Insider Info: Fishing FUN-damentals

Outdoor America 2018, Issue 2
Photo credit: Dwight Lydell Chapter

Turn that first day into a lifetime of fishing.

If you’re an angler, there’s no better way to introduce young people to the outdoors than to take them fishing — hopefully more than once. Clint Kowalick, coordinator of the Go FishIN program at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, caught his first bluegill at age four and has been hooked ever since. He now trains others how to mentor first-timers and offers the following advice.

Think Small

For any new angler, especially children, it’s important to set them up for success. That means focusing on smaller fish the first time out. “The best fish to target are panfish such a bluegills and other sunfish,” says Kowalick. “It’s better to catch 25 minnow-sized bluegills in an hour than one five-pound bass in a day. Kids want to see the bobber go down and reel something in.”

Tackle Equipment Size

Kowalick recommends starting kids with a spincasting rod and a push-button reel because they’re inexpensive, come with light line, and are easy to use. He suggests a set-up that’s longer than the novelty rods designed for very young children. “My daughter caught her first fish with her Barbie® pole, but she outgrew it quickly,” he explains. “A little higher quality rod, which might cost about $20, holds up to use. It’s also four to five feet long…. You can cast farther, and you can feel the fish nibbling on the bait better.”

Are fish stealing your kid’s bait? Kowalick blames the bobber. A common mistake is attaching a large red-and-white bobber on a first-timer’s line. Instead, Kowalick uses a small, thin, elongated, and brightly-colored bobber that is less buoyant, making it easier for a small fish to pull down — and easier for kids to watch for the bobbing motion. Another problem with a big bobber is that if a child doesn’t feel the fish bite, the fish might swallow the hook deeply, which is bad for the fish if you plan to release it.

Kowalick reminds mentors to weight the line with lead-free split-shot to help kids cast farther but not so much weight that it pulls the bobber down. He also uses a small #6, #8, or #10 hook because big fish can take a small hook but small fish can’t bite a big one.

Use Live Bait

What you put on the hook matters, and Kowalick recommends using live bait. “Red wigglers, those worms on the sidewalk after it rains, are the best. Or waxworms, also called ‘bee moths’ as they’re the larval stage of a bee moth, are another good option. Waxworms fit perfectly on a #8 hook.” If you’re squeamish about putting live bait on a hook, your kid will be too, Kowalick warns, so practice ahead of time.

Cast Close to Home

After gearing up, the other key decision is where to go fishing. Kowalick favors a local park with good shoreline access or a fishing pier that’s wheelchair accessible. “The walls on the pier make kids feel safe, especially if they aren’t good swimmers,” he says. “The pier extends over the water. On sunny days, fish need shade and will go under the pier,” which increases the likelihood of getting a bite.

Most importantly, Kowalick believes fishing needs to be simple and fun if you want kids to do it again. “Go to a park where they can fish a little and then have a picnic or play on the playground,” he advises. “Don’t tell them to sit down and be quiet or get angry if the line gets tangled. And if they don’t want to hold the fish the first time, that’s okay. They might the second or third time.”

Know when to keep it or let it go.

Signs posted at boat launches across the United States warn anglers to limit the amount of fish they eat. In Maine, for example, pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant, and children under age eight are told to avoid all freshwater fish except for brook trout and landlocked salmon, of which one meal per month is safe. All other adults and children over age eight can eat two meals per month of most inland fish and one meal per week of brook trout and landlocked salmon. Why the worry?

It has to do with water pollution and chemicals that end up in our fish. “The two biggest contaminants are mercury and PCB [polychlorinated biphenyl], an industrial chemical that’s extremely persistent in the environment,” explains Sean Strom, a fisheries toxicologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Both bio-accumulate when one fish eats another fish. It builds up through the food chain. The bigger and older the fish, the more [toxins] it contains.” Where do these toxins come from?


Mercury is released into the air by coal-fired power plants and other sources that burn mercury-containing materials and can drop directly into streams and lakes or come down with precipitation. Although some coal-fired utilities have switched to natural gas and others have installed systems to decrease emissions, the problem persists.

Mercury can cause neurological and kidney problems in people. Even small amounts can affect brain development in young children. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. However, large fish that are long-lived (swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish) have the highest levels. Follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration as well as your local wildlife agency.


These man-made chemicals were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications — from electrical equipment to paint and dyes — until they were banned in 1979 due to adverse health effects, including cancer. PCBs do not break down in the environment — they continue to circulate in the air, water, and soil.

PCBs can accumulate in animals over time and up the food chain. They tend to accumulate in fat (whereas mercury accumulates in muscle tissue), which means that fattier fish contain the most PCBs if they come from a contaminated area. To avoid ingesting PCBs yourself, limit your intake of fatty fish. And if you catch a salmon or lake trout, “trim away the fat,” suggests Strom, a lifelong angler.

Fishing for Good Health

With these chemical concerns, why should you eat fish at all? Because it’s still good for you!

According the Journal of the American Medical Association, in addition to protein and nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium, fish contain omega-3 fatty acids that reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke; lower blood pressure, depression, and mental decline; and aid brain development in infants.

“It’s a fine line between the benefits of eating fish and the contaminants that might be in them,” adds Strom. “The safest bet is to eat small fish.”

Bottom line: there’s no way to tell if a fish contains mercury or PCBs by looking at it. Your state’s fish and wildlife agency and state department of health are the best sources of information about the safety of fish caught in a local body of water.

“People should enjoy fishing but be aware of the guidelines,” urges Strom. “They’re not meant to scare you or deter you from fishing. They’re just meant to be useful.”

An avid angler from Red Lodge, Montana, Lisa Ballard has fished throughout the United States. She usually releases what she catches.