There's nothing like the reward of introducing someone to fishing. Some years ago I had the opportunity to take a friend's son fishing for the first time. I was excited by the prospect of teaching someone to fish outside of my own kids.
I live on a hobby farm with a small lake that is a moderate hike through the woods behind my place. I usually take my daughters back to fish and swim from shore, and this time we brought our friend Bailey to join us.
I always want it to be FUN for the kids first and foremost, so we start with a quick swim to cool off after a sweltering hike that I hack out with my machete on the rarely-used trails. Even though the shore is rocky and the first 15 feet are weedy, we escaped the heat with a brisk dip as usual, and then settled in to fish.
In less than an hour he and my daughters Emily and Hannah caught a stringer of panfish. The kids were elated. All I did was bait hooks and retrieve fish, and I watched Bailey catch a perch, then several sunfish and crappies, and finally a largemouth bass on an epic first day out. Then we all happily swam again.
I had to pull him aside afterward and let him know that this bite was exceptional, and that fishing would generally be slower than this and sometimes outright dead. That he should be prepared for brutal conditions at times but to always endure it and go fish.
Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself with a new opportunity. My daughter's boyfriend, Philipo Dyauli, is from Tanzania and mentioned to me that he had never fished. He recently graduated from college, so I gave him a fishing rod and tackle box as a graduation present.
I chose to invite him to my family's annual Father's Day fishing outing to present him with his gift. He and my daughter Emily were a bit late getting to my nephew's place on the lake that day, but he eagerly marched to the end of the dock with me to give it a try. I put a nightcrawler on his line and demonstrated to him the method I used, and showed him how the slip bobber worked and how to cast.
Like all beginners, his casting was awkward and stilted at first. I insisted he would get the hang of it in no time. He did get better, but our time was limited and he never did get a bite. I assured him we would do it right the next time, and we penciled in a date for him to come out to the farm.
I knew the lake behind my farm was not the same body of water it had been years ago. The water levels have been low and the weed mats heavy, and the keep rate has declined sharply. Still, I guaranteed him it would be an adventure.
As it turns out, we had four newcomers to fishing that day, as he was accompanied by his dad David and sister Patricia, as well as his year-and-a-half-old son Jaska (Jazz) along for the journey. My daughter Emily came along primarily to babysit Jazz while we all fished. Even though she is not his mother, she adores this little boy to no end.
I prayed I would not get us lost as I hacked my way through the overgrown brambles that were now nearly impassable in places. Luckily for me they were all very patient with the process, and before long we were gaining sight of the lake and the going was much easier. Once I found our spot, the bank was steeper than I remember, but we all managed to scramble down to the lake without injury.
We decided to dispense with the swim, partly due to the fact that the weed line now extended over 30 feet out. I dug out the worms I pulled from my garden and started baiting hooks and handing off rods. I knew Philipo was eager to get his line out, and was pleased that Patricia approached it with nearly the same zeal.
David also tried his luck from the bank. In Tanzania he had worked in one of the park reserves, and smiled as he thanked me for getting him into the field again. I admired how he took all the annoying brush in stride and enjoyed the nature hike.
There were no fishing boats on the lake which I knew was a bad sign on a temperate Sunday afternoon. We persevered, however, and before long Philipo was almost up to his waist and casting better and better. I could see the determination on his face as he got bit a few times and saw how easily they could slip the bait off the hook.
Eventually he placed a cast to the edge of the grass and sure enough felt the tug of a fish for the first time. He struggled a bit at first but then retrieved the fish to my waiting hands. I took the fish off and watched him beam at the sight of his first catch. In fact, his entire family beamed, and Jazz was instantly enamored by the nice-sized bluegill. The tike was now down to a swim diaper while Em doted on him with toys and snacks.
I was gratified that we had managed to catch a beautiful panfish and put him on a stringer in case there were more, (we generally fish to eat at the farm). We tried desperately to pull another fish from the lake but I knew it was time to pull up stakes before it became an ordeal. Emily, for one, was ready. I dare say Em did not find the bugs, brush and terrain as magical as it was in the early days. I couldn't blame her.
It was also good news for the sunfish, whom we released after a quick picture. I even showed Philipo how to properly pose with his fish with his arm completely extended. Everyone smiled as it swam away, and we climbed the bank and made our way back to the farm. I was satisfied that we had left before it quit being fun.
Even though it was hardly a stellar outing I was satisfied that we had completed the adventure, and despite the effort shared a pleasant memory. I look forward to fishing with Philipo and his family again, and knowing Jazz will grow up knowing how to fish.
I grew up with a huge emphasis on the outdoors, so it's hard to imagine not hunting and fishing. But bringing in someone who never has helps me see it with new eyes. One regains that sense of excitement over defying the elements in pursuit of game, even if it is only a panfish. A win is a win.
I also knew that it wouldn't be enough to send him on his way without reactivating his interest with follow-up trips. After all I don't want to him to lose interest. That is the critical follow-up step that keeps newcomers engaged.
As outdoors people, it is up to us to reach out to those like Philipo who may be yearning for a new type of adventure, but are unsure how to begin or are intimidated by the process. Step inside the fishing department of any major outdoors retailer and you'll encounter a dizzying array of bait and tackle that makes it easy to understand.
Millenials in particular are showing a huge interest in hunting and fishing as outdoor activities that offer not only fresh meat for the table, but the satisfaction of knowing where that food came from. It's a huge opportunity to expand the hunting and fishing space and grow interest across this new demographic. But it's critical to act while we have their interest, and then work to keep up that interest.
But I don't think that losing interest will be a problem for Philipo, as Emily pointed out that he already has a special spot for his fishing rod and tackle box. My guess is he'll be ready for the next adventure at a moment's notice.
-Phred Nelson, North American Fisherman