When I was 8 years old, my father moved the family from Montgomery, Alabama, where he was stationed at Gunter Air Force Base, to Homestead, where he’d been assigned to the AFB there. (If you’ve heard of Homestead, it’s likely due to its being demolished by Hurricane Andrew in ’92 — it’s now an Air Reserve Base.) During our very first night in our new house in the Miami suburb of Perrine, someone broke into our RV. Welcome to South Florida!
Not long after that, Pop’s father, Papa Jack, came down to visit the family. Pop had spent much of his young life fishing the freshwater lakes of rural Arkansas with Papa Jack, so he decided that we three generations of Harrell men should spend a day acquainting ourselves with Florida’s famous saltwater angling. He borrowed a little metal flat-bottomed johnboat and electric trolling motor from an Air Force buddy, and that weekend, the three of us headed down to where the mainland ended and the keys began, stopping at the side of the road by a little waterway colloquially known as Jewfish Creek and putting the boat in the water by hand.
Cruising silently through the shady tunnels created by overarching mangrove branches, I experienced a world I never knew existed. Seabirds alighted in the trees and giant barracuda floated ominously motionless in the warm, clear water while pinfish darted between the chunks of oyster bed that littered the creek’s bottom.
I was terrified every time the boat drifted too close to the tangles of mangrove roots on either side — I could see little crabs and chitinous bugs scuttling along the branches, and knew I’d be asked to reach out and push off of that ropy mess of alien life.
More than anything, though, I was excited. I’d wandered Virginia beaches, Utah mountainsides and tame suburban forests, but never before encountered wildness like that. Floating on the same water sharks swam in! Under a canopy of exotic foliage! In a tiny boat!
Plus, I was one of the guys that day. I listened to Papa Jack quietly tell stories about my Pop as a kid while he baited my hook, his steady anecdotes broken by the thrill of a bent fishing rod or the splash of a hooked fish.
We caught mangrove and young yellowtail snapper, grunts and croakers, ladyfish. Not exactly bonefish or bruiser snook or tarpon, but they kept us busy all day. Papa Jack even caught a nice, hard-fighting jack crevalle, which he landed in the style of his beloved largemouth and smallmouth bass, by slipping his thumb into its mouth and lifting it by its lower jaw — unaware that jack crevalle possess a wicked set of teeth. He bled quite a bit.
For my part, I caught the Florida saltwater fishing bug, and have had it ever since. I’ve since fished lakes and rivers from Texas to Spain, and it’s always a blast, but there’s nothing quite like wading a Pinellas shoreline or paddling a canoe across some Tampa Bay flats or drifting shark baits behind a boat in the Skyway shipping channel in the small hours of the morning — whether I’m catching anything or not.
Because the fishing part is only part of a bigger experience. When you take a kid fishing at a young age, more often than not, what they really fall in love with is the great outdoors, and the feeling of being in it, a part of it. And that love and respect can last a lifetime.
Fishing with your kid
Obviously, the easiest way to take a kid fishing is just to do it — get some gear, some licenses and some bait, and just head out to anywhere you can get to the water without trespassing. For a more organized, more educational and (probably) more successful trip, however, we’ve put together some resources geared specifically toward providing a great fishing experience for your kids. For even more information, visit myfwc.com/education/outdoor-skills/kid-fishing/
. —Scott Harrell
He’s a former teacher, and knows how to make learning fun. 727-526-7565, tampabaycharterfishing.com/kids-fish.html
Fat Cat Fishing Charters
A range of options, including half-day and full-day inshore or offshore trips. 727-564-6459, fatcatfishingcharters.com/services.html
Full-service instruction and education for the kids, with a focus on inshore fishing. 727-420-4429, inshorecharters.com/kids-fishing/
Non Stop Fishing Charters
All children under 12 fish for free. 9262 Captiva Circle., St. Pete Beach; 12795 Kingfish Dr., Treasure Island. 727-638-0975, nonstopfishingcharters.com/kids-fishing
Anclote Fishing Pier
This Pasco pier is always open, but bring your own gear and bait as there aren’t any amenities. $2 parking. 2305 Bailey’s Bluff Rd., Holiday. 727-942-4030, florida-fishing-insider.com/anclote_fishing_pier.html
Ballast Point Park Pier
Right on the tip of Hillsborough County, this pier is open around the clock. 5300 Interbay Blvd., Tampa. 813-832-1207, tampagov.net/parks_search_webapp/ParkDetail.aspx?nbr=7
Fort De Soto Park
In addition to miles of shoreline and flats for wading or canoeing, Fort De Soto also features two distinct, fully featured fishing piers. Your $5 entry fee covers fishing the piers. Open 7 a.m.-11p.m. 3500 Bayway S., Tierra Verde, 727-552-1862, pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm#fishing
Gulfport Fishing Pier
This little public pier in picturesque downtown Gulfport is always open, and right across the street from restaurants and sightseeing. Free. 54th St. S. and Shore Blvd., Gulfport. pinellas.wateratlas.usf.edu/wse/PointOfInterest.aspx?wshedid=8&poiid=82
The Merry Pier on the Intracoastal Waterway offers amenities and charters, while the jetty pier at the southern tip of the beach has no lights, no concessions and is one of the best fishing spots in the county. Both are free. Merry Pier: 801 Pass-A-Grille Way, St. Petersburg. 727-360-1400, merrypier.com. Jetty pier: Gulf Way and 1st Ave., St. Pete Beach. ocean.floridamarine.org/boating_guides/tampa_bay/pages/fishing_piers/pass-a-grille/index.html
Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach
Take the family and make a day of it. All the amenities, plus people-watching, a park and more. Open 24 hours during the summer. $8 adults/$6.75 seniors/$5.25 children 5-15. 1 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater. 727-462-6466, pier60fishing.com/
Redington Long Pier
Classic old-school beach-pier fishing in Redington Shores. $15 adults/$10 children under 10 & spectators with anglers/$5 spectators. Summer hours 7 a.m.-midnight Sun.-Fri., 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat. 17490 Gulf Blvd, Redington Shores. 727-391-9398, tampabayfishingpier.com/
Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers
The flat northern and southern spans of the original bridge live on as popular and productive 24-hour fishing facilities. Concessions, rod rentals and bait available. $4 car or truck charge plus $4 per person 12 & up/$2 children 6-11/children under 6 free. 727-865-0668 (north pier), 941-729-0117 (south pier), skywaypiers.com
Williams Park Fishing Pier
This park and boat ramp on the Alafia River features an always-open pier within casting distance of the U.S. 41 bridge. Free. 813-975-2160, dto.com/swfishing/planLocation/2459/12