wet wading sneakers as well.
Gluing carpet to the boot soles is another option. Any carpet remnants will work, but low pile with a tight weave works best. Use rubber cement or Goop. That’s what my uncle did for me when I was young. It works, and it stays on for some time, depending on your attention to detail during the application.
The most pertinent danger out there is a stray cast. I always have polarized sunglasses on my boys when they’re on the water with me. An unexpected hook in skin is one thing, but a hook in the eye may cause permanent, life-altering damage.
Why not crimp down every barb on every hook? When the hook does find an unwelcome target, the barbless version backs out with fewer sobs and tears.
Knees — Thighs — Belt
My boys ask me all the time: “Hey Dad . . . knee deep, thigh deep or belt deep?”
It’s not about how deep the water is. Rather it’s about how deep I allow them to wade. I judge the conditions; I consider what I know about the area and about their wading skills, and I set the rule.
“You can only wade up to your knees here, buddy.”
As much as I trust my boys on our home water, I still don’t take them out when the water is running high or muddy. They need to see their next step. (And that’s another good reason for the polarized lenses.)
The real challenge is in finding the right water. It must be shallow enough for small kids to wade. But it should be set up so the trout aren’t easily spooked by the young angler’s approach.
I spend a lot of time thinking about sections of river that suit them. And in some rivers there aren’t many, to be honest. The best spots are places where they can wade in shallow water and cast to something a little deeper and darker, only ten feet away.
The range of water a kid can effectively fish grows with them. And soon enough their stronger, taller legs and arms have them wading rough water and picking off trout that were previously unreachable. It’s a lot of fun to watch.
And it starts with you
If you are confident in the river, then your son or daughter can be confident too. That goes for safe wading and for the fishing itself. Because, the best advice for anyone hoping to take a kid fishing more than once is to be a good angler first. If you know the water, you can wade it safely with your child. And if you know the habits of trout and a few techniques to catch them, you can catch trout with any kid.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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