Better than Pokies

Leighton Adem explores the benefits of fly fishing.

After a recent road trip through Victoria’s north-eastern mountain streams, the penny finally dropped on a feeling that had been intriguing me since the day I started fishing. You all know it. It’s that sense that even the worst day’s fishing can still be the best day of the week. My buddy Sean and I had taken an extra day over a long weekend and fished some of our favourite streams from one side of the mountain range to the other. Between us we have fished these waters many times with mixed success. This trip was no different. Some sessions we couldn’t even buy a fish. “Yeah, definitely that water temp is up there today, I reckon they’re just not feeding.” Followed by a stonking couple of hours with fish after fish smashing flies on the surface and filling us with a sense of pure mastery. But sitting around the campfire each night, our prevailing thoughts were about just how much we wanted to fish again the next day. “Crikey, you’d think after the session we just had we’d be happy to call it a day and go back home to the kids!” Yeah right.What is this thing that keeps burning a hole in our brains? It’s not just about fun. Even in the depths of winter, a good article in FlyLife will generate exactly the same feeling of desire and the hint of rewards unknown. The epiphany came while watching a documentary on poker machines, where a game designer was explaining the small wins principle and the dopamine effect it has on gamblers anticipating their next win. “That’s it,” I said to my wife. “That’s the feeling I get with fishing. I just can’t wait to throw that next cast, and the next, on the chance that I might hook a fish.” As it happens my wife Meg has a Masters in Psychology and was actually able to articulate what is going on in our heads. Dopamine ­— a chemical produced by nerve cells in the brain ­— plays a leading role in motivating behaviour. It is released when we eat delicious food, after we exercise, and (you guessed it), when we have sex. Importantly, dopamine is also released when we have successful social interactions. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviours and motivates us to repeat them. So the firing of dopamine neurons occurs when a pleasurable activity is expected, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. In a fishing context, we can assume that our dopamine neurons start firing as we begin our cast, or see a rise on the water. Or even just the thought of going on a fishing trip, let alone the prospect of catching a fish, can trigger the release of dopamine. As they say, anticipation is the essence of fishing or else it would be called catching. On a neural basis, anticipation directly stimulates the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens and striatum regions of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment to the ‘pleasure system’ of the brain. In fact, according to neurobiological theories of addiction, these dopamine pathways are pathologically altered in addicted persons. The darker side of this can be seen through substance abuse or gambling. The lighter side can be seen with those of us addicted to outdoor activities. Addicted to fishing? You might argue anecdotally that many an angler is pathological about their desire to fish. Whether it be the inordinate time a fly fisher spends on the water, or tying flies when we’re not – we only need to ask our long suffering partners whether we’re addicted or not. Psychologist B.F. Skinner found that mice learn a behaviour most quickly when a reward is administered immediately after. In humans (and fishing) it’s much the same. Certainly the catch is our reward. However, the catch is also the variable, and it’s this variable reinforcement that keeps us going back to fish more. Even when we have a session where we catch no fish at all, it is that lure of ‘the next one’ or ‘the next pool’ or ‘the next day’ or ‘the next trip’ that drives our anticipation of reward. This explains why even on fishless days, while deflating at the time, our accumulative desire for the next one remains fuelled. You only need to go to your local RSL or pub to watch people on the pokies — the intense anticipation of the spinning wheels every time they pull that lever from 10 to 2 (ring any bells?). That moment between the lever pull and the result provides time for dopamine neurons to fire, creating an intensely rewarding feeling just by playing the game. Perhaps putting a fly rod in their hands would be a good solution to the pitfalls of this pastime. “Hey buddy, you can feel just as good on the river, I promise!” So does this mean as fly fishers we are no better than addicted gamblers? Have we got a real problem? If you’re tying flies in your bath tub, your iPad wall paper is a grip-and-grin of your last catch and you have a stress ball shaped like a trout on your desk, then yes, you might need to find some balance. But in actuality, the dopamine effect drives primal benefits as well as tangible physiological and physical ones. Curiosity recruits the reward system of the brain and interactions between this and the hippocampus can place the brain in a state where you are most likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is of no particular importance to your survival. It’s like a vortex that sucks in whatever you are motivated to learn and everything around it. Isn’t it funny how you remember the exact fly and minute details of a fish you caught five years ago, yet you can’t remember your wedding anniversary? Either way, attaining a state of intrinsic motivation, conducive to learning and thriving on what you love, has got to be a healthy thing. Dopamine also plays a role in regulating the flow of information from other areas of the brain, particularly those linked to the frontal lobes. Memory, attention and problem solving all have a relationship with dopamine in controlling and stimulating this brain activity. Matching a hatch is a perfect example of these benefits, focused on every last detail from your fly selection to the smoothness of your casting stroke. Who needs brain training apps on a smart phone when you can tie flies and go fishing! The salience of perceived objects and events may also be related to dopamine function, assisting decision making by helping us prioritise. Ever feel like you’re operating on a higher plain when tackling a fish? It’s that floating feeling, like astral travelling, where you’re almost outside yourself looking down on the situation, taking in every fluid component of the situation at hand. (At least that’s my interpretation of the theory in practice.) Dopamine also plays a critical role in the way our brains and bodies co-ordinate and smooth out our movements. Sadly, people with Parkinson’s have an uncontrollable loss of these dopamine-making neurons. For the rest of us, as we age we also lose some of these neurons. Research, however, demonstrates that additional dopamine delivery to the brain could at least partially compensate for this decline, positively affecting motor function and also memory of events. This is good news for the ageing, addicted fly fisher. More broadly, it is not just the release of dopamine that makes us love fly fishing, and not the only reason we benefit from it. Research shows that our holistic health and wellbeing – physical, mental and spiritual – is enhanced through outdoor activities and the meaningful connections between people and places. So next time you feel that yearning for a quick trip to the hills, or a wade on the flats, treat it like a prescription from your GP to take the day off and experience the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing. And a quiet day, with not many fish to hand, can be deemed the equivalent of a trip to the pharmacist for your monthly dose of dopamine, by increasing your anticipation, sharpening your motivation and pleasure, and possibly even smoothing out that casting stroke. In fact just take a day off and go fishing on my say so! I might not be a doctor, but I am an expert at going fishing!

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