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Let my Children Go Fishing

Let my Children Go Fishing
Guest post by John Vetterli, of

I don’t know how many of you have seen the short video Daniel made of my 6 year old son Jack practicing casting his 11’ Iwana and tormenting our cat. That short video was the first time Jack had cast with his new tenkara rod.

I have learned some valuable lessons from teaching my 9 year old daughter Sage and 6 year old son Jack how to fish with tenkara rods. I want to share these lessons because like most tenkara anglers with kids, I immediately saw the potential for bringing my kids into the tenkara world for a lifetime of fun and learning.

Kids Pick Up The Basics Really Quick But Each Kid Is Different: When Sage and I went on our first tenkara outing in the late spring of 2011, she had never been fly fishing so I debated if we should do some lawn casting first. I decided that knowing her personality, practice casting would bore her pretty quick so on the water learning would be best. You have to look at each kid and tailor the teaching/fishing experience to their personality and learning traits. Sage is an avid athlete and perfectionist when it comes to learning physical skills. She learns better by practical hands on application of a new skill.

Girl caught a fish on tenkara
John's daughter, Sage, with a nice fish she caught on tenkara
Jack on the other hand does better with fewer distractions so basic mechanics of casting works better for him if we do some lawn casting first. We do a few minutes of lawn casting before we head out on a fishing trip just to refresh his memory and get him into tenkara mode. This seems to work really well for him.


Father and son tenkara casting

John teaching his son Jack how to cast with tenkara.

Remember, each kid is different.

Once you find the best method for the individual kid to learn, give them the basics and just get the hell out of their way, shut up, and let them fish. Constant badgering and correction of form or technique kills the fun really quick. Simply let them fish and they will begin to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Only use positive reinforcement. Never tell your kid “you are doing it all wrong.” Instead, I say things like “You doing OK? Have any questions? Can I show you something really cool?

I try to let them explore and try to come to their own understanding of the skill or technique, when they get stuck on something, that’s when I ask some leading questions. This keeps them in control of their learning and keeps me from overloading them with information. They are going to make plenty of mistakes and you can’t fix them all at once or in one day, help them fix one or maybe two things each trip and let them learn in increments that they feel comfortable with.


First things first, when Sage and I took off for our first tenkara expedition, I picked a stream location that had water conditions I knew she could survive if she took an unexpected swim. We spent time looking at the section of water to be fished and discussing how to be safe around moving water. Some things to consider about fishing location:

Early season fishing with high flows and young kids do not go together. I spent 22 years as a professional Firefighter/EMT and I have had the unfortunate experience of pulling a dead child out from under a large rock because he fell into a fast moving stream. The water was only about mid-thigh deep for me but the powerful undercurrent was overpowering for the child. My kids and I don’t go fishing together until the spring runoff is over and water conditions become safer. I strongly recommend a PFD (life jacket) for children if you are going to take them into the water wading in water mid-thigh deep for the kid. They at least have a chance of avoiding a drowning if something goes wrong.

Pre-plan your trips with kids. Go to the area you want to take them by yourself first and look at the area with the thought of bringing your kids. Try to keep from getting absorbed in your own fishing.

Wading staffs really help kids. I found a pair of REI youth hiking poles that work great. Since I have two kids that fish, the poles come in a pair, presto, one wading staff per kid. It also gives them something to do on the hike in to your fishing location and cuts down or their boredom while hiking. Make sure you get a good Zinger type device or your kid’s wading staff is going to vanish on the first day. I like the Gear Keeper zinger devices. They are strong enough to retract with the weight of the wading staff.

Pick a place to fish that has less overhang vegetation. Spending all day catching trees and bushes sucks, it doesn’t matter if you are a seasoned tenkara angler or 8 year old kid. One of my favorite local places to take my kids is a mountain stream that flows through a flat meadow type area with little or no trees along the banks. The relatively flat terrain slows the water flow speed and in June, the spring runoff is over and the stream is slow enough that even 6 year old Jack can wade safely because he is not getting pushed and shoved by the current.

Other safety things to consider: Sunglasses and hat with a brim. Kids will do some funny things with a fly rod and there is a good possibility that they may get hooked in the head/face, so protect their eyes and the hat brim keeps the hooks away from skin. Also, be careful of where you are standing when they are casting, I kneel by them so I am approximately the same height they are that cuts down on how many timed they catch Dad with the fly.

Keep a small first aid kit with you. A band aid will save a fishing day.

Insect repellent and sunscreen should be a no-brainer. I give each kid a Fox 40 micro emergency whistle on a neck lanyard. They have been instructed that if for some reason we become separated or one of us slips and falls and becomes injured, stop where you are sit down and blow that whistle in 3 distinct bursts every minute until help arrives. It’s amazing how fast you can lose sight of a kid in a mountain environment.

They also carry a small CamelBak back pack with water, snacks, and a high visibility hunter orange beanie cap to put on their head if they become separated/lost and have to start blowing the whistle. A bright LED light is also in the CamelBak. Anything to increase visibility of the person is beyond value in a Search and Rescue scenario.

Make The Trip An Adventure.

Give your kids time to look for bugs, throw rocks and sticks in the water, afterall, you have to remember that they are kids. We have had several fishing trips that became bug catching or playing in the water trips with little or no fishing. It is still fun to just be playing outside with your kids. Bring a water-proof camera. We always bring a small waterproof camera on our trips, if the fishing is slow, kids are bored, or want to do something different for a while, nature photography is a fun break for kids. It is really cool to see their photographs and see the world from their perspective.

Plan Your Trip With An Appropriate Time/Schedule.

Your young kids don’t have the patience you do so plan your trips around thier attention span not yours. Jack does really well fishing for about 45 min at a time then we have to look for bugs or have some play/exploration time. Sage can fish for 1-1.5 hours at a time before she needs a break. Right now I take my kids fishing one at a time because their attention spans are quite different at the moment. As Jack gets older, his attention span will become more inline with his sister. Then we can all go fishing together and the kids will not be frustrating each other so much.

Listen To Your Kids.

Take lots of time to talk to your kids about how the trip is going. When they are starting to get fatigued, bored, or frustrated, it may be time to pack it in for the day. I want each fishing trip to end before the kids become exhausted and whiny. If I end the trip while they are still having fun; that is what they remember. If I drag them to the point that they are not having fun anymore, odds are they won’t want to go fishing next time.

Tenkara is the perfect method for teaching your kids how to fly fish. They will pick up the skills quickly, have less gear and stuff to break and malfunction. And above all it is so much fun to help your child explore your passion and help them develop it into their own passion. A small caveat here, not every kid is going to fall in love with tenkara, respect them for that if they don’t enjoy it as much as you do and work together to find another joint passion to share with each other.

This is not the end- all-be-all guide to teaching your kids tenkara. This is the list of all the things I screwed up the first few times out with my kids and what I am doing to make it a safe, fun, and productive activity we can share together.