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Over the course of the last 40 years or so I have taught numerous kids, including my own son and daughter to fly fish and have learned much along way. While kids have a natural interest in the outdoors and outdoor activities in this age of computers, tablets, iPhones and computer games many kids are not getting the experience of outdoor activities like fishing. The age at which kids can start learning to fly fish varies with each individual. I would say generally 9 years old would be a good guideline, however I have had success with kids as young as 7 years old. I have found that Kids younger than that are more likely to have success fishing flies using spin cast set-ups with a bobber and weights. Fly fishing takes a little bit more hand eye coordination than some other methods but it also involves a lot of activity that helps to hold a kids interest a bit longer. Anyone who has taught youngsters with spinning gear knows that no matter what you tell them to do, they are going turn the reel handle and crank in their bobber, even though you have told them to let it just sit there. In fly fishing they can cast and retrieve to their hearts content.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that because they are dealing with kids the equipment should be "kid sized". This can be a big mistake, as when fly rods become smaller in line weight and shorter in length they actually become harder to cast. The fly rod is a lever and as with any lever the longer the better. That being said rods can become unmanageable if they are too long and heavy for a kid to handle. A good compromise is a 4 or 5 weight rod 7 - 8 feet in length. Hand me downs can be an alternative to buying new equipment if they are of good quality, but don't saddle them with a piece of equipment that you wouldn't use yourself. The learning experience that should be fun won't be, if the gear you give them to learn on is of poor quality. Whatever you do don't pass on a rod that is of significant value to you or has a sentimental attachment. Kids are kids and accidents can happen, things can break and you don't want to ruin the experience for either one of you if this does occur. The cost of fly fishing equipment has dropped significantly while the quality has increased over the past 10 years. This has made it affordable for parents to get their kids started right without breaking the bank. A good quality rod will give the angler a lot of use over the years and many come with lengthy warranties. There are many fly combos available these days and some are geared towards kids. One of these combos is the Temple Fork NXT in a 4/5 weight which is ideal for a beginner in the 10 yrs + age group. One thing to look for in a rod is the size of the handle, some will be too large for smaller hands. If at all possible let the youngster help in picking out his outfit. In this way they will feel the equipment is truly theirs and it imparts a sense of ownership.
You will also want to include a few accessories, a small fly box and flies, nippers and a set of forceps would be a good start. Also, for fly fishers of all ages sunglasses are a must. Eye protection, of course, is a priority but in addition to that polarized lenses are a great help when fly fishing. They allow us to see the bottom for wading and spotting likely looking trout hiding spots or very often you will actually spot fish moving in the water. Beginner fly fishers of any age should be shown and then encouraged to tie on their own flies as learning by doing always seems to work the best.
While you want the kids you are teaching to catch fish, part of the fun is in the visual experience. In all of the courses I teach we use flies that novice anglers can see and track on the water. Parachute patterns with Hi-Vis wings are a good choice and many such as the Parachute Adams or Hares Ear will also fool many fish. One of the easiest methods for fly fishing in moving water is to master the art of swinging a wet fly. This was one of the earliest methods of fly fishing and is often overlooked nowadays. The angler simply casts his wet fly out into the stream, lets it sink a bit and then lets the fly swing across the current. One advantage of this method is that the trout will hook themselves so the angler will not have to set the hook. Wet flies such as the Black Gnat, Hare's Ear, Royal Coachman or flies called soft hackles such as the Partridge and Orange will work well with this method. On still waters casting and retrieving is good practice and provides constant activity to keep the angler engaged.
Fly fishing also offers kids the chance to learn to tie their own flies. Many Sportsmen Shows across the country offer booths that let kids try their hands at this hobby under the supervision and direction of local club members. This always draws a crowd and the kids proudly display their creations. There is no bigger thrill than catching a fish on a fly that you have tied yourself and this goes triple for kids. Fly tying is relatively inexpensive to get started and offers a great alternative to video games for kids. Kids are naturally curious, on your outings be sure to take breaks. One of the most enjoyable and fascinating aspects of the fly fishing courses I teach is the entomology or bugs. Roll over a few rocks in a stream and collect a few bugs, caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies will almost always be present and without getting too technical you can explain how their lifecycles work.
Stocked trout ponds are one of the best places to take young anglers. They are often designed for shore fishing and usually provide many areas that have ample back cast room. These ponds are stocked heavily which provides the opportunity to catch lots, albeit small trout. Remember with kids it's going to be quantity not quality that hooks them on the sport. Many newer subdivisions have lakes incorporated into them and many are stocked with trout. These provide residents the opportunity for trout fishing excursions close to home. It's important when fishing with kids to have a plan B in case of bad weather or poor fishing. Neither of these should totally ruin a trip as you can always find something else in the area to make a day of it. When you feel your young angler is ready to try their hand at fly fishing on moving water there a couple of things to keep in mind. Choose a stream that is not so large as to intimidate, but not so small that they can't practice their newly learned skills. Look for a midsized stream with lots of back cast room. Streams that contain brook trout would be my first choice as they are usually plentiful and eager to take almost any fly regardless of how it is presented and will usually hook themselves. My second choice would be cutthroat trout, while not quite as gullible as brookies, cutts are probably the most accommodating trout when it comes to dry flies. They are not easily spooked, and will usually give the angler several chances to fool them.
Once an angler achieves a certain level of confidence it may be time to consider a guided trip. Most good angling locations have fly fishing guides available that offer both float trips as well as walk and wades. Make sure to let the guide know ahead of time that you will have a young novice with you and he will cater the trip around that. A shorter float trip would be preferable while taking more opportunities to get out of the boat and receive casting/fishing instruction. The walk and wade offers on-going instruction and plenty of chances to hook fish along the way. Either way it frees up mom or dad to get some fishing in while their child is being tutored.
Now that my kids are grown and I'm a grandpa I look forward to passing on the joy of fishing and then fly fishing to my grandkids. Hopefully they will enjoy the sport as much as my kids and I have.