When Fishing Becomes a Family Affair
Fishing with kids is overrated. If you really want to catch lots of fish or nice, big ones, it’s better to leave the little ones at home in front of the TV or playing violent video games on the computer.
Kids today don’t really want to get up early to catch the morning bite. They don’t appreciate having to go to the bathroom behind trees. They’d rather eat at McDonald’s than have peanut butter sandwiches and lukewarm Pepsi alongside some muddy stream. Plus, it’s dangerous out there. Kids can fall in, trip and hurt themselves or get lost when you aren’t paying attention.
Look at that kid in North Carolina, the Boy Scout who strayed away from the pack a couple of weeks ago and spent three nights alone in the cold before rescuers found him. Truly, was it worth it? Ask his mother!
Now comes spring, the perennial time for taking kids fishing. All around our blossoming city, parents are facing the dreaded moment in every caregiver’s life when the munchkins toddle up with innocent smiles on ketchup-y faces and demand to be taken fishing. Here’s a bit of advice: Just say no.
Ah, but of course you cannot. Nature made kids cute for the same reason he made puppies cute — because if they weren’t, no one would ever take one home. How to refuse those imploring big eyes, those pouting little lips, those sweet, stubby little outstretched hands?
Forget about it. You’re stuck. You’re taking them fishing whether you like it or not. With that sad truth in mind, here’s another bit of friendly advice, and this one is not proposed with April Fool’s tongue-in-cheek: Ignore them.
That’s right, take the little pests along, bring plenty of bait and drinks and food and rods and buckets to sit on and put the fish in, but when it comes time to wet a line, rig your rod up, start casting and forget about the kids.
This is not a strategy I dreamed up. I’m not that smart. When my kids were young and demanded to go, I did what every normal parent does: Knuckled under and faced a day spent entirely in subservience, making arrangements, driving, baiting hooks, handling fish, rigging bobbers and split shot, dealing with accidental piercings of eyes, ears, noses and throats, bathing scrapes, fixing lunch, cleaning the catch, standing vigil at the latrine and hauling trash out at day’s end. Some fun, eh?
It turns out there’s a better way, but you must be brave. Jeff Nicklason, a former neighbor who now lives on the Eastern Shore, invited me along when he took his twin 5-year-olds, Willem and Nils, white perch fishing last week on the upper Choptank River. He didn’t mention he was bringing their older sister Isabella, or I might have had the sense to opt out. Two kids is a handful; three’s a mob. But I like Jeff, who is the most honest and honorable automobile salesman you’ll ever meet, and agreed.
He’s also an avid angler with tunnel vision when he gets around fish. He stopped the car at the roadside, gathered up four rods and reels, slapped boots on the kids and was off a quarter-mile through the woods at a feverish pace. The little ones scrambled along, struggling to keep up. We only stopped once, when Isabella demanded to go behind a tree. She peered out nervously the whole time, clearly convinced her dad would take off if she didn’t keep an eye on him.
At the stream, we found a deep hole and rigged up. Before I had a hook tied on, Nicklason was casting a grass shrimp out across the current and watching his bobber sweep downstream, waiting for a bite.
The kids? Oh, they were scattered around somewhere. Nils was up to his knees in mud in some side wallow, Willem was climbing a fallen tree and Isabella, 6, was heading back up the trail alone to her recent stopping-off point. “I think I dropped my sunglasses,” she said.
If these kids were going to fish, it was obvious they’d better be able to do it on their own. Then again, they weren’t complaining.
“That’s why we had three,” said Nicklason with a smile. “They entertain themselves.”
And so they did, hour after hour as Nicklason and I probed deep holes, freshets and little runs for signs of spawning white perch. The fish were there, although it was almost all small males, not the big, roe-laden female perch that come a bit later. Still, the action was steady all morning, and every once in awhile one of the kids strayed close enough to grab the rod out of dad’s hand and reel in one of his catches.
At about noon, one of the boys emerged from the thicket rubbing his belly and sidled over to tug at Nicklason’s shirt. “Dad,” he said, “I’m hungry. Did you bring anything to eat?”
“Hmmm,” said Nicklason, “I probably should have thought of that. I think there may be an apple in the car . . . ”
A few minutes later, he’d rounded up the tots and we were off again through the forest primeval, spotting herons and ospreys, woodpeckers, wildflowers, raccoon tracks, beaver dams and deer tracks along the way. Nils was soaked to the waist from numerous slides down the muddy bank into the creek and his soggy boots went squish, squish, squish with each step. “He’ll have some nice blisters from that,” said his dad, beaming.
Spring fishing suddenly is upon us, and it only gets better over the next two months. White perch are just beginning to run in the Potomac at Fletcher’s Boat House just below Chain Bridge, where rental rowboats should be available next week, possibly as early as today if the river level permits.
There is no better place to take kids than Fletcher’s when the perch run is on. The fish usually are abundant and there’s a concession stand where hot dogs, cold drinks, bait, tackle and advice are available. You can fish from the bank or rent a boat. Best bait is bull minnows fished near the bottom. Call 202-244-0461.
By early May, bluegill sunfish will be massing along the banks of every farm pond, creek and lake in the area to spawn. Sunnies dig crater-like nests and ferociously attack worms or lures dangled anywhere near their lairs. Use small hooks, no bigger than size 8 or 10, as bluegills have tiny mouths.
Adult anglers, meantime, are awaiting the arrival of shad in the Potomac. Shiny silver white and hickory shad, along with hordes of herring, are making their way upriver to spawn and are expected to mass in District waters by the middle of April. Again, Fletcher’s is the place to be. (All shad fishing is catch-and-release, as the species is protected).
Willem Nicklason, 5, reels in a white perch using his father’s rod on the Choptank River near Hillsborough, Md.
Erik, Sophie and Carina Norregaard, from left, and Izzy Page hoist their haul — a plump white perch — at Fletcher’s Boat House on the Potomac.