Fly Fishing and Mental Health: It’s Not Just About the Fish
Why do we want to be out there?
The answer to this question is different for everyone. But for one reason or another, many of us keep returning to fly fishing.
Riverside, I ponder this question without interruption. There is no cell service, internet, angry people, or tailgating cars. As the water braids around my waders and the sun begins to warm the chilly fall morning, I study the current and attend diligently to my fly meandering downstream. At this moment, it’s just me, the river, and the tantalizing possibility of hungry trout.
Why do I want to be out there?
Because of the way it feels. Peace, connection, simplicity, excitement, and mystery—it just feels right.
Mindfulness in fly fishing
As a mental health therapist, I teach my clients about mindfulness. This is a frame of mind wherein you observe the present moment and fully experience your senses. If your mind wanders while fly fishing, you may miss a subtle rise of a fish at the water’s surface or squander your chance at fooling a spooky fish. Intentional movement, focus, and thoughtful observation is the recipe for success. Without even knowing it, you are practicing a mindfulness therapy technique that helps to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving concentration and emotional regulation.
The experience of awe is a direct positive effect of mindfulness practice. When we are in tune with the present moment, we become aware of the remarkable complexity and beauty of existence. Basic abilities like breathing or walking can fill us with awe. Research shows that experiencing awe increases wellbeing, creates meaning, and lowers stress.
On a trout stream, awe manifests in the experience of catching a striking fish, watching bugs glide across the water, and hiking to breathtaking locations. For instance, it is hard to believe your eyes when you catch a trout with vivid spawning colors. I’ll never forget my first cutthroat trout that got me hooked on fly fishing. The ruby red hues on its stomach and flanks were unlike anything I had ever seen. In that moment I knew that I would do anything to experience that feeling again—a feeling I now describe as awe.
Trout do not discriminate between who you are, what you’ve done, or your place in society. They can only discern a real bug from a bad drift. To be truly accepted and part of something is a feeling that many people are robbed of in this life. Fly fishing provides this opportunity for nourishment. The river always welcomes you and the fly fishing community is a safe haven full of like-minded folks. True community is there when you need support and also to celebrate your successes alongside you.
When you meet a fellow fly fisher, the bond is instant. Connecting is easy because you talk about the one thing you think about every day—fishing! People who disagree on politics or religion suddenly find themselves connecting with someone they never would have imagined speaking with, forming relationships that enrich life both on and off the water.
Building Self Confidence
Success on the water is earned and rarely easy. When you start to have consistent success, it can make you feel like a hero. This feeling is transformative for people who lack self-confidence. They begin to see that with time and effort there are results. No longer do they self-define as “not good enough.”
This is also where things tend to go wrong, when satisfaction and confidence are linked to quantity or size of fish rather than pure enjoyment on the water.
The Perversion of Passion
Some people have experienced such hurt and dejection in their lives that they will do anything to feel the dopamine rush that comes from success in fishing.
Awe and appreciation warp into ego and comparison. Suddenly, snagging a trophy fish seems necessary to those chasing personal excitement or online recognition from the fishing community. Similarly, elitism is a diversion from the pureness of the fishing experience. Some judge other fishers as unworthy or invalid when in reality they are engaged in the same pursuit.
The Gift of Fly Fishing
Before I invested myself into fly fishing, I was plagued by anxiety and past trauma. I sought engagement with nature through birding, hiking, and gardening. Yet fly fishing is the most potent connection to both nature and myself that I have found. Every trip to the river is full of promise and endless possibilities.
Fly fishing has given me and so many others a place to heal and thrive. If you’re reading this and don’t fly fish, find a way to learn. If you’re reading this and do fly fish, perhaps it’s time to pass this gift on to somebody who needs this outlet in their life.