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WILTZ: A perfect situation to teach kids to fish

Our daughter Laurie and her family have a second home on Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. The home is set on the sprawling lake, and a front stairway leads to their partially covered floating dock. The dock includes boats and slips, lounge chairs, sound system, television, fridge, and most important, a good place to fish. Betsy and I were guests for four days last week.

We don't see these grandkids as often as we see the Wisconsin crew, so it was a real treat. As it turned out, I spent the best part of the four days fishing with Hannah, 12, and Madison, 7. The girls had some experience at catching bluegills from the dock, and Madison had caught a three-pound channel cat on a piece of hotdog with her pink Disneyland rod, but their skills were basic to say the least.

It was a perfect situation for teaching the kids to fish. The hungry bluegills were cooperative, and I had the time to further their experience without pressuring them. I spent Day 1 baiting hooks, taking fish off of the hook, and encouraging them with praise. I told them how much better night crawlers would work as bait, and the following morning their dad showed up with a carton of crawlers. We also talked about baiting our own hooks, and taking the fish off the hook, but we didn't rush it.

Day 2 found me dissecting crawlers with my fillet knife, baiting hooks, removing hooks, and showing them how to safely handle the fish by sliding one's hand down over them. I also rigged my two spinning rods with hooks and slip sinkers, and added catfish to the agenda by casting them out into the deeper water with chunks of night crawler as bait. The action with pound to pound-and-a-half catfish was so fast I had to go back to one rod. Enthusiasm knew no bounds, and I had to make sure my attention was on the girls and not the catfish. I'll admit my mind churned with thoughts of bigger cats.

I have no idea why a Sea-Doo or personal watercraft driver would need gloves, but there were driving gloves on the dock. From the start of Day 3, the girls would take fish off the hook if they could do it with a glove to hold the fish. Why not? It was progress! By supper time, the girls were also, with great caution, baiting their hooks with tiny crawler chunks so long as the chunks didn't move. The girls also learned to pay attention to their rod tips so line wouldn't wrap around them -- a sure way to lose a big fish.

At 12 years old, Hannah is a responsible young lady. I had an after-supper request. I wanted to go out on the main lake with a Sea-Doo, and I wanted Hannah to be my guide. So Hannah, with Madie on the back of her PWC, led the way. I surely would have lost my way without her. I did muster the courage to goose that thing. Did I fly! I was part cowboy and part test pilot!

Day 4 found the girls arguing about who would take the fish off the hook. We also got into bigger cats by baiting a much larger hook with large chunks of steak fat. By this time I had suggested filleting some of the fish and having them for supper. The girls were all for it, but mom was a bit cool to the idea. As Laurie lived on fish, deer, pheasant and antelope for 18 years, it didn't quite follow.

The girls like fish. I've seen them wolf down tilapia fillets like they were potato chips. For all we know, those tilapia were raised on a Chinese fish farm and fed food fertilized with who knows what. There's always tomorrow. I do know this: When I get my grandchildren together for a wilderness fishing trip, Hannah and Madison will have no qualms whatsoever.

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If you think the Wapsipinicon River flows through Northern Saskatchewan, you need to be enlightened. It flows through Iowa -- a wonderful place for a mini-vacation! Iowa is sometimes the butt of jokes. Whether these slurs allude to what is perceived as blah landscape or blah people, nothing could be further from the truth. From the Loess Hills of the western border to the coolies of the Mississippi on the east, Iowa is rich in emerald hills, scenic water courses and wonderful people.

Some years ago, central Iowa, Winterset to be exact, was the setting of the Clint Eastwood movie Bridges of Madison County. The plot deals with the infidelity of Iowa farm wife Meryl Streep, Eastwood and the covered bridges to a lesser degree. I suspect that Winterset was a hub of tourist activity following the movie. Today, I'm glad to report that it is once again a sleepy little town. In fairness, it was 112 degrees when we visited Winterset last week. Any town would have been sleepy.

As we rolled over the meandering wooded hills in search of various bridges (all bridge routes are well marked), I became immersed in the tranquility, and easily forgot that we were within the shadow of Iowa's greatest city and capital -- Des Moines. Some of the bridges lie in their original settings, some have been moved. One was rebuilt after vandals burned it. A cynic might tell you if you've seen one, you've seen them all. While the bridges are similar, Betsy and I enjoyed seeing all of them.

Winterset alone is worthy of a visit. Madison County's venerable courthouse is centered in the village square where it is surrounded by quaint shops.

John Wayne's birthplace is also the smallest house in town. A half day is more than enough time to cover the Winterset scene.

If you're a baseball fan, combine your bridges visit with a Triple-A Iowa Cubs game in Des Moines' beautiful Principal Park. From our $10 seats behind the Cubs' dugout, we could see the brilliant golden dome of the state capitol beyond center field. Plan to have lunch (or supper for a night game) at The High Life Lounge where my meatloaf sandwich was arguably the best sandwich I've ever eaten, but don't look for anything fancy. We parked across the street from this hub of fan activity and walked three blocks to the stadium. The entire experience was a hoot!

*See you next week.