A Father's Day Gift I'll Never Forget
Finding something your kids love to do with you is special. If that thing happens to be something you also truly love, well that’s even more special. As for me and my 7-year-old son, Max, we love to fish.
I have very fond memories of fishing with my father as a boy. Spending time on boats bonded us in a way nothing else ever has. Even when I was a teenager and it seemed like we had absolutely nothing to talk about, I could still go fishing with my dad and we could have a nice day together.
When I had sons of my own, I hoped they would like to boat and fish, but I did my best to not push them into it. I wanted their time on the boat to be fun. So, I set a few ground rules for the boat. First rule: go home whenever they say they’re done. Yes, I may try to cajole them into a few more casts, but if they say they’re done, we’re done. Second rule: the swear jar does not apply on the boat. Dad is allowed to cuss when the motor stalls or a fish gets off. As long as we’re not swearing at one another, it’s okay. That rule is obviously for me, but I do my best to keep the F-bombs to a minimum. The last rule is more of a general practice: but always bring lots of their favorite snacks. It’s amazing how much a 7-year-old boy can eat, especially if he knows a day on the boat gives him free rein to graze on Cheez-Its and kids Clif Bars. Luckily for me and my wife, Max has taken to time on the boat like a pro. My younger son, Cooper, who is five, is still warming up to it. Baby steps, and Cooper tends to do whatever his older brother does, so I am still hopeful.
We live on a chain of lakes in central Florida which are a perfect introductory body of water for the kids. We can be on the water in a few minutes and if someone has a bathroom emergency (we’ve only got a bucket on my 18-foot skiff), we can usually make it home in time. There’s also a healthy population of largemouth bass and panfish to fool around with. And if all else fails, we can beach the boat and let the kids chum up some fish with bread balls and try to catch them with their hands, which is very entertaining. It’s like trying to catch a shadow.
After a good bit of practice, Max can cast a spinning rod rather efficiently and address little snafus on his own. If the line gets wrapped around the tip, or if there’s grass on his lure, he can fix it himself. And he feels rewarded when he can diagnose a problem and find a solution without asking for help. It’s fun to watch, even if I have to bite my tongue. A few weeks ago, I figured it was time to take Max on a saltwater fishing excursion. I reached out to a friend of mine, Scott MacCalla, who is a fishing guide in Titusville, Florida, and fishes Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River, to set up a trip. I figured if I took the stress of packing up the boat and trailering over to the coast out of the equation and just focused on fishing with Max, we’d have a better time. Scott was more than happy to fish with us, and then I shared the news with my boy.
“Hey Max,” I said, “how would you like to go fishing for redfish and sea trout with me and my buddy Scott in the saltwater?”
His eyes grew wide. His jaw fell. “That would be like a dream come true!” he said with full sincerity. The exact enthusiasm I hoped to hear. Then he asked me if we could catch some sharks. Yup, that’s my boy.
The night before our trip, we made sandwiches and gathered up some fruit and snacks. I set the coffee pot up and told him we’d have to leave by 6 a.m. He assured me the early wake-up call would not be an issue. The next morning, as I was packing up our food in the dark of early morning, he startled me with an enthusiastic “Good morning, Dad!” He was fully dressed, with hat and sunglasses. Ready to go.
He peppered me with hundreds of questions on the ride over to the coast. How big is the boat? How do you know Scott? Is this the ocean or a lake? How long will we be fishing? What if I have to go to the bathroom? He was beyond excited.
We met Scott at the boat ramp, motored out into the channel and zipped into the mangroves. Scott runs a Hell’s Bay flats boat, which is perfect for the type of fishing we planned on doing. We dropped the Power-Pole shallow-water anchor, and Scott explained to Max that we’d have to catch bait for the big fish. Max listened intently. Using ultra-light tackle and triangular strips of Fishbites, a foul-smelling fish-flavored type of rawhide that tends to stay on the hook better than shrimp, we started catching small croakers, about the size of your palm. Max loved it, and he immediately turned the bait catching into a competition. He wanted to catch the most. Then I reeled in a piece of soft bottom that squirted water at me when I touched it. Scott called it a turd fish. Max busted out laughing: “Dad caught a turd fish!”
In about an hour, we had two dozen croakers in the livewell. Max didn’t want to move. He was loving it. Scott explained that we were going after bigger fish. Max followed that up with a barrage of questions for the captain about where we were going, what kind of fish, how big, etc.
“You sure are inquisitive,” Scott said with a smile.
“What’s inquisitive mean?” Max asked.
Scott and I had a good laugh.
We ventured around the corner to an opening in the mangroves where the outgoing tide was starting to push water. Scott positioned the boat just off the edge of the mangrove shoots so we could present our live baits in the trough that the trout and reds would be using as a buffet line. I could tell that Max felt a little guilty about using the croakers he had so much fun catching as bait.
Max made a cast, and about as soon as his bait hit the water, he hooked a catfish and went completely nuts. Saltwater catfish are a full-on trash fish to me. They’re slimy and have a barb on their dorsal fin that is full of venom that can inflict some nasty pain if mishandled. To my son, that fish was the coolest thing he ever saw.
“I’ve never caught a saltwater catfish! That thing must be three pounds!” He was stoked, and I had a whole new respect for catfish.
Scott repositioned the boat. We slung out the baits. Max reeled in a small redfish that Scott hooked. We snapped some photos. Then Max made a fairly poor cast. It soared skyward like a pop fly and plopped down not 15 feet from the boat. I was about to suggest he try another cast when the rod heeled over and Max hollered. This was no catfish. And he hooked it himself.
With some positive encouragement (and no yelling), Max managed to reel in a beast of a speckled sea trout all by himself. I’ve been fishing a long while and I’ve never caught a trout this big. We weighed it and it tipped the hand scale at more than six pounds. Beginner’s luck? Not sure, and I don’t really care. It was awesome.
We stayed on the trout for another hour and a half or so. I caught two nice ones, and Max reeled in several more—they were all big, another benefit of fishing with a guide. Max was having fun, and for me that was the best part. No complaints. No whining. Just smiles and lots of reeling.
“So do you guys want to go catch a big redfish?” Scott asked us.
“How big?” Max asked.
Scott moved us back toward the channel in the Indian River and watched his sounder as we moved through a deep pocket of water just off of some docks.
“There they are,” Scott said, pointing to his Raymarine Axiom screen.
He handed me a stout spinning rod with a live croaker and told me to cast off the bow. We didn’t get bit on the first drift. Scott repositioned the boat for another drift, and my bait got waylaid. This was no trout. The big fish peeled line off the reel as I sat Max down on the forward casting platform. The fish was a brute, too much for my little man, so I held the rod as he turned the reel handle. Scott idled us out of the channel into shallower water, and we both nearly lost our minds when we saw the redfish. It was bigger than my leg!
Max was beyond impressed, and a tad frightened by the fish. We got the fish to the side of the boat, and Scott netted the big red. We sat on the bow and took a few photos before carefully releasing the fish to swim another day. I gave Max a big hug and some high fives.
“That was incredible,” I said.
“Yeah,” Max replied, “now can we go catch some sharks?”