I recently spent a hot afternoon fishing a river in Michigan with my 12-year-old son, Paul. The trout weren’t really biting, but we had fun anyway. At one point I looked over my shoulder and noticed that Paul had set his rod down on his side of the stream (we split the river in half, since he’s a lefty and I’m right-handed) and was turning rocks over in the shallows. I asked him what he was doing and he said he had found some crayfish.

That provided a great opportunity to explain what fish eat, and how all those creatures are important parts of the food chain. We then put on a couple crayfish fly patterns and swung them through some deeper pools, hoping to trick a big brown trout, but we didn’t catch any.

Half an hour later, I looked over my shoulder and saw that Paul had set his rod down again, only this time he was hopping through the tall grass along the bank.

“What are you doing now?” I asked.

“Catching toads,” he explained.

“Are you tired of fishing?”

“No, I like fishing, but I like toading too,” he said.

And it dawned on me that all of us anglers might do ourselves a favor by spending a little less time casting, and a little more time turning over rocks, checking out bugs, picking up crayfish or even chasing a toad or two now and then. Now that’s getting in tune with the river. And it’s especially important to let young anglers be themselves and explore the whole scene.

Sure, there are thrills to be had in the hooking and landing of fish. But I’d suggest that the more dirt Paul gets under his fingernails clawing along the banks, the better angler he’s going to be in the long run. That day turned out to be one of our best “fishing” days of the summer, though we didn’t land a darn thing.

Next time you take a young one fishing with you, remember to let their attention spans and interests wander wherever they may.

But a word of warning: You might want to check the pockets of your sidekick’s fishing vest and account for the empty mayonnaise jars from the kitchen. Otherwise, you might have a toad bound across the table and onto the Parcheesi board after dinner that night.