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It isn’t hard to understand why fishing is so soothing for the soul. For millennia, people have been inspired by its spiritual elements, documenting it in some of our most cherished pieces of art and literature.
Even Hollywood celebrities like Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, Carrie Underwood, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Rachel Maddow, Lindsey Vonn and Harrison Ford have spoken about their love of the sport and its meditative properties.
In fact, Johnson, who’s topped the list of Hollywood’s highest paid actors for two years in a row, frequently takes a break from Hollywood to spend time on his Virginia farm, where he raises a number of fish in his private pond.
“So good to get away to my farm this past weekend to decompress, take mental inventory and of course — spend time with my babies,” the actor wrote on Instagram in June. “All my fish are fat, healthy, happy and AGGRESSIVE TO EAT — like their owner. I [fell] in love with fishing when I was a little boy, so quiet time like this away from the noise means everything to me. Grateful. And a little reminder to all you guys of the importance of ‘self care.’”
Last month, Underwood had a grand ol' time fishing on a lake while showing off her toned body in a cute bikini, posting a series of photos with the cheeky caption: "Feeeeeeshies!"
And in June, NBA legend Michael Jordan took his talent to the seas when he competed in the 2021 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in North Carolina, where his team hooked a 25-pound dolphinfish that landed at the top of the “heaviest dolphin” leaderboard.
News anchor Tyler Feldman captured some video of a wide-smiling Jordon during the big catch. (Talk about a slam dunk!)
What are the benefits of fishing?
Unsurprisingly, more and more people are catching on to the advantages of fishing.
A 2021 Special Report on Fishing by the Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation showed that 54.7 million people fished at least once in 2020 — the highest participation rate since 2007. Participation among Hispanic Americans, especially, continues to see an explosive growth at a rate of 13 percent in 2020. In fact, 340,000 of Hispanics who fished last year were new participants. The number of women who fish grew too: Nearly 1.8 million more women fished in 2020 than the year before. And participation rate among girls between the ages 13 to 17 has averaged around 7 percent per year.
The numbers are not surprising when you learn that, as it turns out, fishing can do more for one's mood than meets the eye — even for those struggling with severe emotional trauma, as it can help to enhance focus, improve analytical skills and rebuild self-esteem.
"It is well-established in research that both meditation practice and spending time in nature have positive effects on mental health, including conditions like depression and anxiety. Fishing and related outdoor activities check both of these boxes," Dr. Steve Levine, board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder of Heading Health, tells Yahoo Life.
"Although fishing may not be what first comes to mind when most people picture meditation, there are more active and physical forms of meditation than merely sitting with closed eyes." In fact, Levine says, "Fishing can be quite a meditative activity."
A 2012 study shows that fishing (specifically “angling,” fishing by means of a hook or angle) might also assist in recovering from physical illness, contribute to overall wellbeing and help nurture young people’s relationships with each other.
Recent studies also show that fishing can help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues related to emotional trauma.
Dr. Mark Wheeler, of the University of Essex, led a small November 2020 pilot study on the effects of various forms of "green" exercise (done in nature) on PTSD, anxiety and depression for military veterans. He discovered that nearly 70 percent of participants saw a vast improvement in their mental health symptoms.
As he explains to Yahoo Life, fishing was by far the activity that led to the highest improvement.
“I tried falconry, I tried archery, and they all work to an extent, but not as much as fishing,” Wheeler says. “We can hypothesize why that is, but we think it might be very simple.”
Wheeler explains that the focus and meditation — and, for those who went fishing in groups, the community bonding — brought on by fishing play a huge factor in healing, especially for those who in their normal lives choose to keep their emotional struggles private from the world.
“Lots of them were isolating themselves. They didn't feel worthy. They couldn't find a route back to belonging. And isolation is very damaging mentally,” he explains of the veterans his team researched. “Because they’re in the military, ‘You're a tough guy now. Get up, big boys don’t cry. Pick up the gun, let’s go.’ That's ingrained in them and it gets drummed into them, so putting their hand up and asking for help is really against their culture and against their nature.”
Wheeler's research is ongoing and shows promising results for paramedics, police, firefighters and frontline workers dealing with emotional trauma, and bringing with it a long-term goal, Wheeler says, for the UK's National Institute for Health Research to “socially prescribe” outdoor activities as treatment for those dealing with trauma in the same way that Japan has highly recommended "forest bathing" sessions for its population.
Levine, meanwhile, recommends outdoor activities to anyone dealing with mental distress. "We don’t have perfect treatments, and certainly no cures, at this point for mental health conditions," he says. "So the more tools we can bring to the fight, the better the outcome."
Community building and family bonds
The communal benefits of fishing, as confirmed by Wheeler's research, are also well-known by those who partake in the activity, bringing the added bonus of emotional bonding with family and friends.
"Fifteen years ago, I started taking my daughter fishing," Julian Gomez, an attorney and avid fly fisherman living in Texas, tells Yahoo Life. "She and I fish together like my dad and I used to fish together. We fish a fishing tournament called TIFT (Texas International Fishing Tournament). We do it every year."
The nostalgic connection, Gomez says, can often feel universal in the fishing community.
"I used to fish with my dad and we had that emotional relationship. I now fish with my old roommate. I fish with fishing guides. I fish with my daughter," he explains. "And the friendships, or the bonds that we have created, not so much because of a particular fish, but over days on the water, are hard to replace. They're genuine, real relationships and I think it's something that's pretty unique about people who are on the water. Most of the people who fish are good people."
Captain Brett Martina, a professional fishing guide in North Florida, adds that going out in the water “stimulates the mind” and takes you “out of the hustle and bustle” of life. He's witnessed it firsthand with the people he takes out on his boat.
At times, he says, he's even seen fishing excursions help people deal with grief. "I have a client and friend that lost his son recently," Martina tells Yahoo Life. "One of the ways he can always feel normal again is getting on the boat and getting fresh air and going fishing with me. It's helped him a lot. He told me it's the only time he feels whole."