When Fish­ing Be­comes a Fam­ily Af­fair

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outdoors -

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).

PHO­TOS BY AN­GUS PHILLIPS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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