John McCoy: Panfish a good way to spark kids’ love of fishing

People can fall in love with fishing at any stage of life, but most folks do it when they’re young.

It doesn’t take much to turn a simple outing into a lifetime passion. A simple bluegill, dangling and flopping at the end of a line, has lured many a youngster into a supremely enjoyable pastime.

I still remember the first fish I ever caught. In 1962, a couple of years after my paternal grandfather passed away, I started playing with his fishing gear.

Among the hooks and sinkers and bobbers, I found a tiny gold jig with a 2- or 3-foot length of fishing line still attached to it. I knew instantly what to do with it.

A neighbor had a goldfish pond in her garden. I sneaked into her yard and dropped the jig into the water. Much to my surprise, one of the goldfish swam over and grabbed it. I sprinted home, unhooked the fish, put it into a bowl filled with water and kept it as a pet.

As illicit as that first catch was, it stirred something within me.

Imagine — something as small and ordinary as a garden-pond goldfish triggered a fascination that, within a couple of decades, led me to a career in outdoors writing.

Imagine how much more I would have been fired up about fishing if that first fish had been a bass or a trout or a muskellunge.

On second thought, don’t. Those “glamor species” are, in my estimation at least, preventing at least some young people from experiencing the joys of angling.

Imagine some young single mom who wants to spend time outdoors with her son or daughter, and thinks fishing would be a pleasant, low-stress way to accomplish that. She goes online to see what the most popular kinds of fishing are, and what tackle she needs to participate in them.

Twenty minutes later, her head spinning, she decides she and her kid can’t afford bass outfits that cost $250, muskie lures that cost $50 apiece or $350 for a fly rod ($600 with a reel) to catch a trout. She decides hiking might be a better way to spend quality time with Junior, and who could blame her?

But what if bluegills, crappie and catfish were no longer considered second-class citizens? What if state wildlife agencies nurtured those fisheries as fervently as they nurture the glamor fisheries?

That same single mom would find out that with a $30 rod-and-reel outfit, some hooks, some sinkers, a bobber and some bait, she and her youngster could go out and catch all the bluegills, crappie and catfish their hearts might desire.

That scenario might soon get a chance to play out. Division of Natural Resources officials have launched a pilot project to improve fishing for panfish in several small West Virginia lakes. Right now, they’re focusing on bluegills and other members of the sunfish family.

They’re studying five lakes, all 50 acres or less in size, to determine how to grow more and larger bluegills and sunfish. The project will wrap up in a couple of years, at which time DNR officials will decide if creel limits and/or size limits should be placed on those species.

The underlying idea is to create trophy bluegill fisheries, which should ultimately give fishing for panfish a little more prestige and appeal. If that’s successful, maybe the DNR would do the same for crappie and catfish.

Fishing for panfish might never be as glamorous as fishing for bass, trout or muskies, but it’s easy and it’s affordable. For that reason alone, it deserves to be nurtured.

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