"The Kids - A Different Approach"
(As appeared in The Maine Sportsman)
By Bob Mallard

The face of sporting has changed significantly over the years.  Having grown up in the so-called “Golden Age”, I now find myself part of something that if it doesn’t change fast will be lost forever.  While my generation was proficient (but not necessarily great) at all things outdoors, we now live in a world where sportsmen are more likely to do something specific and do it well.  Where we once had sportsmen, we now have hunters and fishermen.  Where we once had hunters, we now have archers and upland game hunters.   Where we once had fishermen, we now have fly fishermen and bass fishermen.   

I believe that “casual” hunting and fishing is no longer sustainable.  Fair-weather fishermen and opening-day hunters will not save our outdoor heritage.  We need to reach out to those who will pursue their sport with vigor and continue to do so throughout their lives.  Without this type of sportsman there will be no one to pass our heritage to the next generation.  My belief is that by teaching our children to conserve and enhance our resources they will learn to appreciate them more.  Without this, sporting, as we know it will continue to die a slow and painful death.

While there are those who label every attempt to regulate our fishing as being against kids; with no shortage of liberally managed waters and an ever-declining youth participation, it is fair to assume that so-called restrictive regulations are not what are driving our kids away from fishing.  In fact, until someone proves me wrong I can’t help but wonder if part of what is driving our kids away from fishing is the marginal fishing.  As for the traditional sportsmen who have become the self-appointed voice of our children, do they really know what today’s kids want? 

The two best-known fishing groups in the country (B.A.S.S and Trout Unlimited) preach conservation; promote sustainable angling, and have successful youth outreach programs.  Both groups promote catch-and-release and expert level angling.  In fact it is quality angling as much as anything else that drives these groups.  You must also admit that both groups are successful marketers who have brought their respective messages mainstream.  Who has done a better job of keeping fishing in the public eye than B.A.S.S. and TU?    

As an avid fly fisherman, I can state emphatically that as a group we have changed considerably over the years, and I believe for the better.  Once a sport dominated by old men, fly-fishing is now reaching out to a much broader and younger audience.  With six or so national, and numerous regional publications, fly-fishing has done a good job of keeping our outdoor heritage visible while showing it in a very positive light.  The same can be said for serious bass fishing, which can be now be seen in country music videos, sport truck ads, etc.  Both groups have clearly found a way to remain viable.

Young Hollywood idol Brad Pitt learned to fly fish and released a large trout on the big screen in A River Runs Through It.  Outdoor magazines geared toward young non-consumptive users have promoted fly-fishing.  One of my wife Diana’s health food magazines even ran a fly-fishing article this summer (and it had nothing to do with eating fish!).  Fly-fishing publication Drake Magazine is clearly marketed to a 20-something crowd with pictures of twenty-something fly fishermen in baggy cargo pants and sandals, an “Ask Beth” column written by a dog (a black lab in sun glasses), etc.     

Some of the more progressive fly-fishing companies such as Scott, Sage, and Ross now offer logo hoodies and trucker hats; something clearly geared toward young people!  Industry leader Simms now offers vests and packs in orange, which I am willing to bet are not marketed at 50 year-old traditional anglers!  Ditto for Fishpond who is selling modern vests and packs in blue, orange, etc.  This is a great way to get kids interested in what we are doing. 

Two of the newer fly-fishing companies, William & Joseph (part of Vortex Outdoors) and Cloudveil, have deep roots in the non-consumptive sport market, which is dominated by young people.  Patagonia, best known for high-tech outdoor clothing also offers a line of fly-fishing products.    In all cases these companies promote conservation and sustainable angling.  These companies seem to understand something that we don’t; this is no longer about consumption.     

The TU summer camp held on the Kennebec in Solon is a model for effective youth outreach.   Another great program is Kathy Scott’s fly fishing program at the Fairfield middle school.  Rather than spending time fighting so-called restrictive regulations that they perceive to be behind the decline in youth participation, these folks have reached out to the kids themselves.  It is time that the rest of us let the kids decide what is good for them.  Those fighting to maintain the status quo need to reevaluate where we now find ourselves and why.

Next time you find yourself saying “what about the kids?” when so-called restrictive regulations are being discussed, take an honest look at what you are saying and why.  Are you really speaking for the kids or are you trying to protect something that is important to you?  Try finding out what kids really want as opposed to what you think they want.  Today’s kids are different than we were.  They live in a world where mortality is far more real than it was for us.  They live in a world where resources no longer appear limitless.  They live in a world where fishing is often more important than catching, and harvesting may be least important of all. 

If you really want to see kids back in the woods and waters, give them the quality outdoor experience that we had.  Our grandfathers left our fathers something far better than what our fathers left us.  If we keep going the way we are going I fear that we will leave our kids with something far worse than what we were left.  We have the chance to turn the tide but I am concerned that we are throwing it away.  If we let it slip through our hands it will be lost forever.  At less than 20% of the population, we are already in a hole.  If we slip any further it is over.

The game has changed and we need to change with it.  The next generation will not be casual sportsmen; that seems clear to me.  If they participate in traditional outdoor activities at all it will be specific areas that they are drawn to.  Leave them a resource worth pursuing and teach them a skill that can hold their interest for years to come.  Most import is to let them speak for themselves; they know what they want far better than we do.  Don’t make the mistake of trying to make your children think as you do; it has not served us well to date. 

We keep singing the same old song.  It is not working and we continue to sink further into the abyss.  According to most reports, youth participation in traditional outdoor activities is at an all-time low.  While we don’t have all the answers, there are some things that we do know.  Liberal regulations and marginal put-and-take fishing have not kept our kids on the water.  Casual use seems to be of minimal interest to today’s kids.  What we are doing is clearly not working.  If we really care about our outdoor heritage it is time that we tried something different. 

 

Bob Mallard has been a flyfisherman and fly tyer for over 25 years and is the owner of Kennebec River Outfitters on Route 201 in Madison, ME. He can be reached at (207) 474-2500 or www.kennebecriveroutfitters.com.