Tips for Increasing Youth Fishing Participation

“Take a kid fishing!” The mandate extends to mentor and dealer alike. Here’s why you should double down on youth fishing planning and preparation — and your degree of involvement in a potentially life-changing event.

Tips for Increasing Youth Fishing Participation

Introducing a child to fishing can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life.

Sure, that’s not always the case. As we all know, fishing has long been the proving ground for Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong, will — since the invention of the fishhook.

But as fishing continues to compete with a mushrooming cloud of alternative pastimes, the importance of any introduction to our sport takes on added significance.

Today tackle retailers have countless opportunities to participate in the rearing of new anglers through both passive and proactive interaction with fishing clubs, community events, special state-sponsored fishing days, local tournaments, and, best of all, those spontaneously generated days when a boy or girl, rod over shoulder, takes the hand of family or friend and heads to the water with hope and expectation.


Seeding the Field

From a barebones economic viewpoint, bringing new anglers into the sport is a matter of seeding the marketplace, a practice of breeding coming generations of fishing tackle consumers. If you’re in the fishing industry, however, you are well aware that fishing has its roots in passion and sentiments deeper than a fish captured and sentenced to frying pan. The ties to Nature and resurrection of primal hunter/gatherer instincts an angling experience conjures can blossom into lifelong pursuit.         

Thought — both reflective thought and planning — should precede the launch of any kids’ event. When I have a hand in kids’ event, I remind my co-workers of the importance of the encounter and the elementary experience of catching fish. That initial day on the water and all early fishing encounters can be enormously impactful. For some, it will be life changing. Many will return to the water for fun, family, renewal and challenge. For some, it will blossom into passion and even a career.

Given the significance of these early angling experiences, I’m bothered and bewildered by the lack of attention and energy present during so many kids’ events. Kids are led — or pushed — to the water with little useful guidance from parent or coordinator. Tackle, characterized by beachball-sized bobbers, oversized hooks, needless terminal tackle, reels spooled with line too little, too brittle or too heavy to catch the generally modestly sized fish swimming before them, is ill-suited to what should be everyone’s aim — that the kids catch fish!

The Chicago Park District has ushered hundreds of thousands of city kids to Lake Michigan harbors, on average 10,000 to 14,000 per year. Years ago, the event director uttered a simple truth that has remained my guiding light through any kids’ event I have a hand in. “The idea of going fishing and not catching fish is incomprehensible to a kid,” he said. He referenced studies that hinted that if a kid escaped his or her teens without the experience of catching fish, the chances that they would take to the sport later in life were dramatically diminished.

His goal was simple: Help every kid catch a fish.

Quantity tops quality in kids fishing. It’s usually best to target panfish at waters offering multiple species in big numbers.
Quantity tops quality in kids fishing. It’s usually best to target panfish at waters offering multiple species in big numbers.

Keeping It Simple

The late Sharon Rushton devoted a healthy portion of her storied career to developing programs and activities that would steer kids to outdoor activities, fishing in particular. After becoming the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s first female “Chief” and hosting TV news and outdoor shows, she accepted Berkley’s invitation to become the Future Fisherman Foundation’s founding executive director. From that seat, she developed the ground-breaking Hooked on Fishing — Not on Drugs (HOFNOD) program.

Rushton recognized the sport’s life-changing potential and suggested that a healthy angling urge might easily displace behaviors that lead to drug addiction in at-risk youth. Hook ‘em on fishing early on, she theorized, and you just might not visit them in prisons or recovery wards later on.

“Fishing saved my life,” bass pro Ish Monroe once explained, echoing Rushton’s sentiment. “Once my dad got me involved in fishing, everything changed! I read books and magazines. I did book reports on fishing. When it came to fishing, my dad never said ‘No.’ I tell that to every parent I meet.”

Rushton understood that the ways we introduce young people to fishing mattered every bit as much as the introduction itself. She was an advocate for simple instruction and unpressured participation.

“Introducing (kids) to fishing from the deck of a bass boat might not be the best way to draw them in,” she once said, citing her own studies and observations. “Yes, they may have fun. But they also may think they’ll need a bass boat to do it again.”

According to Rushton, kids grow to the sport better when they learn to fish from shore, developing skills and gaining confidence on waters within their reach.

Simple rigs are critical in the learning stages as well. I admonish facilitators at kids’ events to direct kids and their parents to “lighten up,” that is, to downsize line, baits and terminal tackle to draw strikes and improve hook-ups.

Kids need action far more than they need big fish. They’re content with catfish, sunfish, perch — in fact, almost any fish that tugs at their line. At Chicago Park District kid’s events, I was amazed at the thrill boys and girls in their early teens experienced reeling in gobies from lakefront piers.

Leave your own “big fish” expectations at home. You will lure more kids to fishing with the promise of action than the prospect of big fish.

Use fishing outings as opportunities to teach and educate. Nurture a kid’s native curiosity  about fishing and the aquatic environment.
Use fishing outings as opportunities to teach and educate. Nurture a kid’s native curiosity about fishing and the aquatic environment.

Stepping Stones

For generations now we have lamented diminishing sales of fishing licenses and the loss of prospective anglers to myriad alternative activities, from travel sports to social media and video games. No doubt luring youth to fishing will remain a challenge for generations to come.

But there’s more than a silver lining to the challenge today.

We now have an infrastructure in place to walk budding anglers up the skill-and-achievement ladder. Thanks to youth tournaments, club events, the grass roots efforts of B.A.S.S. and FLW, and high school and college bass fishing programs, many young anglers can make a stair-step climb from tyro to avid angler – or even pro. Add to these formal institutions abundant how-to literature and the on-line video instruction literally at everyone’s fingertips today, and young anglers are able to reach a level of accomplishment that amazes – and, admittedly, sometimes irks – veteran anglers.


Your Time

As a purveyor of fishing tackle, you need to promote and participate in fishing events for youth. Sponsorship carries influence, and, where necessary, you may want to add a guiding hand to see that the events are run safely, smoothly and, above all, for the genuine benefit of the kids.

Make quality affordable tackle and lively live bait available. Donating live bait and offering rod and reel combos, caps and apparel, accessories and other prizes and takeaways will help familiarize families with your store and widen awareness of your offerings and services.

The tackle industry could do more to parallel the stair-step institutional path paved for angling advancement with products tailored to the needs of anglers of varying needs and at different stages of development. Efforts are in evidence.

Several seasons back, PRADCO released a line of Rebel lures with barbless treble hooks to offer youngsters a safer advance to multi-hooked hardbaits and facilitate catch-and-release practice.

Zebco, a brand long associated with spincast tackle and introductory rod and reel options, recently reassessed its product iconic line of spincast and spinning reels and combos.

“Before our product line jumped from floating combos, real kid stuff, to Zebco 33s with nothing in between,” said Joe Davis, test engineer for the Tulsa-based tackle maker. “But we’ve stepped back now and developed products for age segments. We’ve done a good job of filling in.”

Targeted youth segments range from three to five, five to seven, and seven to 12, according to Davis. Offerings for older youth at the cusp of adulthood are in the mix as well. The Zebco Roam line makes his case.

“It’s for kids age 11 and 12 and older,” said Davis. “The reels and combos are colorful and very durable. We have a lot of options for kids now, products designed to keep pace with their physical growth.”

Noteworthy, too, is a Zebco marketing program that positions fishing as part of the lifestyle of an active youth. The company especially appeals to girls and young women in its messaging.

Pure Fishing touts its wide array of options for youth as well. Products range from Disney licensed character combos to Shakespeare Catch More Fish combos and new Ike Dude Combos, inspired by popular pro bass angler Mike Iaconelli.

“The Catch More Fish combos are doing exceptionally well,” said Hunter Cole, Pure Fishing spokesman. “They come complete with Berkley Powerbait packages and terminal tackle, and the reel is pre-spooled with Stren line – everything they need.”

Take advantage of these product offerings along with the golden opportunities to bring more youth into our sport. It’s an investment in them — and in your future.

Make outings fun and lively and bring the outing to a close with kids still wanting more.
Make outings fun and lively and bring the outing to a close with kids still wanting more.

Sidebar: Keys to a Successful Kids Outing

Early fishing experiences can have lifetime impact on a person, particularly their attitude toward the sport. Here are a few guidelines to help make fishing experiences during the formative years positive, even life-changing!

Pass these tips along to your customers, and stock your pegboards and bins accordingly.

Fish a numbers lake – Find a body of water with a good population of catchable fish. Size matters little in the early going. Kids want action, and plenty of it. Take them to waters where the fish are abundant and obliging.

Fish where the fish are! – Inexperienced anglers, young and old, often assume that, if there’s  water before them, there must be fish. Don’t limit your locations to fishing piers or harbor walls designated as fishing zones. Do some advanced research. Find areas of lakes, streams and ponds where fish abound.

Teach knot-tying and fish identification – You’ll want to keep instruction sessions brief, but taking a few minutes to teach the improved clinch knot or palomar knot will pay big dividends. Being able to identify a catch as a largemouth bass or channel catfish, or being able to distinguish a crappie from a bluegill, can be an important part of the fishing experience, too.

Go light! – Small hooks, floats (a.k.a. bobbers), and appropriately sized sinkers will catch far more fish than the oversized terminal tackle most novices bring to the water. You won’t need giant red-and-white bobbers for bluegill, crappie, perch and other panfish. Light floats and small hooks – tailored to the size of bait, of course – will produce many more fish. When it comes to kids, quantity trumps quality. Action beats boredom every time!

Keep your rigs simple and terminal tackle light – small bobbers and jigs tipped with soft plastics or live bait.
Keep your rigs simple and terminal tackle light – small bobbers and jigs tipped with soft plastics or live bait.

Carry hooks in different sizes – Whether you are fishing live bait or artificial baits simulating popular bait options, come prepared with a range of hooks to match your bait. Aberdeen hooks are inexpensive, and they work in a wide range of applications. Their light wire straightens easily on a snag and can be bent back to their normal configuration just as easily, so you’re less likely to be losing rigs and retying hooks all day. A mix of #4, #8 and #12 hooks usually will work. Minnows require larger hooks than spikes, wax worms and redworms.

Tools – Needlenose pliers and forceps are critical tools for extracting a hook from a fish’s mouth. Ripping heads and gills from a fish in a clumsy extraction seldom registers positively with a kid, and it will make your case for catch-and-release a bit more difficult. Line cutters are important, too. Nail clippers will usually suffice. Multi-tools tailored to anglers are usually a good choice as well.

Rods, reels and cane poles – Some kids master casting basics in minutes; others may need several outings before they are able to get by. If you are not sure of the skill level of the youth you are instructing, bring several tackle options, say a spincast combo, a spinning combo and a cane pole or telescoping pole. The pole can be a valuable choice. It may help avoid a few tangles and simplify instruction. It also enables kids having a tough time with casting gear to get in on the action.


Sidebar: Angling Literature for Kids

Fishermen grow passionate for books, websites, newsletters and magazines on fishing. So do kids!

In recent years, books written with young – even very young – anglers have found their way into bookstores and tackle shop display racks.

Author Bob Allen recently launched a line of picture books for kids ages 2 to 8. His books (, including the recently published Walter the Walleye, are cleverly illustrated, yet filled with accurate yet easily digested information about fish and their habits and habitat.

“They are books focused on the real young reader who is just getting started fishing,” said Allen. “Parents can read them to pre-schoolers. They’re not just about fishing but about family and friends, camping and the outdoors, too.”

K.J. Houtman has written a series of Fish On Kids books ( about the everyday life and adventures of the fictional pre-teen Gus Roberts, avid angler and outdoorsman, as he faces a sportsman’s thrills and challenges along with the trials of growing up.


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