Why Fishing Saved My Life
Monday, 30 November -0001

Why Fishing Saved My Life

Facing divorce, being a single mother and fighting breast cancer, Sue Hunter fell into a deep depression – until she discovered fly fishing.

Written by Graham Mole
If ever anybody had reason to be depressed, it was Sue Hunter. She’d just been divorced after 17 years of marriage and faced bringing up two children as a single mum. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, at 39, she developed breast cancer and had to suffer the ordeal of a mastectomy. Sue recalls, ‘It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. In a split second, the certainty you’ve always taken for granted has gone forever, and your life is getting out of control. During the first couple of weeks, I would wake up crying. There was no getting away from the devastation, even while asleep.’

But she got through those weeks. And the weeks turned into months, then years. Six years later, however, Sue learned she had not left breast cancer behind. She was told there were problem cells in her other breast and had an operation to get rid of them. Afraid there was no escape from the disease, her depression returned.

Then a friend of hers, Jim, invited her to go fishing with him, claiming that it would help her to get away from her negative thoughts.

‘I thought he was crazy,’ Sue says. ‘Why would he think I’d want to go fishing? I didn’t want to muck about with maggots and worms. But he promised to buy me lunch and a couple of drinks, so I thought, why not?’

Jim was right. ‘Within the day, it wasn’t just the fish that were hooked: I was, too. Whenever I spent a day on the water, I would come back in a relaxed frame of mind – a big plus when you’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.’

Six months later, Sue had to have a second mastectomy when the initial operation proved unsuccessful. She asked for the operation to be carried out as soon as possible because she didn’t want to be out of action when the May fly hatches came due, a favourite time for anglers to be on the water.
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After the operation, the first thing she asked her physiotherapist was, ‘When can I start fly fishing again?’

Fortunately for Sue, the physiotherapist’s girlfriend was also a keen fly fisher, so he had a good idea of what was involved in the sport. He told her that as long as she was protective of the wound site, she could pretty much start straight away.

Sue is convinced that fly fishing aided her physical recovery as well as her emotional healing.

‘The action of casting helped me to regain movement in my arm,’ she says. ‘After the first operation, alfish though the surgery was more drastic, I couldn’t lift my arm properly for ages. But with the second operation, I was out on the water within three weeks.’

And the benefits went beyond the physical.

‘Fly fishing definitely helped with my emotional recovery after my second bout of breast cancer. It gave me a new focus, a positive challenge. It gave me back a sense of control. Little things like deciding what fly was going to fish, what line I would alfish, where I was going to make the cast… I even learned about entomology. All these things had to be thought about, and in doing so I gave myself a welcome break from thinking about cancer.’

Sue also experienced a new and valuable relationship with nature, finding it therapeutic to be exposed to the seasons and to be near the water. After her diagnosis, she found she noticed things in nature – like how green the grass was and how blue the sky… things she had previously overlooked. Like most anglers, Sue found that just being by the water lifted her spirits. And even though fishing is a quiet and peaceful pastime, it gave her courage for her fight. She explains, ‘Out there, you’re being bombarded with subtle information: it might be the weather or the water conditions, which insects are hatching… You have to process all that information to try to beat nature at her own game.’

Sue Hunter had certainly done that. As she progressed in her recov- ery and in her new sport, she found herself transformed from a self-confessed ‘matching-bag-and-glove girl’ to a ‘tackle tart’ more interested in the latest fishing gizmo than the latest fashion. And her dedication to fly fishing paid off with the top-notch skills of a true sportswoman. Just a year after taking it up, Sue made the England ladies’ fly-fishing team and has represented her country five times. She has seen England take gold medals in four of the five matches she has fished, and on each of these occasions she was also well placed individually. In 2007 she became captain, and this year became Ladies Champion.

She has harnessed her new-found passion for fly fishing, and her survivor’s zest for life, to help other women who have been touched by breast cancer. England Lady Fly Fishers has been chosen to partner the US Casting For Recovery organisation to extend the programme to the UK, running free weekend fly-fishing retreats. Casting For Recovery allows women affected by the disease to gather in a beautiful, natural setting, learn fly fishing, meet new people and have fun. The retreats offer counselling and educational services to promote mental and physical healing.

So what is in fly fishing for women? ‘Women are very good at putting everyone else first, but this gives us time for ourselves. It’s a real escape. You can use the time to think about the meaning of life. For women with cancer, it is a real emotional therapy. The pleasure of connecting with nature can be so restorative.’

And even though fishing can represent quiet times to get away from the world and reconnect with nature, Sue enthuses about the many social connections that it can inspire – connections that can speed recovery.

‘Weekends are precious times,’ she says, ‘and couples and families like a chance to get out and do things together. Fly fishing fits the bill perfectly. It’s such a social sport, you’re guaranteed to make new friends. I met my partner David. What more could I have wanted?’ 

www.castingforrecovery.org.uk 

How I became a record breaker

By Geraldine Gaffney

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I went salmon fishing for the second time in my life in August last year on the Blackwater river in Co Waterford, Ireland. The year before, I’d had my first taster. Nothing as skilful as fly fishing, but I’d learnt how to ‘spin’. Using a three-pronged hook with a spinning blade, you cast it into the water and reel it in to simulate an insect, so a passing salmon believes a nice juicy morsel has dropped in its path. For days I cast out, reeled in and caught nothing – but my ghillie, Michael, kept telling me I would catch one. And then it happened: I cast out, started to reel in, then felt three tugs in quick succession. Thirty minutes later, I’d landed the most beautiful 13.64lb fish. I weighed her, kissed her and then released her. Little compares with the feelings of achievement and delight I felt that day. The 10 pounder I caught the following day came close, though. I now hold the record for the biggest fish caught by a lady angler for 2012, on this stretch of the Blackwater.

Blackwater Lodge and Salmon Fishery, Co Waterford, Ireland: 0844-202 3333, www.ireland-salmon-fishing.net


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