Want fish? Go to the supermarket. They've got plenty, and if you've got the money you're guaranteed to take some home.
Fishing, however, isn't about food. It's about balancing gear and an ever-growing skill set with constantly changing water conditions. It's about linking habitat, wildlife and environmental stewardship to build a bond with nature that can last a lifetime. It's about that look in a kid's eyes when she lands a fish by herself for the first time, and the priceless adult experience of standing with your dad in a driving rain hip-deep in a stiff current debating whether to tie on a dropper or go with a weighted nymph.
That's probably why many anglers are happy to help newcomers get past catching their first fish and get on with learning the true nature of fishing. Entry-level tips are easy to come by -- some actually work -- and with the April 12 opening of the statewide trout season a few weeks out there's an abundance of angling advice available.
About 50 people showed up for a free March 18 Gear Up for Mentored Youth Fishing Day at North Park Lake. The state Fish and Boat Commission education program was set up to help young beginners who are registered to participate in the youth fishing program. (Because of ongoing ice conditions statewide, the two planned Mentored Youth Fishing Days have been rescheduled for May 10 on designated waters. Visit www.fish.state.pa.us for details).
"I thought it was all pretty impressive," said Paul Bishchoff of South Park, who was there with his 13-year-old granddaughter Jill Davison, a mentored youth license holder.
Young anglers were taught to distinguish among trout species, tie fishing knots and get the hang of several trout-fishing tactics.
"My granddaughter was really excited," said Bischoff. "Every morning she's asking when we can go fishing."
Fishing does not have to cost a fortune. In fact, beginner anglers can learn a lot using equipment that costs a little. Darl Black, a veteran outdoors writer from Cochranton, Pa., said he'd steer clear of closed-face spincast reels and start with an inexpensive spinning reel strung with 4-pound to 6-pound monofilment line on an ultra-light or light-weight spinning rod.
"To me, spincast is just very elementary. If they're interested in fishing they'll want a rod and reel with more function," he said.
Avoid the more expensive Fluorocarbon lines that can be more difficult to cast, and stick with simple hooks: size 10-12 for worms and paste baits, 8-10 for salmon eggs.
"I don't recommend snelled hooks," pre-tied to a leader, said Black. The lines are generally too stiff; better to tie on loose hooks. Add a pack or two of small bobbers, and spit shot in a couple of different weights, and you're good to go.
Red worms and salmon eggs are reliable traditional trout baits. Paste or dough baits are made to dissolve, spreading the concentrated fishy scent farther and faster.
Bait the hook, pinch the shot a couple of inches above the bait and attach the bobber to the line at a point where the bait hangs about a foot off the bottom, or halfway between the surface and the bottom in deeper waters.
With the high traffic areas of most Approved Trout Waters fairly well stocked for opening day, Black says picking a spot is usually easy.
"Around the opening day of trout season, stocked trout in the smaller lakes just kind of school up and swim around in a big circle," said Black. "I don't see them relating to [structure]. That's why the dough baits work so well."
On streams, the spring crowds may be elbow to elbow around the big pools, but Black says those freshly stocked trout could be anywhere.
"You'll find trout just about anyplace on opening weekends where you'd never catch a trout that has been there for a year," he said. "In the shallows, in undercuts, deep holes, seams ... People tend to flock to the big holes, but in the first week or two I don't think those stocked trout know what they're doing. They're just swimming around wondering what to do."
Considering stowing the spinning gear and giving fly fishing a try? In Pittsburgh, the best place to get good free instruction, hands-on experience and reliable advice is at the annual Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited Fly Fishing Workshop Saturday at Wilkins School Community Center, 7604 Charleston Ave., in Regent Square.
Pro guides and veteran fly anglers Rob Reeder and Scott Loughner start with a primer on basic equipment. The workshop includes common knots, entomology and flies and hands-on casting experience. If you have a fly rod and reel, bring it.
"I think people see fly fishing and they think it's complicated and expensive. They think it's about complex entomology and Latin names and matching rod weights and lines and the physics of making those long, graceful casts," said Reeder. "It's really not. We break it down and show how simple and basic this can be. And how inexpensive. Like anything else, you could spend a fortune on this, but you really don't have to. This is geared to beginners, and they'll leave knowing how to do this."
The fly fishing workshop will be held 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, lunch provided. Free with registration required at firstname.lastname@example.org.