Brendan and I aren't new to the idea of fishing with a kid. Matteo, Brendan's first son (my stepson) was 5 when he started fishing with us. Whenever Matteo would be home visiting us, we would be out on the water with him. Now Matteo is 13 and an expert at fly fishing for carp in Ontario. It goes by fast. The big difference, though? We started Lochlan out when he was 3 months old and I think that has been the biggest learning curve for us to navigate. Just how do you take your baby or toddler fishing? The short answer: You just do it. Let go of any reservations you have and just make sure you're well prepared for the outing. Kids at different ages have different requirements or needs, be mindful of that. You also know your kid best, trust your gut. Keep it slow and keep it safe. Below are my personal top 6 tips for taking your child fishing.
1. Repeat talk about River/Water safety
I really can't talk about this one enough. Since Lochlan was a baby, we have been talking river safety, even when he was too young to walk or talk. We have kept the conversation constant and consistent; I truly believe it's helped Lochlan learn what's safe and not safe. Things like not goingin the water alone, not going near fast water (teaching him how to understand what's fast and what's not), always holding Mom or Dad's hand when asked, not going near the edge of a bank, etc. Most importantly one of us is always with Lochlan while the other fishes, we take turns. When one of us hooks a fish, the other brings Lochlan out to see it if it's safe for him to wade and so on. Now that he's no longer in the kid carrier and out roaming the riverbank on his own we keep an extra careful and watchful eye. There are times where he tests boundaries as toddlers do, which is why it's important to be always observing and repeating those key safety rules you've established.
2. Set your expectations at ZERO
Seriously, the best thing you can do for yourself and your kid (especially if they are little) when you want to bring them fishing is to just go with the flow. Do not force anything as it's just a recipe for disaster. Embrace the fact that your fishing time will be so much more limited, you may be out there on the water with your kid but whether or not your fishing is a different story. There are the countless calls for snacks, for help with a fly rod or with gathering rocks. Some days may be cut way earlier than if you were out fishing with your buddies. We learnt this the hard way when we tried taking Loch for too long of a day when he was just not into it and should have cut the day short instead of pressing on. At the end of the day the experience of taking your kids on the river isn't about you and the fish you catch, it's about your child enjoying their time outside and if they happen to love when Mom or Dad reel in a fish that is just the icing on the cake.
3. Pack EVERYTHING.
Different ages require different things. I nursed Lochlan the first 13 months of his life so that made river outings really easy for us as we didn't need to pack bottles, etc. I've put together a rough list of essential items I found super helpful in bringing Loch with us. The ultimate lesson i learnt, you can never be too prepared.
0-6 Months: Baby carrier
Appropriate clothing/hats (weather dependant), lots of diapers/wipes and washable reusable sealed bags to carry soiled diapers in. A packable blanket for diaper change pit stops and a couple of clip-on teethers for them to chew on (super helpful for a teething kiddo).
6 - 18 months
Kid Backpack Carrier, packable blanket, diapers, wipes, baby friendly snacks/drinks, change of clothes, sunglasses, hat and of course a few of their favorite toys. Lochlan sleeps with a Jellycat bunny sleep soother (it's a little stuffed bunny with a small blanket attached) so to make naps on the go easier we would bring it with us and let him snuggle it while in the backpack. He actually has a "fishing bunny" and a "crib bunny" - we bought multiples of these bunny soothers incase we lost one while on our river adventures.
18 months - 3 years
Kid Carrier (if still in one, loch was out before age 3), kids waders, toys for entertainment on the river (something as simple as a bucket/shovel), extra clothes, all the snacks and drinks, etc.
4. It's not all about the fish
Often times Lochlan isn't even interested in the fish we catch, he's more preoccupied with a bug found on the bank or finding the perfect throwing rock. As he's gotten older, his interests in other things have accumulated. One of those being photography. He sees me taking pictures and always asks if he can take a picture of me. So we bought him his own little kids digital camera and we bring it with us whenever we go fishing. He takes pictures of anything and everything. We also always bring a bucket for him to fill and empty and a shovel for him to dig around in the dirt. This actually brings him SO much joy and entertains him for a long time. It's added stuff to our already heavy pack but worth it as it keeps him entertained. That's always my advice to people when they ask about fishing with their toddler, find out what they like to do and encourage it. This is especially helpful when there are slow periods of fishing and you're not catching as much, it's a way to make the day exciting still and it doesn't take a whole lot.
5. When it is all about the fish.
Then there are other days where Lochlan wants nothing more than to be casting his rod and netting fish for Mom or Dad. He has now claimed ownership of our 2WT Butterstick. Because the rod is light and only 6'0 in length it's actually the perfect size for his little body. We often tie a big stimulator on that we have cut the hook off of and let him have at it. He proudly waves his rod around in the air, attempting to show us how to cast. Obviously casting instruction is going to be a no go at this age as Loch is a typical 3 year old wanting to do things HIS way. So I usually sit back, try to tell him about casting and mostly just enjoy the fact he's excited about fly fishing. When Brendan or I hook a fish and Lochlan wants to net it we try to get to a safe piece of water where he can stand and reach with the net. Again letting him do it his own way as it's really the only way he will learn. He's getting better, practice makes perfect. Letting your kid help in whatever way they can is a great learning for both you and them.
6. It's just fly fishing
At the end of the day you are outside sharing quality time with your child and that's what they are going to remember. Tantrums might happen, giggles will definitely happen and memories are being forged to last a life time. Every mile you put on the river with your little one in tow is another opportunity to connect with them in a very special way and that's what fly fishing should be all about.