Providing friendship and support for those recovering and undergoing treatment from cancer, Fishing for Life is much more than just a community fishing project. Dom Garnett went to Wimbleball Lake to meet the group still growing after an inspirational decade of success.
From the smiles and excitement of the fly anglers gathering on the banks of Exmoor’s Wimbleball Lake, you might never guess the challenges that had brought them together here. It’s not always easy to talk about cancer. It can be an isolating experience during recovery as well as treatment. Which is why a fishing group can be such a great way of building friendship, connection and achievement.
Such has been the success of the project that Fishing for Life is not confined to the South West these days. Combining welcome input from the Angling Improvement Fund and Environment Agency Rod Licence funding with a great deal of generosity and good will, it continues to grow. Indeed, it seems apt that while celebrating a tenth year, there are now ten groups across England.
In spite of the rain predicted for today’s session, we have a dozen or so intrepid ladies and coaches present. Tackling up while scanning the water for rises is Jill King. One of the groups stalwarts, she could be a poster girl for lifelong learning, having taken up fly fishing in her 70s as part of her recovery from breast cancer.
“I just love my fishing,” she tells me. “I enjoy it immensely, and I got so much from the group that I wanted to give something back and become a coach too.” So, at 80 years young this year, Jill is now spreading the word and teaching others. This is what Fishing for Life is all about; with a little funding and a generous helping of effort and goodwill, such acts of kindness have a habit of snowballing into something far greater.
Talking of greater, one thing Jill is more modest about is her impressive tally of big trout. In fact, it’s only speaking to others I hear about her incredible twenty-two pound rainbow, a monster that took forty minutes to land and was so hefty it broke the landing net! I wouldn’t bet against her landing another big fish today.
The coach’s view
Further down the bank, new members are at a much earlier stage in their fishing journey, but enjoying it just as much. Even on the tricky fishing days, the ladies love perfecting their casts- and it provides great exercise for those who need to rebuild their strength after what can be punishing treatments.
“It’s just great to see the difference,” says Level 2 coach Ian Sorensen. “When the ladies first arrive, confidence can be low. But when they meet others who have gone through similar experiences, you see them grow steadily become more self-assured. It’s all about camaraderie and friendship, not just the fishing.”
Trevor, another of our coaches, concurs as he offers advice and encouragement to Julie, one of the newer members who is hitting her rhythm with some beautifully elegant casts today. “The fish are just a bonus” he says. ”But it’s great that we can use the fishery for free. Mark Underhill (Wimbleball’s fishery owner) has done a grand job here too. From a bit of a worrying position not so long ago, the stocks are back and the quality of fish is tremendous.”
First casts and new friends
All the coaches at Fishing For Life are volunteers, often trained using EA rod licence money via the Angling Improvement Fund. Thanks to their generosity there tends to be a one to one ratio of tutors to learners. The other noticeable trend is just how many of our tutors qualified under Sally Pizii, who also put me through my badges as it happens. Energetic and angling mad, she is not so much a positive influence on the group as a force of nature!
In this way, experience spreads and skills are passed on. The latest recruit to benefit in our Somerset group is Karen, here for her first attempt at fly fishing under the watchful eye of coach Chris Guest. I’m keen to ask her how the first session has been going, but the smiles from both mentor and learner tell you everything.
“I’ve absolutely loved it!” she says. “I had literally never picked up a rod before today. I love the casting. I think you sometimes assume that fishing is just sitting there with a rod, but this is so exciting. I’m definitely coming again!”
“That’s what we like to hear!” says Chris. “Everyone learns at their own pace here, but I have to say that Karen is a real natural.”
More than just fly fishing…
Although the trout of Wimbleball are not so cooperative today, there is still plenty enjoy with the group. It’s a social thing as much as a fishing experience and over lunch there’s plenty of time for everyone to reflect and socialise. There’s also time for me to catch up with Fishing For Life’s founder, Gillian Payne, who is disarmingly modest when discussing the project, but deserves huge credit.
“It’s been amazing,” she says. “I never thought we’d come so far in ten years!” It’s the sense of good will and camaraderie that comes across especially strongly; and Gillian is quick to praise the many people and organisations that have made it possible.
“The Angling Improvement Fund has been great,” she says. “We don’t need a fortune, but some support makes all the difference. South West Lakes Trust and Mark Underhill have also been ever so generous too in letting us use venues, not to mention the Environment Agency. They were wonderful from day one in giving our sessions block licences and keeping us legal and covered.”
It would be hard to think of a project where modest funds have gone further. With a little cash to cover the basics, there has been a kind of domino effect of generosity. Not so much “match funding” as multiplier funding, you’d have to say.
Of course, by doing such great work there are also various knock on benefits to others; tackle shops certainly gain from the new anglers, while many of the coaches go on to teach others, including local youth groups like the Cub Scouts. Even so, Gillian says she is surprised season after season by the generosity of others.
“People just come out of the woodwork” she says. “We get donations and fishing gear every year, not to mention invitations to fish. It’s amazing. Our fund raising events are important too, though, like our annual auction.”
Talking of fundraisers and events, there is a huge buzz of excitement around this year’s summer cookery special, which will feature celebrity chef Ryan Riley, a rising star who lost his own mother to cancer and has been giving free classes to those undergoing treatment.
“We contacted the BBC to explain who we were,” says Gillian. “I didn’t know what to expect, but we were thrilled when he responded to say he’d love to join us.” The planned outdoor cookery sessions at Wimbleball are already creating quite a stir. “It’s a bit scary, but so exciting!” says Gillian.
Is there a secret to the success of Fishing for Life, then, now successfully rolled out to new areas all over the country? “It just works” she says. “Whether it’s having a new hobby or getting out and making new friends, we see such a change in our members. When they come to us, our ladies are often having the toughest of times or have been through a lot. But by meeting others who have been through the same experiences, they find themselves again.”
It’s a powerful example of how angling can be used to bring people together and change lives. Yet after a decade of great work, Fishing For Life shows little sign of slowing down. “I’m not sure where group eleven will start, but it will come no doubt!” says Gillian.
To find out more about Fishing For Life, or indeed to get involved or donate yourself, the group’s website has full details, including a calendar of special events: http://www.southwestfishingforlife.org.uk