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Two men fly fishing in a river

Fly in, fly out

By Dom Byrne

A senior manager in a former life had a standard 'out of office' email reply when he signed off before holidays. I pretty much knew to expect it, but admit that I came to ignore it. It simply read: "Gone fishin'". I never bothered to ask him why he kept using what seemed just a throwaway line.

Ten years on and it's clearer. My boss's real message is embodied in the work of AFP members Jenna van der Vlist and Craig Martin, who run the agency's Fly Fishing program for Mental Health. And it's this: take time out for a break, long or short, but don't forget to invest in a 'thought break' while you're at it.

a woman standing ankle deep in a river, fly fishing
For sworn and unsworn members – the need to have a new perspective on life away from the station or the office is key.

At the AFP – for sworn and unsworn members – the need to have a new perspective on life away from the station or the office is key. Backed by AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin and the AFP National Sports Federation, Jenna and Craig have twice this year taken AFP members to Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains to 'Let it fly' – putting rods and reels in the 4WD and heading down the highway.

Once there, the aim is not to cancel out worries or talk in depth about particular issues, it is to re-prioritise where worries are stacked in the mind to gain some perspective before heading back to life as they previously knew it. And fly casting lessons are just the start.

A man practice casting a fly fishing rod
Fly casting lessons with Craig Daly from Clearwater Flyfishing Guides are just the start of the experience.

Having worked for almost four years in AFP Child Protection, Craig - like many people in the organisation - has seen some horrible things.

"You've got two sides of the coin here," he said.

"You've got people who are doing a really hard job – and have probably seen things that are outrageous and horrible that a normal person would never contemplate seeing. Then you've got those people who are doing those kind of jobs later in their career and may be affected one day."

Both camps are welcome to join the Fly Fishing program – as a reaction to past impact or as a time to mentally 'upskill' before things potentially get difficult.

"It really puts things in perspective when you're walking along those rivers and how little everything else seems when you're out there," Craig said. "That's what we've been able to give to a few AFP members who've come along, and we'd love to be able to keep doing that and giving more.

"You know, being out on the river, it's an amazing feeling – you don't really think about all the bad things going on anywhere in the world. You're concentrating on what you are doing here. It's something that's got to be experienced to be believed."

And there's proof of that already.

two men walking alongside a river
"When you're walking along a river in the Snowy Mountains, it's amazing how little everything else seems."

Equipped with waders and boots, members in the first group spent two days away in early May, and were grateful for a warm, sunny day when they first dipped into the frigid waters of the Thredbo River.

The fishing continued in earnest until the last day, with AFP member Garry the 'last person standing', chasing some large and active brown trout with Craig. At dinner the previous evening, Craig asked the five AFP members a question: "Did anyone think of work today?" And the quick answer – to most people's surprise was, quite simply, "No".

two women standing in knee deep water, fly fishing
Equipped with waders and boots, AFP members dip into the cold, cold waters of the Thredbo River.

Jenna said: "It's not all about fishing and catching fish, it's about getting out there, trying something new, disconnecting and noticing the surroundings."

The benefit to Craig's law enforcement career is strong.

"Fly fishing was a tool I didn't even know I was using to cope. I didn't even realise the benefits it was giving me. When I was having a bad day at the AFP and having to view child exploitation material – I could go fishing and get back and feel re-energised and ready to 'fight' again.

"I didn't realise it was having an effect on me until I actually thought about it and had some conversations and started talking. I think I'd spent a few days out fishing and it dawned on me that I hadn't even thought about work, hadn't even given it a second thought.

"Fly fishing helped me get through a lot of things and continues to help me now, having something in my life that I could do, either on my own, or with a friend or group of people, that makes life worthwhile and worth living.

a man standing in knee deep water, catching a fish
It's not all about fishing and catching fish, it's about getting out there, trying something new, disconnecting and noticing the surroundings.

"It's not a cure to mental health issues, but a way forward and a means to becoming a better person, on the road to recovery."

AFP members will next 'let fly' in November.

The Fly Fishing program is supported by the Australian Federal Police Association, Police Bank and the AFP National Sports Federation.

The way I saw it

The early days of the AFP Fly Fishing program have seen AFP members vocal and positive about its impact within a law enforcement agency...

"Congratulations on the energy, commitment and passion that you both have. It makes me smile every time I think about the Fly Fishing program! Take care and keep up the great work." - AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin.

"Just wanted to reach out and thank you both again for putting on an awesome weekend. It was a really nice experience. Your passion, friendship and talents were evident and appreciated. As a result I have purchased a rod and reel and spent some time on Google Earth looking for a good spot to hit." - Colin: Counter Terrorism.

"Work issues are not so big after you've walked in the Snowy Mountains along a river bank stalking trout. a perfect way to focus on nature, the excitement of the chase, and to get away from cares and worries. This is one of the best mental health initiatives there could be. I found it gave me a chance for reflection and to put things in perspective. I hope that a few others take up the opportunity." - Garry.

"Thanks for a great weekend! I had a great time getting to know everyone and learning to fish, the weekend was both fun and relaxing and I look forward to the next event." - Madelyn: Forensics.

"I managed to catch a tree, and a rock... actually the same rock twice. I did, however, manage to cast my fly directly above a fish, who darted towards it, but chose not to bite! For me though the real fun was just chatting away." - Romana: AFP Museum.

"At the AFP Sports Federation, we're committed to encouraging participation in sport to promote health and fitness. We welcome all sports and activities that contribute towards the health of our members. Our Fly Fishing program is a great example and I commend Craig and Jenna for approaching the Sports Federation to kick off the initiative." - Steve: President, AFP National Sports Federation.