I’ve been fishing regularly since I was in middle school. We used to ,make a family afternoon and fish the local reservoirs. When we moved part way through high school I found friends to take to the big lake down the street and spend hours when not playing billiards or working on my 1960s “hotrod” with lines in the water. College was a new group of friends and a new interest in conservation to go along with my hobby as well as a rekindling of my interest fishing with my dad again.
After college, I moved further away from my family and well worn fishing spots. I took up hiking in order to reach less fished opportunities and did so more often alone since there were fewer people interested in coming. I fished like this for years and enjoyed greatly the peace it brought me. Then, when I moved to the city the fishing stopped. The car was sold. The gear was packed away in storage. The afternoons and weekends became filled with other activities.
Now, I am beginning the process of teaching my younglings the skills. And, there’s a certain pleasure in rediscovering everything from the eyes of my padawan. It also has brought me to a number of outdoors groups online and occasionally even get to share my experiences.
I’ve fished everything from custom rigs to sticks with twine and everything in between over the years. And, although I am hardly a professional caliber angler, between the reading, the asking tonnes of questions over the years, and the experience of trying and testing I have a pretty good feel for what generally works and doesn’t. So, when someone asked what they should buy for beginner gear, I decided to to chime in, particularly since some of the replies were ‘guesses’ more than first-hand knowledge.
After dropping a few informational links I wrote up this as some guidance. I’m sharing it here because I realized while writing it up it was fun to think about and discuss and I should hang onto it in case it was useful to other people too.
1. In a lot of cases you get what you pay for. While there’s no need to invest in something expensive, going (too) cheap will likely cause frustration and end one’s interest in fishing before it even gets started. There are some quality rod-and-reel combo sets you can buy, but there’s a lot of garbage that’s labeled for kids too. Aim for something that’s name brand for sporting equiptment and not stuff that’s licensed as a kid’s brand. If your kid needs Star Wars or Disney Princess gear to get excited you’re better off customizing better gear by affixing stickers, painting it, and being a little crafty other stuff to it that’s truly personalized for the characters they like.
2. I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people that the rod length will be taller than the person casting it. My youngling who are both toddlers are using 5 footers right now. In my youth my mentors had me using 5′ and 5’6″ rods and when I started to reach those physical heights my rod lengths increased to 6′ and 6’6″ for most freshwater applications and between 7′ and 9′ for most saltwater casting. Don’t be intimidated by a rod that is a half a foot or more taller than the child, that’s how it’s actually supposed to be.
Different rod designs are for different fishing applications. Different combinations of rod action (how my flex the rod has), test weight (the rating of the line strength), eye configuration, etc, define how a rod should function. Most rods are not handed, meaning lefties and righties can usually use the same ones. If you are looking to purchase just a rod, or are not buying a combo kit, my suggestion would be to get something that’s pretty versatile. Generally this would be labeled in the medium action range, with a lower test line class (in the 2-8 lb range), and an eye pattern for a spinning reel (larger eye on the bottom of the rod closest to the reel seat and progressively smaller eyes moving up the rod bottom).
My go-to spare rod for the kids, or friends who don’t fish a lot, etc. is an older model Ugly Stik, but the newer Gx2 series is still a good, price conscious purchase, look at something along the lines of maybe the 5′ medium action 6lb rated spinning rod. Ugly Stiks also have a reputation of being nearly unbreakable, which is great for kids, but keep your receipt to take advantage of the warranty these days.
3. If you need a reel as well, different reel designs are for different applications. Different combinations of features will do very different things. This makes them much more complicated than picking out a rod.
A lot of children’s reels are in the “crappie”/”panfish” Spincaster style where the spool (the part where the line is wound) is enclosed under a hood and the bail (the feature that allows the line to flow free when casting) is integrated as a trigger, or button. This usually makes it easier to learn to fish since it’s fewer things for young fingers to master. My only Spincaster is an older Pfluger closest to the current Presidente series but the Trion ones look good and come in at an entry level price. I think Zebco is a more popular Spincaster brand and offer a lot of inexpensive solutions but I haven’t used them much but I can speak to my Pfluger experience as I have three other reels I frequently use by them too. Note, too, Zebco also offers a lot of Spincaster reel with rod combos and are also a popular white label brand that are repackaged in some of the better licensed combo kits for stores.
There are also Spinning reels that have triggered bails but feature an open design around the spool. The advantage here is that if the spool does get knotted repairs can be done quicker, however, it’s also a little more likely that it’ll get knotted up by inefficient casting too. I don’t fish with triggered spinners, but I own two, both with rear drag (the feature that allows you to set the line tension). I mention that because for a lot of beginnings rear drag can be easier to use since you don’t have to pass your hand through the path of the line to adjust the drag tension. One of my triggered spinners is a Daiwa and the other is a Shimano, though, like I said I don’t personally fish with triggered so I can’t make much recommendations other than when I lend these to less experienced people they seem to like the Daiwa one (it’s old I don’t recall the model).
One important note is that reels do have handedness. Some reels you can flip the cranks back and forth between sides. Others you cannot. Make sure you keep in mind that if you are casting with your right hand, the crank on the reel should be on the left side, and vice versa, if you cast with your left hand than the crank will be on the right side. Some people prefer to cast with their strong hand and crank with their weak, while others prefer to crank with their strong hand and cast with their weak. If you don’t know which it is, you can test this by just having someone pretend cast with a stick, they will naturally pick up the stick and make the casting motion with the hand that feels more natural to them and then pretend to reel it in with the other, so that’s a good starting point – if they pick it up and pretend to cast the rod with their right hand than they’ll likely prefer a left handed crank on their reel.
4. Don’t go crazy with baits and lures and everything else at the beginning. This is actually one of the biggest places new anglers waste a tonne of money especially when they don’t know their target species.
My suggestion would be to become familiar with what species are local to you and then design a bait box around those species local preferences. Certain species are more easily caught with novice experiences, while others take a great deal more experience. For example, around me it’s much easier to catch pumpkinseed sunfish than it is largemouth bass, crappies are generally easier than chain pickerel to deal with, perch over catfish, and so on.
My tackle box has a section just for my younglings that I started to put together when I used to take inexperienced friends to fish back in the day. It is made up of three simple components for targeting our local panfish that love to hang out close to the shoreline and interreact with a wide range of bait possibilities:
hooks: I carry sizes 2, 1 & 1/0 octopus circle style; 1/16 & 1/8 oz jig heads; and some 1/16 & 1/8 shad darts. I try to get the jigs and darts that are lead-free when I can for ecological reasons. These also save me from having to carry and mount split shot weights since the weight is built into the hook, and they come can painted and decorated with flare which is both helpful for catching the fish and keeping younglings interested, especially if other bait becomes considered ‘gross.’
A couple of small bobbers. The lighter the bait rig and the shorter the live line (line between the hook and it’s next stop to the pole) the smaller the bobber should be. Most likely, you’ll never need anything larger than a ping pong ball, but if you’re fishing for like what what most panfish might require even that might be too big. While larger bobbers are supposedly easier to see, in my experience they can also be a detriment to the fishing itself.
Bait box. I use a modified makeup box for mine. It’s five cells, four that are about 1x1x1 and one that’s 2x1x1 with a snap top. But, you can buy a small bait box, repurpose a pill box (as long as it isn’t too similar to grandma’s medicine box), a mechanics bolt box, etc.
Mine is filled with a combination of easy to find fare. Nightcrawlers/earth worms, cut up jerkey (generically flavored like classic Slim Jims, but if you can find ones with fewer preservatives that’s better) and corn (canned is traditional, frozen is good, fresh, believe it or not can be the least productive) are staples, along with occasionally hot dog (including vegetarian ones, I’ve had good success with Lite Life, for example), woodlice isopods (pill bugs, potato bugs, rollie polies, whatever you call them locally), and grubs.
However, with the younglings it’s also good to scout the fishing area and dig up bugs, collect berries, fashion flare from local leaves and bark, etc. Two reasons for this approach. First, because these are native to the local ecology and will trigger the local fishes natural response which can be much more productive than introducing foreign fare. And, may be more importantly, because the idea of foraging for local bait adds some extra level of interest and education for little ones offering an opportunity for them to interact with the entirety of the environment around them. Some of my most memorable trips with new anglers have come not from catching great fish, but from the process of being getting to catch them and forage baiting was a big part of those experiences.
If you must ‘buy’ bait try look for things that are ecologically friendly as much as possible and avoid the synthesized stuff. While these are good for professional anglers to win contests, inexperienced anglers lose a lot of bait for a plethora of reasons and in the spirit of the ‘carry in carry out’ you want to try and minimize, as best you can, the human footprint of angling which includes leaving a lot of human-made potential food sources that can affect the ecology for weeks, or months, that disrupt the natural foraging of the local fish. Berkeley has come a long way in creating ecofriendly localized synthbaits and for that I would highly suggest consulting with your local bait shop for more info.
I’m not going to suggest lures here.
5. Line. This is easily the most confounding of the entire conversation, so I saved it for ‘last.’
Honestly, no line is good line. When we talk about line it comes down to the old standards, such as weight class (how much tensile strength the line can endure) as well as thinking about stretch, shock strength and wind diameter in relation to weight class. Nowadays we consider things like memory and buoyancy (how much it retains the circular spooling over time and it’s ability to sink, act neutral or float as it unspools), visibility (how easy it is for different fish species to ‘detect’ it the water, both in eyesight and vibration), abrasion resistance and wear rate (for such things as reacting to the natural flora and fauna and how it reacts to repeated cast/retrieve impacts it) among other things. For a novice it can be the most overwhelming thing to figure out.
The standard is monofilament is likely the best bet, but not always. It winds easy, knots easy, stretches easy, untangles easy and pretty much because of those properties also buries in the spool easy, unexpectedly wraps around everything easy from the rod to stray tree branches to lake weeds and everything in between, and so on.
I fish with fluorocarbon line and adore it. For me, it changed fishing for me when I discovered it and short of some ecofriendly line that can mimic my favored experiences with it I might die hoarding it as well. But, I am exceptionally responsible when it comes to line use and recovery, as well as the quirks fishing with it. So, while it technically resists abrasion, has less memory, has higher strength at smaller diameters, and has more ‘touch’ to it it might not always be the best ‘experience’ for new anglers still getting the feel for the entire experience of cast, to hit, to retrieve.
6. A good tackle box, or hiking pack, or anything else you take into the outdoors always has some common packing. The other things I’d suggest having that aren’t necessarily ‘fishing’ on hand are:
a) good set of long nose pliers. Ideally, better than a multi tool but that’s the minimum. Good for de-hooking fish, dealing with line tangles, realigning rod eyes, etc. are the usual fishing versions but they can help pick up bugs and hook them, deal with prickly foliage, and so much more
b) towel. one you can use just for fishing because it’ll never be the same once it’s been used for fishing. I like cotton using a c-hook so it’s easily accessible. Interestingly enough, I carry two on the same hook, color coded. One that is “dry” and one that is “wet” depending on how I need to use them.
c) glove of some kind. A natural gardening glove is fine if you prep it correctly. I like to soak it in something like bees wax. This helps protect the fish by reducing the abrasion while also reducing the water solubility of the leather or cotton while also helping reduce the susceptibility of the glove to abrasion and more importantly slowing down the impact of puncture wounds from spikey fins, teeth and shoreline fauna. Rubber and related materials are ok too, if you can find ones to fit your need, but for the love of all that is sacred, don’t insist on bare handing everything.
Sunnies’ bites are unlikely to hurt, but their fins are spiked and getting poked by one is pretty gnarly. Nothing stops a trip faster than a bloody puncture wound. They aren’t the only ones who have defenses that might get you or your little one. Panfish includes Lepomis, Pomoxis and Perca among others and they will fuck you up, if you’re not careful. It it’s safer to have some layer of protection if you’re not experienced handling fish (I still use them with some species even with the experience)
d) medic pack. if you aren’t already carrying it with you you should be. My basic one is probably a lot more rigid than yours might be but i’ve wound enough pressure splits on myself over the years I carry it even on short walks. However, at a minimum of sterile gause and fabric tape will get you 80% of the way there for the most basic injuries.
e) notebook and pencil. These can be digital, but the point here is the ‘picture’ of your catch isn’t enough. Record everything you can. What was the date and time, the air and water temps, air pressure, overhead visibility, perceived local water visibility, location, rig setup, bait, bob time, among other things you might want to note. This can be used to retarget quality fishing, but also teach scholars and local governments about habits for preservation and even other aspiring anglers about proper documentation and targeting.
f) and for whatever it’s worth, I’d recommend, if you can, a small telescoping net because nothing is more disheartening than catching a fish and losing it. Doubly so for newbies, so the net helps prevent a lot of beginners losses as they’re learning to set the hook and land the fish, which can go a long way to being encouraging to a person new to fishing. But the net can be used to retaining local bait, giving you upclose views of local bugs, and more.
I’m sorry if I made this ‘more compex’ than it seemed to need to be.