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Working to get Baltimore kids hooked on fishing

Dee Tochterman, who has been teaching kids to fish for 25 years, says it's an activity that can bring together families and people from all walks of life. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Each spring, for 25 years, Dee Tochterman has taught countless children the basics of fishing. Co-owner of Tochterman's Fly Shop, a longtime fixture in East Baltimore, she routinely ushers youngsters and their parents onto nearby Chapel Stree for a quick lesson in casting.

"If they can do it here, amid all these lines and telephone poles, they can do it anywhere," she says.

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The Baltimore Sun sat down with Tochterman, a lifelong angler, to learn how best to educate kids in fishing.

You've been fishing since you were 6. What are your earliest memories?

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Standing on the bank at Loch Raven with a pole alongside my mom. She worked 12-hour days at Westinghouse, so fishing was her calm. The water is mesmerizing, especially for a child. We'd stay from morning to dusk, eating cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off. I can still hear the birds, trees and bugs – and mom singing Conway Twitty songs.

Remember your first catch?

It was an old black tennis shoe and it scared me to death. It came at me so fast that I didn't know what it was, so I dropped my pole and ran. I caught a little catfish that same day and, when I grabbed it, one of the fins poked me.

What else went wrong?

I got hooked in the back of my head, while casting. My mother pinched the barb and got it out. It didn't hurt that much. If Mom hooked herself she didn't cry, so I wasn't going to cry either.

Yet you kept fishing?

Mom gave me compliments to keep me charged up. She'd say, "Look how cute you look with that rod in your hand." I'm not sure but I'll bet that the first time we went fishing, Mom put her line in water without a hook so that I'd catch the first fish. She'll always be in my heart.

What else did your mother teach you?

Patience. She never yelled at me. You don't want a parent teaching you to fish if they're the type to get frustrated easily. Remember, if you take a child fishing, it's his day. It's not "I'm going fishing and I'm taking you along." You're there to teach them and not to say, "Just do it." You can't dismiss them.

If you're both newbies, should you and your child just head for a pond and wing it?

Practice casting in the backyard first. You don't want to go fishing and get your lines all tangled up. Iron the kinks out. But use a plug while you're practicing so you don't hook the dog or the cat.

So ought a parent know how to fish first?

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Not necessarily. If you're out there learning together, then you're no longer a parent; you're part of the fun. A parent says, "How'd you catch the first fish?" and the kid says, "Hey, I'll show you."

Does that happen much?

Oftentimes kids will catch the first one. Their hands are smaller and more sensitive, like a woman's. They feel the tug faster.

Is there a best time to take a child fishing?

Early in the morning, when it's not too hot, or just before sunset. If you're fishing saltwater, go when the tide is in.

Is it easier to teach boys or girls to fish?

Girls listen better; they pay attention and hear every word. Boys hear pieces of words.

Better to start with live bait?

Bloodworms for saltwater fishing, earthworms for freshwater. Live bait catches all the time.

What's the best way to collect earthworms?

Soak some newspaper, leave it in a shady area, wait a few hours and you'll find the worms. They eat the starch out of the paper.

What if a kid is squeamish about cutting worms and says: "I can't do that to Ernie?"

Never make fun of him. I couldn't cut worms at first so I used rubber cream worms for bait, or bugs, or bologna. The second year, Mom showed me how to use real worms but said, "I'm not going to do it for you." I refused until she caught a fish, showed it off and said, "See?" Then I did it.

What if he catches nothing?

Either he'll want to go back, because he's frustrated — it's like playing the claw machine, over and over, at the beach — or he'll quit because he didn't want to do it in the first place.

How much should you spend on equipment?

Keep it simple: rod, push-button reel, bobber, hook and some bait. You can do it for less than $30. It's not expensive to share a day with your kid.

What if he gets bored?

Make it fun. Put a practice plug on his line, walk away and say, "See if you can hit me." Or let him go off and skip stones or find bugs. If you start catching fish, don't you think he'll come back?

And if that doesn't work?

If they don't want to be there, there's nothing you can do. They've got to get that first fish. If you catch one, hand over the pole and let him feel the tug. If he loses the fish, well, that's how you learn. But once they feel that fish on the line and start bringing it in, the adrenaline gets going and that kid is hooked. The best face there is, is a kid holding that little fish. He may be holding it at arm's length because, eewww, he doesn't want it near him, but it's the best look ever.

Is it better to start fishing on land, pier or boat?

A bank is best; it's more relaxed. If it's a hot day, you can't get off a boat and it's tough on a kid if he's sick. You don't want to pop a city kid on a boat right away.

What if your kid falls in the water?

Pull him out. I fell off of piers a few times — or was pushed. Mom's rule was: Whoever catches the first fish has to get wet.

Would you give a child his own tackle box?

Absolutely, and don't make kids share them. It's a $10 box with, maybe, one lure. But it's his, and his alone.

Should a youngster handle the fish he caught?

Sure. Handle it in the lip and show him how to take the hook out. Or use a plastic fish grabber that helps you hold the back of the fish's neck. A lot of kids now use circle hooks, which only catch the fish in its mouth and do no internal damage. Also, teach them never to put a rag on a fish; it takes off the slime that protects from diseases.

Then what?

If you're not going to eat it, release it. If a child wants to admire the fish and take pictures, put it in a bucket for a few minutes with an aerator and some ice water, to slow it down.

How long should you fish for?

As long as the child wants to. Mom and I would be out all day and come home so tired we could barely stay awake in the car. We'd sing, with the windows rolled down, to keep from falling asleep.

As a child, did the fish you caught taste better than store-bought ones?

Of course. Mom grilled the first fish I kept, a little perch, and put it on my plate. I was small but, to her surprise, I ate it all.

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Is it better to go fishing for the first time with your child alone or in a group?

One-on-one is best. Friends are distracting, unless they really want to learn. You and your kid want time to be with each other, and to respect each other.

What's the worst mistake a parent can make?

Leaving your cellphone on. When he gets home, the first thing a child says is, "Daddy was on the phone all day." So why were you out there? It's only a few hours with your kid, for gosh sakes. Once a child knows he's more important than that phone, imagine how much more he'll look up to you.

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