The very young - Rod, Pole or net?
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Every child is different - but for the very young a net is best. Find a shallow, gravel-bottomed water with a sloping entry and an area of child-welly depth water and stay within sight and rescue range at all times. Take a lens along and a white bottomed plastic dish so you can examine the wriggly things that are captured. An I-spy or similar children's book on pondlife will be invaluable.
The same net may be used in seaside rockpools with the outside chance of a cookable prawn or a few winkles to carry away as edible trophies.
Rods vs Poles
Both are basically long, thin sticks. A pole (the small ones are called 'whips') has the fishing line effectively tied to the end. A rod has rings through which the line is threaded and a reel.
[ Note for readers from the USA: This is British terminology. In the USA any fishing rod may be called a pole. In Europe a pole is a specific type of rod. It may be very long, sometimes 15 metres (50 feet) or more. ]
Poles are useful if you are restricted to fishing canals, small ponds or very slow-flowing rivers.
Rods are best where there is a brisk flow, where there are bankside trees and anywhere where the fish might be scared out of pole range (and casting will be needed.) Rods are essential in the sea.
Child beginners always scare fish — so do many adults. You will often see advice to start a child with a whip as it avoids casting problems. In my opinion this is wrong. A whip will only work well for a beginning child where the fish are impervious to shock. Very little watercraft is learned and in the eagerness to make sure the child catches something first time you are building in unrealistic expectations for future trips.
Small streams require rods and reels
In freshwater I always start beginners on small, fast streams. Children need to start on the very smallest. Many of the waters that others fish have tiny streams feeding them - these are often ideal. Find places where the current will carry the tackle away from the child into fishy areas:- the tail of a cattle drink, a farm footbridge or a sharp bend for example.
Bait with maggots and/or very small worms dug by the child earlier. Where they exist your initial quarry are minnows, followed by gudgeon — both of these can be deep fried and eaten if you are so inclined. Next you will seek dace and explain that although they are fun to catch they are not very nice to eat, too bony, and so introduce catch and release.
Don't be fooled by the size of the water. There can be surprisingly large fish in tiny streams and once the child has learned a little watercraft you may see some impressive catches. I have seen a crust of bread take chub and trout that seemed almost too big to turn around in the tiny waterway.
For the very first trip I always use a centrepin reel but for their own first reel a fixed-spool model is usually better, give a centrepin next birthday.
Because you selected places where the current takes care of the tackle, casting is scarcely needed and can be introduced as gentle lobs to first the middle and then the far side of the tiny water. Let the child learn accuracy before distance.
For most children a light 'spinning' rod is best. Measure the height of the child from the shoulder to the floor. The first rod should be roughly double this length — but never less than six feet (2m) or the child will have to stand too close to the water.
At the seaside
There is always a period when children want to fish for shore crabs and keep them in a bucket. A handline will do for this. There is no need for a hook as the crabs will hold onto a bit of fish, squid or limpet for long enough to get them out of the water — so just tie the bait to the end of the line and reduce the number of tangles.
In summer a pier with substantial railings is the best venue for a first trip seeking genuine fish with a rod and reel. Here there will be plenty of tiddlers (and perhaps some big ones too) straight down among the weeds on the piles or pier-side.
Casting need be no more than a gentle swing to avoid hitting the side on the way down. The beginner will quickly discover that if the tackle is more than about a rodlength out catches will drop.
An alternative within many harbours is a freshwater-style float setup to catch smelt (or sand-smelt, there are several similar species) which can be eaten. Towards dusk the tackle can be modified to try for pollock or coalfish which will probably be the first larger catch.
Unless stated otherwise: Everything in this site refers to fishing in the British Isles and similar northern European waters.