Fishing with a Daughter

Peter Kuhn lives in Darien CT with is wife and 2 fisher-daughters who now regularly catch more fish than he does..

“Dude! Not just a kid…a daughter? It was nice fishing with you – guess we’ll always have the memories.”

Seeing that many of my fishing friends were at the time single, childless and generally oblivious to anything that does not involve saltwater, I guess I should have not been too surprised with those initial reactions when I shared the joyous news that I had just become the father of a beautiful baby girl.

At first I bought into their doom and gloom scenario – but before full surrender… it hit me that I had a mission – to raise a fisherwoman and prove them all wrong.

It was going to take patience, a prayer to the fish gods and some hope that a few strands of DNA would remain undiluted.

Fortunately we were off to a good start… Mommy also comes from a family of fly fishermen and enjoys the sport herself. She is also a strong sailor, skilled with a 20-gauge. and never believed that she couldn’t take on any of the “boy” sports.

On my first morning out with our new baby Amelia it was abundantly clear that an infant is a fine fishing partner. Beginning around 3 months old she would awake in the pre-dawn hours looking for nothing more than a quick bottle. I’d bundle her in her car seat and drive down to the marina where she’d tolerate the life jacket and snuggle into my chest as we worked our way out of the harbor in our old Boston Whaler. She would sit on my lap and smile with glee as the sun rose while she polished off some formula and I sipped my coffee. By the time our slow cruise got us to my favorite spot off Shelter Island, she would be ready for a morning nap and curl up on the life jackets. There is no better sleep than boat sleep, and she would drift off for a few hours while I would peacefully cast and retrieve along the rips.

Now, let’s just take a moment to compare this to some of my other fishing buddies, those very same guys that gave me a hard time about fatherhood. They would invariably be late for the boat – often having more interest in their nocturnal activities than a pre-dawn rise – sometimes a 5am arrival meant they had not been home yet. Then they would complain about the hangover all morning. Any success at the end of my line was met with good-natured but mocking comments about the technique on the cast, size of the fish, or lack of skill on the retrieve. Then they too would take a nap on the life jackets!

There was something to this fishing with your daughter stuff – I liked it.

As Amelia got a bit older she quickly became adept at spotting the birds working and would alert me with a tiny extended finger and the excited cry of “fishhh, fishhhh ” and on the occasion where we would net one she would give an excited clap and a heartfelt “good catch Dada!”.   When the sun was up and the fishing slowed down we would head over to my friends dock where “Uncle Chris and Aunt Blake” would cook up a nice breakfast. Amelia would gobble bacon and tell stories of our morning adventures. Rarely do adults listen to a 3-year-old with interest in how they spent their morning – but Amelia had good information on where the fish were biting and I could see her beam with pride and confidence as she held the grown-ups attention.  This fishing thing was already delivering a few benefits I had not seen coming.

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Lida’s first Bluefish…on a crease fly!

Then the inevitable moment came. It was beautiful, calm Father’s day morning and we were in our favorite spot. Amelia was just shy of her 4th birthday and was now more about the fishing than the napping. The birds were working and the fish were boiling on the glassy surface. A strong Bluefish chomped down on my clouser and gave us a few energetic leaps before landing in our net. After a hearty “good catch Dada” I was about to put our quarry in the cooler… when she touched the dorsal fin, gave it a curious look and said, “Dada – that one looks scared.” I thought hard about what to do next and how this moment could define our fishing future together.

I agreed we could let the fine fish go if we found one that was “less scared” – and that next fish could come home for lunch. “Lunch! I love Bluefish Dada! Catch another!” We talked lots about catch and release that morning but we also agreed on the basics of the food chain. It is a conversation that continues today, but in some ways I believe Amelia is less bothered if we keep a few for the table rather than just hooking them all for sport. Eating our catch is a simple proposal for children and she is always proud when we pull in the driveway and announce the morning’s bounty. She remains an adventurous eater to this day.

Another proud moment took place on the dock when a beginner fisherman pulled his catch from the water. He thought he would share his knowledge with the curious onlookers and said. “little girl, would you like to see the Porgie I just caught?” She answered him with a casual, “nice fish, but it is a snapper Bluefish”. The man looked at me for validation and all I could do was shrug, smile and say “she’s right.”

Olympic gold medals? Nobel Prize? Space travel? I’m sure any of it could be in her grasp someday – but I doubt any feeling of fatherly pride will ever rival that moment.

Our first trip to Mexico to stalk bonefish proved to be the next level in my education on why a fishing daughter is a real bonus. Not only did her Dora the Explorer Spanish make the grumpiest of guides smile, she decided at three years old that fly-tying was a fun craft project. We would spend the windy days sitting in the house tying the most outlandishly colorful “flies” of her own design. She was a big fan of anything with lots of Pink marabou, and with our driftwood rods we would “stalk” our fish (shells on the floor) and cast these massive feather chunks to our prey. This provided hours of great fun at the tying vice where she was unwittingly learning the basics of fly-tying.

This was an important development because shortly thereafter the Disney Princess phase entered our life and I feared that she might be losing some interest in our program. Despite the fact that the first thing on her Christmas list was “my OWN fishing pole”, the princess dolls were stacking up. I could feel those days on the water slipping away.

However, any fears were quickly assuaged when she excitedly pointed out that one of her dolls had hair just like a bonefish fly! Upon further inspection it was indeed holographic flashabou as a highlight in the Barbie Mermaid hair. Once my eyes were opened to this new world I noticed that her ballet costume had pink marabou, and that one of her stuffed toys was a perfect sand color craft-fur. I was delighted as her pre-school art projects came home with ideal foam molds for poppers, feathers for deceivers, and the most amazing prismatic ribbons would adorn her birthday presents. I wonder if her friends ever wondered why her Barbies had short hair!

It was that year that we decided to tie the Crazy Princess. While not a new pattern (apologies to Capt. Charlie Goode ) but this was perhaps the first Crazy Charlie tied entirely from the toy chest!

Body, Pink Ribbon from birthday present wrapping

Pink Rabbit strip from winterboots

Flash from Mermaids doll Hair

With a quiver of these beauties in my fly box we headed out on the flats of Eleuthera that Spring. Stalking the flats is great fun for kids because they get to see all the sea life on the bottom and take a nice walk in the cool water.

We spotted a school of bones tailing our way and I cast the Toys-R-Us special in front of the lead fish. Once I saw that telltale silver flash I set the hook and off went the Bone/Barbie combination for 2 nice runs. As I unhooked the fish we both could not stop laughing thinking about Disney and Mattel, and how they never envisioned that scenario when they designed their products!

There is now a second daughter, Lida, who seems to put us all to shame in her passion for the art . At the age of 4 she admonished her mother for “horsing” a striper towards the boat and by age six she broke the family record for pickerel in our pond.. And when I explained that guides stand up high on polling platforms to better spot the fish she offered that she could ride on my shoulders to find a few bones! Before any of you call child services in response to the picture below I never cast while she is on her perch!

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Lida spotting bonefish from the “platform”

It has been 10 years since those first pre-dawn runs in the Whaler. The girls have now caught numerous species at home and abroad, in fresh and salt water – and I have never enjoyed fishing more.

As they grow older, I have begun to think of all the scary stuff dads think of in the coming years… boys, cars, keg parties etc etc.. And maybe we won’t fish as much together as their social lives become more independent and they develop more interests of their own. But I can only hope that someday, when faced with a tough situation, they will draw on the confidence that came naturally from those days on the water… That when some guy causes tears, or some friend says it’s cool to smoke that they will subconsciously recall their time on the water and the strength that has given them to be themselves.

And when all else fails… I hope they always have time for just a few more casts with Dada.

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