Some thoughts on teaching kids about fly fishing.
I’m often asked by eager parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, what is the right age to introduce a kid to fly fishing?
My answer is always the same: It depends on the kid! And, more important, it depends on how you define “introduce to fly fishing.”
If you’re talking about casting a 9-foot rod with a feathery bug tied to the end of the tippet… well, in our family, everyone got their first fly rod for their 10th birthday. It seemed like hitting double-digits was right about the age when attention span and coordination converged just enough to start waving that stick on a four-count rhythm. Then again, I have seen plenty kindergartners who could bomb casts with a fly rod, and for that matter, I also know plenty of 50-year-olds who lack both the attention span and coordination to skillfully cast a fly rod. That’s not a dig, it’s just what it is.
Another rule my wife’s grandfather set (and I still think is a good one) is that when you started out, you fished wet flies, working downstream. Even under the watchful eyes of an adult, you wore a life jacket, not a fishing vest. Grandpa’s logic was clear: it’s easier to wade a river with the current pushing behind you. And only when you were big enough and strong enough to turn around and wade upstream against the current did you get to tie on that first dry fly.
But fly fishing isn’t just about wading, casting and catching trout, is it?
I had my son, Paul, in a baby carrier on my back as I fished, before he could even walk. (Before anyone writes the nastygram, know I never waded in anything more than a foot deep, certainly picking and choosing the spots where this was “appropriately safe.”) He snoozed.
Later, we spent many days with the Snoopy rod, a bobber and worms at the local pond. Watching him light up… well that might not have technically been “fly fishing,” but it was part of the plan.
When I was able to find some tiny waders, I put Paul in them and we fished our home river in Baldwin, Michigan, together. To be clear, what that meant was, I made a few casts now and then, but mostly watched him chase crawdads along the banks with a net, or dig nightcrawlers by hand from the black dirt on the riverbanks. He fell in the river and I had to “fish” him out half the time. He always came home filthy. Mom was never pleased. We’d strip him right out of those waders and carry him straight to the tub. He giggled the whole time. In fact, I think he turned that into a challenge of sorts—the dirtier, stinkier, and slimier he got, the happier he seemed and the more he laughed.
As he grew older, I never really “pushed” Paul on the fly-fishing stuff. To be sure, it was always available to him, whenever he wanted. But it was also “Dad’s thing.” And I suppose if you had a father who played guitar for a living, during the growing-up years, you might rather find a different instrument, even if you liked picking and plucking now and then.
And so, Paul took up golf. In hindsight, that makes perfect sense, because golf and fly fishing are essentially the same sport, one played wet, the other dry (though my golf game is often as wet as my fly-fishing game). At age 22, Paul is now a PGA club pro. He embarrasses me beyond belief every time we hit the links together, and usually skins me for ten bucks or more. Golf can be a very expensive proposition for a fly-fishing dad with an ego and a 14 handicap when he plays with his club pro son.
But the fly-fishing bug is still there in Paul. It never went away.
I think just being on the river, is the perfect introduction to fly fishing for any kid, at any age. So, when do you start ‘em? Whenever you can experience the river together.
A couple years back, we got to fish in Baldwin together again. We wadered up, and as we walked down to the water. I put my hand on his shoulder as I clambered down the same earthen bank where he’d dug worms… and I distinctly remembered thinking that it seemed like yesterday, watching him paw through the clumps.
I asked him, “Which way do you want to go, downstream or upstream?”
And he answered: “Let’s start by going downstream, Dad, and catch a few that way. And then we’ll turn around, and head back home, catching a few more on dries.”
And that’s exactly what we did.