Becoming a fly chick

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Fly fishing is picking up steam as a sport for Kiwi women, seeing rapid growth in both profile and numbers. And the good news is, retirement is the perfect time to become a fly chick.

While women have always been involved in fly fishing, it has been largely men that you spot knee-deep in the river, or at the local fishing group meetings. But this is changing fast.

Leigh Johnson is the driving force behind Women on the Fly NZ an online community for women who fly fish or want to give it a try. The group also runs casting sessions, workshops, and trips away, all aimed at helping women get out on the water.

The group has seen their numbers swell rapidly since forming around three years ago, with members including absolute beginners through to those representing NZ in the Fly Ferns (NZ’s all-women fly sports fishing team).

Leigh herself began fishing in her thirties, “on and off – mostly off”, hardly ever catching a fish.

“But I discovered that just being out on the river, by the water, I liked it far more than I could have imagined.”

Skip forward a few years, and after selling a business and recovering from a mental health crisis, Leigh was looking for activities that would help her get and stay well, now that she had the time in retirement.

After moving to the Kapiti Coast from Wellington, Leigh was keen for she and husband Grant to join the Kapiti Fly Fishing Club. And the club was keen to see her, wanting to get more women onboard. Leigh took the reins on this, and Kapiti Women on the Fly was formed through the club, since expanding to become Women on the Fly NZ to cater for interested women nationwide.

Not just about the fish

For Leigh, and many other women, catching fish is a very small part of what gets them out on the river.

“Mentally, it’s that precious personal time. Fly fishing has a meditative aspect to it, you need to focus on what you’re doing. John Kirwan calls that active relaxation. You can’t continue to think about other stuff,” she says.

Then there is becoming more in touch with nature.

“You start to really notice the wildlife around you and to really care about conservation,” she says.

“Fishing is hunting and like most hunters, aspects of environmental care and conservation come into it too.” This includes the mahinga kai concept of sustainable fishing.

Leigh says fly fishing also has physical benefits but points out fitness need not be a barrier as river access is available for all fitness levels. This includes ‘park and cast’ such as the Hutt River in Wellington, where you can get easy access from the riverbank.

However, it is the social side of fly fishing that is particularly special to Leigh.

“There is a buzz when a flock of fly chicks get together: the sharing, the caring and support, and the non-competitive nature is really special.”

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