Watching the line whispering through the morning light and softly landing on the lake, balancing between hope and tension. Fly fishing is an art that creates its own poetry but what does it do for my health ?
Fly fishing is trying to trick a fish, normally trout or salmon, into taking something that is made to look like a fly. The skill is to place an artificial fly in front of a trout at the point where it is hungry enough to wrap its mouth around it. Sounds simple but after many years of trying to outwit one of the wildest animals on the planet they are still ahead on cunning.
After a days fishing I feel much better both physically and mentally. This feeling is supported by studies which have shown the benefits from standing in the fresh air are: a reduction in exposure to pollution, boosting the immune system, increase in energy and is a source of Vitamin D which increases the protection from bone problems, heart disease, diabetics etc. Also, because the trout usually are aware of what I am up to they quickly move away and I have to follow. All this walking has been shown to help fight dementia, cut the risk of dying from cancer, and helps improve heart muscles. Another benefit is from walking on rough and slippery surface on the edge of a lake where it has been shown that it aids balance and coordination . Then there is the cast and re-cast which is the balletic movement of the arm, rod and flick of the line out across the water which apart from keeping muscles strong gets the heart beating. And finally the wrestle with the fish when it pulls and tugs on the line after it has taken the fly, although it isn’t High Intensity Training my heart is usually beating hard against my ribs.
Apart from the physical benefits there are mental health benefits from fly fishing. Watching for movement of the fly, or just trying to spot a trout, requires lots of concentration, and although there are no studies about the effect of concentration on benefits for mental health, most fisherman that I chat to report that their worries are shut out by watching for the twitch of the fly. Another aspect is the reduction in stress. In a 2009 study by a team of researchers from the University of Southern Maine, the University of Utah, and the VA in Salt Lake City they found that combat veterans had significant reductions in stress and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and improvements in sleep quality after participating in fly fishing.
I would add to the list of benefits from fly fishing is the activity of learning. And there is lots to learn: understanding how fish live, the impact of weather on their feeding, casting technique, tying flies, etc. which is an ongoing process. Studies have shown that learning new skills can improves mental wellbeing in particular learning can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, build a sense of purpose, and help connect with other people.
On the surface there may appear to be many barriers to fly fishing. For example, the world of fly fishing may look like a totally male-dominated activity, however there is a long legacy of female anglers. Women have been involved in angling in one way or another for many centuries. Dame Juliana Verna wrote a book called Treatise on the Angle published in 1497. In recent times Joan Wulff who pioneered casting techniques is still fishing at 89. There are many more women revolutionising fly fishing as well as increasing numbers of women’s clubs for example Angling Clubs, fly fishing women, and a successful health initiative Casting for Recovery whose mission “is to enhance the quality of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with the therapeutic sport of fly fishing.” Age is no barrier either, with initiatives such as Fishing for schools and The Prince Albert Angling Society Junior Section and at the other end of the age spectrum there are courses run my Age UK.
For many people contemplating fly fishing a big question looms - what do I do when I catch the fish ? do I have to kill it ? No. The vast majority of fish are returned to the water, and because of their experience of being caught, are even more aware of strange looking flies and more difficult to catch. Unhooking a fish must be one of the great experiences as you hold a wild animal for a few seconds before letting it go back into its own world.
Of course weather is an issue. On a bright spring morning standing on a lakeside it could be something straight out of a Constable painting. But it can be wet and windy. However with the proper clothing you can carry on fishing which makes the end of the day cup of tea and piece of cake even more delicious. Or you can do what I do which is shelter in below a tree and wait for the rain clouds to pass over; spending the time thinking about my next tactic to catch that trout!
Cost can be an issue but for a few hundred pound a rod, line and a box of flies can get you started. It is important to add to the list some form of glasses to protect your eyes from an erratic fly during casting and some head gear to protect from the sun, or in my case, a fly sticking in my head. However, there is one thing that is a must and that is proper training for casting. A few hours with an accredited trainer can make sure that bad habits are not adopted.
In summary there are lots of health benefits from fly fishing. Therefore my call to the medical professionals is that instead of reaching for a programme of drugs, or activities with strange sounding names, why not prescribe some fly fishing for long term health benefits?