Classic Essay: Fly Fishing, Mindfulness, and the Art of Letting Go

Written by: Donald Richard, Brattleboro Retreat

Fly fishing and mindfulness practice can go hand-in-hand, allowing you to experience the moment completely.
All photos by Bob Zingaro

In 1855, physician and avid fly fisherman James A. Henshall, MD, said, “Fly fisherman are usually brain workers in society. Along the banks of purling streams, they have ever been found, drinking deep of the invigorating forces of nature-giving rest and tone to over-taxed brains and wearied nerves—while gracefully wielding the supple rod, the invisible leader, and the fairy-like fly.”

These days, our brains are working harder than ever, and we are constantly seeking new ways to calm our “over-taxed brains” and “wearied nerves.” Fly fishing is as useful a method today as it was for Dr. Henshall in the mid-nineteenth century. I see this regularly as a member of the treatment team at the  Brattleboro Retreat’s Uniformed Services Program (USP)—a specialized treatment and training program for first-responders and veterans who are moving through service-related trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction issues.

Included in the treatment at USP are therapeutic fly-fishing and mindfulness practice. That’s because we feel these two skills go hand-in-hand. Both require practice and the mastery of certain skills. At the same time, both may also be considered an art: the art of letting go.

What do I mean by this? Recently, while listening to our Fly Fishing Program coordinator Ryan Heck describe the catch-and-release process to a program participant, a police officer and combat veteran from New York, I was able to connect these two arts in an interesting way.

“The process of catching and releasing a fish is a physiologically stressful event for the fish,” said Heck. “The stress may be minimized, however, if you follow some general and simple guidelines.”

The catch-and-release process can also apply to those life stresses that hold us back.

He pointed out that while hook choice, line, and water temperature are all to be considered, the most important factor is the amount of time the angled fish is handled and exactly how it is handled to avoid exhaustion. In other words, how long do you play with the fish before landing it? The longer the fight, the more exhausted a fish becomes. The more quickly you are able to release a fish after being hooked, the better its survival odds. This requires skill, attention, and patience.

Many of the same principles, I thought, apply to the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a catch-and-release exercise! It involves the ability to “catch” ourselves when we get “hooked” on a thought and then gently and skillfully “release” that thought and return to the present moment. Isn’t it true that when we get hooked on a thought it can be psychologically and even physically stressful for us? Isn’t it true that when we are ruminating on the past or worrying about the future that our anxiety levels rise? How long do we play with a thought or feeling before releasing it? A few minutes? A few hours? A few days? Sometimes, it may be years!

While it’s completely normal for us to get hooked on various thoughts and feelings, the process can be exhausting. The practice of catching and releasing our thoughts is not easy. Releasing them requires the same amount of skill, practice, and patience that we use to properly release a fish.

Anglers from Brattleboro Retreat’s Uniformed Services Program cast on Vermont’s Black River.

The perception of a threat to our well-being can bring about a reaction not unlike what happens to a trout when it gets hooked. It triggers what’s known as the stress response. This very natural mechanism gave human beings an edge back in our hunter-gatherer days, when the need to respond to the likes of a saber-toothed tiger meant life or death. While the modern day stressors we face are not fearsome predators—but are instead things like fear of chronic illness, financial insecurity, unemployment, traffic jams, divorce, or just getting overly caught up in our to-do lists—the reactions they evoke can be seriously disabling.

Breaking the train of thought and returning ourselves to the present moment is part of the practice of mindfulness. Just as the simple, repeated back-and-forth motion of casting a line and trying to drop a fly into just the right spot in the moving water is a purposeful intention, so is the practice of letting our thoughts go and bringing our attention back to what we are doing in this moment. What a great way to engage in life as it is happening: Not focusing on past or future events, but attending to our life as it is in that moment.

Mindfulness practice, when done skillfully, can produce transformative results. We see this all the time in the Uniformed Service Program when we teach our first-responders and veterans to use mindfulness to catch themselves when they get hooked on a thought or troubling memory and release their attention back to the present moment.

And, could there be any better present moment experience to awaken back into than that of standing in the middle of a gently flowing Vermont river with the backdrop of the Green Mountains starting down at you, a fly rod in hand and the gentle rhythmic flow of the cast whispering above?

Can you think of a better place to work on your mindfulness practice?

This is the moment when you realize that fly fishing is not about simply taking a break from a hectic life or manufacturing some sort of respite from a busy mind, but that it is actually a deeper immersion into life—the life that is happing right in that present moment. It is here, beyond words and thoughts that we find our true selves again.

Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing. This is all good and well; however, I don’t believe these experiences can truly be expressed in words. You do have to commit to it to know what I mean.

Likewise, it takes practice to embrace each day as unique unto itself and to realize that each moment holds its own treasures. We have only a finite number of moments to live, and how we choose to engage in them can be ours to decide. So I take yet another lesson from fly fishing and mindfulness: whenever I’m on the river and I notice my mind wandering off to my to do list, I simply and quietly say to myself, “catch and release.” It’s not just good for the fish.

Donny Richard is an Outreach Representative for the Uniformed Services Program at the Brattleboro Retreat. Check out his previous story about the USP by clicking here.

11 thoughts on “Classic Essay: Fly Fishing, Mindfulness, and the Art of Letting Go”

  1. Interesting perspective. I’ll think on catch and releasing undesired thoughts and habits. Thanks for what you do for those harmed by service to the public and warriors.

  2. To paraphrase, a recent TV commercial, “It’s not how FAST you mow, but HOW you mow fast…i.e. it’s not about how FAST you catch, but HOW you release fast.”…this is the finer art of fly fishing as a practice to recover your “center” and live well.

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