Children can be hooked on fishing, even when the big ones get away


On her first try, Reggie cast her brand-new Snoopy fishing pole so hard the little yellow rod and reel went right over the side of the boat into the deep, blue Minnesota lake.

Luckily, Dad snared the pole with his net just as it was about to sink. Good thing, too. On her very next cast, she caught a largemouth bass big enough for dinner.

"Wow!" was all Reggie could muster. Just 6 at the time, she's been hooked on fishing ever since.

Her brother Matt, meanwhile, has loved to fish since before he went to kindergarten. It didn't matter that he caught few "keepers" then: reeling in the bluegills from the edge of the dock, throwing them back and watching them swim off was thrill enough. I spent much of that trip to Minnesota threading slimy worms on Matt's hook -- true motherly devotion, I've always thought.

Now Matt and Reggie have their own tackle boxes and earnestly discuss the merits of various lures, hooks and bait with their dad, leaving me totally out of the loop. The "lucky" Snoopy pole belongs to 3-year-old Melanie, who is still happy to have mom bait her hooks.

I'm glad to do it too. There's something wonderful about watching kids fish, no matter what their ages -- the triumphant look when they reel in that first "big one," their discovery that they really don't need TV or video games to amuse themselves, their learning that patience does get rewarded -- sometimes at least.

"Fishing gives kids a much greater appreciation for the environment and what they can do to help preserve it," explains Harv Forsgren, who oversees education and fishing programs for children at the U.S. Forest Service.

"Once the kids get hooked on fishing, they'll be patient when it's slow and that's a natural opportunity to visit with one another -- a chance you don't get at home," says Mr. Forsgren, who fishes with his daughters near his Washington home.

Many parents must agree. Mr. Forsgren notes that interest in fishing is growing steadily. Today, there are more than 45 million anglers -- 9.5 million under age 16. In June, during National Fishing Week, more than 50,000 kids and 40,000 adults took part hundreds of fishing activities across the country.

There's even an outfit called Hooked on Fishing International that's sponsored by the American Sportfishing Association and does nothing but organize fishing programs for kids across the country with local recreation departments and state and federal agencies.

"To keep the sport going, we've got to get more kids involved," says co-founder Gordon Holland, from his Tulsa, Okla., office. That includes kids from single-parent homes whose moms or dads don't know a hook from a lure and kids from the inner city who may never have held a fishing pole.

"Nine out of 10, once they catch a fish, they love it," says Ben Cariaga, a Los Angeles County parks department recreation manager who sees fishing as one way to get kids off dangerous city streets and into parks. Mr. Cariaga adds that not only is fishing cheap -- a simple rod and reel can be had for less than $20 (a cane pole for much less) -- but it's a sport that can be enjoyed near home. "Just be sure to go somewhere where you'll find some fish," he says.

(For the free "Guide to Fishing Your National Forests," complete with local forest-service contacts and information on where you can catch what kinds of fish, write the USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 96090, Washington, D.C. 20090-6090.)

But hold on a minute before getting carried away by the notion of spending hours out in a boat communing with nature and a son or daughter. "Kids don't have the attention span adults do. They get tired and they get bored. You'll do best to keep it short and sweet," advises Gary Nordlie, veteran Minnesota fishing guide and high-school English teacher.

"Fish when the kids want to fish and take them home when they're sick of it," he says. "Remember that fishing is supposed to be fun."

Pick a nice day, and bring along plenty of drinks and snacks as well as sunscreen and sweat shirts in case it turns cool. "Don't get hung up on catching a big fish," Mr. Nordlie warns. "The thrill for kids is having something on their line," -- and having Mom and Dad make a big fuss over their catch.

"Fishing is like life," says Mr. Nordlie. "The harder you work at it, the better you do."

But not always. Every summer, when we head to Ludlow's Island resort on Lake Vermillion, Matt announces that this year he's definitely going to catch Big Jake, the oversized Northern Pike that he caught but that escaped before his dad could haul him into the boat several years ago.

"We've gotten his brothers and his cousins," he says with a laugh. "But Big Jake always seems to get away."

That's the lesson and the fun, of course: Keeping up the never-ending chase for an elusive prize that's always heartbreakingly close yet just out of reach. Maybe this year.

Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Send them to: Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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