The bus stop looked boring. Four kids, middle-school age I’d guess, waited on a grey day. Gloom hung in the air. Despite standing a few feet apart, none conversed with the others. There was no carrying on, pranking or childish antics. Instead, each was focused on their cell phone, head cocked at an awkward angle, completely oblivious to each other or passersby.
The scene really hit me. I remembered being that age. The uncomfortable attempt to fit in. Peer pressure at the bus stop and in school. My only saving grace was a group of friends who, like me, cared about nothing other than fishing. We’d share stories of past trips; better yet, plan new adventures to the nearby park where we’d terrorize the bass living in the ponds.
A small creek flowed by our bus stop. Any creek in the neighborhood was always fair game for a full investigation. We’d memorized all the deep bends and pools where creek chubs and shiners lived. The shallow riffles that held crayfish, and the shape and size of the best rocks to turn over to find them. Later, we’d use anything we caught for bait. Bass especially loved the smaller craws, greenish in color. By the time the bus arrived, we’d be soaked.
Looking forward to times with buddies meant looking forward to school, and everything that came after. In the summer, we’d cannonball in the ponds to beat the heat. Winter found us begging for an early spring, the sun our only lifeline to an open hole in the ice where we could soak a jig-and-pig. Thirty-plus years later, I can still remember many of those first bass of the season.
None of us owned phones, obviously. We didn’t even watch TV, really, except for the outdoor shows on the weekend. Our friendships grew close.
For the first time in my life, I find myself concerned over the youth of America. I guess that makes me old. But I see kids like those at the bus stop, completely enveloped in the world of artificial entertainment, and I wonder what they think of my outdoors.
Immense time outside taught me early about the interconnectedness of the environment. Everything matters, even the mosquitoes. The health of our fisheries are drastically impacted by hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that relate to one another.
What would those same kids say if I asked them to wade into a stream and catch me a crawfish? What will they do, as adults, if they are asked to make decisions that determine the health of a watershed? Will they consider the creek?
Throughout my career in fishing, I’ve run across dozens of individuals dedicated to helping introduce young people to the outdoors. The idea focuses on the disconnect. Inner-city youth are first to come across the minds of most adults. But I wonder about those kids I saw at the bus stop, here in Central Florida, completely surrounded by the outdoors they don’t even understand. What are they doing on the weekends?
Initially, I thought the only way to get a kid fishing was to pick him or her up and stick them in a boat. Lots of programs focus on that very practice. All help.
But I see a greater challenge in getting kids outside. Their parents.
You see, if I take a kid fishing, in an hour, they’re hooked. Every time. Some live bait in the well, followed by a boat tour that focuses on birds, alligators, snails and turtles. A few fish catches, interrupted by a little lunch and taking turns driving the boat. Hooked.
But once those kids leave me, and they go back to their daily lives, it’s cell phones at the bus stop. They have no way to repeat the fun on their own.
Parents are busy. We’re all busy. And many parents today are on their own, splitting up time with the kids and wondering what they can do to entertain those kids. YouTube works in the meantime. Don’t worry, Verizon’s got your back with a family pack.
Organized sports come to the rescue in high school years, complete with expensive travel packages and a World Cup mentality.
Many parents would love for their kids to get involved in fishing or the outdoors. Hiking, biking, kayaking or climbing. The biggest hurdle, overwhelmingly, is the parents' ability to get involved themselves, and therefore mentor their children.
Back in the day (proof, I’m old), fathers taught their kids about the outdoors. Dads were there. If not, maybe an uncle. Regardless, there wasn’t much else for kids to do, especially in rural America, when they weren’t in school. Playing in the dirt was a sport. A small pond was just across the street, and somebody had a few old fishing rods in their garage. Game over.
Today, parents toss artificial entertainment at their kids instead. Many of those same parents themselves have little or no outdoor experience. How can we assume they will expose their kids to the outdoors?
For that to happen, we must first expose the parents. Illustrate to them that getting involved isn’t as hard as it seems. Give them half the chance to see how their kids would rather play in the water than drown in their cell phones.
There are a bunch of ways we can all make this happen. It doesn’t require you to take a family of four out bass fishing. Know a good spot for a hike and a backpack lunch? Take the kids, and invite their friends and parent. Make it a regular trade-off event. No phones.
Around my place, there are a bunch of kayak rental opportunities. Most residents don’t even know they exist. Show them.
I’m organizing an “intro to fishing seminar” aimed at parents. Everybody fishes, not just the kids, and everyone can win a prize. Adult prizes are gift certificates for kayak rentals. Get it?
Here’s one I recently ran into that really struck a cord: a local angler “charters” for three-hour periods with families at a local shore-fishing spot. He brings the rods, reels, bait and refreshments. Handles everything just like a boat captain. Families come, fish and have fun. A half day costs about $50 for a family of four. A movie, including snacks, costs nearly a hundred for the same group. The “captain” has sponsors that pay for all of his equipment, travel and beverages, the local park advertises for him for free, and his group of supporters continues to grow.
We can all do more to bring kids into the outdoors. We all need to do more.
Otherwise, it’s just another boring day at the bus stop.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)