Fishing With The Family

Patrick Mills and JJCAC members



There can be few things more magical than witnessing the excitement experienced by a child upon catching their first fish – a truly memorable moment, which also brings a warm glow to the proud parent, aunt or uncle responsible for making the occasion possible. Traditionally, such time honored skills have been passed from father to son; and represent an important mile post along the respective youngster’s angling journey. While this is often still the case, parents new to fishing, including greater numbers of modern moms, are also taking up the challenge of taking their kids fishing. Unfortunately, such enthusiasm is often met with disappointment, as the attractively packaged Sponge Bob or Spiderman kids fishing outfits, typically available through larger stores, are woefully inadequate for the task at hand. While it isn’t impossible to catch an occasional fish using such equipment, catch rates can be vastly improved through the application of more kid friendly methods. Briefly, as detailed below, by applying philosophies of Keep it Simple, Catch a Fish, Any Fish and Fish Close to Home it is possible to virtually guarantee that kids catch good numbers of fish first time out.

Keep it Simple.

Think bank, not boat! Choosing to fish from the bank makes a preferred option for busy families, as the time and financial constraints associated with hauling a boat to a (likely distant) boat ramp, fuelling, launching, and then fishing most often far outweigh the sheer simplicity and convenience of spending several hours with the kids at a local area park district lake or neighborhood retention pond. Additionally, as is detailed further below (see Fish Close to Home) local parks and other venues, in addition to some fantastic fishing, typically also offer a host of other kid friendly activities.

Tangles, tangles, tangles – the bane of any parent’s angling experience! An unfortunate truism is that if there is a tree or bush within 30 feet of a new angler they are more than likely to become snarled within it. Indeed, it is often the case that parents spend more time sorting out knotted line and retrieving bobbers from various fauna a flora than actually having a line in the water! This frustration can be overcome very simply by taking casting out of the equation – instead of utilizing a typical rod ‘n reel set up, a simple 6 – 10 ft crappie pole (available through most angling outlets for less that ~$20) should be employed. With such a set up, a length of line is simply tied to the pole with a hook, float (bobber) and shot then added. The rig is then simply swung underhand (no tangles), rather than cast overhand (lots of tangles!), into the fishing area. Since the species sought are likely pan fish (see Catch a Fish, Any Fish below), greater casting distances are neither required nor necessary.

Catch a Fish – Any Fish!

The real secret to ensuring a great day at the water with the kids principally lies with understanding which fish species are likely to be encountered during a typical fishing trip. An examination of DNR fish survey data reveals that essentially 90% of all fish present in most bodies of water comprise bluegill. With this truism in mind, it then makes sense to target these species. Indeed, in addition to being the most numerous, bluegill also preferentially inhabit the margins of most bodies of water – meaning that the ‘kid friendly’ short range crappie pole technique, as outlined above, affords the most efficient method for targeting these fish from the bank. Because pan fish have much smaller mouths than bass, and adopt decidedly different feeding strategies, this requires that small hooks and live baits should be used in place of jigs, spinners and other lures when targeting these species. Indeed, the phrase ‘think trout, not bass’ is worth remembering when assembling a rig suitable for bluegill.

In a little more detail, the rig should be assembled by tying a length of 4 lb test line to the tip of the pole, then cutting it to about a foot or so shorter than the pole’s length (e.g. a 5 ft length of line tie to a 6 ft pole). A light Thill style ‘Shy Bite’ float (bobber) should be added to the line and a size 16 trout hook tied on. The float should be balanced with small lead shot until only its small red tip remains visible when cast out. Typically, a #8 shot is placed 4 inches from the hook, with the remaining bulk another 6 inches above that. The float should initially be set so there is ~ 3 ft of line between the hook and float – this depth can be altered during the session in order to find at which depth the fish are feeding (3 ft down is typical). Baits should err on the smaller size, with worm segments or maggots being best. While this set up may seem a little unusual, it is well suited to the pursuit of pan fish, which have relatively small mouths and give a delicate bite. Larger hooks coupled with the dreaded ‘red n’ white’ bobber is a sure fire route to failure and should be avoided at all costs. In practice the baited rig is simply swung out underhand, with bites easily detected as a decisive pull under of the float. Striking hard is not required –the rig is just smoothly swung back to the angler with the fish attached!

Fish Close to Home.

Kids, by their very nature, can become distracted quite easily. Thus, while the methods detailed here will certainly result in the capture of some fish; when considering a family outing it’s often prudent (especially if kids under age 6 are involved) to select a local park district facility as a destination. In this way, an hour or two of fishing with the kids can easily be worked into a varied schedule. Indeed, if fishing is combined with a picnic, visits to the playground, and maybe some bike riding or playing catch; these activities will typically add up to a very worthwhile and relaxing family outing.

While there are literally dozens of small park district facilities and neighborhood retention ponds within a stone’s throw of most readers homes, some of my personal favorites include: Patriots Park (Barth Pond), Downers Grove, IL – a wonderful well appointed and maintained venue; Van Horne Woods, Plainfield IL (great fishing pier); and Gebhard Woods, Morris, IL (several nice ponds and access to the I&M canal).

Want to learn more?

Dr. Pat Mills, this article’s author, will be presenting a ‘Fishing with the Family’ instructional seminar, featuring the material discussed here, on the evening of Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008 at the Main JJC Campus. Parties interested in attending the seminar (both kids and parents welcome) are encouraged to register through Joliet Junior College. The best way to register is to call 815-280-1555 and quote the class course number (Fishing with the Family - LLC 3315 T1).  People can also go to the JJC website (, click on E-resources and then to register for a Life Long Learning class (

In addition, detailed articles featuring the methods discussed here can be viewed in the April 2008 edition of the Outdoor Notebook, while Bank Fishing 101 (an introductory bank fishing book) can also be downloaded free of charge from this website (.pdf, 8.10 MB). Interested parties are also encouraged to contact Pat directly via e-mail at or via phone at 815 280 6702.

The author used the methods discussed here to catch a tournament wining ~30 pound net of bluegills during the 2005 US Open Bank Fishing Championships.