Diversity in fly fishing - By Tim James.

From the Bear Team: Thank you Tim for putting this article together. It is great to hear about the increase in diversity in the sport, but it still has a very long way to go. As an outdoor community, we need to listen, we need to learn, we need to make the outdoors a place where everyone feels comfortable.

Introduction

Fly fishing in the UK has historically been a sport of the middle and upper classes, although the post-war proliferation of rainbow trout stocked stillwaters went someway to democratizing the sport in terms of social class. Given its beginnings, it is remarkable to see the diversity of the sport’s participants and that ethnic minority representation within fly fishing is being discussed increasingly in recent years, particularly in the US.

Growing up in North London during the mid-1990s seldom did I encounter another angler from the BAME community. Aside from ‘Rasta Andy’ I was generally the only non-white angler wherever I fished. Fast forward to the 2020s and angling as a whole is becoming more diverse with increasing numbers of women and ethnic minorities. This diversity is seen not just on the bank but within the UK angling industry. Examples are British-Iranian Ali Hamidi who’s head of marketing at carp fishing manufacturing giant Korda, Marina Gibson (brand ambassador at Orvis) and Iraqi-born Briton Samim Abbas, a content creator for tackle manufacturer Fox.

This article discusses minority engagement in fly fishing within the UK and is partly based on interviews with BAME fly anglers (also featuring one individual based in the US and one UK angler from a non-fly discipline - Samim).

 Minorities and the outdoors in the UK

The 2011 UK census found that ethnic minorities accounted for 13% of the population with Black, Asian, Mixed or Other ethnic groups located in higher densities in urban areas. One study estimates that minorities will account for 30% of the UK’s population by 2061 and will expand the fastest outside major cities.

Natural England research identified that white Britons were significantly more likely than ethnic minorities (particularly Blacks and Asians) to visit the natural environment. The findings also highlighted that amongst white Britons those higher up the socio-economic ladder were more likely than those from poorer backgrounds to spend time in the natural environment (see the graphs below).

 Why don’t more people from minority backgrounds fish?

Psychotherapist and ethnographer Beth Collier writing about the underuse of the natural environment by minorities highlighted several factors behind this. Ethnic minorities in the UK have historically tended to gravitate towards major cities where the presence of people from similar backgrounds was higher. Whilst living in a city didn’t reduce the likelihood of discrimination for an individual it partly eliminated the sense of isolation. As a consequence BAME communities have evolved an urbanized culture. And with the UK being a less tolerant society in decades gone by most migrants rarely ventured beyond the major cities to spend time in the countryside.

The irony is that rural living and in turn, fishing is an integral part of life for many foreign nationals. Nevertheless although still comparatively small in number there are growing numbers of non-white anglers entering the sport, often with interesting backstories to how they began.

Pathways into fishing

Chris T., 34 and from London was introduced to fishing at the age of six by this father and later got in to fly fishing “after talking to some fly fishermen in fascination of their casting”. Waleed Chaudhrey, 25 and also from London was around 10 or 11 and whilst watching Rex Hunt’s fishing adventure on the TV;

“I thought to myself ‘fishing looks like a lot of fun’ but was wondering where to fish or how to even get started. Some weeks later I saw a starter fly fishing kit in Aldi and begged my Dad to buy me it. My Dad practically grew up in East London so knew of Walthamstow Reservoirs because he used to cycle around there in the ’70s and ’80s, so he decided to take me there”

Samim Abbas, 38 and from Wolverhampton got into angling through his father who took him fishing on the River Tigris in Iraq where Samim grew up in the 1980s. Many years later whilst living in Wales he began coarse fishing after chatting to an angler on the way from school after deciding to take a route that took him around a local pond.

Fahad Awan is a 30-year-old professional violinist from Chicago, USA, who caught his first fish (a bluegill) from a local pond. In 2015 a friend who had recently begun fly fishing introduced him to the sport, his first fly caught fish being a 4-inch brown trout. 

“Looking at that beautiful fish, hearing the water rushing around me, and breathing the mountain air, I knew that flyfishing was something I had to do more of”

Trevor Heyliger grew up in Nottingham and spent hours by the River Trent where he and his friends would go and watch ‘proper’ fisherman.

“At the end of their day, they would empty their casters on the bank or give you a handful of maggots if you asked politely so after you’d found yourself a suitable stick to use as a rod, you were in business”

Many years later after attending a fly fishing corporate day at work Trevor booked a few lessons as he realised just how much he’d missed fishing. He now works as a professional fly fishing guide.

Barriers to entry for minority anglers

Being introduced to the sport by an already active angler certainly provides an easier transition into the past time. However recreational fishing remains something quite novel to most minority individuals and with very few high profile BAME anglers in the sport, this is further reinforced. For example, before taking up fly angling I was a carp angler and my perception of the discipline was that it was mostly the preserve of the middle and upper classes - quickly dispelled during my first year fishing spent on Walthamstow Reservoirs where Black, Asians, Continental Europeans and Britons from all socio-economic backgrounds could be found double hauling!

We also have to consider the perceptions of minority communities themselves as a barrier to entry. Beth Collier keenly observed that many famous black comedians have ridiculed lovers of the outdoors in some of their stand up routines. There is also a perception as being unusual or doing something that is out of keeping with ones’ culture. That said when I’ve been approached by minority non-anglers whilst fishing there is a genuine level of curiosity surrounding fishing, with a large proportion somewhat bemused at the concept of catch and release. For example, Trevor Heyliger’s father was born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts and;

“had to fish most mornings before school in order to catch something for breakfast. He couldn’t go home empty-handed as his mother would have the pot and ingredients boiling in anticipation as he re-entered the house”

Trevor went on to note that his father;

“still winces when I show him photos of big fish that I have simply ‘let go’ after spending so much time, effort and money trying to catch them”

Samim likewise points out that some family members saw fishing as;

“rather like hunting where you go out, enjoy the fishing but actually come back home with something to show for your efforts!”

Humans, in general, tend to stick with the familiar, rarely venturing out of comfort zones especially when it comes to social interaction with people outside their regular circles (social class for e.g.). Therefore there has to be a level of unselfconsciousness as a minority angler because you are visibly not the norm. Nevertheless, fishing like many other pastimes is a great leveller and is a conduit for positive and meaningful interactions between people originating from very different walks of life.

Racism within the sport

None of the interviewees had encountered any overt racism whilst fishing. However, in my experience Facebook, in particular, is often where the racist views of some anglers (unrelated to fishing mostly) can surface. In one example on researching a well known UK fly angler, I read a post he created regarding the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Although the post itself wasn’t racist the angler had ‘liked’ one reply which said ‘human subspecies’. A potential new entrant to the sport seeing a comment like the above may think twice about taking up the sport! Ironically during my carp fishing days, some of the worst offenders on social media were often genuinely nice individuals! This presents a dilemma as deeds, not words are what really matters but conversely how would those same individuals behave if I weren’t an angler?

I have always felt uncomfortable walking into tackle shops due to feeling somewhat out of place and have experienced the odd double-take when out on the bank. On days where I am waiting to meet another angler in a car park or street in rural locations I sometimes make sure to be seen doing something fishing related such as setting up a rod for fear of being viewed as potentially up to no good! Trevor Heyliger recounted an incident where:

I was once asked ‘is there any more tea available’ at a function where the catering staff were predominantly black. It hadn’t crossed this gentleman’s mind that I might be one of the delegates! Just as an aside, I did get him a ‘cuppa’ and he was extremely embarrassed later when the Vice President of the organisation introduced us formerly.”

One thing I have never felt whilst fishing was unsafe, or that anywhere in the UK was off-limits due to my ethnicity. However, in the US three well known African American fly anglers, Chad Brown, Alvin Dedeaux and Joel R Johnson have all mentioned avoiding certain areas for fear of personal safety with Joel recounting a story in Angling Trade (a bi-annual fly fishing trade magazine in North America) where he was once shot at while fishing. Fahad Awan has like myself never experienced any overt race-related issues whilst fishing but notes that:

‘there’s a sort of hypervisibility while enjoying outdoor activities as a person of colour in my experience. People often look at you in a way that makes you feel like you don’t belong. They don’t really say anything negative or offensive, but those people aren’t really looking at any of the other strangers the same way they’re looking at me.’

The benefits of fishing for minorities

Mental health charity Mind highlights that spending time in green spaces can be beneficial to both physical and mental health by reducing stress and anger, making new connections and improving overall mood. As mentioned earlier BAME communities mostly reside in urban areas and are significantly less likely to visit the natural environment than white Britons. Fishing represents a great way for minority individuals to spend more time in the outdoors and explore the UK’s countryside. Certainly, angling gives a person a motivating reason to travel outside of their comfort zone and interact with individuals from different walks of life.

“The beauty of fishing is that whatever discipline you choose to take up, it can still teach you so much about the world and yourself…… Patience, perseverance and a respect for nature and the world around us are just a few of the things fishing can have a positive influence on” - Samim Abbas

“Fishing has taken me to remote places I would otherwise have never seen. It can be a connection to nature that is increasingly rare in modern society but would do many people a lot of good' - Chris T.

The future for minorities in fly fishing

Joel R. Johnson is an African American angler who between 2014 and 2016 was chief marketing officer with Trout Unlimited (a US-based conservation organisation). In a 2016 article, he wrote entitled ‘Diversity Will Grow In Flyfishing’ he highlighted that a third of fly fishers were female and that African and Latin Americans accounted for 10.5% each. Interestingly 56% of Americans will be from minority groups by the middle part of this decade. During a recent interview with Orvis’s Tom Rosenbauer Joel stressed that companies should think about and work towards cultivating the fly fishing community of the future, as oppose to catering to the existing one. The UK in terms of population dynamics will also follow a similar trend, therefore if the number of anglers engaged in the sport is to at least remain stable (if not grow) it is essential for it to become more diverse.

If anyone wants evidence of how fly fishing can benefit minorities have a listen to military veteran Chad Brown’s moving story on April Vokey’s podcast about how he discovered the sport. And both Chad Brown and Joel are giving back the sport and the natural environment by helping to make the sport more appealing to groups who seldom utilise the outdoors - an environment essential to all our wellbeing. This article only provides an all too brief window into the subject of minority anglers in the UK. So for now I will leave the last words to Waleed Chaudhrey who for me ultimately sums up why more minority individuals should be encouraged into the sport.

“Fishing has allowed me to experience nature in a way I think I wouldn’t have if I didn’t take up fishing, especially considering I live in London”

1 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/ethnicity/articles/ethnicityandnationalidentityinenglandandwales/2012-12-11#ethnicity-across-the-english-regions-and-wales

2 Rees, Philip & Wohland, Pia & Norman, Paul & Lomax, Nik & Clark, Stephen. (2017). Population Projections by Ethnicity: Challenges and Solutions for the United Kingdom. 10.1007/978-3-319-43329-5_18.

3 https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/culture-and-community/culture-and-heritage/visits-to-the-natural-environment/latest

4 https://theecologist.org/2019/oct/10/black-absence-green-spaces

5 https://www.anglingtrade.com/2020/08/04/reading-the-water-for-racism-in-fishing/

6 https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/

7 https://deadbait.wordpress.com/author/joelrjohnson/

8 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRJtMWMP7a8

9 https://anchoredoutdoors.com/anchored-podcast-ep-167-chad-brown-on-battling-ptsd-with-fly-fishing/

Shop now