At its most basic level, fly fishing is a sport. But for many people, it is also a form of therapy.
And Jennings Hester, founder of the Denver-based nonprofit Fishing the Good Fight, sees the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing as a way to raise awareness about—and help—men that have been silently struggling with mental health.
Hester grew up in Atlanta and started dealing with depression and anxiety toward the end of high school. He went to the University of Alabama to play football in June 2007, and in May 2009, a hamstring injury ended his football career.
“I no longer had football, but depression, anxiety just got worse and continued to do so for the next five to eight years, until I finally was basically dragged to get help by my family, which is typically how it works,” Hester says. “I just thought, you know, what I was experiencing was normal. I didn’t get help for probably 12 years between when I first started experiencing symptoms, which is tragically kind of the average for men.”
Hester isn’t the only one. In a 2015 poll of 21,000 American men conducted by researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly one in 10 men reported experiencing some form of depression or anxiety. Less than half of those people sought treatment, though. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide almost four times more often than women, with the rate of suicide highest in middle age. Overall, men are much less likely to voice struggles with mental illness and even thoughts of suicide. To potentially make matters worse, impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health are just beginning to be seen and felt.
Around the time Hester got help, though, he began gravitating toward nature. He started backpacking and hiking in Georgia. Eventually he was gifted a second-hand fly rod that he started taking with him on such treks.
Hester and his girlfriend moved to Colorado in 2019 and “I just went down the rabbit hole of fly fishing and fly tying,” he says. “And they became these therapeutic outlets for me. They became a big part of my recovery, and they still are.”
To help other men experience the restorative power of a peaceful day on the river, as well as have an outlet to talk about mental health struggles, Hester started Fishing the Good Fight in 2019. During the organization’s first year, he and a few friends made and sold more than 4,000 flies to raise awareness about the issue and fund early projects that connected people with local therapists and other resources. He also established a tiered membership program (prices currently range from $25 to $150 a year), which gets members gear, including flies made by the group and Umpqua Feather Merchants, and access to activities.
Taylor Maxwell, a Denver-based singer/songwriter and Fishing the Good Fight member, found the organization via a fortuitous internet search. After connecting with Hester and the group, conversations on tying flies eventually led Maxwell to seek out a local counselor whom he now works with a couple of times a month.
And on Friday, April 9, Maxwell joined Fishing the Good Fight on its first weekend retreat featuring fly-fishing instruction, small-group discussions focused on mental health, and one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist. The goal is to eventually host such retreats monthly.
“It’ll be great to be around other guys that I know are in the same place that I am,” Maxwell says. “I’m looking forward to hearing other guys’ stories and their journey. We can just stand on the same spot beside the river and wet a line, so to speak, and kind of talk about what’s going on.”
There’s also ripple effects. Hester says that participants will also be given tools to recognize the symptoms of mental illness, as well as talk with other people about it.
“I think it’s one of the hardest things for men to do, and it all starts with that man being vulnerable himself and being able to speak about what he’s struggling with,” Hester says.
In May, Fishing the Good Fight will also open applications to its newly formed scholarship fund. Recipients will receive 10 weeks of subsidized therapy costs with local mental health partners.
“I think it’s always easy in that spot to feel like you’re alone and no one else is experiencing what you’re experiencing,” Maxwell says. “But it’s important to keep opening yourself up and find those communities. It’s kind of a hard thing to do, to keep putting yourself out there, but it’s very worth it.”