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Would-be fishermen can benefit from programs, resources

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Todd Harvey and Patty Noel of Brookline teach their children Cordelia Harvey, 3, and Fionn Harvey, 4, to fish during a family fishing festival hosted by the Fish and Boat Commission on Saturday, May 17, 2014, at North Park Lake.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Certified family fishing instructor with the Fish and Boat Commission Joe Reskiewicz of Natrona Heights helps Franco Smigiel, 10 of Kennedy Township put bait on his line while volunteering during a family fishing festival hosted by the Fish and Boat Commission at North Park Lake on Saturday, May 17, 2014.

Maybe it was a bluegill from the neighbor's pond. Maybe it was a trout amid the crowds of opening day. Maybe it was a perch pulled in while floating in granddad's boat.

Whatever it was and wherever you caught it, your first fish probably was memorable.

But how do you get that first one?

It's perhaps not so easy unless you have someone to show you the ropes. Fortunately, in the absence of everyone having his or her own mentor, there are programs — classes, events and resources offered by state parks, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and others — that teach people how to fish.

All are similar in that they cover the basics. That starts with “deciphering” what can be some bewildering terminology and technology, said Tom Keer, spokesman for the recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation's website, home to a lot of how-to videos for beginning fishermen.

A visit with a friend to a technical rock climbing school made the need for that clear to him.

“It was overwhelming. I'm not a rock climber, so I had no idea what any of that stuff was or how you used it or what things were called,” Keer said.

Beginning fishermen can experience the same thing when they walk into a tackle shop and are confronted with the multitude of rods, reels, lures, hooks and baits available, he said.

Learn-to-fish programs help break down barriers by explaining some of the sport's terminology, he said.

“A veteran bass fisherman will know right away what you mean when you start talking about a Carolina-rigged worm versus a Texas-rigged worm. A beginner won't have any idea,” Keer said. “Once you get everyone speaking the same language, things are a lot easier.”

Beyond that, it's important to teach beginners basic skills that can make them successful, said Mark Shaffer, environmental education specialist at Yellow Creek State Park in Indiana County. Knots, which you can see illustrated at, are a big thing, for example. He teaches students the Palomar, clinch and especially the improved clinch knot.

He also goes over baits. Worms, primarily nightcrawlers and red worms, are an old standby. But Shaffer also goes over some nontraditional baits that beginning fishermen might be more comfortable with.

“We talk about how you don't have to go out and buy bait or catch bait. You can use cheese or corn, too,” Shaffer said. “A lot of people don't even think of that.”

“It's best probably to use live bait, but you can make do with what you have in your house if you want to or need to.”

Instructors in Fish and Boat Commission programs also teach people how to cast overhand and sidearm, said Denny Tubbs, an education specialist in the commission's southwest region office in Somerset. That begins away from the water. Students are outfitted with rods with weights but no hooks. They cast to hoops laid out on the ground, Tubbs said.

Only when they've gotten fairly proficient — away from tree limbs, weeds and other potential snags — they move to the water.

The casting is done with closed-face spinning reels because they're beginner-friendly, Tubbs added.

“We've found they're a lot easier for beginners to use,” he said. “Less tangles. We definitely see fewer birds' nests with closed face reels. And they're basically indestructible. They last forever.”

Instructors also cover terminal tackle like line, hooks, weights and more. Often, people are over-gunned, Tubbs said.

“Sometimes people will show up with their own rod and tell us they want to go trout fishing, but their rod will have 12-pound test line. And they'll have big 1/0 hooks,” Tubbs said.

“We talk about how they might want to downsize and maybe go with 4-pound test and size 8 or 10 hooks.”

Those same kinds of tips and more can be found on the commission's web site at

It's no surprise that many such classes are offered at spots that have potential for lots of action, Keer said. Making sure beginners have fun is more important than taking them to a legendary fishery, he said.

“You or I may want to catch a double-digit-pound bass. But they just want to feel the rod bend,” he said. “They want to see the bobber bouncing. They want to feel the tug. They don't care if it's an 8-ounce bluegill because it's a first for them.”

Farm ponds are great places for that reason, he added, because they typically hold lots of bluegills eager to bite. Lakes at parks are also great because they not only hold lots of fish but also offer easy, safe access, Keer said.

A lot of fishing skills programs also cover what to do if you land a fish. In his programs, Shaffer tells newbies that the answer varies by what's on your line. If you catch a spiny-rayed fish like a bluegill, you have to smooth the quills down with your hand if you want to avoid “getting stuck,” he noted. Other fish, like bass, can be grabbed by the lip.

“But you wouldn't want to do that with a pike because of all its teeth,” he said. “But people don't always know that.”

Commission programs also go over catch and release and instruct people in how to let a fish go. That generally means keeping it in the water if possible, avoiding handling it too much so as to avoid removing the protective slime on its body and cutting your line with the hook still in the fish if necessary, Tubbs said.

“If the hook is too deep, it's better for the fish if you just cut the line as close to the mouth as possible rather than rip the hook out because it will dissolve,” Tubbs said. “The fish may be sore for a day or two, but then it will go right back to feeding.”

If all goes right, at least some people who experiment with fishing will stick around, Shaffer said.

“Hopefully we get them addicted enough that they want to go out and do this one their own,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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