BOZEMAN – Several months ago my nephew and I became pen pals. Benjamin, 6, lives in Lakeville, Conn., with his mom and his dad. He just finished kindergarten and will start first grade this fall.
Ben began sending me drawings – I’ve got a very colorful dinosaur hanging on the refrigerator – and stories he’d dictate to my sister Marcie about the goings-on in Lakeville and about his little brother, Andrew. I’d send Ben stories about backpacking in the mountains, triceratops at the Museum of the Rockies and fly-fishing.
So when Ben arrived in Bozeman this past week with Marcie, and my brother-in-law Roger, he had a bit of a bucket list in mind. We hiked along Sourdough Creek on Friday, watched the sun rise over Bozeman from the “M” trail on Saturday and spent a day at the museum.
On Sunday, it was time to fish.
But where to take a 6-year-old boy to catch a trout?
“We find that kids will enjoy themselves if they have some success,” Ron Aasheim, of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said recently. “Whether kids are fishing for trout or perch or walleye – family outings, friends, it builds a lifetime activity.”
The Gallatin and Madison and Yellowstone rivers all seemed a bit intimidating and more than a little unsafe for a young boy. I thought the small creeks might be too challenging for an introduction. The ponds around Bozeman were a safe bet, but we opted for a trip to Hyalite Canyon, where I was sure we’d catch a fish. We hit Bob Wards on the way out of town for a Styrofoam container of nightcrawlers and we were on our way.
“Taking a kid fishing – it doesn’t need to be an elaborate trip. It doesn’t need to be complicated,” FWP Angler Education Coordinator Dave Hagengruber said. “It just takes time. If it is important, you make the time for it.”
Our outing started at the dam on Hyalite Reservoir. We parked the truck, hiked down the rocky embankment and rigged our spinning rods with bobbers and nightcrawlers. I taught Benjamin how to hold the line with his trigger finger, flip the bail on the reel and cast into the lake. In short order, he’d mastered the timing and was launching casts as far out as I could.
Things were going well. I felt confident we’d catch a fish.
Except we didn’t. Our bobbers sat on the water and drifted together and back apart. We reeled in and checked our nightcrawlers. We tipped the hooks with salmon eggs. We tried PowerBait. We cast to different parts of the lake. We fished spinners.
After an hour of this, Benjamin turned his attention to more engaging activities, like rolling stumps into the lake. Marcie and Roger, sitting on the rocks behind, were less than impressed.
I grew up fishing for hornpout and sunfish on a dairy farm in central Massachusetts. A nightcrawler and a bobber equaled instant action, but I was clearly rusty.
Benjamin was exploring the rocks. “Watching a bobber is kind of boring,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more. I suppose all those letters to my pen pal painted a bit of a different picture.
We took a break for lunch. We sat on a downed logged and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and leftover pizza in the shade. Then we strung up the fly rods and hiked down the backside of the dam to Hyalite Creek.
I eyed a nice pool from the bank and descended the rocks with Benjamin. We tied on a Stimulator with a pheasant tail dropper. I gave Benjamin a primer on fly casting and handed him the rod.
It took a couple goes, but Benjamin got the hang of casting the fly rod nearly as quickly as he did the spinning rod. I had him angle his cast into the holding water and watched in super-slow motion as a cutthroat trout rose and swallowed his fly.
Benjamin must have the softest hook set I’ve ever seen, but he managed to catch that trout – and three more – before the day was through. The biggest of the bunch was a 14-inch cutthroat trout that drew cheers from mom and dad, and a wide-eyed grin from little Ben.
“Kids learn to fish from somebody,” Hagengruber said. “I think it is most likely to come from a close friend or a family member. Those kids are going to model their behavior after that person.
“If people that like to fish are excited to share it with someone, that is the greatest thing they can do,” Hagengruber said. “Take them out and share that experience.”
Before I left Massachusetts for Montana, my grandfather took me to fish with his old Horricks Ibbotson fly rod. We explored a small creek along the highway not far from the farm and caught small brook trout in the shadowy pools.
I remember that feeling, that wide-eyed grin.
I hope Benjamin remembers it too.