Catching a Break: How Fishing Therapy Helps Veterans with PTSD
Sep 14, 2020 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

There are over 20 million veterans in the United States – more than any other country in the world. When these people return from duty, they face a lot of challenges: adjusting to civilian life, finding a job, reconnecting with family and friends. Many have physical injuries that they will never recover from. However, for many more, the biggest trauma is in the mind.

Post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety all take a heavy toll on former service people. Around 13.5% of vets suffer from PTSD alone. The government allocates billions of dollars to mental health services for veterans, but traditional treatments don’t always work. To fill the gap, some organizations have been taking a new approach: fishing.

A veteran fly fishing in a river as part of a fishing therapy retreat

You may not think it, but wetting a line has some major health benefits. Even so, can fishing really combat PTSD? What makes it work? And most importantly, are people aware of just how effective it is? To find out, we sat down with two experts in fishing-based therapy. Safe to say, we were impressed with what they told us.

Focus and Meditation

The first person we spoke to was Laura Armbruster, Director of Communications and Community Engagement at Heroes on the Water. HOW is a nationwide charity that helps veterans and first responders recover from PTSD through kayak fishing. During her time there, Armbruster has seen how fishing gives people a much-needed break from their daily stress.

“One of my favorite parts of my role is to interview our participants and our volunteers. They tell me flat out that being in a kayak – it’s a quiet space. There’s this whole interaction with nature. It’s quiet. You’re very close to the water.”

A kayak fisher holding a fishing rod and a catch net in calm sea marshes

According to Armbruster, kayak fishing lets vets focus on the moment and find a sense of calm. This is something that anyone could benefit from, but it seems to be especially helpful for people with a military mindset.

“Because they’re mission-driven people, they need something to focus on. Working that kayak and catching a fish becomes their next small mission. It gives them something to unplug and focus on. And when they come back on shore, they have a release. It may not be long-term, but they have a release, a new focus, a new bit of confidence.

We also spoke to Jessie Bennett, a recreational therapist and assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. She works closely with Rivers of Recovery, a non-profit that organizes fly fishing retreats for veterans. In her research, she has seen how fishing has a powerful meditative effect on the mind.

“It’s that idea of having to focus on something. Watching the fly, setting the hook – all of those things that you have to be very focused to do. It creates this very mindful, in-the-moment state. There’s that fine motor aspect, that level of focus, that level of challenge. It ties in with the theory of flow – the meeting of challenge and ability.”

A fly fisherman focusing on his line while he tries to catch a fish

“Fly fishing is challenging, and people perceive it as challenging. That perception of meeting the challenge and being able to do it creates a flow state. It can help people reach mindfulness. You’re in the moment, you’re in control, you’re the one making it happen – for as long or as short as you want to.”

Flow, mindfulness, meditation – this all may sound a little new age, but it has been proven to improve people’s mental wellbeing. And it’s not all that’s happening here. According to Bennett, several different things come together on a fishing trip, all of which help people find peace.

“You’re also in a natural environment. Most places where you go fly fishing are beautiful, and we know from nature therapy that being in beautiful places helps people. It calms the mind. There’s also this very therapeutic, calming effect of water and the movement of water. There are just so many elements that all come together.”

Creating Camaraderie

Two men kayak fishing together on a lake as part of a fishing therapy session

One of the most powerful parts of fishing therapy has nothing to do with the outdoors. Getting out and interacting with other vets builds a sense of community, a safe space to talk. This is vital for people suffering from social anxiety, which often goes hand in hand with PTSD. And as Bennett explains, it’s also something that many vets really miss when they return to civilian life:

“Every piece of research I’ve ever done, when I ask them what it is about the program that they find helpful, it always comes down to the staff there and the camaraderie of the other participants. They always talk about it. This is what they missed from being in the military.”

“People with PTSD, anxiety, depression – they feel alone. They feel like they’re the only one who knows what they’re experiencing. They know inherently that that’s not true, but that’s what they feel.”

“So when we can put a group of individuals together that were all in the military and are all experiencing similar symptoms, they can talk about it. They can give each other advice, realize that they’re not alone and that they’ve got this group of people that know what they feel.”

A group of anglers fly fishing together on a drift boat on a river

Building that sense of community seems to be the number one priority for HOW. Each chapter of the organization is designed to act as a mutual support network, where people can get together and socialize in a safe, stress-free environment. In fact, the actual fishing is only one part of each meet-up, as Armbruster makes clear:

“Our events are usually around four hours long. We kick off with a safety briefing, training, making sure people are informed – we’re very safety conscious – then we get out on the water. Afterward, typically, we have lunches. They get to sit with one another and engage. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve been out of the house and talking to people who get it.”

“We’re also one of the few organizations that include families, because you’ve got to heal the whole unit. Everybody is impacted, not just the person returning from duty.”

“It’s very low-key. Bring the family, hang out. A lot of our chapters have guides that help. We also have people who can stay on the shore and help the kiddos fish. It’s like going to a big family backyard BBQ. Everyone’s got something to do that they like, and it’s just calming. It’s fun. That’s a big part of it – you’re supposed to have a nice time!”

Exercise for All

A group of fly fishers hiking out in remote countryside

Conditions like post-traumatic stress can have a serious impact on the body as well as the mind. Even just leaving the house can become a major challenge, making it tough to stay fit. This is why people with PTSD are more likely to be overweight. As Bennett explains, spending time fishing can be a great way to get back some of that fitness.

“There is an important physical aspect. You’re getting out, hiking to where you’re going to fish, getting on a boat and maintaining balance, carrying your gear – that’s all a lot of physical work that you don’t realize is happening. Even casting. Casting takes work. It’s not hard, but if you do it 150 times in a row, it’s going to work muscles.”

The physical side of things is much more obvious with kayak fishing. However, it’s still something that everyone can enjoy. And according to Armbruster, getting out and seeing that they can do it also gives vets a much-needed confidence boost.

A man kayak fishing at sunset

“They get out there. They start doing that bit of exercise. For a lot of them, it may be the first they’ve done in a very long time. They realize they can do it, which gives them a bit of confidence.”

“Another reason it’s so effective is that it’s easy to do. You can have limited mobility, you can have a disability, it doesn’t matter. It levels the playing field.”

Quick Relief, Lasting Benefit

Anyone who’s been on a fishing trip knows how relaxing it can be. The question is: Is this a band-aid, a short-term fix, or can it have a more lasting impact on peoples’ mental state? According to Bennett, it can be both:

“For individuals that only do it for those 3 or 4 days, it’s a short-lived impact. But for those individuals that become more engaged, it’s a lifelong pursuit. It’s something that any age, any ability, anybody can do. That’s another big positive for fishing – it’s something that you can always continue doing.”

a fly fisherman casting in a Tennessee river

Fishing therapy may start as an organized retreat, but it’s something that people can keep doing long after that first outing. Even without that social aspect of being around other vets, they still get all the benefits that fishing and nature bring. They have a new hobby, a new passion, and for some people, even a new job. Bennett has seen this more than once.

“I know at least 4 or 5 veterans that came through our program and this became their career. It became their passion and their love, and they wanted to share this passion with other people.  It’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely a path that could lead to employment.”

“Actually, there’s a paper that just got published, the first author in it came through Rivers of Recovery. After that, he went back to school and studied recreational therapy and now just published a paper on the benefits of fly fishing. This became his career.”

Armbruster has also seen this transition from temporary respite to lasting relief. In her experience, it’s when people start to become more involved, to take on responsibility, that they really move forward:

“We encourage people to have repeat experiences. Depending on the geography, we have monthly events that are run by our volunteers and we encourage people to come back, over and over.”

A kayak angler at a fishing therapy session being pushed out into calm water by a volunteer

“What we find is that they come back and they really like it. And after a while, they may go out and buy their own kayak. They’ll buy a kayak and start bringing it to the HOW event, which opens up that space to a new participant.”

“Then we find that many of them want to do more. They start to volunteer or even become part of the leadership team for a chapter. It is at that point, we find, that they’re moving along their healing path.”

“It’s a journey. It takes a long time. But these events allow them to do that: to move along their healing path to a place where they’re more confident and more comfortable.”

Early Days, Impressive Results

A veteran being taught how to fly fish at a fishing therapy session

Fishing therapy, and recreational therapy in general, are still very much in their infancy. People are still learning how and why it works. However, from what Bennett told us, it is starting to be taken more seriously:

“There’s a lot of research being done about different aspects of it: being in nature, being around water, fishing specifically, the feeling of being together. It’s kind of piecemealing together. You really know that a lot of people believe that this works when you look at the number of programs.”

“You’ve got Project Healing Water, with around 140 chapters across the United States. You’ve got Rivers of Recovery, with 4 or 5 different sites that they do it at. There are tons of other fly fishing programs that I don’t even know the names of. People are seeing that it works. They’re seeing that it’s therapeutic.”

A man kayaking through shallow water with a fishing rod in his hand and seagrass on either side of him.

According to Armbruster, it can be tough to make people understand just how well fishing therapy works without them being there. But at the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie.

“It’s become more well-known. It’s become more accepted. But I don’t know that people understand the real power behind it. It’s really difficult to explain it to someone who doesn’t have first-hand experience.”

We’ve served in our span around 47,000 veterans and first responders, and over 12,000 family members. We know it works, because they keep coming back and we see it.”

Fishing Therapy: The next big thing?

Around 13.5% of US veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress. For post–9/11 vets, it may be more like 20%. And that’s just PTSD. Depression, anxiety, and grief all take a heavy toll. To counter this, society needs to provide as many avenues for people to recover as it can.

A man in a hat and sunglasses casting a fly rod

Fishing therapy has real, documented results. It calms the nerves, focuses the mind, and creates a much-needed sense of camaraderie. It also provides low-impact physical exercise that anyone can get involved in. Fishing isn’t the answer for everyone. But from what we’ve seen, it deserves much more of a spotlight than it currently gets.

We’d like to say a special thank you to Jessie Bennett and Laura Armbruster for their help in putting this article together. We’d also like to thank Heroes on the Water, Rivers of Recovery, and all the other organizations helping former service people find peace. We hope to see many more people out on the water and on the road to recovery in years to come.

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