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Introducing Fishing to Novice Anglers

As a life-long angler and father of two pre-teen boys, I enjoy introducing other people–particularly children–to the joys of Fishing. In the process, I have found that a great many children, especially children of immigrants, have no experience fishing. I live in San Francisco, where many 1st and 2nd generation Asians have never even picked up a fishing rod. As such, they haven’t a clue about fishing–which is ironic because rare is the Asian family that doesn’t enjoy fresh fish for dinner. But it’s not just immigrants.

Most Americans probably got their first fishing lessons from their fathers, uncles or older brothers, which is how I first learned to fish. America is becoming a more urban society, and many urban residents of all ethnicities have little, if any, exposure to traditional outdoor sports like fishing.

Father and son fishing together

For example, this past Labor Day Weekend, I was in the Sierras and stopped at a hardware store in Truckee. A man was buying some worms for his children to use and when I asked where he would be fishing, he said in the Truckee River. It was noon and Truckee, like much of California, was in the middle of a heat wave. I suggested that the Truckee River Trout might not be enthusiastic about biting worms at midday when it was pushing 90 degrees. He said his kids were just going to fool around.

Here’s the problem. Nothing discourages novice anglers, particularly children, like having absolutely zero luck catching fish. That dad was doing what too many novice anglers do – chuck it and chance it without any knowledge of what might improve the odds of catching something. An expert fly angler might entice a trout to bite at noon on a sunny 90-degree day but a novice angler is more likely to hit a jackpot in Reno than catch a trout using worms at noon on Labor Day.

Truckee River near Lake Tahoe, CA

By summer’s end, low clear water makes trout in rivers like the Truckee River extra wary. They take cover at midday and are more active at sunrise or sunset. In the summer, trout feed primarily on insects and might find worms a tad suspicious so late in the summer; worms don’t exactly go for a swim. A live grasshopper carefully presented in just the right place might have enticed a trout to bite but unless you like challenges, leave that kind of fishing to the expert anglers.

So how should an experienced angler introduce fishing to children who’ve done almost no fishing and whose parents know as little about fishing as their kids? How should novice anglers who know next to nothing about fishing go about it when there isn’t an expert around to instruct them?

The key to introducing novices to fishing is make it easy and fun. Imagine you were teaching somebody bike riding, skiing, or baseball. You wouldn’t take a first time skier down a slope meant for a Warren Miller movie or send a Little League hitter against Nolan Ryan. Yet, I see people getting introduced to fishing in situations where they have almost no chance of success. When that happens, the newcomers invariably have no luck, don’t find fishing fun, and give up the sport.

In order to make the fishing easy, seek out the easiest fish to catch in places that are easy to fish. I would start with sunfish, especially bluegills and green sunfish. Bluegills and other sunfish are the perfect fish for people, especially young children, new to fishing. They prefer warm water (70-80 degrees) and are most active and easiest to catch during the summer when kids have the free time to go fishing. In California, sunfish also tend to live in the most convenient fishing holes such as farm ponds, city park ponds, and metropolitan reservoirs which means anglers need not drive far to find them.

Sunfish are also quite forgiving of rookie mistakes that would spook fish like trout and black bass. They’re not leader shy and not very particular about the baits and lures they’ll bite or the way the baits are presented. In the summer, sunfish congregate along the shoreline close to shelter such as rock piles, weed beds, bushes, and under docks. Most will take readily to red worms fished under a bobber but will also eagerly bite wax worms, meal worms, crickets, salmon eggs, and frozen corn. Crappies can be more particular and are most commonly caught with live minnows. Sunfish can be adept at stealing bait off the hook so bring a healthy supply of bait when fishing for sunfish.

I have a favorite spot at Lake Berryessa to take kids to catch sunfish. Long ago, a massive amount of rip-rap was dumped there, most likely to reinforce the shoreline (see photo). The rocks created an excellent shelter; consequently, schools of bluegills, green sunfish, and young black bass congregate around the rocks. Kids fishing with red worms under a bobber find the action nearly nonstop. This is typical of the kind of place that provides excellent fishing for sunfish.

Catfish are another option in the summer as they like warm water. By contrast, trout prefer cold water (55-60 degrees). In foothill reservoirs, trout bite best from November to April. As summer approaches, trout in the foothills retreat to deep water to stay cool, making them less accessible to shoreline anglers.

Trout in Sierra streams and lakes are easiest to catch in the spring and early summer when the water is high from snowmelt. They are less wary because the high murky water makes them less visible to predators, hungry after a long winter, and readily eat worms since worms might be washed into the water by runoff. It is not unusual to catch trout at midday when the water is high and murky. As the summer wears on, stream water levels diminish. The low, clear water makes trout more visible and vulnerable to predators, so they tend to retreat to deeper pools or under cover.

Summer means abundant insect life, making trout less inclined to bite baits like worms. As such, summer is best left to boaters who can reach the deep water in lakes and fly anglers who can match the insect patterns trout expect to see in the streams.

When I take new anglers fishing, I generally don’t fish for trout in rivers, even in the early summer when trout are easiest to catch. The techniques for bouncing bait along the bottom and precisely casting lures take a lot of practice to perfect. That can wait until people gain more experience. Instead, I take new anglers to lakes with recent trout plants or to lakes with an abundant population of bluegills and other sunfish. Both usually ensure success without too much effort and will keep kids interested in fishing. You can find the most recent fish plants on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Catfish often live in the same waters as sunfish and, like the sunfish, are most active during warm summer months. Bullheads are small catfish that can be abundant in ponds and warm lakes. Just like the sunfish, they’re not leader shy and eat almost anything. In addition to worms, catfish like smelly bait such as liver, clams, and dead anchovies. They do not school like the sunfish though so they’re not quite as easy to find.

Catfish are also more active at night than during the day. As such, they’re more likely to be caught in the morning or evening than the middle of the day. Obviously, novice anglers should be warned about the needle sharp stilettos that catfish have in their dorsal and pectoral fins as getting finned would dampen anybody’s fishing enthusiasm.

Trout take more expertise to catch than sunfish and catfish but still provide good opportunities for beginners from February to May in the SF Bay Area and in the late spring and early summer in the Sierras. This is where checking the fish plants is useful. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) plants trout in several of its lakes on a regular basis between February and May (they plant catfish in the summer). California Department of Fish & Wildlife also plants trout in lakes around California.

Rainbow trout caught with a fly lure

Unlike the wild trout, planted rainbow trout can be ridiculously easy to catch. Growing up in hatchery tanks makes them a bit oblivious to the dangers from humans and they’re not very leader shy. Since the fish are planted from tank trucks, they’re often dropped in the most convenient areas right next to the road. That also makes it easy for beginners to access the fish.

Hatchery trout have a rather odd attraction to PowerBait, the pasty concoction that looks and feels like Playdough. It seems silly but the stuff works very well for trout in lakes. PowerBait is effective because it floats off the bottom and is highly visible. In my experience, the rainbow and chartreuse colors work the best. Some people swear by garlic scented PowerBait or glittered PowerBait. I’ve had success with both but haven’t noticed a significant difference.

Don’t bother using PowerBait in a river – drifting PowerBait apparently loses its appeal for trout. Worms and salmon eggs are also good trout baits early in the season and can be used in creeks and rivers as well as lakes. When fishing in lakes, injecting air into the worms to make them float off the bottom can be very effective.

Targeting hatchery planted rainbow trout can prove a productive way of introducing kids to trout fishing. This past summer, I took two families fishing at Donner Lake about a week after Fish & Game planted the lake with rainbow trout. Although none of the children or parents had ever fished for trout, we managed to tally a dozen rainbow trout using PowerBait and worms over the course of a morning. The kids probably lost a trout for every one they landed but their smiles were more than worth it.

Where one fishes, even for planted rainbow trout, makes a big difference. Even newly planted trout prefer water deep enough to feel safe. When fishing from the shore, look for places where deep water isn’t far away. If you can wade out very far, the trout probably won’t stay there. Even in a shallow pond, trout will often seek out the deeper water. They also like to stay close to stream inlets as these bring cooler water and food.

Crayfish serve as another good introduction to fishing for novice anglers even though they’re crustaceans and not fish and don’t require hooks to catch. Both children and adults can enjoy catching crayfish. In Lake Tahoe, Californians have one of the best lakes in the nation for catching crayfish. Every rocky area in Lake Tahoe is home to hundreds of these miniature lobsters. They’re quite easy to catch with a piece of meat on a string or with a more elaborate crayfish trap baited with dead fish. When using meat on a piece of string, have a butterfly net ready to scoop up the crayfish before they let go of the bait.

New anglers will eventually need to invest in some gear. When I introduce novices to fishing, I generally provide my own gear to use. That’s because I know the rods and reels are appropriate and have the right kind of line. Bad equipment can be as discouraging to new anglers as bad fishing and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of junk gear sold to new anglers. I tell people not to buy those cute “Hello Kitty” fishing rod and reel combos targeted for young children. The reels are poorly made and break down easily. The reels tend to be sold with too heavy a line – often a 10-15 lb test line – that may cause fish to shy away.

A standard 6’6″ light action rod works very well for most freshwater fish. Either open faced or closed face (push button) spinning reels are fine. I find myself shaking my head when I see people show up to fish for trout equipped with gear more appropriate for striped bass and sturgeon – heavy duty rods, reels with 15 lb test line, and 1 oz sinkers. Trout fishing should be done with 4 lb test line. 6 lb test line is the maximum anybody should use for trout. If the line is heavier than 6 lb test, only the dumbest planter trout will not be deterred.

Properly filled reels – all but 1/8″ of the spool – will provide plenty of casting distance with just a single split shot. You should not need more than 1/8 oz of weight. When using bobbers, I don’t use bobbers more than about one inch in diameter. Bigger bobbers create more resistance which may cause fish to drop the bait.

As a kid, I often used the pre-snelled hooks sold in packages of six. I quit buying hook packages years ago because those hooks are snelled with heavy line, often 10-15 lb test, that is far too heavy for trout fishing. Wild trout will tend to shy away from the heavy line. Instead, I tie hooks directly to the terminal tackle. For sunfish, size 8-12 hooks are good because sunfish have small mouths. For trout, I like size 4-6 bait hooks because those are the right size for either PowerBait balls or mini-night crawlers.

So, do the sport of fishing a favor and show some beginner anglers how to catch some fish. You might just find it as rewarding to show some kids (and their parents) how to fish as going fishing yourself.

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