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February 2008 – Casting for Recovery

The first time I heard of Casting for Recovery, a fly-fishing-based support programme for women who have been treated for breast cancer, I struggled to make the link. Why fishing?

That was before I interviewed Sue Hunter, captain of the England Ladies fly fishing team in 2007. She came to the sport after her second diagnosis of breast cancer eight years ago.

“I needed to unwind and a friend suggested that I might find fly fishing a good way of relaxing. Before I started joining a few clubs I had never realised how popular it was.

“It was good exercise. It can be difficult to get moving properly after invasive surgery on your breast but I found that I could go fishing very soon afterwards. The arm action is the sort of gentle exercise you need and it’s far less of a chore than doing some of the formal exercises you are given in the clinic.”

But it wasn’t just the exercise. Fishing, she says, provided something positive, purposeful and therapeutic during a traumatic period in her life. At the same time it opened a window on what is still regarded by many as a male sport.

I know what she means in this respect. Fishing remains very much a male preserve, something I find puzzling given the success that women anglers have enjoyed historically.

After all, the British rod-caught salmon record of 64lbs is held by a woman, Georgina Ballantine, fishing the river Tay in 1922. Another giant salmon of 61 lbs was caught by Clementine Morison, fly fishing on Scotland’s River Deveron just two years later. In spite of these outstanding achievements women remain a minority in angling.

But fly fishing, in particular, seems to be attracting increasing numbers of women and Casting for Recovery, a programme that began 12 years ago in the US, appears to be tapping in to some hitherto unrecognised need.

I think it probably has something to do with the role of fishing as “the big excuse.” Why else, without the excuse of fishing, would you find yourself standing up to your waist in a cold Scottish river for days on end? Yet it sometimes needs that kind of intimacy with nature to become absorbed in your surroundings.

In addition to the solitude there’s the companionship of fellow anglers. What better therapy can there be for dealing with life’s tougher experiences? Sue Hunter agrees. “Fishing became my escape. But it wasn’t until I read a small snippet in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine that I discovered Casting for Recovery and knew straight away that they were on to something.”

She emailed the US-based not-for-profit organisation, and now, four years later, she is heading the UK and Ireland programme that she established and which last September held its first event – a two-and-a half day fishing retreat, based in West Sussex.

This year three more have been organised in England and Wales and a fourth is planned in Ireland. The first of these, now fully subscribed, is to be held in March at the Arundell Arms, the Devon-based fishing hotel owned by Anne Voss-Bark who has donated the accommodation, food and fishing.

Most of the UK programmes’ expenses are being underwritten by the Countryside Alliance. Orvis, the fishing tackle business, contributes rods and other equipment.
The women who go are taught by female instructors and the whole weekend is designed to put people at ease, with counselling sessions held in the evenings.

Casting for recovery has proved so successful in the US that 37 retreats are planned there this year. Since its inception the organisation has introduced more than 3,000 women to fly fishing.

“My only regret about fishing is that I didn’t take it up 30 years earlier.” Says 53-year-old Ms Hunter. “I remember once walking alongside a stream in Glen Nevis. Today I would be hanging over the bridge, peering in to the water through my Polaroids.

“It’s hard to describe the fascination. It’s not as if fish do much when you see them in the water. I think it has something to do with their life cycle. They have such a tough life right from the beginning when they’re abandoned by their parents. Everybody and everything out there wants to get them, whether it’s seals, cormorants or anglers. I have tremendous admiration for every fish I catch.”

Today she does most of her fishing at Bewl reservoir in Kent, often with her partner David Kidby, another keen fly fisher who she met through the sport. She ties her own flies too. The mixed attraction of fly tying between the sexes is another subject entirely. Why it appeals so much to men who would run a mile from a knitting circle is one of life’s great mysteries.

The linking of fishing to therapy, on the other hand, seems so natural that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done earlier. Any woman who has or has had breast cancer is welcome to apply to join the retreat programme. The costs of the retreats are covered by the organisation and its supporters. (US site: There is also a Canadian programme and inquiries have been made about starting one in New Zealand.

See also: Mayfly time and a fishing museum

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