Keeping kids occupied on the boat
  |  First Published: April 2009

Believe it or not, there are lots of things you can offer kids to keep them occupied in the little bit of space between the esky and the outboard during a family fishing trip. Here are some ideas:

Teach them to fish

I may be stating the obvious, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t believe it occurs to many people to actually let their kids fish on a fishing trip! There are probably many reasons for this, but most likely they just don’t know where to start.

If you’re fishing with younger children (or older ones who are first timers), just start simple. Teach them one or two basic tasks and let them practice over and over. A motivated child will practice a new skill by repeating it over and over long after us big people get bored and walk away. A child’s brain is wired to master new skills – and they especially love it when they learn to do something a grown-up does. Our boys, for example will cast lures (hooks removed of course) around our backyard for hours, in fact, until I get sick of them and confiscate the rods!

Where to start

Getting kids to fish with dead bait on a rod and reel is probably giving them the best chance of landing a fish. Teach them how to operate the reel then let them be in charge of releasing and retrieving line. If they’re very young, just let them play at this for a while. Older children can be taught how to feel for the bottom and be more in control of where their bait hangs.

Handlines can be fun too, because they put your children in direct contact with the fish. It’s quite thrilling to feel the tugs and jerks from the “pickers” below. But be sure to teach them about safe hand lining; things like always pull the handline directly into the floor of the boat, never lift the line over your head, no wrapping line around your hand and swing the hook in gently.

Baiting a hook

The next thing you could teach the kids is how to bait a hook. I appreciate that some may baulk at the idea of letting their three-year-old handle a hook – but you’ll know if your little one is up to it, so just use your judgement on this one, and always supervise closely. In any case, always get some pliers before you start and squash the barb in on the hooks your child will be using. Let them hold and examine the hook and encourage them to cautiously feel the sharp end. Use firm bait like prawns, and show them how to thread the bait on. Demonstrate the difference between a hook that is well baited and one that is not – show them how bait will fall off with a couple of jiggles if it’s not on properly. Finally, let them have a go.

All the while, supervise closely, but remember a few little finger pricks may bring some tears, but also offer a powerful lesson in safety and respect for all things dangerous in a boat. In fact, it’s been pointed out to us on many occasions that our children have an obvious appreciation for the hazards in our boat – so by exposing them to these dangers in a controlled way, we’re helping them to be cautious and ultimately safer little people. It’s also highly likely that most of their baits will fall off to start with, but this is all part of the learning. Just be sure to have plenty of bait on board that day.

Bait Jigs

Bait jigs are another great way to get kids started. We are currently trying to teach Luke, our rather impatient three-year-old, the difference between lure fishing and ‘waiting fishing’. As you would expect, he has no patience for fishing with dead baits, so no sooner does the line get released, then he is winding it back in again.

While trying to teach him ‘waiting fishing’ one day, Dave, my husband, in his wisdom switched his hook for a bait jig and let him go. The up and down action that resulted from the constant release and retrieve of the line, saw him pull more fish into the boat than anyone else! Even better, some of the fusiliers he caught were used for bait by the rest of us, which earned him the proud title of our ‘official bait catcher’. He was thrilled!


Children can learn to cast lures from quite a young age as well. When Joe was four, he was able to cast out a lure using an eggbeater setup. Dave went out and bought him a cheap whippy rod and a selection of relatively expendable lures. Just after he turned 4, we went on a family trip to Kowanyama. We were all fishing from the bank when he landed himself a catfish on his first cast – a pain in the proverbial for some, but to him it was the proudest moment of his life, because a far as he was concerned he had caught a fish “all by myself”!

When you start children off with lure fishing, it’s best to be in a clear open spot to minimize tangles – teaching them to cast into snags comes later when they have demonstrated reasonable control over their casts. Try open banks for flathead, queenfish or trevally.


Trolling for pelagic fish is also an easy way for kids to fish. Small white flies will catch scad and mack tuna. Always be sure to set your rig up to catch a fish your child can handle. Losing your rod and reel to a 15kg Spanish mackerel because they couldn’t hold on to it, can put a bit of a dampener on the trip, and losing your child over board to a similar fish is not even worth contemplating!

We also love to chase schools of pelagics like tuna on our way out to the reef. This is great as the kids can cast randomly into the open water with chrome slices and have a great chance of landing a substantial fish. We recently came across a school of yellow fin tuna (all around 5 kg) surface feeding. Both of our boys brought in fish that were big enough to keep. We made them into sushi, and watched them devour their serves as they proudly reminded all present that we were eating the fish they caught.

Teaching safe luring practices is also part of the lesson. First and foremost, teach them to check beside and behind for obstacles they might hook up on when casting. Show them how to slow the retrieve and dip the rod, as the lure approaches, to prevent it from springing up out of the water. Explain how winding the lure to the rod tip can damage the rod and show them how to leave it hanging far enough down on retrieval to have it ready to cast straight out again.

Other very important fishing jobs

Other jobs can be allocated to the little ones to keep them busy too. In our boat, Luke is usually in charge of handing out the bait – heaven help you if you reach into the bait box without his permission! This can be especially entertaining if you are fishing with live bait and they have to chase it round the tank. Joe fetches sinkers, swivels, leaders and hooks as needed, and in the process learns about the tackle and its different applications.

Our boys also like to help measure the fish we bring in to make sure they are legal, and they practice in the boat by measuring the bait at times too – as crazy as it sounds this can keep them entertained for quite some time. It’s also good to encourage your kids to identify the fish you bring into the boat, using a fish identification book or chart. This way you can start teaching them the difference between edible and poisonous fish and show them which fish are protected and so on.


It’s important to discourage our kids from eating if they’re bored, so try to wait until you think your kids are truly hungry before you break open the esky. Having said this, I have been known to use special treats as bribes in the boat when you just want to get that last hour of fishing in, and your time is clearly running out in the behaviour department.

I’ll cover food in more detail later on, but for now I can say that the more interesting the food is, the longer it will occupy your kids. For example, if you pack a healthy dip and surround it with pieces of Turkish bread, carrot sticks, snow peas, chopped up cheese and tomatoes, and some olives, then let them ‘build’ their own snacks, it becomes a bit of a project, rather than just a meal. And I can entice my boys to eat all sorts of “healthy” food this way.

Also pack a can of soft drink each as a special treat, that also serves to combat dehydration on hot days in the sun. The boys love it, and of course down the lot, leaving me reassured they are keeping their fluids up. Be sure the drinks are caffeine free, as this is likely to increase fluid loss from the body. I try to stick to the old favourites, like lemonade or fanta.

A final note

Remember, you may need to set aside some dedicated time to teach your kids – which means putting your own line down for an hour or so – as you introduce each new skill. But with a little guidance you’ll soon be able to leave them to it, while you take up your own rod again. Remember, they probably won’t master a new skill immediately, but that’s okay since all you need them to be able to do is to be independent enough to start practicing it on their own. Then you can resume your own fishing and simply watch and guide from your post. They’re occupied, you’re fishing, and everyone is happy!

If you have any questions, comment or tips about keeping kids occupied in the boat then feel free to email me at --e-mail address hidden-- - Barb Powell


Other tips for a smooth day on the boat:

Take the fish ID book so the kids can help identify the fish you bring on board.

Have time out from fishing, make a cubbie house at the front of the boat (which also keeps the sun off).

Bring along other activities like colouring, drawing, reading or electronic games – just watch the seasickness!

Try to stick to routines, like naptime. Even if the kids don’t sleep, let them know they still have to lie down (spare life jackets can make a comfy makeshift bed) for 10 minutes or whatever you think you can manage.

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