How to Get Kids Hooked on Fishing and Create Future Conservationists

For many good reasons, fishing is one of the country’s most popular pastime activities, with roughly 50 million Americans pursuing hundreds of different fish species on countless different waterbodies each year.

Fishing is an activity that can enjoyed by the whole family. Photo by Russell Bassett.
The sport of angling offers excellent opportunities to strengthen family bonds and create lifelong memories. Few people remember their best day of playing video games or first day of watching television, but most everyone remembers their best day of fishing and first fish caught. Angling has even been proven to relieve stress, promote health, and create appreciation for the natural environment. Fishing is also an important part of the American economy and generates millions annually for fish conservation and wildlife habitat.

All these are good reasons for kids to pick up angling at an early age, but perhaps most importantly are the smiles fishing creates. It’s a ton of fun, and a child’s first few fishing experiences will often determine if they are hooked for life or if they decide they would rather be watching television. While some kids do pick up fishing on their own, most often it’s a fishing mentor—typically a family member—that nurtures the passion for the sport and desire to conserve the resource. Here are some practical tips to get kids hooked on fishing and to help turn a child angler into a champion of conservation.

Catching is key

Sam Wurdinger, board member with NWF's Oregon affiliate the Northwest Steelheaders, gets his 2-year-old daughter Grace into her first fish, at annual family fishing event the Steelheaders sponsor. (Photo courtesy the Wurdinger family)
Proud father Sam Wurdinger, board member with NWF’s Oregon affiliate the Northwest Steelheaders, helped his 2-year-old daughter Grace catch her first fish earlier this year at an annual family fishing event sponsored by the Steelheaders. Photo courtesy the Wurdinger family.

Location, location, location

Doing the research to know the best local spots to catch fish frequently can make all the difference. There are many online and human resources to do this, but when in doubt, you can always ask your local tackle shop or fish and wildlife agency office where to get kids into fish. Many expert anglers will tell you fishing doesn’t necessarily mean catching, and can have a blast getting skunked. But for a kid just starting out, catching is the fun part. It’s about action and excitement. At this point in their angler development, quality of fish doesn’t matter as much as quantity.

Keep it simple

You don’t need to start with cheap kids rod, but you’re also better off not starting a kid with fly-fishing gear. An ultralight spinning outfit will work just fine for most kids. A small hook (size 8-12), a sinker, and a small bobber with a little piece of bait (worms work great) on light line (4 pounds or so) is a tried and true method that is very effective on many different species of fish, including panfish, trout, bass, and catfish. Fishing can be prepared to schooling, with bait and bobber elementary; spinners, plugs and jigs secondary; and fly fishing graduate level. It’s a lot more practical to start kids with basic arithmetic than go straight to calculus.

Ensuring a fun time

Be patient and complimentary

Line tangles, snags, and lost fish are all part of the fishing experience. Heap lots of praise on young anglers when they do well and don’t criticize them when something goes wrong. Never show frustration. Have two rods setup so the adult can fix a line tangle on one, while the child is able to keep fishing with the second. Fishing can be yucky to some kids, as both bait and fish can be slimy and stinky. If a child doesn’t want to bait the hook or touch the fish, that’s perfectly okay, do it for them. You can coach them into doing it for themselves down the road.

Be prepared

It’s no fun fishing when you are getting bit by mosquitoes, in the middle of a down pour, cold or hot, or hungry and thirsty. Be sure and note the weather and conditions before your fishing trip, and bring along some insect repellent, chairs, sunscreen, wet or cold weather gear, snacks and drinks, bandages, extra fishing gear, and anything else you may need to be comfortable and relaxed. Don’t hesitate to call it a day if the conditions get too rough or the fishing gets too slow. Better to try again another time than be miserable or bored, and since most kids have short attention spans, an hour or two is often plenty when starting out.

Creating young conservationists

Angler ethics

Fishing rules can be dauntingly complicated for adults, let alone children. Don’t bombard children with a bunch of rules, but do explain in simple terms why we have licenses, bag and size limits, and gear restrictions. Explain that poaching is illegal and you can get in trouble for not following fishing regulations, but that those regs are in place so there are enough fish for everyone to enjoy. If a child wants to keep and eat his or her catch, that’s perfectly fine. This is a good time to instill an ethic of keeping only what you will eat. Like fishing itself, cleaning and preparing fish can be valuable learning and bonding experiences between adult and children.

There's a lot for a kid to discover around water, including crawdads. (photo by Russell Bassett)
There’s a lot for kids to discover around water like this crawdad. Photo courtesy Victoria Sundquist.

Respect for nature

Fishing is an excellent time to teach an appreciation and respect for nature. Bringing fish to the hand allows for the teaching of gills, scales, fins and other fish anatomy. Water bodies often hold many other creatures like crawdads, minnows, and macroinvertebrates. Turning over rocks to see what creatures lie beneath can be a lot fun, and it’s also a great way to teach kids about fish diet and the life cycles of aquatic insects like mayflies and stoneflies. You may also see many other animals such as osprey and muskrat, and each of these creatures has an interesting and entertaining story to tell. Fishing is also a wonderful time to install a leave-no-trace ethic of not littering, and is great opportunity to teach the importance of good habitat and clean water for wildlife. Now, what are you waiting for? Go fish, and please take a kid with you!