With many traditional summertime activities either unavailable or limited due to COVID-19 this summer, consider fishing as an alternative, wholesome activity for kids.
With waterparks, movies, arcades, sporting events, Vacation Bible Schools, zoos and other common summertime kids’ destinations not currently the attractive options they tend to be, some have caught on early that fishing is a way to recreate with only your own family group and on an island (a boat) all to yourself.
The reservations I have on my booking calendar clearly reflect this trend. In a normal year, going into the month of June, I will be booked 2 to 2½ weeks out. This year, going into June, my calendar was completely full through July 9, with people requesting standby status for any cancellations. As I write this column, the wait now reaches to July 27. Nearly all of these trips involve children.
Following my morning fishing trip last Saturday, I drove through several of the parks on Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Around 3:30 p.m., uniformed Corps of Engineer park rangers and Bell Co. Sheriff’s Department personnel were turning away vehicles at the gate because the Dana Peak Park had reached capacity as people endeavored to fish, boat, swim, wade, sunbathe, picnic and play outdoors.
COVID-19 and lack of alternatives aside, the months of June, July, and August are the three best months of the year to introduce youngsters to fishing. These summer months are especially good for those who have never fished before, and kids under the age of 12 or so who require instant gratification to keep their interest for long.
The abundance of sunfish in our two local reservoirs’ shallow waters is what makes this fishing so simple and so reliable. As the water warms into the high 70s and up into the 80s, sunfish flood into the near-shore waters of less than 8 feet in depth.
On Stillhouse, the aquatic form of vegetation called hydrilla is what draws and harbors these fish. On Belton, rock, wood and man-made cover do likewise.
What sunfish lack in size, they make up for in numbers. Multiple species of sunfish roam our local lakes, including bluegill sunfish, green sunfish, longear sunfish, redear sunfish and hybridized crosses of these four species.
Keeping tackle small and simple is the key. I suggest the modern fiberglass, telescoping versions of the old cane pole for gear, and a small #14 hook baited with a redworm segment for bait. Keep the floats (also called bobbers) small, too. If it is larger than a dime’s diameter, it is too big.
Just as kids require instant gratification to stay interested, I have noted through the years that they also require transitions. Even successful fishing, if it involves doing the same thing over and over again for very long, will cause kids to lose interest.
My go-to backup plan is downrigging for white bass. Following rotator cuff surgery some years ago, I converted to electronic downriggers, but for the first several years I operated my guide service, I did so using manual downriggers. Either style offers kids the ability to stay engaged by rigging, lowering and raising the downrigger ball, and of course, by reeling in the fish they produce.
This week I fished two kids trips, one on Monday and another on Wednesday. The 5- and 8-year-old brothers I took out on Monday had never landed a fish before, nor had they ever been on a boat. As we soon found out, the 8-year-old was terrified of fish too near to him. When I discovered this, I worked with him over the course of our 3½-hour trip to help him overcome his fears.
Both boys earned a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department “First Fish Award” during this trip. They landed a total of 48 fish, including 32 white bass taken by downrigging, and a mix of 16 sunfish.
On Wednesday, native Michigander turned Bell County resident Utah Harris brought his 9-year-old granddaughter, Aubrey Mangan, out with me, accompanied by two of her friends, Sammi McCrary (age 11) and Emily Cathey (age 9).
All of these girls had some prior fishing experience and were a tad older than my crew on Monday, thus they were able to do more for themselves and stuck with the better quality white bass fishing for a longer period of time than did the younger boys.
This trio of young ladies wound up landing 57 fish, including 51 white bass, and two sunfish apiece.
When I first began my guide service, I ran four-hour, half-day trips for everyone. I soon realized four hours was too long for kids, and so I came up with a shorter, less expensive, alternative specifically for children called my “Kids Fish, Too!” package. Parents are “optional.” meaning they may attend or simply leave the kids in my care for the duration of the outing. Those parents who choose to attend may simply spectate (no fishing license required), or may be very hands-on by helping me help the kids be successful (in which case a fishing license is required).
A fishing guide, although helpful, especially for first-timers, is certainly not required. Fishing from the shoreline, especially at Stillhouse, is a bit tougher than normal right now as the lake is slightly flooded.
This puts a barren band of limestone lake bottom between the shoreline and the start of the hydrilla which begins sprouting in about 4 feet of water. But as summer progresses, the lake, which is slowly dropping now, will likely continue to drop, thus the waterline along the shore will draw nearer the hydrilla and make long casts from the shore no longer necessary.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the summertime is a great time to get kids out of the house and on the water, and so much more in these uncertain times we face as a nation in 2020.