By getting in better shape, Nick Taransky has transformed his fishing.
I guess I’d be preaching to the converted if I said flyfishing is a wonderful pursuit! There’s a long list of reasons why people choose the sport: being in an outdoor environment with the sights, sounds and smells of nature; the opportunity to connect with our hunting instinct; and the casting and other physical fishing skills.
Aside from the actual fishing, there’s the craft of fly-tying, the huge body of literature to dive into, and the joy of accumulating and tweaking tackle and accessories. It’s also a sport you can enjoy on your own or in the company of others, and continue to pursue through to a ripe old age. With the required walking, wading and casting, it’s also a way of getting incidental exercise.
It’s this last point I want to focus on here. The unfortunate thing about exercise is you need to do it often, or it can feel more like punishment than a plus. This is of course a reason to go fishing as often as you can! But for many of us, annoying requirements like living in the city and having a job make that easier said than done. To compound the problem, many fishing environments demand a degree of fitness to access and/or fish effectively. This has two elements to it. Firstly, if you need to over-exert yourself just to get to the water and fish, your level of enjoyment can be diminished. Secondly, and more importantly, there can be a safety issue overdoing it in an isolated or remote environment.
I think if most of us are honest with ourselves, the temptation is to slightly exaggerate our level of fitness and ability. I’ve heard too many stories (and even seen firsthand) where people have pushed themselves too far. Things can go pear-shaped very quickly!
Without turning this into some sort of miserable boot camp ordeal, it’s worth thinking about some practical things we can do to maximize our enjoyment of fishing…
Before even going into the specifics of an exercise program, it’s sensible to have a decent overview of the location you are planning to visit. For home waters or other places that you’ve visited before, that’s easy. But for one-off ‘dream trips’, it’s worth really researching how far you will need to walk, how rough the terrain is, how deep and strong the rivers will be for wading… that sort of thing. For the most part, the act of casting and fishing is less demanding than the walking and wading, but an obvious exception is if you normally fish a 4 weight trout rod, and you are going somewhere that needs a 10 or 12 weight, or large two-handed rod.
Climate and weather is a factor too. There’s a big difference between tropical heat and Arctic cold. This can be researched online, or even better, if you are engaging a guide or other local, contact them for details. Another consideration is to know your traveling companions. It’s a bad feeling struggling to keep up with others when you are the odd one out. This is a situation which can lead to crossing the safety line through fear of embarrassment or letting the team down. It goes without saying that if you find yourself in that situation (either the one falling behind, or noticing that someone else is not coping), take the safety-first approach sooner rather than later. No fish is worth dying for!
Even when you are familiar with a location, if you haven’t been there in a while, something strange can happen when you go back. You may find yourself asking if that hill on the walk in was always so steep? Or if that rapid was always so deep and treacherous to wade?
It’s called ageing and it sucks, but guess what? It’s going to happen to all of us and thankfully, there are things you can do to slow down, or mitigate the effects of passing years on your angling pleasure.
It was actually a combination of these things which got me thinking about being fit for fishing. Last year, I had a 50th birthday coming up, and though I’ve always been physically active, I was starting to notice things were getting harder in and out of the stream. Combined with that, I’d been on some big trips that I really enjoyed, but I found myself flagging at the end of repeated long days. To top things off, our plans are to move to New Zealand later this year. The New Zealand terrain and rivers are generally more physically demanding than the streams I fish locally in Australia, so things are only going to get more difficult. I had to take a hard, honest look at my frame in the mirror and commit to turning things around.
Which I did. I’ve lost a bucket of weight (more than 3 buckets, actually) and my fitness stats say I have the fitness age of a fit 20 year old. And aside from the invariable niggles here and there that are a fact of ageing, I do feel as good as I did at 25, if not 20. It’s been a pretty radical transformation, and not everyone will want or need to go that far. But I can tell you that it’s made an amazing difference to both my level of fishing enjoyment, and my abilities. I’ve learnt a lot, so hopefully I can share some of these lessons.
I’m going to break down some fitness activities into fishing access (walking), wading, and actual casting/fishing. But first there are some general principles that will help.
By the way, organised fitness activities like various gym workouts work well for many people, but I’m not a gym member and do everything on my own, so all I have to offer is on that basis.
Firstly, DO SOMETHING! It’s always annoyed me when I read the latest report in the 24 hour news cycle about what we need to do to get fitter. One minute it’s ‘at least 60 minutes, four times a week’, then ‘25 minutes but six times a week’, or “10,000 steps a day”. And so on. All this information overload is confusing and can lead to doing nothing. Getting off the chair and out the front door, even for 5 minutes, is better than nothing at all. And I found getting started to be the hardest part. Once you’re out the door, it gets easier – and 5 minutes becomes 10, 20 or more.
Secondly, build it into your ROUTINE. Getting out the door (or onto the floor for some sit-ups or push-ups) is great, but as much as you can, build a routine that includes exercise. Relying on willpower (or even remembering) every time you exercise is hard to sustain. Hand-in-hand with this is getting into the habit of incorporating as much incidental exercise as you can (like ALWAYS taking the stairs) or walking to the local shops instead of driving; that sort of thing.
Thirdly, make it FUN. If you can find an activity you enjoy that is fitness-related, that’s fantastic. But at the very least you can make superficially mundane things like walking more interesting by, say, listening to an audiobook, or using the time for thinking about and planning your next fishing trip. These distractions can make the time pass more enjoyably and quickly. Putting a reward at the end of your exercise can help in that way too (but maybe don’t make the reward food related, or you can undo a session’s benefits very quickly)!
When I think about my own fishing, a large proportion of it is walking! This includes walking from the car to access the river or lake (and the walk back), plus the walking during the day. If you’re lucky, some of the walk will be on formed paths or tracks, but much of it will be up and down hills, on uneven ground, and though various types of vegetation. So as much as possible, when getting fit for fishing, you should try and replicate this. Find a hill to walk up and down. Find some stairs to climb. And climb some of the flights of stairs two or more steps at a time, to simulate steeper and varied step sizes. Try and find less ‘easy’ walking options wherever possible.
Another thing to note is the ‘wader factor’. When we fish, we are usually in bulky waders and boots, but when we walk at home we dress as comfortably as we can. I’m not suggesting that you wear your waders down the street of course, but wearing a heavy pair of work pants, with tights/leggings underneath and heavy walking boots instead of sneakers, is much closer to how you dress when fishing. Believe me when I say this makes a significant difference to a walking workout (particularly when combined with stair and hill climbing)! Similarly, wear a weighted pack of some while you walk. Yes, it’s sounding like harder work than a stroll, but that’s the whole point!
I do a lot of trail running these days, which definitely makes walking a river feel even easier, but I still think active walking on uneven, sloping ground is great preparation for active fishing days.
Wading fitness for me is really important, and it was something I noticed I was losing over time, particularly on slippery rivers. Talking to other people of a more ‘senior’ status, it seems this is a very common experience. Loss of confidence is at the heart of it, brought about by diminishing core strength and balance. I think the fact that we lose flexibility over time is a factor too, making it hard to manoeuvre over larger rocks and other obstacles.
So what can we do? The aforementioned walking activities, on uneven ground, will certainly help to some degree for both core strength and balance. However, one thing I started doing which has made a huge difference to my core strength and leg strength and balance, is slacklining. It’s basically walking on a low-strung (the lower the better!) strap, strung up like a tightrope (but with some slack in it). I got the idea watching footage of late fly-tyer Muz Wilson casting a fly rod while slacklining. You can view it here.
The first attempt to balance on a slackline felt impossible, but after a couple of sessions I could stand on one or two feet (one is actually easier than two), walk forwards and backwards, and even manage some 180 degree turns. Slacklining kits are only around the $100 mark and certainly fall into the ‘fun’ category for me when it comes to fitness. I haven’t progressed to combining it with fly casting – yet! I had to laugh, when I started slacklining at the park where I usually practice my fly casting, the taunts from passersby changed from ‘Have you caught anything yet mate?’ to ‘You’re too old to join the circus!’
As another balance and core strength-related activity, I’ve started using a stand-up paddle-board (SUP). Again, it’s fun as well as being great exercise. A side benefit of SUPs is they are becoming popular as a fishing platform. Mine is a Blackfin X from iRocker. It’s inflatable, fits into a rolling backpack, and it also has a conversion kit so it can be used as a kayak as well. I haven’t fished from it yet, but I think it has a lot of potential for flatwater fishing, with the bonus that you can fish from it standing for better perspective (and it’s probably more practical and a little easier than fishing from a slackline)! I do plan to use the SUP more for fishing as well as fitness, so I hope to report on it in more detail in the future.
Some basic stretching and core strength activities like sit-ups also benefit wading. I personally don’t practice Yoga (yet), but I’m sure anything like that or Pilates would be of great benefit too. It goes without saying that many of these activities can become passions on their own, as well as helping fishing and general fitness.
When it comes to wading, swimming is another dual benefit activity. Great for all-round fitness, basic swimming ability is also potential lifesaver during a wading mishap. That’s not to say you should wade dangerous areas, but being at least a competent swimmer will increase your chances in a bad situation.
Casting and Fishing
Casting a fly rod isn’t the most demanding physical activity. But casting all day (or for days) particularly with a heavy line weight rod, can get tiring. And casting with poor, inefficient technique can wear you out very quickly! Learning to cast properly, and practicing your casting is obviously worthwhile (I’d say essential) to make the most of your fishing as well as getting your casting muscles fit. Aside from actual casting though, some basic upper body strength work will help your casting. I use some rubber tube-based elastic bands, with handles, in a couple of strengths. They are easy to travel with, low impact and cover a wide range of exercises. Another great tool for hand/wrist/arm strength is the NSD Powerball. It’s a tennis ball-sized sphere with a gyro inside that gives a fantastic burning arm workout. It looks like a kid’s toy but is used by a lot of athletes and musicians, as well as for general fitness and rehab.
I’m not a dietician, but I have to say that an equal contributor to my increased fitness has come from moving to a healthier diet. Gone are the service station meat pies, chocolate bars and soft drinks after (or before) a day on the water. I’ve pretty much totally cut processed sugar and simple carbohydrates from my diet, and become largely vegetarian too. As a result of cutting out the sugar ‘highs and lows’ I never get fatigued during a full day on the river, even if I don’t eat at all. I won’t say more; suffice to say that good diet is a very big part of good fitness.
If food is something I find optional these days, hydration is something I can’t go without – even during an easy day on the water. I used to go without a drink for the whole day, or run the gauntlet and drink from whatever river I was fishing. Little wonder I would be staggering and stumbling like an idiot by mid-afternoon. I’m smarter these days and always make sure I have access to enough water to rehydrate.
Fitness for fishing is really fitness for life. Since becoming seriously fit, every aspect of my life has improved. It’s commonsense I guess, but I’ve actually been surprised at how easy it now is to see what’s around the next bend in the stream, or to climb that high bank for a better look into a pool. And the walk back to the car is easier too.