We have a rather odd tradition at my suburban town's Fourth of July party: We fill the shallow kiddie pool with freshwater and goldfish, hand the kids buckets, and turn them loose to scoop up a new pet. This year, my 4-year-old son, Oliver, charged in and caught three. I started to tell him about setting up a fish tank when he interrupted me: “Dad, can we eat them?”
The weekend prior, I had taken Ollie on his first fishing trip at a small pond near our home. I thought I was as prepared as a parent could be. My father raised me to be an outdoorsman; I've carried Ollie on my back on countless hikes and explorations through the woods. I approached our first fishing trip the way I do all our other outdoor adventures: Keep it short, pack snacks, and make it fun. If Ollie wants to dig in the mud, or spend an hour finding the perfect stick, I let him, despite my agenda. I play along when he brings the main characters from his imagination (these days it's superhero figurines), and in turn, I open his eyes to a real world filled with bugs, animals, and plants.
With fishing, lots of action is the key. So we went to a pond that was full of bluegills, sunfish, and crappies. With a simple worm and a bobber, even a small child can stay plenty busy.
Ollie was immensely proud of each catch but was disappointed when we let them all go. The regulations at this pond required it, and I tried to explain the concept of “catch and release,” the conservation ethic that places a value on letting fish swim back into the wild. He looked at me, confused. “But I wanted to cook the fish for Mommy and for all of us to eat for supper,” he said.
My son instinctively knew what makes fishing different from our hikes. In a visceral way, fishing shows kids the way nature works, that all plants and animals must perish so others can live. That we are a part of this complicated cycle, too, and his frozen fish sticks were once living creatures that swam like the glinting bluegill dangling from his hook.
Ollie didn't get to eat the critters from our first outing, or the Fourth of July party. That's when I realized I had left out an essential part of the whole experience. So I planned another adventure a few weeks later. This time, we caught rainbow trout. We let some go but kept three, just enough to feed our family. At home we fried them in butter. Oliver kept asking, “Do you like it, Mommy?”
They were delicious, but I don't think taste is what Oliver was most proud of that night.
Anthony Licata is the editor-in-chief of Field & Stream.