Fly Fishing and Mental Health: It’s Not Just About the Fish

October 23, 2023 By: Melissa Ceren (Mental Therapist)

From Midcurrent News (US)

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 tantalising 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 colours. 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.

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11 Responses to Fly Fishing and Mental Health: It’s Not Just About the Fish

  1. "Hare's Ear" says:

    Fishing, fish or no fish caught, is certainly therapeutic

  2. Tommy Jeans says:

    It allows us escape from the daily pressures of modern life. While catching fish is important it’s not all-important. It’s about going with the flow of the river, feeling the “life” and being active in the outdoors – beneficial for both our mental and physical health.

  3. K Lorenz says:

    A study at Australia’s Curtin University found that “considerable health and well-being benefits can be gained through involvement in recreational fishing. Encouraging young children, youth, adults and families to fish offers a cost effective and healthful outdoor recreational activity that can be enjoyed throughout life.”
    Here in NZ, if people are healthier both in well being and physically, then it is less strain on the faltering health system, brought to its knees by the Ardern Labour and Key National governments. Win, win individually and collectively.

  4. Sally Forth says:

    Good comments. I recall a Horizon study revealed there are 5 times more participants in fishing than rugby union, yet rugby.
    Dr. Google provided the detail:- “Rugby is New Zealand’s most watched sport, but fishing has more than five times more people participating.
    Rugby is watched by 68% of adult New Zealanders, with 5% playing it.
    However, 26% are going fishing (while 28% watch).
    The top four most watched sports in the country are Rugby (68% of adults), Rugby league (48%), netball (41%) and motor sport (39%).
    When it comes to taking part, the top four activities are fishing (26%), swimming (19%), cycling (11.5%) and snow sports (11.4%).”

  5. Frank Henry says:

    Good thoughts Sally.

    It raises the question why do the media and politicians put so much emphasis on rugby and ignore fishing?

    Government policies heavily favour the corporate sea fishing industry which is not surprising when the companies donate to political parties in return for favours.
    Government policies on land use heavily favour exploitation. Think of the Key-led National government taking over a democratically elected Environment Canterbury in order to hasten the expansion of corporate dairying, the buildup of nitrates, toxic to both aquatic life and human life.

    Think of the short sightedness of economic policy based on sole pursuit of increasing GDP. Economists increasingly say a different system is needed. Kate Raworth in her book “Doughnut Economics” spells it out.
    The Labour-led government were no better than Key’s National one. They used words for their budget like “well-being” but they were just words.

    Labour and Greens promised at 2017 and 2020 elections to stem the deterioration in rivers but did nothing– this was just more broken promises.
    Will the three-way coalition government now elected do better? It’s far from certain given right-wing, neo-liberal sympathies within..

  6. Predator Pete says:

    My deceased father would totally emerse himself in his fly fishing and salmon angling with considerable success.

    He was not a pot hunter, but shared his catch and his skills. With hindsight I believe fishing became so much a part of his life because it gave him respite from the sadness of losing three brothers in WW II.

    I guess the pink ribbon breast cancer thing is also about dealing with loss.

  7. Golde Wallingford says:

    It was indeed a healing sport–that is until the NZ government destroyed the streams with 1080 poison and too much dairy. Now the streams are polluted and the brown trout are not in the abundance that they once were. It is very sad to me to have watched the demise of a once world-class opportunity–to fly fish in the New Zealand spring creeks. I suggest just taking a nice hike along the streams….instead of trying to fish in unclean water where the trout have all but vanished.

  8. John Mulgan says:

    Fly fishing is good for the soul, mind and body. People recovering from cancer benefit from the Casting for Recovery programmes worldwide. War veterans or others with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome find it calms them in a way few other things will. Studies show that the activity of fly fishing produces oxytocin, the same thing produced by eating chocolate, falling in love or breastfeeding do. The degradation of our rivers and lakes robs New Zealand citizens of the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing as well as part of our national heritage. Investing in the rehabilitation of our rivers and streams is an investment in national mental health.

  9. Justice Will B. Dunn. says:

    Fishing therapy? Totally agree but it goes further, as Chief Luther Standing Bear said “The old Lakota was wise. He knew that a man’s heart away from Nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon lead to a lack of respect for humans too.” More fishing, less war. Truth.

  10. Bud jones JonesQSM says:

    One tends to forget the smooth poetry of motion in casting, the repetitious false casts, pickup, and roll cast for another, watching the floating dry or the take indicator drift along, so soothing relaxed motion tames any anxieties.
    Summer is the best, encouraging wading deep, right up to belt depth the swirling current around the hips and upper thighs is nature’s message of gentle release, what pleasure working up a long pool or ripple or run, eyes scanning through glare cutting Polaroid glasses for the sway of darker shape following the cover rule of casting in to water you can’t see so well eyes scan the rest of what you can see into. All the while the current swirl soothes. A bag limit becomes a neither here nor there concept of irrelevancy.

  11. Bud jones JonesQSM says:

    One also tends to forget that the very immersion in the swirling water as noted above. is going ro be short-lived as we edge toward handing over ownership of these swirling feesh waters to tribal control.
    Moedis are demanding this ownership by the claim of a special relationship with water,the rest of us can’t have by virtue of the wrong blood in or bodies, ruling us incapable of the special relationship moedis have.
    The short answer to this nonsense is called being duped or robbed if you prefer!

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