Teaching Your Kids to Fly Fish

So you want to teach your son or daughter to fly fish. How can you make that happen? The truth is, you can lead a child to water, but you can’t make them fly fish.

I have a few suggestions, though, to help along the way:

Get them on the river early and often

I still remember the first time my dad took me to the Kilchis River near Tillamook, Oregon. He was fishing for steelhead. I was four years old, mesmerized by the smell of the river — as well as by the smell of the fish. The experience was formative, creating in me a love for rivers.

Last summer, our family stayed in some cabins on Montana’s Boulder River. I watched my two sons-in-law fly fish while toting their little kids in backpacks. Now my sons-in-law were not wading, nor were they near deep water. So my 3-month old grandson and my one-year old granddaughter were safe! I was proud of the guys for getting their young children into the great outdoors at the river’s edge.

The time to introduce your kids (or grandkids) to the river is even before they are old enough to fish.

Get them hooked on brookies

When we lived in Helena, Montana, in the early 1990s, we occasionally made the 40-mile trip over MacDonald Pass and then up the Little Blackfoot River to a national forest campground. We fished the river—not much more than a little stream at that point—and caught quite a few brook trout.

My technique was to get a brookie on the line, hand them the rod, wait a couple seconds, and then say, “Hey, I think you’ve gone one!” Later, when they were old enough to go solo, I taught them to fish with a spinning rod and drown a worm. They eventually graduated to fly fishing.

Brook trout are a beginner’s best friend. They can be wily at times, but they are often forgiving of sloppy casts. If you do not live near a trout stream, even blue gills or sunfish will do. It’s important that your youngsters catch some fish.

Get them started on nymphing

Once your kids are ready to handle a fly rod, nymphing is a great way to get them started. Their casts do not have to be as precise as in dry fly fishing, and it’s easy to teach your kids to watch the strike indicator (I like the small plastic bubble) as it floats down a run.

About the only thing your kids need to learn is to mend their line. I’m surprised how early my boys caught on to this technique. Both of them caught some nice rainbows in the Madison River with nymphs. Later, when they became more proficient, they graduated to dry flies.

Make it fun, not too technical

Most six-year-olds are not going to respond well to a lecture on tippet size or your instructions for tying an improved clinch knot. Nor will they care much about the difference between a copper john and a prince nymph. Just let them fish.

This is also not the time to refine their casting. Be patient, and be prepared to take some deep breaths—and to spend time untangling lines and leaders.

Give them a break and let them explore

Don’t be upset if your child loses interest in a hurry and wants to explore. Encourage it. My youngest son, Luke, would often stop fishing after a few minutes—even if he was catching trout!—so that he could look for frogs and garter snakes. It’s all part of the outdoor experience. Your child’s love for fly fishing may develop later, after they first become enamored with all the cool things they find along the river’s edge.

There are no guarantees, but if you teach your kids to fly fish, they may continue it or even pick it up again later in life.

A funny thing happened last summer when we were camped out on the Boulder River. My sons-in-law taught my daughters how to fly fish. My daughters remembered the days we spent catching brookies on the Little Blackfoot about 25 years earlier and decided it was time to try fly fishing.

Meanwhile, my older son taught his wife to fly fish. Then, in the biggest surprise of all, my youngest son taught his mother (my wife). He was there when she caught her first trout on a fly rod. At first, he felt bad that he didn’t let me teach her how to fish. Both my wife and I reassured him that it was for the best. He was more patient with his mom than I would have been!

Later, as we watched the sun set from the porch of our cabin, we realized that we were seeing the results of a commitment to teach the kids to fly fish.

Give your kids a video game, and you’ll make them happy for a few hours. Teach them to fly fish, and you’ll make them happy for a lifetime.

The Texas Ranger Who Taught Me How to Fly Fish

future of fly fishing

It took a Texas Ranger to introduce me to fly fishing. I credit him with teaching me how to fly fish.

This was not the kind of Texas Ranger who was armed with a six-gun or a baseball bat.

He was a college professor from Texas who worked every summer as a seasonal Ranger-Naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park. His name was Jerry Williams, and he led a weekly fishing demonstration in the Moraine Park campground amphitheater. My younger brother, David, and I attended our first one in 1977 when we were both in high school. We must have attended one of these hour-long sessions for five years in a row.

Every year, the demonstration played out the same way:

Jerry Williams began by showing us three dry flies that would work in most places in the park– a size #14 Adams, a #14 Renegade, and a #14 Royal Coachman. Then, he had us in stitches telling us how some kid with a spinning rod and a big ugly Budweiser plug for a lure caught the monster brown trout that he had been trying to catch for weeks out of a stretch in the Big Thompson River, which meandered through the meadow in Moraine Park. Next, after admitting that his favorite meal was catfish and hush puppies, he said that he had found a sure-fire recipe that would work with even the biggest, tasteless brown trout.

“Just put that trout on a pine board, put it in the oven at 350 degrees for twenty minutes. Then, take it out, throw away the fish, and eat the pine board!”

The audience, usually about thirty campers, doubled over in laughter every time.

All of this led up to the dramatic moment of the presentation.

Brookie Coaxing

For over a decade, Ranger Williams had always gone down to the Big Thompson in the meadow below the ampitheater and caught a trout. He had never failed in a decade of weekly fly-fishing demonstrations.

Would today be the day to end the streak, or would it continue? The tension was palpable. But every year he caught a fish and kept his streak alive.

His secret?

The Big Thompson River, and all of its side-channels that ran through the meadow, were full of brook trout. Even on a bright sunny day, Ranger Williams could coax an eight-inch brookie from an undercut bank to take his fly.

This inspired my brother, Dave, and I to pool our money and invest in a fiberglass fly rod. The reel set us back about $7.99, and the double taper fly line (Jerry said we needed to get a decent double taper line) was more expensive than the rod! During our high school years, we dabbled off and on with fly-fishing. Our casting was, well, nasty. Often, the slap of our fly line created ripples and sent trout scurrying.

But most of these pools and runs had ample time to recover, though, because our #14 Royal Coachman spent about as much time lighting in the branches of a choke cherry bush or a Ponderosa pine as it did on the water’s surface.

Still, we always managed to catch a handful of brookies.

Rise amid the Clutter

It was almost two decades later before I really got serious about fly fishing. But even with my crude skills, I had enough sporadic success to keep me hooked on fly fishing. The moral of the story: find a good stream or lake with brook trout. Not only are they a beautiful fish, they are forgiving. They fight like crazy, too.

Ranger Williams was right. Even when your line and leader land in a tangled mess, a brookie will often ignore the clutter and rise to take the fly in the middle of it.