My kids, like most children, have short attention spans. They'll be little angels for 15 maybe 20 minutes, if they're watching fireworks. But the second those bombs stop bursting in air, they'll be back to fussing, usually about nothing, which is standard for youngsters their age. So when my friend Brent Gaskill offered to take my son Kai, 8, daughter Nia, 6, and their cousin Taj, soon-to-be 7, fishing during a recent school holiday, I tried to explain that time could be an issue. "They will last an hour, not a minute more," I told the St. Petersburg charter boat captain. "These kids are action-oriented. They won't sit around and wait for the fish to bite." Gaskill, a former school teacher, said he never met a child he could not keep entertained. "That is kind of my specialty," he explained. "I have it down to a science."
The bait master
Gaskill asked us to meet him at the Gulfport Municipal Marina at 8 a.m. I like to be on the water before sunrise, but that can be difficult, if not impossible, when dealing with children who know there is no school.
"Sorry we are late," I told our guide. "We had bathroom issues."
Gaskill told the kids to call him Capt. Brent, then he explained that our first job would be to catch bait.
"I thought about showing up with a livewell full of scaled sardines," he said. "But then I figured that catching bait was half the fun."
We piled in Gaskill's skiff, then motored to the beach off Fort De Soto Park, where he threw the cast net once and hauled in hundreds of whitebait.
"This will keep them busy for a while," he said, as he dumped the net into the livewell, spilling several dozen onto the deck.
The kids scurried around on their hands and knees giggling as they tried to scoop up the baitfish.
"If we don't catch another fish they will still think this has been the greatest fishing trip ever," I said.
Spanish mackerel, a schooling fish found up and down the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, have a voracious appetite and feed on large schools of baitfish. One way to catch these open-water predators is to drop anchor and start chumming.
"The chum will attract the schools of bait," Gaskill said. "And once you have the bait, the fish won't be far behind."
We found a spot about a mile off St. Pete Beach where the fish had been biting and started chumming. But after 15 minutes without a single bite, the kids started growing restless.
"When are we going to go home?" Nia asked. "I'm hungry."
I offered her a live scaled sardine.
"Disgusting," she said.
So I put one in my mouth and pretended to eat it.
"Eeewwwww!" she shrieked.
Kai and Taj thought the scaled sardine stunt was awesome and pleaded for the chance to try it themselves. But like any good parent, I explained that eating live baitfish was to be reserved for survival situations.
Deep down inside I knew that if we didn't catch a fish soon, the captain would be wishing he was shipwrecked on a desert island instead of stuck on a boat with three cranky kids.
For the birds
That is when Gaskill decided to abandon his first plan of attack.
"Remember those birds we saw back there?" he told the young anglers. "Well, let's go and see if they can show us where the fish are."
Gaskill spotted birds crashing on a school of bait, cut his engine and drifted toward the feeding frenzy. He threw out a couple of baits and told the youngsters to get ready.
Within a minute, both rods bent under the weight of fish. The kids screamed and ran to the bow to fight the mackerel.
No sooner had Gaskill unhooked the fish and tossed out another set of baits when we had another double hookup.
Nia fought the fish to within 10 feet of the boat when a big lemon shark swam up and grabbed the mackerel off her line.
"Did you see that?" Kai yelled.
"Oh my gosh …" Taj added.
"What happened to my fish?" Nia asked.
Time for a teaching moment, I thought to myself, and proceeded to explain the food chain, the circle of life, and that there were plenty of fish left for us to catch.
"All right …" she said, wiping away a tear. "'cause I am really hungry."
Helpful tips when fishing with kids
Keep it simple. Pick a species that will cooperate. Don't try to catch a sailfish. Pinfish might be a better choice the first time out.
Keep it short. Kids don't last as long on the water as adults.
Keep it fun. If the fish are not biting, have a backup plan such as, "Let's play Count the Seagulls."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com.