Fishing & Boating News

A Matter of Free Will Becoming a Mentor Series

You can lead youngsters to fishing and hunting, but you cannot make them all love it.

by: Mark Strand,

Young hunters and anglers are, above all else, individuals. Mentors need to monitor kids' reactions to their introduction to these sports, so they are given a chance to embrace them?or not?of their own free will.
Photo by Mark Strand
(Apr. 14, 2011 - Woodbury, MN)

There are numerous reasons that it's a challenge for today's youngsters to get started in fishing and hunting. Right up there is the reality that it's harder than it used to be to find a good place to go?especially if you live in or near a major city, which most people do. Also, there's a severe shortage of qualified and background-checked adult mentors to take out kids who don't have a relative ready to guide them.

But even if a child has a willing mentor and a place to go, there's a seldom-discussed factor that contributes greatly to determining whether that child forms a connection to the earth and ultimately becomes a lifelong angler and/or hunter.

It comes down to paying attention to the young beginner as much as the hunting or fishing challenges, says lifelong sportsman and dedicated mentor Bob Haglund. Haglund, of Garrison, North Dakota, has taken young people fishing and hunting as often as possible during his entire adult life. He volunteers with Lure 'em for Life, a nonprofit group in North Dakota that conducts fishing camps for kids, one of which is exclusively for at-risk youth from the Dakota Boys Ranch.

Over the years, he has seen the extremes in young beginners, from those who decide it's not for them, to natural diehards who don't want to come out of the field.

"It's not black and white," says Haglund. "Some kids can fish for 10 minutes and then they're done. Some kids are gung-ho. You can't lump them all the same. You need a little instinct for how they want to do it."

The takeaway is that, for lots of kids, how you create and supervise their introduction to these outdoor sports is the most important variable, and one that you have control over. Haglund noted that it's natural for veteran outdoorsmen and women to assume all kids experience an automatic flipping of the switch the first time they catch a fish or bag a bird. That's a tricky assumption, especially when you consider that, in this day and age, a kid's first fishing trip might be the first day he or she has spent any amount of time in the 'wild' outdoors.

It also seems common for mentors to focus so completely on the hunting or fishing that they forget to study the reactions and body language in youngsters?missing clues that would help them adjust outings to suit the kids' personalities. (Having said that, it's important for the mentors to scout hunting spots, and pre-fish likely areas, then try to minimize the amount of time youngsters spend in 'search mode' before getting into some action.)

Haglund's strategy, beyond "taking the kids to my best spots," is to try a few different approaches to interacting with his young charges, and see what they connect with. "I usually start out by kidding around with them," he says, "and see if they like that. You can't do that with all of them. You just have to see what their personalities are like."

By keeping the focus on fun, rather than getting too serious about critiquing casting form, Haglund says most kids latch on to the new skills and overcome any anxiety they might have about learning something new.

"I remember a cold, cloudy, still morning from a few years back," said Haglund. "I took two boys, 8 and 9, out fishing. It wasn't a perfect day to be out in the boat, but it wasn't bad, and we got out there and started catching fish right away. Our local patrol boat was a quarter-mile away, and when they pulled up to check us, they said they could hear the kids giggling from over there. They knew we were having fun.

"The boys gave the fish funny names, like Lucile and Gary, and at the end of the day, they asked if they could go with me again."

Another of Haglund's time-tested approaches, especially during a tough bite, is to hook fish himself, then hand the rod to one of the kids.

"I try to turn that into something fun, too," he says. "Sometimes I pretend there's something wrong with my rod and say, 'here, hold this for a second,' and trade rods with them. Then I watch their eyes light up when they realize there's a fish on there."

Getting Haglund to talk about himself was difficult, because he wanted the focus to be on the need for more mentors to take more kids hunting and fishing. The idea to discuss this topic with him came from his most famous pupil, Jason Mitchell. Jason grew up under the wing of Haglund and his own father, eventually becoming both a fishing and hunting guide, and now host of a popular outdoor TV series bearing his name.

"Now, Jason was one that if you went hunting or fishing with him, you didn't go home until after dark," remembers Haglund. "He wouldn't allow it. He wanted to be out there as long as possible."

If mentors can split their attention between what it takes to create success in the field and how completely youngsters are taking to the activity, kids are given a chance to determine, of their own free will, whether they want to go again. In order for an introduction to the outdoors to fit youngsters, it has to involve a mentor who's paying attention to young enthusiasm levels. Not all mentors are equally gifted at creating chances for success, nor are they equally attuned to how kids are receiving the introduction. But it means a lot when you give of your time, and do your best at both.

The bottom line is that you cannot just treat all kids the same and see what comes of it.

"It's not for everybody," admits Haglund. "But it's unbelievable to watch when you light that fire. Some kids really enjoy it and really take to it. I like that aspect of (mentoring), at least giving every kid the opportunity to find out."