Peace by the water: fishing therapy
Special fly-fishing breaks for women recovering from breast cancer. By Kerry Fowler
The trees are shifting in the light wind and the morning rain begins to fall, ruffling the waters stocked with trout at Duncton Mill in West Sussex. On the grassy banks around the lake couples are standing together, one fishing, the other looking on, all in uniform wet-weather gear; you'd be hard pushed to tell if they were men or women, friends or relative strangers. All that breaks the silence is the swish of the lime-green lines, arcing across the water, and sweet intermittent birdsong. Forty-eight hours ago none of these flyfishers, who are all women, had met each other or their bankside coaches before.
They'd arrived at the handsome Georgian farmhouse, showcase of this little fishing hamlet and conference centre, from around the country, ready to learn how to cast, retrieve and, if lucky, net up, as part of Casting For Recovery, a retreat for women who've had breast cancer. It's a notion that often elicits surprise - yoga, meditation, even rambling, all spring to mind as activities conducive to wellbeing, but standing solitary and sodden in unglamorous kit for hours with only a flask for company?
Of course, it helps that these weekends (open to all women who have or have had breast cancer) are held at blissfully peaceful, scenic fishing lakes all over Britain, and are empathically organised with counselling and relaxation sessions, but it is the fishing itself that is key. Sue Hunter, one of the two retreat co-ordinators and an international gold-medallist fly-fisher, has been asked so many times why it works.
"I never thought it was something that was going to be good for me," says Sue, who has had breast cancer twice. "You can spend eight hours, then suddenly think, Where has all that stress and worry gone?' It's very spiritual. Your soul is resting but your brain is processing a lot of information at once and it distracts you. Fly-fishing is the ultimate diversionary sport and it is also gentle, aerobic exercise. We know that not everyone is going to take it up - that's not our aim - but we do know there will be lifelong friendships made here. And everybody is told that they can just relax and read a book if they prefer."
But none of the women sits it out. On the contrary, in the build-up to their first cast on water (the dry run is just that: on grass with wool on the line instead of a fly), the air is charged with the thrill of a new challenge. "We've had some women here who could go out fishing after a couple of hours, with someone alongside them," says coach co-ordinator Sue Shaw. "Once they've mastered a roll cast and overhead cast, the fly is out there and they could catch a fish."
She flips open a little box a-flutter with brightly feathered flies, and pulls out some fishing bling: "This is the gold-head daddy," she says, pinching the jewel of enticement between her fingers. "You can fish with a dry fly or a wet fly - a dry one sits on top of the water imitating something like a mayfly or daddy-longlegs. Wet flies go under the water, so it could be a damsel nymph, with green body and tail. Fish can detect shades of colour, light and dark."
"Every fishery is different," Sue Shaw explains. "There's one in Ireland where you can put the fish back if you don't wish to kill it. Catch and release or catch and dispatch - when the fish is knocked on the back of the head with a metal or wooden priest' - it's very humane. It can be done by the fishing guides if the women don't wish to do it themselves but we've found the reality is people really want to catch a fish and take it home. They aren't often squeamish."
Casting For Recovery has run retreats over the past two years in Powys, Ireland, Sussex and Devon, with plans to expand to Scotland, too. Places are limited and participants selected from the applications at random (the only provisos being that the women must be three months' postoperative and signed off by their medical team). So the mix of ages, experiences, professions and backgrounds is equally random - as is the dynamic of each group.
"This brings them into an environment where they don't have to discuss how they feel because they are on a level," Sue Shaw says. "Everyone is dressed the same, we kit them out and match the rod size and weight to each woman. It weighs about three ounces and, if you're doing it properly, there's no effort involved. It is upper-body exercise, which is good if you've had any upper-body surgery, but it is also about what it does to people mentally and emotionally."
The retreats, which were inspired by an American charitable network and brought over here by Sue Hunter and the England Ladies Flyfishing Association, are funded by the Countryside Alliance (CA) and free to those who attend. Charles Jardine, the CA's angling representative, has coached on the retreats and also works with two other schemes: Fishing For Schools, which provides in-school coaching as part of a personal and social skills development qualification. The other, Get Hooked On Fishing, was set up by a Durham policeman nine years ago to help children at risk of getting involved in crime and, says Charles, "gives them alternatives to hanging out on the street and a chance to achieve something".
Working with all three of the schemes and seeing the passion they inspire, Charles recognises that while the techniques may be the same for all the would-be fly-fishers, the attitudes to the experience can be very different. "The women are seeking pastoral serenity: with the children it's adventure, pure and simple," says Charles, who learnt at his father's waders from the age of four.
"For a lot of them it's possibly one of the few times in their lives they are going to take a physical and mental risk. In their minds there is a risk element that they thrill to - a river, a lake, a stretch of water is an unknown world, because they can't see beneath the surface. It allows them to daydream, letting them imagine shark-like pike in the weeds." There's also, he adds, raw competitiveness between the teenagers, of both sexes, once they get started. "Give a youngster a rod and they'll try to catch a fish - they want to prove themselves in whatever field they are in."
At the retreat, the women are more likely to pat each other on the back and feel a sense of group pride before returning to the task in hand. Mid-morning when everyone should be on a coffee break but is instead fixed to their spot, applause ripples round the lake as the first trout of the day is netted.
Not long afterwards another participant, Wendy Cocksedge, bags her fish. "Ever since I had cancer I was looking for something that would relieve stress as I think it damages your health," says Wendy, who was 34 when diagnosed three years ago. "It is so good to be out in these surroundings - I work in Canary Wharf and commuting is the worst thing. I tried canoeing last year but, as I'm weak in one arm, I ended up going round in circles. This is what I've been looking for. Being outside in the fresh air and concentrating on other things, with only the sound of the trees, you get carried away. We've also had a good laugh."
As the morning comes to a close, with what are perfect fishing conditions - cloudy with a bit of rain stirring the water so the fish are less aware of activity on the bank - there's a reluctance to put down rods and leave for lunch. But there's also the angler's need to share stories and tell tales. "Learning how to fly-fish makes you realise there are challenges in your life to get hold of and also encourages you not to stay in the past: this is new and forward-looking," says novice angler and one of the 12 retreat women, Jan Grocott. "You learn about yourself, and the more you go off and stand by a lake or a river, the more you will discover."
To apply for a Casting For Recovery retreat, visit www.castingforrecovery.org.uk.
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