INDIANA NATIVE Cari Ray, folk singer turned fly-fishing guru and host of the Fisher of Zen podcast, was revisiting her home waters and asked me to tag along. That’s how I wound up floating down Sugar Creek through the heart of Turkey Run State Park. On that particular morning, the water was so clear I could see bass and carp swimming around the rented canoe. Unfortunately, none seemed too interested in the faux fly flitting on the surface of the water at the end of my line. I was attempting to practice mindfulness—otherwise known as fly fishing.
The sport has steadily grown in popularity since A River Runs Through It introduced it to the public at large. During the pandemic, ever more folks donned waders and stood in the streams of America. Done in moving water, fly fishing requires mastering a unique casting technique, and, thus, patience and concentration.
Its zenlike aspect makes it ideal for easing worried minds. Becoming aware of the natural world around you, trying to achieve a perfect cast, then finally hooking and landing that elusive fish keeps you in the moment. Research out of Harvard found that fly fishing calms and clears the brain. Specifically, the repetitive motions in fly fishing initiate the “relaxation response.”
But Ray doesn’t need an Ivy League study to tell her that. “It’s really easy to get impatient when your fishing line gets knotted,” she says. “But what if you decide that untangling that snarled line is part of your mindfulness exercise? Ultimately, it’s your choice how you handle what can be considered stressful or annoying.”
Fly fishing forces you to give yourself grace. Instead of pausing at the apex of my cast, I rushed through the motion; where Ray’s line looked like a taut clothesline, mine had more twists and turns than an Appalachian road. I breathed deeply and tried again.
Admittedly, I felt pangs of jealousy as Ray hauled in one smallmouth after another, but as we pulled our canoe onto the shore, I felt more at ease mentally. I may not have caught a fish, but any anxiety continued downstream without me.