angler interview

Guest Blogger: Jeremy Anderson is an amateur fly tyer and professional Creative Director at an advertising agency in Nashville, Tennessee. He lives with his wife and two boys in a log cabin by the Harpeth River. You can find Jeremy @hacklejob

We’ve all experienced the addictive elation that is fly fishing. There is simply nothing that compares to the natural high of your line tightening as a fish does its utmost to shake the imposter out of its mouth and elude you forever. But what is actually happening in our brains that addicts us to fishing? I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Heinrich Verstand, M.D., Ph.D. of Lehrman University’s Neurological Research Department for a video chat to learn more about the neuroscience behind this phenomenon.

At first consideration, it seems fairly obvious. Most people would consider hooking a fish an adrenaline rush and never analyze it any further. But I just couldn’t leave it there,” said Dr. Verstand, who grew up fly fishing just outside of his native Munich. “I wanted to know which parts of the brain were activated during a fight with a fish.” So, he conducted qualitative interviews with over 250 anglers aged 18-75, during which he asked a series of short answer questions as well as more open-ended questions about their experiences fishing. During the interviews, volunteers wore electroencephalography (EEG) headgear to measure and isolate specific areas of their brains’ activity as they recounted their fishing experiences. Dr. Verstand also took his lab stream side with mobile EEGs fitted under fishing hats for the 58 fly fishermen who volunteered to wear them while fishing.

“The findings were very consistent, but much more insightful than I originally anticipated,” said Verstand. “As I expected, the sympathetic preganglionic neurons responsible for stimulating the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine [adrenaline] and dopamine were very active when the angler entered the portions of his or her story where they fought the fish. This certainly matched, although to a lesser degree, the neural activity of the anglers actively playing fish in the stream-side research.”

What Dr. Verstand found surprising and even alarming, however, was how this brain activity compared with the pre- and post-episodic baselines of the study participants. What he found was that the post-episodic baseline was much lower than the pre. In other words, the anglers actually had abnormally low activity in the adrenal cortex once the “high” had passed. “I am reticent to draw parallels to other addictions, but this does closely mirror what we see in brain activity during withdrawals—simply put, the brain becomes trained to do what releases the greatest chemical ‘reward’ with the least amount of effort, and does not respond well when that is taken away. What’s more is that the brain requires greater and greater stimuli to achieve the same effect. This is why we see adrenaline junkies constantly pushing for greater risk—they simply have to.”

When I asked Dr. Verstand if there were any risks associated with abstaining from fishing or being skunked for prolonged periods after an otherwise successful season, he said “Absolutely. It’s why I highly recommend tying flies when you can’t fish or can’t fish worth a darn. It will help offset the withdrawal symptoms through a process called substitutionary transference, whereby the brain still releases dopamine.”

Dr. Verstand had to catch a plane to Denver, so I thanked him for his time and contribution to the fly fishing community’s body of research. Next time you say, “The tug is my drug,” you’ll be well armed with empirical data from Dr. Verstand’s study to back up your claim.

NOTE FROM J. STOCKARD: We could all use a little levity right now! Thanks Jeremy for providing some!

20 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for sharing Dr. Verstand’s findings. As an avid flyfisher for over 50 years, and someone who was a college biology major, I’ve always wondered just what it is about fly fishing that makes it so compelling. It seemed intuitive that something very primal was going on in the brain. Some years ago I had a guiding client who was a psychologist, and also an addicted fly fisher. One day I asked her for an opinion about the cause of this phenomenon and she didn’t hesitate moment before replying “Intermittent gratification.” This is a classic concept in animal behavior studies. An animal (or human) who has learned to associate a particular action with a reward will repeat that action compulsively until the reward comes. I think we have all referred to fly fishing as “addictive” at one time or another. Now, thanks to Dr. Verstand, we know that it quite literally is. He also neatly explains why tying flies is such a satisfying activity. This is great stuff! More pieces of the puzzle fall into place!

    1. Mary, thank you for sharing your experience! Being April 1st, this is completely a work of fiction, but I did do my homework on enough neuroscience to be dangerous. I got so into the story while writing it that I think I made it a little too convincing. Having a background in qualitative research, this is exactly how I would have approached the study and I think the research would support this hypothesis. Maybe there will be such a study in the future–there should be! If only Dr. Verstand were real. 🙂 Sorry I pulled the sculpin wool over your eyes!

      1. I must confess that I am an easy mark for this sort of thing. My wedding anniversary is April 1 (this was our 42nd), which says a lot. Actually, the date was a coincidence. It was either take that Saturday or wait months until the desired venue had another opening. Neither of us wanted to wait. My husband easily convinced me that he was interested in fly fishing, until the ring was on my finger. Then he stopped fishing like flipping a switch. When I asked him why he never went fishing with me anymore, he said, “Why should I go fishing, I caught the fish I was after.” When I tell this story, people invariably say, “Awww, isn’t that sweet?” No, it’s not. Just another occasion when I got taken. Your blog post was very convincing–to me at least. It all made sense. What can I say? You got me, even though that’s not exactly a grand achievement.

        1. Mary, Happy Anniversary! Sorry to add to the “you got taken” sore issue, though. I have to confess: my wife and I made similar promises we couldn’t keep. She is a Londoner who is obsessed with soccer (“football” over there), and I am much more of an artsy guy who likes things like dancing and couldn’t care less about team sports. We both promised we’d try sharing each other’s passions, but we’ve both failed miserably. She still doesn’t dance and I still don’t care about sports that don’t involve being on the water. So we just give each other time to do what we love. 🙂

          1. No worries, Jeremy. I’ve learned to have a sense of humor about my gullibility. I didn’t mean to sound prickly about it. My hubby does not understand my passion for fly fishing, and I don’t understand his passion for auto racing. On the other hand, what we do have in common has kept us married for over 40 years. Tolerance and understanding is the key, I think. Sounds like you and I both have that in our marriages, and its the greatest blessing a couple can have.

    1. Dennis, I hadn’t heard that one before…gonna use it. At least that part of the story is true. 😉

  2. It’ the feeling you get, when it goes in the net.
    It’s the high on which you rely, if you’re the one who tied the fly.
    When the line pulls snug, on your selfmade bug, that releases the drug.
    If your friend tied the bug, it warrants a high five and a big hug!

  3. Well what I want to know, Jeremy, is: Where can I get one of those stylish things to strap to my head so I can reverse the polarity, wait until the storm is at its height, get a good diabolical laugh going along with some pipe organ tones, and then beam in the combined skills and knowledge of Ray Bergman, Gary La Fontaine and Cal Bird?

    Hoping there’s one on eBay, and that knowledge modules can be downloaded somewhere.

    – Mike

        1. He said he does and could part with one of them for 800 Euros. He also said under no circumstances should you reverse the polarity–the consequences would be disastrous.

          1. Well dang, then…if I can’t change the poles from “plus to minus” to “minus to plus,” it’s a no-go. We just can’t take the risk of the drivel in my head getting out.

  4. Currently 3 oz. graphite fly-rods are for sale at $1,200 each [plus tax] and are selling briskly. That’s over six thousand dollars a pound for carbon fiber?! Something more than fly-fishing is at work here.

    1. Interesting side thread Phil. Myself, I’d be happy to explore/discuss off-line, because it seems interesting from a gear trend perspective. Or if there’s a way to discuss somehow on this blog without tying it to an unrelated article, that works in my mind as well.

  5. I am a cognitive neuroscientist and fly fisher as well. Could you link me to Verstand’s academic article if there is one? This is fascinating work. Thank you!

    1. Hi Salif! Sorry, this was complete fiction written for the sole purpose of intriguing and duping as many intelligent fly fishers as possible for April 1, 2020. It worked! That’s why you can’t find Dr. Verstand or his research online. Unfortunately, you are the only REAL neuroscientist here. Tight lines!

      1. Well Jeremy, true or just (the now all too common) fake-true, that line “I highly recommend tying flies when you can’t fish or can’t fish worth a darn” spoke to my soul, applying to me on both counts.

        And I did, in the end, “reverse the poles” on the wires I taped to my head, to good effect. I only had a mostly depleted triple-A battery but it was still ample to block what’s in there from leaking out and infecting everyone else.

        Still laughing at the concept of the spoof. : )

        – Mike

Leave a Reply to Phil Ewanicki Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *