Are You Fit To Fish?

Are You Fit To Fish?

You need a level of fitness and flexibility to enjoy long days on the water. Here's how to get there.

  • Photography by: L. Hisey

No, of course you don't need six-pack abs to fly-fish. The guy on this page is a model who fly-fishes and guides. In fact, while it's possible that a bare-chested lineup of the world's 20 or so top fly casters might include a washboard belly or two, at the moment we can't think of who, exactly, those rippling midsections might actually belong to. (To tell the truth, merely imagining said lineup sort of scares us…) Although an angler does require reasonable levels of both fitness and flexibility, the good news is that, if you stay active and keep yourself in some semblance of shape, there's every reason to expect that you'll be fit to fly-fish throughout most of your life.

As a soon-to-retire Tom Brokaw told FR&R in a 2003 interview, "You can do this sport for a long time." Sometimes, however, even anglers in excellent condition will experience some soreness and stiffness following a long day on the water. So if you've got a big trip coming up, you could probably benefit from ratcheting up your pre-trip fitness program to include some extra stretching and conditioning. That way, your five-day blitzkrieg of Yellowstone National Park stands less of a chance of devolving into an Ibuprofen-induced haze of ice packs and hotel-room cable TV. After all, you spent the money for the trip, and you want your hands to smell like trout, not Bengay.

To find out the best ways to remain pain-free while fishing, FR&R spoke to Stephen L. Hisey, a Bozeman-based physical therapist and co-author of the book Fit to Fish: How to Tackle Angling Injuries. Mr. Hisey gave us some tips on how to avoid the soreness that can come with repetitive fly-casting--and how to deal with it if it happens. Be aware, however, that the remedies described below are only for pain that is both minor and temporary. If you are experiencing severe pain, or a chronic problem, forget the self-treatment and visit a doctor. Also, most of these tips involve stretching. Although we told Hisey that many of our readers are suspicious about stretching, he insisted that proper stretching is important to avoid injury and inflammation. We drew the line at those sissy Swiss Balls he mentions in his book, however… '”The Editors

Stretching Prior to heading to the river, a few minutes of warm-up and gentle stretching can add valuable time on the water, prevent injury, and may even prove rewarding enough to spur you on to an all-out fitness regime in the future. Start with a brisk walk for 5-10 minutes to get your muscles warmed up so they're ready to stretch. The repeated muscular contractions of walking burn calories and in the process produce heat in the muscles that allow for improved stretching. (Walking and stretching are best done at home before you pick up your fishing buddy so that your health regime doesn't cut into his fishing time.) Perform 3-5 repetitions of each of the following stretching exercises and hold for at least 30 seconds. Stretch to the point of strain or pain and not through it. A long-duration and low-intensity stretch is most effective.

Lower-back pain Prescription: Try to bend your knees more and get your legs into a better posture. Lumbar support belts are a good idea here. Simms and Hodgman both make fly-fishing specific lumbar-support belts. These help by compressing the abdominal area, which in turns provides support for the lower back. The belts also warm the lower back, which is also beneficial.

Shoulder pain Prescription: Get your arm in a more neutral casting position with your elbow down and closer to your ribcage. Improper double-haul technique tears up shoulders very quickly, so if you double-haul often and experience shoulder pain, you might want to see a casting instructor about your technique.

Neck and upper-back pain Prescription: A poorly fitted vest is the likely culprit here. Find a vest with a good neck yoke that distributes the weight evenly. Also, try switching to a chest-pack system or a fanny pack.

Wrist Flexion: Reach your arm out in front with the elbow straight and palm facing down toward the floor. Place the opposite hand on the back of the wrist and fingers to pull the hand down towards the floor. Hold for 30 seconds at the point of pain or stretch. Repeat 3-5 reps. This exercise stretches the muscles and tendons down the back of the forearm which function to quickly decelerate the forward cast, complete the back cast, and secondarily improve the strength of your grip on the rod. Flexibility here can help improve casting performance and help prevent the onset of tendonitis of the outer elbow commonly known as tennis elbow.

Wrist Extension: Reach your arm out in front with the elbow straight and the palm facing down and use the opposite hand to pull back on the fingers and palm. Hold for 30 seconds at the point of pain or stretch. Repeat 3-5 reps. These muscles and tendons along the inside of the forearm provide the primary grasp strength on the rod and act to decelerate the back cast, complete the forward cast, and hold a drink at the end of the day.

Arm Behind Head: Reach your arm overhead, bend your elbow and try to touch your upper back with that hand. Place the other hand over the top of elbow and pull your arm behind your head. Hold for 30 seconds at point of pain or stretch. Repeat 3-5 reps. At first glance, this stretch appears to provide a good morning deodorant check, but upon further study, one concludes that it provides a good stretch to the muscles and ligaments under the shoulder and shoulder blade. Good flexibility of the muscles under the arm and behind the shoulder helps improve casting performance and helps prevent the onset of rotator cuff impingement syndrome, or tendonitis.

Arm Across Chest: Lift your arm and bend your elbow, placing that hand on opposite shoulder, use other hand to grab the elbow and pull the upper arm across chest, elbow towards opposite shoulder. Move the elbow up or down slightly to find the position of best stretch and least pain. This position provides a stretch to the muscles and ligaments across the back of the shoulder and scapula to improve casting performance and help prevent the onset of rotator cuff impingement syndrome, or tendonitis. Single

Knee to Chest: Lie on your back with both knees straight, grab one knee and pull it up towards the shoulder and slightly to the outside until stretch is felt in low back, buttock or back of thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then change to the other leg. Alternate the stretch from right to left leg until you have performed 3-5 reps on each leg. This stretch not only provides a stretch to the gluteus muscles in the rear, but can also be helpful in stretching the muscles and ligaments across the lower back. A few of these in the middle of the day will help decrease that stiff ache across the lower back while improving core trunk motion needed in those longer casts.

Rotation: Lie on your back and reach one leg across your body, reach the opposite hand to the bent knee and pull it over towards the floor while allowing the spine to slowly twist and the hips to roll up off the floor. Keep your shoulders flat on the floor. Hold for 30 seconds, or 3 slow deep breaths (breathing helps relax the trunk muscles), repeat to the opposite side, alternate left and right until you complete 3-5 reps on each side. The stretch can be moved higher into the spine by bending the lower hip and knee. It is not unusual to hear or feel a pop in the spine. It is not necessary to produce a pop for the stretch to be effective. This rotation stretch elongates muscles in the hip and improves motion in the joints of the low back. A few of these on the river bank at lunch will help ease the stiff ache across your lower back making it possible to fish longer and more comfortably the rest of the day. Those who frequently cast at longer distances with heavier rods will notice improved performance as more casting motion can be generated from the hips and legs.

At Home
If you are experiencing pain or soreness after a day on the water, Hisey recommends a couple techniques and treatments: Take an anti-inflammatory pill such as Ibuprofen or Aleve. He recommends two or three tablets of 600 to 800 mg tablets every six to eight hours. You can also apply a 15-percent Ibuprofen cream to the sore area. This works particularly well on shoulder and elbow problems. Icy Hot and Bengay creams will help relieve the pain, but will not do anything to reduce the underlying inflammation--they will relax the muscle though. Twenty to 30 minutes of applying ice twice a day is a failsafe way to reduce the inflammation.

Bottom Line
Hisey says the fundamental purpose for any fishing-specific exercises is "to have a level of fitness that allows you to fish at the level you are accustomed." A ripped physique is nice, but it won't help you catch any more fish. To learn more, pick up a copy of Hisey's book, "Fit to Fish: How to Tackle Fishing Injuries." It is available from Frank Amato Publications, 503-653-8108,