I’ve heard it said that you can either go fishing or take a child fishing, but you can’t do both — At least while they are young, and especially if you have more than one child. But this isn’t necessarily true if you follow the right steps.

Introduce Your Child to Fishing

Young children are attracted to creeks and streams like magnets, and this is where teaching your kids to fish can start. Let them walk up shallow creeklets in their water shoes, carrying a mini bait bucket, turning over rocks to look for insects and crayfish. Point out fish swimming. Skip stones. Have boat races with leaves and small sticks. Let them build little dams and get comfortable with the aquatic world.

When you’re ready, tell your very young child that you’re going to the pond or stream. You’ll bring the rods along “just in case” you want to fish. Be flexible. Let them explore if they want to. The important thing at this stage is to get them outdoors, so they can see there is fun without video games, computers, and TV.

Choose the Right Fishing Rod

A child as young as two can learn to operate a short dip rod, but because you can’t cast with them, they only work on docks or in boats where there is deep water. Fish like to hang out underneath docks for protection, so dip rods are usually a sure winner if you can fish the right location.

If not, a push-button, closed face, spinning reel is the best, because with these rods the line is inside a plastic cover and won’t tangle as frequently as with an open spinning reel. Some anglers call them “thumb pushers” because your thumb pushes the button while you swing the rod forward, releasing the line.

You can buy rod and reel sets at discount stores or sporting goods stores. They are usually set with a lightweight line at around 2-4 pound test weight. You can get a great deal if you shop after the summer is over. One thing to carefully consider is the size of the hook. Bigger is not better. Stick around #8-12 and buy them already attached to the leaders.

Bring the Right Bait

Artificial lures are difficult for children to learn to manipulate, unless you’re fishing a farm bond with starving bass, so stick to natural bait instead. You can buy bait at a minute market or a fishing store if you don’t want to catch your own or don’t have the time. Night Crawlers can be broken into many segments, especially if the child is fishing for small panfish found in ponds, like sunnies, perch and bluegills. Meal worms, which are a type of larvae, can also be bought. These don’t move around so much and may be a good option if the child is a bit squeamish about creepy crawly things.

But for some youngsters, catching bait can be even more fun than fishing itself. An evening rain will draw the night crawlers out. If not, wet down the lawn and go out searching with a flashlight. Don’t shine the light directly the worms. Try to figure which part of the bug is still in the ground and grab it with your fingers.

Or dig around in the garden with a spade or a rotting leaf pile to find smaller, but still substantial garden worms. Turn over rocks or rotting logs to find other insects.

Catch grasshoppers by laying out a wool blanket in a field where they are found. Get the kids to make a circle around it and run through the weeds, chasing them towards the blanket. The grasshoppers have little hooks on their legs that will stick to the fuzzy wool and prevent them from moving.

Minnows can also be used for bait and are fun to catch in shallow water. When you find a group of minnows, give your child a net and have someone walk towards the group of fish in the child’s direction to make them easier to catch. Bait minnows are especially attractive to larger fish, but sunnies won’t touch them. The size of a kid’s smile is directly related to the size of fish they catch, so as soon as they feel skilled at catching small fish, try moving up to larger bait for the larger fish.

A young boy holds up a catfish he caught during Get Outdoors Day in Reading, Berks County, PA

Get Them Hooked

You want to work towards having your children put bait on their hooks, take hooks out of fish mouths, and other fishing tasks themselves as soon as possible, so they are actively involved and learning. If the parent does everything for them and continues to do so, they will soon lose interest. Plus, it teaches the child to not be afraid of insects. Bugs won’t be icky, they’ll be bait to catch “the big one.”

The most important thing about fishing to a child is not the relaxation, peace and Mother Nature’s company that most anglers enjoy. Kids want to catch something. Anything, no matter how small. If not, the fishing trip could easily be considered a failure in their eyes.

So, set them up for success. Fish ponds and lakes where you know fish are easy to catch. Talk to clerks in your local fishing/sporting goods stores. Ask an angler. Always ask permission from the farmer or landowner if the pond you’re eyeing up is on private property. Fish like sunnies and blue gills are always hungry. They allow for a great measure of success.

  1. Start off by crimping the barb on the hook with a pair of pliers so you can easily get the hook out of the fish’s mouth without hurting it.

    If they feel the fish is being hurt, or if it actually dies from mishandling, this will not go over well with a sensitive child. Emphasize that eating the fish they catch is not the priority, because most of them will be too small, and it would take too many to make a meal. The fun is in the catching itself! You get the thrill of the catch, and the fish get to continue living — It’s a win/win situation.

  2. Begin to cast by reeling in the line until the hook is 3-6 inches from the rod tip.

    Pull the rod either straight back overhead or to the side, and when you snap it forward, release the button and aim it at your target. Keep the tip pointed until your bait reaches its destination. This is called follow through.

  3. If the bait “SPLATS” and falls short, you let go too soon.

    Practice often, even in the yard. It’s the only way to get better at this very important skill. Patience is the name of the game, as you wait for a bite, or wait to untangle lines.

  4. Carry a 5-gallon plastic bucket and fill it with pond water so you can release the caught fish in there while you’re fishing.

    That way the kids can continue to see the fish, handle and examine them, observe them breathing through their gills, learn about them, and basically prolong their gratification, which is what this is all about.

  5. If the hook is swallowed and you can’t get it out, cut the line.

    Explain to your child that fish have a very high level of enzymes in their mouths that will dissolve the hook in time. It acts like no more than a small splinter to a fish.

  6. Use a bobber (the smaller the better) to act as a visual strike indicator.

    It helps the child learn how a fish reacts when it bites the bait. If not, most kids aren’t sensitive enough to know when the fish bites. A fish like a sunny will pull that bobber right under and add to the kid’s excitement. Attach it about 1 foot from the hook. Most are adjustable so they can easily slide up and down.

  7. No matter what size fish your child catches, cheer, clap, and take pictures.

    This is how they measure success. If you are catching and releasing, reel the fish in as quickly as possible, touch it as little as possible, kept it in the water as much a possible and get the hook out as quickly as you can.

  8. If they do want to keep the fish they catch, make sure you know what is the legal size for that particular fish in that particular water.

    Stream-caught fish can have different stipulations than pond-caught fish. The regulations for your state can be found in the booklet that accompanies your fishing license. Most states allow for youngsters 12 and under to fish license-free, but as their guardian, you must have a license yourself in order to even assist them.

All these things add to the wonder of the natural world of water and fishing. Later on, your young child will delight just in walking up a stream with a rod in their hand, casting into deep holes, while the sound of the singing water rushes by their legs.

A young girl holds up the catfish she caught during a fishing rodeo in Reading, Berks County, PA.


Contact your state fish commission for laws, licenses, and places to fish.

Tackle and bait stores may post flyers advertising fishing events.

Consider investing in a child’s pair of polarized sunglasses. Besides cutting glare, they help you see fish clearer in the water.

A hat, sunscreen, and a life jacket on a boat or around a deck is a safety must. Teaching your young angler to swim is one of the best presents you can give them.

Learn a few basic fishing knots. Plastic covered cheat sheets are available for your vest pocket or tackle box.

Chest waders are way too dangerous for a child. They give you the sense you can venture far out on a stream. Hip boots in cool water are very nice but sports sandals, water shoes or old sneakers work fine in the summer months.