As she pauses to acknowledge the river rolling around her knees, she hears a fish slap the water. She smiles, opens her fly box and envisions that fish filling up her net. She’s a teenage girl, and her only concern for the day is exploring a river and being detached from the world; something she’s begun to crave. She’s not worrying about what she looks like, counting all the ways she isn’t adding up or fearing what her friends are doing without her. She doesn’t know that this river time is relaxing her brain, building up her physical and mental strength and challenging her perspective of the world. The one thing she does know is that this is a special place for her. Even though her mom usually has to convince her to go, she’s always glad whe she does. She needs the rivers and the rivers need her.
1. They find mental rest.
Teens today face pressure, in the form of social media, that most of us never experienced in our formative years. With all the texting, snapping, tagging and being constantly inundated by the opinions of others, the pressure for teens to perform is not confined to school; it’s there every waking hour of the day. Since all of our multitasking takes place in our temporal and frontal lobes, scientists are finding that cognitive functioning can be deeply affected by over-use of electronics (Dr. Gary Small, UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center). This constant interaction is taxing on brain function and can have a negative effect on their mental health.
The best outlet for tired brains is time in nature; and fly fishing is even more efficient for helping teens find rest as it allows the angler to ‘check out’ mentally. Brenna Burgos, (from Rods, Reels, and Heals) states, “The teenage years are hard, trying to be cool, be liked, get good grades, make your parents proud. It was always so nice to be out of all of it for a moment and only focusing on my fly and watching for a take (with my dad).”
With each fish they release and cast they make, fly fishing helps teens find their way back to the basics - to a primal, simpler way of being, which for most is the reset they need to do life effectively. It doesn’t hurt that many fly fishing destinations happen to be without cell service.
2. They find perspective.
Teenage girls are well-known for being dramatic, irritable and easily unhinged. These behaviors are often derived from fear, stress or trying to make sense of the hormones they are wallowing in. But when you take a teenage girl to the river, she easily gets away from focusing on herself and busies herself interacting with nature, naturally forgetting to focus on the negatives in her life.
This develops from the natural switch from being an actress (all teenagers believe they are performing on center stage), to a spectator of the great outdoors. When you’re in the seat, instead of on stage, you get to rest and enjoy the show in front of you. Nature doesn’t care what you look like or what you say, so you are able to be yourself. Plus it’s kind of hard to say you hate your life when you’re whispering to a fish (it’s possible, but unlikely).
The teenager’s perspective of herself is also challenged when fly fishing because she is consistently taking risks and making decisions on which fly to choose and where to float her fly. This makes her feel capable and empowered when she finds success. That new-formed opinion of what she is capable of can mature her in a way that she may not find outside of fly fishing, as it offers a unique experience. The more fish she catches, the more she begins to identify herself as a “fly fishing bad ass,” which is important for her self-esteem, her self-worth, and her identity, (and is much cooler than being able to text 5,000 words per minute).
But one of the most important ways fly fishing challenges a young woman’s perspective is by forcing her to notice the cycles of nature, to see for herself the changes in the river and to form her own connection and opinion with the environment. As she turns into an explorer, she learns that there is much still left to discover and protect in the world (and maybe in herself).
3. They find strength.
“I’m only 14 years old, but I’ve had to deal with some pretty tough stuff in life. Just standing in the river fixes it, even if I’m not fishing. The water pushes against me, but I can stay standing. I’ve learned that water shows me my strength, so I want to take care of the water,” states Riley Brook, fly angler with Soul River, Inc.
The metaphors in fly fishing that relate to handling life’s trials are numerous and are often stumbled upon somewhere along our journey in the river. This not only alters our perspective, but gives us strength. When I hear things like what Riley said, it makes me beam, because I know that she gets it. She understands the power that comes from time on the river.
But the strength is found only through experience. Some young women have to battle their fears, such as; fearing an animal will attack or she won’t know how to untangle her line or she will fall while wading. But as she persists, she fights through the mental and physical battles and becomes a stronger woman because of her experiences. Fly fishing builds her confidence, teaches her about her strength and provides moments of learning that will affect her in years to come.
4. They connect with their bodies.
The teenage girl’s body is the focus of many ploys to sell products in the modern world. Because they live in a culture that appears to value women by the size of their bodies, so many of our daughters end up with body image issues and struggle to stay focused on their talents and abilities. As a planet, we need girls growing into women who are not distracted by the size of their jeans or their reflection in the mirror, but instead are out blessing the world with their creativity and ingenuity. Fly fishing is a way for young women to connect their brains to their bodies in a positive way.
As fly fishing depends on the coordination of the angler’s muscles to present a fly delicately or to wade through a river without falling, young women learn to depend on and think about their bodies differently. They start to think less about what their body looks like and more about what it can do, which is an important building block for the development of a healthy body image.
Yes, when teenage girls first put waders on they giggle and feel goofy. But after a while, the waders turn into an essential piece of gear that helps them access their favorite outdoor place. When they are stalking a fish, the last thing they think about is what they look like, which gives them a rest from that inner-voice that can sometimes be their worst enemy.
Warning: They will continue to try to look at themselves in your sunglasses, so just know they aren’t really paying that close of attention to you. Also, try not to laugh at them when they continue to take a myriad of selfies, even though there is no cell service.
5. They join a cycle of healing.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind, states, “Together in the water there is sweetness, hope, fearlessness, confidence, beauty, serenity, community, joy, poetry, opportunity, movement, patience, empathy, mystery, independence and a new memory waiting. This is the opposite of the dry neglect, abuse and decline of the past. This is Blue Mind.”
Isn’t this what we hope for young women: that they find a place of reprieve from being torn down and a place where they will be built up? As most of us can conclude, the river is a powerful force because we go to the river to find something we can only get there. Call it healing, time with a creator, self-care or anything you like. The truth is you get something there or you would not keep going. That ‘something’ needs to be shared with future generations, because just as Dr. Nichols states, “Water is medicine,” and when we get filled at the water, we want to take better care of the water.
In a world with so much need for medicine and mental health intervention, and with extreme climate conditions affecting our rivers, it leads us to ponder if we put in the extra effort to lead youth to the rivers, could the water heal our hurting population and could we heal the water by bringing them there?
As I teach youth fly fishing through The Mayfly Project, working with children in foster care specifically, I realize how important it is for these children to experience fly fishing for their own mental health.
Continue to bring the young women in your life to the river and show them the value that is found through casting a fly. Make it fun, spend time with them and take them on wild adventures. At some point, hopefully they will find themselves back to those sacred places.