By Jerry Bush
What’s more American than baseball and apple pie? In the angling world, there can’t be anything more American than a parent or grandparent introducing a young child to the activity of fishing, and nine times out of 10, that first experience will involve bluegills. If it doesn’t, a strong argument can be made regarding why it should.
I introduced all three of my children to the fine art of catching bluegills in New York’s Chautauqua County on the Chautauqua and Findley lakes. Chautauqua offered the best fishing, but the smaller Findley Lake offered the advantage of being closer to home. Regardless, both lakes offered enough of the feisty panfish to keep three young children entertained, and I now make cherished trips with my young grandchildren.
If you’re taking pre-teen children fishing and expecting them to truly enjoy the experience, success is a must. This is where bluegills really shine, because they are plentiful and always cooperative. That’s not to imply a valuable lesson doesn’t come from failure, but young hearts and minds have plenty of time to absorb lessons learned through disappointment, later in life. A mentor’s goal at this time should be to instill a desire for children to carry on America’s outdoor legacy. That you can develop a lifelong fishing partner in the process is icing on the cake.
Catching bluegills is as simple as threading a worm onto a hook, but a few tips are in order to have the best results. A small worm or even half of a worm will usually catch more bluegills than offering the entire morsel. If you adhere firmly to the “go big or go home” motto, you’re very liable to go home. Smaller hooks and jigs will catch more fish.
If you have done any fishing at all during your lifetime, be ever mindful you have acquired skills. Do everything you can to remember what it was like when you knew little, and fished as a child. Skilled adults often seek panfish by feel, by bottom bouncing jigs. As a child, however, you probably used a bobber, and your young angler is going to experience better results while using a floating indicator. The addition of a visual aid to help accentuate the experience will hold the youngster’s interest.
Expect the child is going to play with the minnows or worms. It’s all part of the learning process. If you’re going to freak out when a child spills worms or worm bedding in a boat, take added precautions to protect the vessel, because it is going to happen. Wax worms or grubs are a cleaner alternative, which work well to lure panfish. If the goal is to develop a firm interest, and have a child who always wants to fish with you later in life; don’t sweat the small stuff. Scolding a kid for being a kid is one of the surest ways to dissuade them from future participation.
Yes, it’s true that some small, soft-plastic baits are a clean alternative that will lure bluegills from time to time, but live bait is going to out- produce the imitation baits nine times out of 10. Some of the small, scented baits will definitely help if that’s the method preferred.
Do not be too rigid or determined to catch a limit before moving on. By nature children have short attention spans. A good mentor should expect it. Observe the individual, and tailor the outing accordingly. My oldest daughter had patience and would sit for an hour without a bite; all the time intently waiting for one. My son, on the other hand, was ready to do anything but fish if his hook wasn’t attacked every couple of minutes.
As a mentor you are apt to be disappointed if you expect too much. Whether fishing from a boat or from shore; be willing to take breaks. Pull up anchor and do a little sightseeing, or take the kids to shore for a picnic or a nature lesson. On a nice day, a time-out for swimming might be in order.
I learned a bit as I graduated from parent to grandparent. Mainly, that no matter how much a person tries, needed items will be forgotten from time to time. I now store what I call an emergency, “go-to-bag” on my boat. If I were fishing from shore, I’d still keep this bag in my automobile. The bag contains items critical to a successful outing; and while not limited to children, it is certainly helpful to tailor it to account for them. These stored items are not for general use. I access this bag only if I forget items.
The bag holds some cheap sunglasses, and I make certain a couple of pairs are sized for youngsters. Sunscreen is another item that must be available. You’ll feel horrible if you let your little fishing partner get sunburned. Insect repellent comes in handy during most summer days, and of course, a first-aid kit is a must. A couple of bottles of water complete the bag’s contents.
Allow children to help prepare some bluegills for the pan. Hash browns, baked beans, or perhaps macaroni and cheese are easy side-dishes for kids to help prepare. As a big proponent of catch-and-release, I encourage my grandchildren to release many that we catch. They had no trouble grasping the concept that tomorrow’s fun depends on today’s wise use of the fishery.
New York offers many great opportunities to introduce children to fishing, and no creature is better suited to the task than bluegills. They bring out the child in all of us.
Jerry Bush is a freelance writer who lives along the along the Pennsylvania/New York border.