An article by Chris Kennedy.
We never really talk about why we love sea angling or stop to think about why we keep going back to the sea, even after a string of poor results, or why we feel so good after a great session. In this article, I am doing a deep dive into who we are as anglers and what makes us tick. The results may surprise you, as we are more similar than you might think; the answers are in our neurochemistry. I am also going to discuss why angling is essential to our mental health and wellbeing.
Historians speculate that recreational fishing came to the UK around the time of 1066, with the Norman invasion but, our prehistoric ancestors were doing it around 500,000 years ago, at least. After the appearance of homo sapiens, in the Paleolithic period (between 40,000 and 10,000 BCE), we fished mainly by hand, and around 3500 BCE, we saw the emergence of spears, rods, line and nets in ancient Egypt. Fishing was a means of survival for us, a necessity, something we relied upon. Human beings, like animals, are very much creatures of habit. Despite modern forces to condition other behaviours in us, even with the plethora of artificial distractions and societal norms, we still gravitate toward this ancient pastime that makes us happy.
I’ve thought long and hard about the “why” behind my insatiable passion for sea angling. Certainly, part of it is about catching fish, but the whole experience is so much more than that; it’s complex and simple in different ways. In my analysis, being outdoors is as vital as hooking and landing a good fish. Why do we feel so contented being by the water? Why do we love being sat under shelter, watching the rain in a near hypnotic state? Why do we stare into a campfire so contented? After deep thought, I concluded that we were playing out our ancient existence, perhaps re-connecting with the hunter-gatherer in all of us. The being by the water was a source of food and drink; it’s also where we came from. Watching the rain under the shelter of a canopy or cave meant survival to us, as we lose heat much faster when wet. The camp fire that we all love so adoringly meant comfort and warmth; it was also linked to our survival. Landing that magnificent fish at the waters’ edge meant we ate; we could provide for our partner and children. It led me to think that perhaps we crave the simple life again?
I wasn’t aware until I studied psychology; that human beings have a brain that is hard-wired with an effort vs reward system. When we complete tasks, we get a chemical reward in the brain, making us feel happy. For example, if you tidy your room, you feel good afterwards. If you complete a very hard task at work, you get a rush of a chemical called dopamine in the frontal cortex of your brain. The harder the task is, the more of a rush of this chemical you get, which makes you feel euphoric. If we think about this in fishing terms, we do a lot of prep before a session, plan, scheme, and do everything we can to increase our chances of success. We then perhaps have a decent drive or hike to the mark, and we spend countless hours in pursuit of our quarry. It takes a massive amount of effort to be a fisherman; particularly now, the fish stocks are depleted. When we catch that special fish, our brain floods with dopamine, we are elated, as happy as a child on Christmas day. Ancient man had a lot more fish to aim at but, his equipment and technique were pretty poor compared to our sophisticated methods. However, the lack of fish today is probably a big equaliser. If you are asking why we have this effort vs reward system, I think the answer is simple. If it was 10,000BC and it was freezing cold, pouring with rain, you still needed to find the motivation to get out and find food. If we just sat lazily, gave up, we wouldn’t be here; we’d have perished in such harsh times. Dopamine is addictive; that’s why we are addicted to fishing; we need this neurochemical release to make us go back and repeat this process time and time again. It’s what gave us the “get up and go” attitude.
Interestingly, there is another chemical that the brain releases that makes us feel great too. Serotonin is released when we exercise, and this chemical also makes us feel fantastic, elated, or euphoric. If you do a long walk to and from your mark and do plenty of physical work whilst fishing, your brain releases this chemical that makes you feel excellent. Going back to our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestor, he’d have needed this chemical badly to go through the extremely physical lifestyle he had. If you have any friends who are addicted to the gym or running, it’s the same thing, or at least one of the vital components that make up why they keep doing it. We feel great fishing because we are getting this serotonin release.
Have you ever noticed why you or your partner feel so great after a day out in the sun? You feel happy, healthy, and so glad to be alive. Well, most of you know that we absorb vitamin D from the suns’ rays, which is good for our body. Most of you don’t know that it also triggers serotonin release or increases production, which, as I have explained above, makes you feel fantastic or euphoric. Vitamin D is vital to the healthy functioning of a robust immune system; it’s one of the reasons people suffer from illnesses in winter. So our hobby, sport or pastime gets us outdoors, absorbing the sun’s rays, and it does far more than just making us feel good; it’s of paramount importance to a healthy body. If we once again revisit the ancient man, who perhaps stared at a rising or setting sun so wantonly, as it warmed his face. To him, it not only was good for his body but, the sun meant his crops would grow; it was imperative to his survival. So, the next time you have your mobile phone out, and you’re admiring the beautiful colours of a sunset, think about why you love it. It meant so much more than an attractive visual to your ancient ancestors.
Do you know that society has an epidemic of sleep issues? Because we now live such artificial lives, we struggle to get 8 hours of sleep. There are many reasons why this is the case, but I’ll focus on one that is so obvious. Throughout almost the entire human history, our lives were physical; we worked the body hard. Guess what? After a day of hard physical labour, we sleep like a log, our head hits the pillow, and we are out like a light. Funnily enough, being out fishing all day is hard work, and it makes us sleepy, more akin to our ancient existence, which goes some way to explaining why you can’t sleep after a day sitting at a computer vs a day out fishing. We all know that physical activity is a predictor of long life, as is getting adequate sleep, as our bodies replenish at night. If you’re not doing any regular exercise, fishing is a great activity to get yourself moving.
Have you ever noticed that fishing seems to reduce stress? Many people and scientists alike have observed that being out in nature seems to reduce stress. Whether you are a fisherman, a climber, a walker, a cyclist, etc., people notice that doing these things once or twice per week improves their mental state and reduces the stresses of everyday modern life. To me, fishing is akin to meditation; we look out to sea in a dream, deep in thought, in a very relaxed state of mind. We mentally work through our problems and leave a fishing session feeling that we have gone some way to reconciling issues and putting our lives in order. It makes us feel good.
Some people might describe our sport, hobby, or pastime as escapism, that it is a chance to get away from everyday life and be an infant again, without responsibility. There may be some truth in this, but, on balance, I reject the idea, and I think it’s something more significant; it represents freedom. I know some people believe that we are not descended from animals, but, at the very least, we share so many neurological traits and characteristics with animals. I recently listened to a famous evolutionary biologist make a very poignant remark about animals, but it was really about humans. He said: “which animals flourish in a cage?” I paused and thought about it; they don’t. In fact, like us, their natural state is to be free, and they need to be broken to become domesticated or live in servitude/captivity; you might look at horses, for example. Are we any different? We feel like we are thriving when we are out in nature; our minds are alive with thoughts; we feel good, like we are doing something natural or familiar to us. In contrast, we think just the opposite when couped up in an office building at work. Perhaps freedom is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding feelings, which angling represents to many of us. It gives some food for thought, at least.
Mental health is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives, whether directly or through a family or close friend. I’ve made the case in the previous paragraphs of this article that going fishing is enormously good for you. I am going to explain why I think my angling friends come off the rails at times when they are not fishing, and they suffer enormously. Hopefully, putting this knowledge out there will help us diagnose when we have issues or spot them when we see them in friends or family.
I’ve been fishing since I could walk; I was fortunate enough to have a father who is as passionate about it as me; he is unable to walk now, as a pensioner but, his love for it is undiminished. As a community, we were very disconnected up until the invention of the internet. Gradually, forums and pages popped up on social media platforms, and public discourse on the sport took place there. What I began to notice each winter was the same phenomenon, people who were great guys for nine months of the year suddenly started acting completely out of character during these colder months. This behaviour change would coincide with a drop in catches as the water temperatures plummeted. Anglers would stop going out whilst the fishing was poor, and at the same time, there would be this linear rise in abuse of other anglers on forums and social media platforms. At this cold time of year, I would observe perfectly good guys, who I’d look up to in the community, suddenly appearing a little like bullies or tyrants. They would either comment on people’s catch reports questioning the weight of a fish, if their scales were working, if their arms were too straight holding the fish, etc. Or, after a nine-month period of being silent on fish care or practices, they would suddenly become hypercritical of other anglers actions. There would be conspiracy theories or Chinese whispers about the authenticity of a catch or how it was caught in some cases, which I found very strange. I began to think, how well do I know these people? It is peculiar behaviour, to say the least. What was the logical explanation? Were these people bullies and tyrants all of the time but, they just hid it well most of the time? Being a bit of a deep thinker and an avid reader, I got my head in the psychology books and came up with a clear answer: it was all mental health-related.
You see, the start of this article outlines many of the things that make us physically and mentally healthy, that help our bodies and minds function optimally. If you do the opposite of those things, your mental health will often suffer, and you’ll start acting out of character, which manifests your suffering, pain and internal turmoil. You cannot be mentally healthy if you do not exercise, eat healthily, sleep well, and maintain a circadian rhythm. They are the fundamentals of maintaining a healthy mind; they are the prerequisites for mental health that much of society is ignoring, to its detriment. You also need a purpose; people who are not working toward goals become depressed or malevolent. Fishing certainly gives you that purpose, goals and something to look forward to.
If you’re not walking to your fishing spot and working your body whilst fishing, you are not getting the exercise that keeps you physically and mentally healthy. If fishing is your only hobby or outdoor activity, you probably need to find another to occupy the time when you don’t go fishing. If you’re not going outdoors, you’re not getting your Vitamin D which helps your immune system function properly and helps maintain a healthy mind.
Our modern lives tend to be conducted at a tremendous pace, they are noisy, and we barely get a moment to think; they are often stressful. If we don’t get outdoors to do something like fishing, to relax, to unwind, and get that much-needed peace, we have no outlet for our stress. Human beings need to decompress; we need a release valve and time to think. If you haven’t been out in weeks, people around you will notice that you’re not yourself; you won’t feel good. Some of our partners see the correlation between our behaviour when we haven’t been fishing in a while, and how much better we are when we’ve been out for a session. Angling is very, very good for us.
Technology plays such a dominant role in our lives, with the average adult spending 5-6 hours per day on a mobile phone. While these devices offer us conveniences and an endless supply of entertainment, they also can have a very negative effect on our mental health; they can be very isolating too. In the context of human history, these technologies are something very new and not natural to us, to be looking at a screen for all of these hours. When I talked about that happy chemical earlier, dopamine, I explained that it is associated with happiness or euphoria; we get this release in the brain when we complete tasks. Well, tech giants have worked out and provided human beings with the ability to track their social status through likes, followers, comments etc. We get a dopamine release when we get likes or new follower notifications. That becomes addictive and keeps us glued to these social media platforms and apps. Not only does this hack our effort vs reward system, giving us pleasure without the action, it also has a profoundly negative effect, which leads to depression, anxiety, and even things like suicide and self-harm. When you get all of the likes, you feel great, but you lack something when you’re not getting the attention. In simple terms, one person puts a post of a fish they have caught up; they get 300 likes, they feel amazing. But, when you put your less impressive image or fish up, you get 6 likes, you feel terrible. Simply because you measure yourself against the guy with 300 likes and perceive you have a low social status, and you get depressed. Teenagers are developing complexes due to this process; we have an epidemic of low self-esteem amongst the young, and technology is directly to blame. Prominent anglers on social media become addicted to likes, they go fishing specifically for likes. comments and praise, life becomes all about their online persona, which isn’t real. When these guys suddenly can’t go fishing for a month, or their catches drop due to a tough spell of weather, they turn into different people; they become morose, frustrated, combative and difficult to interact with. This is when we see people who are often wonderful to interact with 9 months of the year, acting like a stranger, like someone we don’t recognise. They lash out and have these dramas, usually between January and March, when the fishing is much poorer. We also see envy and jealousy manifest themselves during these difficult times when things aren’t going their way. My advice is; take a break from technology, don’t be consumed by social media; a detox will do you good. If you can’t go fishing, do something else that offers you some of its benefits; at the very least, get out for a walk in nature, it will make you feel better.
Digital entertainment also provides you with a dopamine release, whether it’s televised sports, your favourite series on Netflix, music on Youtube or even adult entertainment. They all become addictive and provide this chemical reward without effort, and as a result, we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. I am not saying to give up all of the above. I am just saying to indulge in moderation. Everything always has more value than we have to work for; the opposite is true for things that come too easily. I bet you can remember your PB bass or cod vividly, no matter how many years ago it was, or your first great fish as a boy; however, you’ll struggle to remember what you watched two weeks ago on Netflix. Angling gives your life a balance; it perhaps balances us, and it is far more rewarding than the artificial.
As discussed earlier, sleep can be almost as important as food. It’s your body’s opportunity to replenish and recharge. We never sleep better than after a long fishing session. If we’re not making our bodies tired, or we’re consuming things that keep us awake, that’s a problem, both to the body and the mind. Scientists suggest that drinking coffee after 5pm can interrupt your sleep. If you’re snacking junk food late at night, with ingredients that have you bouncing off the ceiling, it’s a problem; it will mess with your sleep cycle. Even the blue light given off by your cellphone causes a chemical release in the brain; it replicates the sky’s blue hue in the morning and keeps you awake. If you’re tapping away on your phone at midnight, it’ll impair your ability to sleep. Put the electronic devices down after a certain time; you don’t need them.
I am sure some of you are reading this, and you are vegetarians or catch and release only anglers, but I will point out for everyone else that eating fresh fish is still very good for you. Fish is a very rich source of protein, and some species contain Omega 3 oils, which are very good for maintaining healthy cognitive function. In fact, the Norwegian government have been IQ testing their military for many decades now, a country where national service is compulsory. For the first time in their history, they have observed a drop in the IQ results. It is a multi-varied equation but, they concluded the most probable reason for this drop in IQ results was caused by people consuming less fish and choosing to consume processed foods and instant meals. Food manufacturers worked out long ago that sugars are addictive. From a business point of view, it’s great for them, as you buy more of it, but it is terrible from a health perspective. Not only are sugars linked to some of the biggest killers, like cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes but, they also play a destructive role in your mental health. With sugar also releasing the happy chemical dopamine, the average human being goes through a cycle of ups and downs all day long. My father is addicted to sugar; he wakes up and puts it in his tea or coffee, then tucks into an iced bun or has marmalade on his toast. After twenty to thirty minutes, he starts to feel low, depressed or unhappy, as the effects of the sugar have worn off. What does he do? He goes back to the kitchen for another tea or coffee with sugar and something sweet in the way of food, and he feels happy again for a short period. His life is a cycle of that, unfortunately. The definition of addiction is: when you can’t refuse something, even when you know it’s doing you harm. With the UK and USA leading the way in obesity caused by food, we have a serious problem in society. The sugar, like the tech, is hacking our neurochemistry, our effort vs reward system; it gives us pleasure, with no effort, it’s very harmful. If you’re eating bad meals at bad times of the day, you dramatically reduce the possibility of remaining physically and mentally healthy. I am not saying to give up sugar; be aware that your intake should be in moderation and that it does alter your state of mind, creating highs and lows. Inactivity and high sugar consumption is bad recipe.
I am sure most of you reading drink alcohol; I do too on occasion. It’s yet another substance that releases dopamine in the brain; it causes a flood of this chemical in the frontal cortex, causing us to feel amazing temporarily. Most people don’t know that alcohol is actually classed as a depressant; yes, it makes you feel unhappy after that initial high. If you’re unable to go fishing for a long period, you might start drinking more, as people did during lockdowns but, this harms your mental health, making you ultimately feel more unhappy. It also lowers inhibitions, which is why we often see negative behaviours from people on social media when they are drinking. We all know anglers who do that. Make a change.
I want to end this article on a very positive note. We can all improve our lives and the quality of the lives of people around us by understanding the content of this piece and making minor changes for the better. There is wisdom in the words of Canadian Clinical Psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, who says: “If you live a pathological life, then you pathologise society, and if enough people do that, it’s hell.” Famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said something like; everyone is responsible for everything that happens to everyone else. On one level, it seems absurd; on a metaphysical one, it’s absolutely true. We play a part in creating our environment, and the way we conduct ourselves is instrumental in making our environment a better place or a worse one. With much division and hate in society, I think we should all work toward unity and make the world a better place. If you see someone suffering from mental health issues, do everything you can to help them. Be kind to your fellow anglers, compliment them when they do well; people need such little encouragement but, they need some. Who knows, they may return the gesture when you are feeling low? Or, they may take a leaf out of your book and compliment someone else, building them up. I firmly believe in the butterfly effect, the idea that the smallest actions can have the most profound effects. If you see someone acting out of character and picking on another angler, have a polite word in private, ask them what is up? See what you can do to help. If you have nothing positive or constructive to say, consider whether it is best not to say anything at all. If you have a mate or acquaintance who only has fishing in his life, and they are a quiet type, but they get lonely when not fishing, invite them to do stuff, give them a call, reach out. The last two years have left so many people feeling isolated and depressed; they need your help, compassion and understanding. We all love this sport, hobby, or pastime; we are similar in more ways than those that make us different. Let’s make a big effort this year to do our bit to make things better; let’s take an interest in our own mental health and that of others around us. Be kind!
Please note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own. If you think you are suffering from mental health issues or know someone who is, please contact MIND, a UK-based organisation with professionals specialising in mental health challenges.