Fishing & Boating News

Mentor Mentality: Kids Require Thoughtful Guidance

Becoming a Mentor Series

by: Mark Strand,

Take them more than once, and let successes like these come on their own timetable.
Photo by Mark Strand
(Feb. 25, 2011 - Woodbury, M) The future of anything has always rested in the hands of teachers. When it comes to fishing and hunting, this is especially true. Teachers, mentors, guides-call 'em what you will, they hold the fate of the future of our outdoor traditions.

Jason Mitchell has been a fanatical fisherman and hunter since he was a young boy. He was essentially born with the "want to" that kept him out even when he was cold, tired, hungry, thirsty. You had to drag him out of the boat, off the shore, away from the hunting fields.

To this day, there is no way to pull Jason away from these pursuits. He grew up to be an accomplished fishing and hunting guide out of Devils Lake, North Dakota. Then, when legendary outdoor broadcaster Tony Dean decided to retire, he hand-picked Jason to carry his torch into the future. That was the beginnings of Jason Mitchell Outdoors television.

Along the road, Mitchell has witnessed the birth of many new anglers and hunters. He has contributed heavily, in fact, and refined a strategy for successfully introducing youngsters, and nurturing their development until they become active participants.

Going well beyond the usual cookie-cutter advice you hear about bringing kids into the outdoors, here is a glimpse into that philosophy.

Q: Do you think there is a right and wrong way to approach a day outdoors with kids, from the mental outlook of the mentors?

Jason: Definitely. You have to pace yourself, and be patient. Hooks in the carpet, pop spilled in the boat, getting hung up a lot, it all tests your patience. If you're a high energy go-getter, throttle back and know things aren't going to be perfect.

Q: When it comes to how long you should stay out there, you've said that there is no simple answer to this. What do you mean by that?

Jason: For one thing, it's important to pay attention to the signals each youngster gives you. They don't always come right out and say they want to go in, because they don't want to disappoint their parents, or seem like they're a wimp or something.

Some kids want to stay out there forever. I was like that. When I was a little kid, I would get furious because my dad wouldn't stay out all day. There are a lot of kids who don't want to be out there very long, but with the right mentoring, they grow up to be avid and great fishermen.

Being a kid is confusing; you don't know who you're going to be. You might collect baseball cards, try different sports, get interested in girlfriends or boyfriends, and just dabble at things to see what you're good at. You find what you like by trying things. So when it comes to how long to keep kids out there, it's a case by case evaluation. Be honest with yourself, and pick up on all the signs they're giving you. Don't force it. Expose them, and keep the outings short if that seems like the right thing to do. Don't push it. Let 'em warm up to it. Let it come over time. It's a matter of repetition.

You just never know, and I don't have all the answers, but it seems like if you try to have good intentions and stay conscious of your role, and tune in to the kids and what they seem to want, you'll do the right thing most of the time.

Q: You've also said that, in order to help kids grow attached to the outdoors, you have to help them soak in the entire experience. Tell us more about that.

Jason: I don't think you should have this attitude that you're out there trying to kick mother nature's butt. It's not about outfishing the other people who are with you. Fish and game live in the coolest places in the world. Obviously, catching fish is important, especially for kids, but point out the other things.

One thing that disappoints me is when some hunters, for example, learn everything they can about calling ducks, but don't take time to learn more about the plants, the other birds that live in marshes. The whole picture fascinates me. If you can get into this mindset, that you're fascinated by nature, that will add a whole new dimension to the kids' experiences.

Show them what's out there. Even if you are catching fish, take time to try to guess where the loon is going to pop up next. Tell them about loons.

Q: Still, sometimes it seems like mentors rationalize away a lack of catching fish by talking about quality time and all the birds the kids saw. Isn't it important to focus on trying to lead them to fish, and game?

Jason: Yes, of course. But in the big scheme of things, catching more fish or big fish, or shooting things will come as you do it enough times. How can you catch more fish? The only answer that's real is to keep fishing.

For kids, it starts with being out there. It will all happen, if they develop a passion for being outside. Just remember, it's the people who go a lot who have the most stories about days when they didn't catch anything.

Q: Being out in the elements brings up the whole discussion of comfort. How do you keep kids comfortable out there?

Jason: You gotta dress them in clothes that are right for the day. There are better clothes for kids now, and a lot of what they would use for any outdoor activity can be the right stuff to have them wear for fishing and hunting, to start out with. So dress them for the weather, but pay attention to how they're doing, too. Different kids have different thresholds. If it's freezing, go back to the truck and warm up.

Q: What else do you think makes a good outdoor mentor?

Jason: Doing it. It's easy to talk about it, to give that lip service to it. It's different to put your own ambitions on hold and take a kid. You're donating your day to their future. Let's say you're an accomplished fisherman, and your idea of a good time is to be on a big lake and stay all day, and fish for five bites, in order to catch one big fish.

If you're serious about taking kids, you have to put your own wants aside and set up the day for them. Set up in a bay where they can catch a bunch of little sunfish, whatever it takes for them to have a ball. Those kids, when they turn 20 years old, are the ones that are now driving the boat for dad. As a guide, I've seen dads taking their kids out for the first time, and I've seen kids taking their parents out for the last time. It all eventually comes full circle, and that's pretty special. At that point, you forget all about putting your own wants on hold temporarily.

Notes: Follow Jason Mitchell and his TV show (9 a.m. Sundays on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest)