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Casting for recovery on the Tongariro River

Louise Stuart, a former Aucklander, now heads to the Tongariro River every day with her rod and net. But when she escapes to the river, she finds more than just her daily catch. She's found a connection to her past and a path to recovery, sharing her fishing knowledge with others facing similar health crises. 

Fly fishing has so completely captivated Louise Stuart, she gave up city life and has moved to Turangi. The former Aucklander can hear the Tongariro River from her new home and she heads to the water most days with her rod and net.

Louise Stuart fishing in the Tongariro River

There’s a romanticism about it,” Louise says of her initial desire to learn the art of casting. “It’s the most beautiful, graceful sport. I love the beautifully-made reels and rods and the style of all the trappings that go along with it. I open up those fly boxes and they just mesmerise me.”

However, her passion for this form of fishing runs far more deeply than any perceived glamour associated with it.

Louise took up a fly rod for the first time three years ago, once motherhood responsibilities had diminished and she had completed surgical and radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Now, she is sharing her fly fishing knowledge with others facing similar health crises. As a designated river helper, she teaches women with breast cancer to fish through the Casting For Recovery programme that offers support, pampering and an all-expenses-paid escape based around fly fishing. She also helps men with prostate cancer via the Reel Recovery programme.

I’m trying to convey that you can be on the river and you find peace. I find such solace in it. You hear the river and the birds and you think of nothing else. It’s giving participants a chance to find happiness amidst the medication, the specialist appointments, family needs.

It’s really important to be able to talk to other people who’ve had cancer, regardless of their age or grade or treatment. We see young and older women, people that are okay and people that don’t have much longer. It’s really moving.

She describes women comparing notes on treatment side effects or forgetting their cares for a while, building friendships and gathering strength. She has seen men fish alongside each other while discussing concerns over medication or family worries, sometimes for the first time.

When they’re on the water, there is a transformation. They relax. It doesn’t matter what grade of cancer, what operations you’ve had, you’re thinking about what’s there in front of you, getting the line out in front of you.

For some women who have had breast surgery, the act of casting can help with physical rehabilitation.

In Louise’s case, fly fishing has also delivered a range of new friendships and a different lifestyle. She fishes most days now and has started competing, though always releases her catch. Even before moving to Turangi, Louise traveled to the region most weeks to stand in various rivers. While men still outnumber women, she is seeing increasing numbers of women and more young people on her expeditions.

I’ve met some incredible people through fishing. Very clever, really diverse people and all of them have been extremely encouraging, extremely helpful and very welcoming.

And I’ve found a passion at this stage of my life that allows me to be able to achieve something, be a part of nature. It’s opened my eyes to what New Zealand offers in terms of landscape. I’ve been to places I would never otherwise have gone to.”

Some people think it’s escapism but I’m doing something really positive and constructive with it in my life."

Her great grandfather was a fishing guide. Although he died before Louise was born, she has his rod and some of this hand-tied flies as well as his genes. She has warned both her daughters that any future grandchildren will be introduced to the river within months of their arrival.

I think it’s always been in me,” Louise says of the sport’s allure. “There was just something innate. Fishing can be hard and it can be easy. While catching a fish is fantastic, it’s also okay to catch nothing because your day has been spent on the river.”

Learn more about the Casting for Recovery programme

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