IT’S FUNNY how a couple of hours in a boat with perfect strangers, catching fish, can open up new worlds of friendship, teamwork and camaraderie.

It always starts a little slow with introductions, some paperwork and a few questions from parents, then suddenly it’s off to a boat landing during Eagle River’s Fishing Day for Kids.

The scribbler picked two names out of the hat this year, and I got paired with Addy Kufahl, an 8-year-old from Eagle River, and seasonal resident Rayla Readdy, age 7, of Texas.

The two had hardly gotten acquainted before we were sliding a boat into the Three Lakes Chain hoping to find some panfish.

Both said it was their first time fishing from a boat. And neither had ever used spinning gear before, but that’s exactly what they had in their hands after each kid received a complimentary rod and reel combination courtesy of Head­waters Chapter of Muskies Inc.

That’s a big deal when there are 41 kids being taken out for an afternoon of fishing. And somehow just 15 guides managed to get them all out on the water.

The event is coordinated by the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center with help from the Eagle River Guides Association.

Wind gusts were howling out of the northwest at more than 30 miles per hour, so our first stop was on a quiet north shore where white-capped waves couldn’t affect us.

And as often happens when you get kids in a boat and the need for cooperative fish runs high, the shallows were full of fish ready to take a minnow.

The first 15 fish were small perch between 7 and 8 inches in length, but it really didn’t matter what kind they were or what size they were as long as the bobbers kept dropping.

One of the afternoon’s highlights came early, as Addy had a huge smallmouth bass inhale one of her perch right next to the boat. The rod bent sharply and she held on for dear life, white-knuckled and concerned about the power of a single fish.

It gave up the perch after a few seconds but returned two more times to take swipes at other perch that were hooked and swimming frantically beneath a bobber.

In contrast to the big-fish mentality of most anglers, the girls wanted nothing to do with the pesky bass. They wanted to move to a new spot, and that’s what we did.

We were fishing shallow with bobbers because when that works, it’s easier for kids to cast and fish when the bait is just a foot under a bobber. Muskies Inc. had done a great job of rigging these new combos with six-pound test, a slip bobber and the right-sized hook for panfish.

As it turned out, the third spot we hit was holding crappies in a variety of sizes, from seven inches all the way up to 11 inches. It was also harboring nice bluegills and a few big rock bass. All of those species were hitting minnows.

Once again there was a little magic in the way it all turned out. The crappies, perch and bluegills were stacked in less than four feet of water around cabbage weeds and submerged wood. 

The two of them had 30 panfish in the livewell in the first hour because they wanted to keep them momentarily, and watch them swim around, before we released most of them at the end.

The two got a little competitive for a moment, after a couple of 11-inch crappies were swimming in the livewell. Suddenly every fish was judged on whether it was the biggest, or bigger than theirs.

Then they started netting crappies for each other, and the talk turned to teamwork. They were catching fish together. By the time we were ready to leave, the girls were high-fiving every time they caught a fish or looked in the live­well at what they had accomplished.

There was more to the afternoon than just fishing. We talked about family, summer activities and school. One is going into fourth grade and the other into second grade.

More than once they talked of doing it again, of getting together during the summer to fish together. Hopefully they can work that out.

That’s the beauty of the sport we call fishing. For those who get hooked, it creates a lifelong passion for fishing and adventures in the great outdoors. It provides an excuse to spend time with family and friends like few sports do.

This is truly a sport for kids, something they can learn at a very young age and use for a lifetime. It teaches lessons in patience, perseverance and sportsmanship.

We could have chased a lot of different species on that windy day, including walleye and bass. But the consensus was that crappies and other panfish would provide the best action.

There’s just something mighty exciting about watching a bobber and anticipating when and how the next bite will occur — and what species of fish might grab the bait.

Teaching the basics of fishing was the theme of the day, and it doesn’t take a professional fishing guide to make that happen. It didn’t take them more than 10 minutes to learn how to cast a spinning rod and reel proficiently.

It’s a blessing from heaven when you get to meet, fish and make friends with kids who you would otherwise have never known. That’s the real beauty of this annual event.

Thanks to the chamber and the guides association for making it all possible.