Getting youngsters hooked on fishing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Andy and Opie. Norman Thayer and Billy (of "On Golden Pond"). Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Fishing buddies, one and all.

It takes time and patience to cultivate a fishing buddy, and it's never too early to start. But if your potential buddy is a youngster, take it slow. Overwhelm a kid with equipment and "helpful" advice, and you may turn him or her off forever.

"They have to want to do it. They have to want to go out with Mommy or Daddy," says Dee Taylor, who teaches kids how to use fishing equipment at T. G. Tochterman & Sons tackle shop in Fells Point.

National Fishing Week is June 2-10, reason enough to begin drawing up a blueprint. (And anglers under 16 can freshwater-fish for free in Maryland.)

Experts say lessons have to be adapted to the age, attention span and patience of each young angler. But there are some basic rules of thumb to help ensure success:

No. 1: Keep initial instruction to a minimum, and don't push a youngster to do something he or she doesn't want to do.

"The first five minutes is all they're going to get from your lesson," says Wally Vait, a guide on the Gunpowder River. "There's so much that can be learned just by being out there."

If the child doesn't want to bait the hook or touch the fish, that's fine. If he or she wants to put the fish back in the water, that's fine, too.

No. 2: Guarantee a success story.

"Kids need to be able to catch fish by accident," Vait says. "They may catch fish that are only 3 or 4 inches, but they need to catch something."

Panfish - bluegills, crappie, white perch - are terrific for beginners. Don't bother with fancy bait. Worms and crickets will do the trick.

"Live bait will probably keep their attention more, and they'll probably get more hits," says Taylor.

Take your kids to one of the area's sure-fire fishing holes for a shot at landing Moby Bluegill. Piney Run Park in Carroll County, Centennial Lake in Howard County, Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County and Lake Waterford in Anne Arundel County are almost guaranteed to put a fish on a youngster's hook.

No. 3: Let the budding angler be part of the decision-making. Start during the planning phase. Take out a map and go over the route and location. Choose what you'll take for lunch and snacks. Remember, this is a buddy you're cultivating.

"You have to keep it informal," says Dusty Wissmath, a guide for 25 years who operates a fly-fishing school at the Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa. "Let the child dictate the flow of the day. If somebody wants to stop and have a sandwich or skip rocks, that's part of the day."

Some of the region's great fishing holes for kids have other things you can do.

Piney Run Park is one of the best places in the region because it has a nature center, snack stand and clean bathrooms. It also has canoe rentals, three fishing piers and lots of great fish.

Centennial Lake and Loch Raven have bathrooms and rental boats. Loch Raven also has a bridge to fish from.

No. 4: Give the youngster your full attention, and be careful what you say.

"If you take a kid fishing, you shouldn't [fish]," says Vait. "You've got to put yourself aside and concentrate on them. Once you start fishing, it's over for them."

Says Taylor, "Don't tell them they're wrong. As soon as you do that they stiffen up. Say, 'Let me show you that again.' "

Joe Swam, a Harford County police officer who oversees a one-day youth fly-fishing camp for the regional chapter of the Federation of Fly Fishers, counsels from experience.

"Kids get discouraged when things seem too hard," he says. "When I was teaching my oldest son, I tried too hard. I thought he would have the same degree of enthusiasm I did."

No. 5: Don't break the bank on gear, but don't buy cheap stuff that breaks the first day.

A basic spin fishing set, bait and bobbers (the balls that float on the surface and indicate a bite) will set you back about $30, says Taylor.

Cabela's and L. L. Bean offer some real bargains for fly-fishing beginners. For example, Bean's First-Cast Outfit, consisting of a 7-foot, 5-weight or an 8-foot, 6-weight rod, a reel, line and leader, goes for $79. A selection of 12 flies in a box is $19. The vest is $35 and the hip boots, $69.

Vait counsels to hold off on accessories. "They'll want a vest, and they'll want a hat. But if you buy it all right away, they'll have nothing to look forward to."

No. 6: Keep expectations low.

"Remind a kid that you don't catch fish every time out, and that it's not an indication of how good they are," Vait says. "Hopefully, the experience of being out together means it won't be a total disaster."

No. 7: A little bit goes a long way. Don't make a whole day of fishing.

"Even if [the outing] only lasts a half an hour, that's a long time in a 4-year-old's life," says Vait.

Taking a youngster out on a charter boat in the Chesapeake Bay may not be the perfect introduction to fishing. It can be a long day, with few distractions available.

No. 8: Don't forget the memories.

Pack a camera to capture a picture of your grinning youngster and his or her first trophy catch. Then remember to send a picture along with an application for a free "My First Fish" certificate from the state Department of Natural Resources. Applications are available from many tackle shops, and and they may be downloaded from the DNR's Web site: www.dnr.state. md.us/fisheries/recreational/tournament/mdsportfish.

No. 9: Use one of the sites set aside by the state for young fishermen.

DNR has a number of trout-fishing areas for kids, and some for kids, senior citizens and the blind. Those areas are spelled out on pages 25-26 in the state fishing-regulations booklet and on the DNR's Web site.

No. 10: Take advantage of events where your angler can hang out with anglers his or her own age.

DNR is holding free week-long camps this summer for kids 7-16 as part of the "Hooked on Fishing, Not Drugs" program. Participants can learn about boat safety and how to tie knots, cast and keep the environment clean.

The camps run from mid-July to mid-August at state parks in Baltimore, Harford, Cecil, Wicomico and Washington counties. Call Mark Lewandowski at 410-260-8809 for more information, or visit DNR's Web site.

Piney Run is sponsoring the Governor's Youth Fishing Derby, 6 a.m. to noon June 2, for kids under the age of 15. The entry fee is $3. Information: 410-795-6474.

The Harford County chapter of the Izaak Walton League is having a fishing day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 9 at its 2-acre pond in Jarrettsville. The pond will be stocked with bass, bluegills and trout. For more information, call 410-682-0147.

The USA Youth Fishing Rodeo will be held at Lake Burba at Fort Meade June 9 for children under 16. Call 301-677-6158.

A final bit of advice, from Dusty Wissmath: Remember that fishing is fun, and act accordingly.

"Nobody needs to know how to cast," he says. "It's not a life skill."

Fishing spots

Lake Waterford, Anne Arundel County. On Pasadena Road off Ritchie Highway. Twelve acres. Hours: 7 a.m. to sunset. Bathrooms, playground, concession stand, picnic area. Information: 410-222-6248.

Loch Raven Reservoir, Baltimore County. Beltway Exit 27 to Dulaney Valley Road. Twenty-four hundred acres. Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Boat rentals, fishing center, bathrooms, picnic area. Hours: dawn to sunset. Information: 410-887-7692.

Piney Run Park, Carroll County. Just west of Eldersburg, off Liberty Road. Three hundred acres. Hours: 6 a.m. to sunset, with exception of night-fishing tournaments. Boat rentals, nature center, bathrooms, picnic area. Entry fee. Information: 410-795-3274.

Centennial Lake, Howard County. On Route 108, just off Route 29. Fifty acres. Hours: dawn to dusk. Boat rentals, picnic areas, bathrooms. Information: 410-313-4700.

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