Got your pole? Check. Bait? Check. A fishing spot? Check. Sounds like you're ready to catch a fish.
Cast your line into a place where you think the fish might be and reel in the slack. If you're using live bait, let your bobber do the work for you, keeping the worm wiggling where it ought to be. If you've got plastic worms or a food bait, reel in ever so slowly, then stop, reel again, and so on. This will attract the attention of the fish.
Hold your rod at about a 45-degree angle to the water, with the tip up. Wait a few minutes, then reel in. Cast again, here or nearby, until you see your bobber start to bounce on the surface and you feel a tug. You'll know you're feeling a fish (as opposed to just the current pulling on your bobber or a snag on the bottom) if the tugging comes in energetic bursts.
Wait a moment for the fish to take the bait and hook into its mouth, then point the rod at the fish, reel in the slack and firmly pull your rod tip up to set the hook. Tug it again to make sure it caught. If so, reel in your fish. Tip: With sunfish there's little danger of breaking the line, but with larger species you'll want to set the drag on your reel so the line will release rather than snap when you hook a big one.
To reduce the risk of injury to a fish you plan to release, don't "play" the fish more than a couple of minutes (it can take a toll on the little creature). Get a wet net under the fish while it's still in the water and gently lift it into the holding bucket.
This is an operation best done quickly and carefully, so initially at least it's one best performed by a grown-up. Some tips to try:
STEP 1: Before touching the fish, wet your hands with pond water.
STEP 2: Watch out for pointy spines in the dorsal fin. Carefully smooth back the fin, then hold it against the fish as you wrap your hand around its body.
STEP 3: Use a tool. If the hook is in the cartilage of the fish's lip, grab the shaft with your fingers and back out the barb through the puncture hole. (Don't worry, sunfish don't bite.) If ths hook is further back in the throat, use a hook disgorger or needle-nose pliers to work it back out through the puncture hole.
STEP 4: If the hook is set too deep to see or reach, cut the line and let the fish go. The fish's stomach acids will dissolve the hook.
Kids often develop a powerful attachment to their first fish. Having finally caught one, they don't want to just let it go. They may even want to bring it home to eat. A holding bucket represents a nice middle ground. Fill it with pond water and put in the unhooked fish. This lets kids identify, admire and bond with their catch. When you're ready to go home, gently pour the fish back in the pond. Note: You can safely keep the fish in a large bucket (at least two gallons) for as long as an hour.