|Mathew McKee's first fish, January, 2009.|
I’ve had a lot of impressive anglers on my boat over the past fifteen years but some of my most memorable trips have involved kids. I’ve seen some incredible things like a twelve-year-old jumping a 150 pound tarpon off Bokeelia or almost landing a world record permit on fly down in the Keys. But it’s the real young ones on their first flats trip that I look forward to fishing with the most.
I’ve always allowed my customers to bring their children along on a charter as long as they’re at least five years old and can wear the mandatory life jackets. Since most of my fishing is done in less than three feet of water I feel totally comfortable doing this and I love being able to introduce them to some of the amazing things that swim in our waters.
At the same time, young children can be tricky and restless on a small boat like my 18 foot Beavertail so it’s important that they enjoy the experience right off the bat. Here’s a quick rundown of what I try to do when I have a kid onboard for their first fishing trip and really want to hook them on the sport.
The most important thing is a no-brainer: catch them something and do it quickly. Kids need bent rods and it really doesn’t matter to them what species is doing the bending. A pinfish is as impressive to a five-year old as a blue marlin if it’s the first thing they’ve ever caught. Even the bait stealing puffer fish that we adults hate can make a kid scream with joy when they blow up on the deck. In other words, don’t waste time looking for tailing reds when on the flats when a pile of catfish are sitting right near your dock.
Here in the waters around Pine Island a big school of ladyfish is manna from heaven when I have children on the boat. I actually think these are the perfect species for kids because they do just about everything. Ladyfish will jump, run, pull really hard, and they even poop all over the deck, which most kids seem to find hilarious. On top of all that, since we don’t eat ladyfish so you get a chance to demonstrate some catch and release.
Of course if you really want to give kids a thrill just chop up a ladyfish (something that boys especially love to watch) and toss a hunk out for sharks. When I was guiding in the Keys and had a kid on board I was always shark fishing. Kids just love everything about it, especially seeing that unmistakable shape circling the boat. The species of shark doesn’t matter. The sluggish nurse sharks are just as much fun as anything when the drag is cranked down and they’re thrashing at the surface. Nurse sharks are also a lot safer to let kids touch when you leader them next to the boat. Here around Pine Island our most common sharks are the much more dangerous bulls and blacktips, so that’s an added thrill but not one I ever let anyone try to pet.
If the bite slows down and my young passengers start to get restless there are a few other tactics I turn to in order to channel that energy. A full baitwell is like a mini touch-tank at the aquarium. Kids love to play in the baitwell and mine has a clear lid that can’t accidentally slam shut. I always keep several dozen live shrimp in there and I also like to toss in a couple of pinfish and declawed blue crabs to let them chase around with the dip net. When my three year old nephew Matt was down from Pennsylvania for the first time playing the bait well was the highlight of his fishing trip. He landed his first catch, an awesome six inch pinfish, and then it was right back to messing with the shrimp. It never fails.
Kids also like to play in the tackle box if they get bored but you obviously don’t want them handling anything sharp like hooks or lures. I keep that gear safely stowed but I do leave out a clear Plano box full of dozens of different soft plastic baits. I let the kids pick out their favorite color if we’re jig fishing and the realistic DOA’s are especially fun for them to play with. Even after they spend an hour getting everything mixed up in there, they always seem to enjoy putting the baits back in order for me if I ask them to. Who knew tackle could be so much fun and such a great distraction?
Finally, when the kids are clearly ready to quit, we quit. Some can easily handle a full day’s fishing trip but most can’t. Forcing them to sit through even one extra hour on the boat when they’re already hot and restless will only make them forget all the fun they had at the beginning of the day. A four hour charter seems to work best and that’s also more than enough sun for most children. The idea is to send them home tired but not exhausted. And most importantly, send them home wanting to come back for more. If you do that, you’ve got an angler for life.