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Kids and Creeks

    Somebody told me once that you never find out how selfish you are until you have kids. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I think I get it now. I've got three kids ages 6, 5, and 3 and don't have the words to express how much they mean to me. Other than my wife, the other love of my life is fishing in rivers. You'd think that combining the things I love the most in the world would lead to many joyous occasions and strengthen the bond between parent and child.

    It doesn't exactly work that way. For one thing, the little buggers can't fish worth a hoot. They can't cast a lick. They want to go home after 15 minutes of not getting a bite. They give the worms and crickets names and free them when Dad isn't watching. They throw rocks where they ought to be throwing their bait. They drop paddles and rods in the water. They are always hungry or thirsty. They crap in the boat. They cry when Daddy yells at them.

    All the difficulties mentioned above are magnified on the river, where casts need to be accurate, patience is a virtue, and Daddy cussing happens rather frequently. After a few misadventures, I began to realize that mixing small kids and rivers is kinda like mixing nitroglycerin and gunpowder. You have to handle the mixture with lots of care unless you want Swedish Blasting Oil to blow up in your face.

Sam (then age 4) stays hydrated while sister Hope (6) humbly displays her catch

    Through much trial and error, I've learned a bit about introducing kids to moving water. My kids and I still haven't had the perfect fishing trip yet, but come to think of it, I've never had the perfect fishing trip by myself either.

    The two biggest keys to a successful day on the river with kids are 1) Keep the kids safe and 2) Make sure the kids have a good time. Hopefully, this article will give you some tips on how to do both and maybe even have a little fun yourself.

Keeping the Kids Alive

We always have our life jackets on in the boat. Notice that Sam is "helping" with the paddle. Helps keep them occupied.

    The most obvious danger when combining children and water is drowning. My kids always have a life jacket on if we are floating a river or if the water gets over two feet deep. If we are wading a shallow creek I'll let my older kids go without. I never take the kids down any rapids above Class II and we don't run those if the water is very big. Mostly we stay on flat water. The kids love the fast water, but they know that fast water means it's time to stay in the center of the boat and keep all appendages inside. That point gets drilled home constantly and I use the "Daddy voice" to make certain it gets across.

    There are other dangers too. Mainly snakes. I try and keep the kids away from brushy banks and woodpiles and make sure they aren't grabbing tree limbs or sticking their hands in crevices between rocks. My kids always wear shoes of some type. If we are in alligator territory (not much of a problem in Tennessee), the kids aren't allowed to swim or wade out of arm's reach. In Florida and southern Georgia, they aren't allowed to swim or wade. Period.

    Then there are more minor things to look out for such as wasp nests, sunburn, fish hooks, scratches and bruises from river rocks, getting too hot or cold, and ingesting river water. My five year-old son has a nasty habit of swimming with his mouth open and he's had to sit in the boat and watch his sister swim and play for failing to heed Daddy's warnings about water-borne viruses. I know it's just a matter of time before one of the kids has a run-in with the business end of a fish hook, but we never use any treble hooks and I try and remember to mash down the barbs on the hooks we use. Oh yeah, Daddy always wears sunglasses when fishing with the kids. Even when it's cloudy.

Keeping the Kids Entertained

    I have a good friend with a five year-old son who will fish for hours at a time and then sleep in the bottom of the boat when he gets tired. My kids, and most kids, aren't like that. I've found that kids will best attend to the business of fishing early in the trip. I don't know why it works this way, but I remember being fairly attentive at the beginning of lectures in school and by the end I was either asleep, doodling, or passing notes to the cute blonde in the next row. Most kids are the same way. If you can get them interested in fishing early in the trip, the kids will want to fish more.

    Whether wading or floating, I try to make sure our first stop is at really fishy-looking water. I should emphasize the word stop. With young kids, it's fruitless and frustrating to try and fish while moving down the river. It's best to anchor or beach the boat and set up on the bank or a rock on the river to try and get some fishing in. When fishing with my kids, we use worms or crickets a lot, but my oldest two will occasionally throw lures. When we throw artificials, it's always either a small Beetlespin or a small weightless plastic worm with the point embedded in the worm Texas-style. Both lures are somewhat snag-resistant, inexpensive, and won't inflict too much damage if they find a mammal instead of a fish.

Wormz Rule!

    This needs to be mentioned also. I almost never take my bass gear when I take my kids river fishing. I'm too selfish. Any casts I make get made with the kid's gear and their lures or bait. I've found that I get really out of sorts when one of my kids throws a rock right where I'm about to cast a buzzbait. I don't really seem to mind when I am fishing with a cricket.

    I normally let my older kids cast for themselves, but still cast the three year-olds bait for him (much to his chagrin). We use underspin-type spincasting reels, light rods and 6-pound monofilament. My six year-old daughter recently graduated to a Zebco 33, but smaller kids don't have the thumb strength and fine motor skills to use the push-button reels. They seem to cast better using two hands with the underspin, but even then they are far from expert marksmen.

    Luckily, they rarely need to be very good casters. I wait until late spring or early summer before taking my kids to the river. The water is normally a comfortable temperature for wading and swimming, plus panfish species like bluegill, redbreast, green sunfish, and shellcracker are most active during the warmer months. Usually any cast that gets close will get a bite from one of these panfish species, especially using bait or a small Beetlespin. They really get a kick out of watching the bobber go under and they love touching the fish once I've landed them. If we don't get a bite in five minutes or so, it's off to the next stop. I don't want the kids getting bored.

Every once in a while we luck into a bass!

    I really enjoy fishing with one kid at a time, because they tend to stay more focused and learn more about fishing. When I take two kids, they tend to distract one another and they would sometimes rather play or fight with one another rather than fish. But taking two kids fishing has it's positive aspects also. If one kid catches a fish, the other usually will want to catch one, too. Also, Daddy can sometimes get a few casts in when the kids are swimming, building sand castles, throwing rocks, or trying to drown each other. I have never taken all three of my children to a river or creek at the same time. That's just too much. Maybe when they get a little older.

    I've also found that my kids like smaller rivers and creeks more than larger rivers. Maybe it's genetic, because I'm the same way. Shady spots are easier to find on smaller waters, and these offer a respite from the heat and better places to fish. Maybe the kids feel less overwhelmed on smaller flows, but they seem to have more fun on creeks than big rivers.

"Nice goin', Sis!"

    Whether the fish are biting or not, my kids get a little bored after a couple fishing stops. This used to be where our trips started going downhill, but with a little creativity everybody can still have a good time. Usually on about our third stop, the kids and I will stop and build a sandcastle, throw rocks, hunt for frogs, go swimming, have stick races, ride small rapids on a little raft, go for a short hike, eat or drink something, or have a good old mudfight. We never do all these things at the same stop, but we usually do a few of them at each. I try and intersperse a few fishing stops along the way, but we tend to do less fishing as the day wears on. The longest we've ever stayed on the river was six hours and the kids might have fished for one of those hours.

Mudfights are even fun for the guy who loses

Swimmin' and Raftin'

Whitewater Rafting

What are those kids looking for?

Aha! Baby frogs!

    I was able to get in a little bit more fishing than that, however. When I am floating a river or creek with a kid or two, I always take one paddle for a kid to use. While we are floating downstream, I can sneak in a few casts while the child tries to paddle. A five year-old can't mess things up too badly since they aren't strong enough to move the boat with a paddle yet. Plus, I can correct the canoe's course with my paddle and the kid doesn't realize it. This will work until my kids really learn how to paddle (and then I can put them in the back and I'll sit up front and fish! Yeah right!) This is simply another way to keep the child occupied between stops on the river. They also love to pick up floating leaves and dangle their limbs in the water.

    The most boring time for the kids is the paddling time between stops. As mentioned above, paddling gives the kids something to do. Sometimes Daddy will luck into a bass, and the kids think that is pretty cool too. Sometimes I'll let one of the kids make a few casts with a lure between stops and sometimes I hand out food, drink, or candy for them to eat. They just need something to do.

Ravenous on the River

    Of course sometimes a kid just wants to get off the water. If your child really wants to go home, you'll be able to tell when they mean it. At this point, it's best to just paddle off and go home. Trying to turn a child who's decided they are going to be miserable is a losing proposition. Just be as nice as possible and try to have a better day next time. Keep a pouting kid out on the water and there may not be a next time.

    Toward the end of our most recent trip, I brought along a small raft and tied it to the canoe. Hope and Sam (6 and 5) were happy just hanging onto the raft and swimming a bit while I made a few casts. They were both unhappy when I announced we had to hop in the canoe to paddle out and meet Mama. They are already asking when we can go again.

The secret weapon

    I'd be thrilled if my kids ended up as nuts about rivers and fishing as I am. I'll be content, however, if they just enjoy being outside and appreciate how cool rivers are. If their trips to the creek are fun, then I believe they will always be inclined to return.

Mitchell, the three year-old, would be pretty mad if he weren't included so here he is with his very first river fish.



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