"Oh, Analeigh! You've got a dandy on the line!"
"Hold on tight!"
"Keep reeling, honey!"
"Don't let him get away!"
Mom, Dad and Grandma and Grandpa (She calls me "Pawpaw") called out advice to the two-year old angler with curly brown hair as she tussled with her very first fish.
My granddaughter's eyes twinkled, and she laughed excitedly as she cranked the fish to shore. She had to perform a little dance to tow the 9-inch bluegill up the bank.
"Pawpaw, Snoopy caught a fish!" she exclaimed. Snoopy, her plastic bobber, had seemed on the verge of drowning as the big bluegill pulled at the gob of worms at the end of her line.
Holding the line with both hands, Analeigh lifted her bluegill so everyone could see. We took photos to preserve the happy moment, then I unhooked the fish and released it to fight another day. Through Analeigh, our family's fishing heritage had just been passed to another generation.
On a wall in my office, I keep the pictures of all three of my daughters with their first fish. Their big days were spread out over a few years, but their reactions had been pretty much the same as Analeigh's. You can see it in the pictures. They were proud to the point of bursting.
So was I.
10 Tips for a First Fish Trip
- Pick a spot where fish are abundant. Conservation Department regional offices can provide suggestions for places to go in your area.
- Plan a short trip. An hour is plenty for a youngster.
- Pack snacks.
- If you go in the summer, fish during the cool part of the day. Fish are usually more active in the morning and evening.
- Use push-button spincast reels and live bait. Simple equipment translates into faster learning and better success.
- Teach basic skills like casting, knot tying and baiting the hook. Help a first-timer remove the hook from a fish. Some fish have sharp spines. Don't let a good experience turn into a painful one.
- Bring the camera to preserve the memory.
- Point out birds, frogs, flowers, trees and other items of interest.
- Don't stop after one trip. Repeat trips keep the fishing bug alive.
- Take advantage of the many fishing clinics offered throughout the year by the Conservation Department, fishing clubs and community organizations.
I've been working in the fisheries division of the Conservation Department for my entire career, so I might gush a little bit more than most about the joys of fishing. There's research that shows most people feel the same way. National angler surveys reveal that the two main reasons people fish are for relaxation and to be with friends and family. In other words, they fish for fun!
Although every catch represents an achievement of sorts, catching your first fish is always special and memorable. The excitement of a first fish spreads to everyone involved-parents, grandparents or friends. If you know of someone who has yet to catch a fish, volunteer to be their fishing guide. You'll have as much fun as they will!
There are plenty of kids and lots of adults who have yet to catch their first fish. They are just waiting for us to take them fishing.
Lifetime of Firsts
A person catches his or her first fish only once, but a number of fishing firsts can bring similar enjoyment. You can celebrate your first fish of the year, for example, and your first trout, sauger or bass of the season.
Birdwatchers keep life lists and add to them their sightings of new species. How many of Missouri's fish species could you put on your list? Have you reeled in a pickerel, a muskie, a blue catfish, a big-mouthed carp? These and many other species live in Missouri waters. What a challenge it would be to catch your first one!
Make their First-Fish Trip as easy and comfortable as possible. Find a small public lake or private pond with a well-mown grassy shoreline (cuts down on chiggers, ticks and casting problems) that contains a mix of bass and bluegill. Wait for a a nice sunny day. In the summer, go a little earlier in the day. That's when the fish bite best, and it won't be oppressively hot.
Arm the angler with a spincast outfit-push-button reels are easiest to operate. Show him or her how to cast, then slide a piece of juicy nightcrawler onto a relatively small hook, pinch on a small splitshot a few inches above the hook and clip a bobber onto the line so that the bait rides a few feet below the surface.
Once you have someone fishing, Your only other job is to sit back and coach them. They need to know a little bit about patience, and they need lots of encouragement.
Inevitably, they will catch their first fish. It might be a bluegill, bass or crappie. The size doesn't matter. A first fish is just the start of a lifetime of angling.
Don't forget to bring a camera along so you can preserve this once-in-a-lifetime event. Take pictures from several angles and distances to make sure you get a clear shot.
First Fish Certificate
The Conservation Department has instituted the First Fish Program to officially recognize an angler's first fish.
The application form for a "First Fish Award" is available on the Department's official website or at any Department office. Send the completed form to First Fish Award, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO, 65102-0180. If possible, please include a photo of the fish.
For more information about the First Fish or Master Angler programs, contact the Conservation Department's fisheries division at (573) 751-4115.
There's now another way to preserve and recognize a new angler's first fish. The Conservation Department recently introduced its First Fish Certificate program. This program recognizes anglers, young and old, with a certificate that commemorates catching their first fish. The program is similar to the Department's Master Angler and State Record Fish programs, which recognize large or record catches.
I've applied for a First Fish Certificate for Analeigh. Perhaps she'll look back on it someday and recall how much fun we all had that day, and she may thank us for helping her learn how to enjoy nature in a very special way.
Meanwhile, the picture of her on her big fishing day will remain on my office wall, right next to the photo of her mommy with her first fish.