Fishing With The Black Dog


He’d been lying there, wide awake, for at least an hour when the bedside alarm finally sounded its shrill, electronic squawk. Out in the darkened driveway, the boat was fuelled and hooked to the car, every item of gear meticulously organised and packed from the night before. The weather report was benevolent and he knew the fish were biting. But a heavy weight pressed down on the man’s chest, while dense, black clouds swirled endlessly inside his head. Every thought that careened through his seething brain was a negative one, every perceived outcome a disappointment or total disaster.

Minutes ticked by, dragging into another hour, and the eastern sky began to lighten perceptibly as he wrestled with his inner demons, drowning in those fathomless clouds of swirling darkness. For the hundredth time since waking, he turned fitfully from one side to the other, now drawing his knees up toward his chest as he attempted to curl into a tight, defensive ball. Kookaburras began laughing raucously on the power poles right outside the window. It seemed as if they were mocking and jeering his weakness. The man squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, but the boiling clouds of blackness still filled his head. He wouldn’t fish today… He might not even get out of bed. What was the point? What was the point of anything?

Depression… Society’s reaction to that three-syllable word has shifted dramatically in just a few generations. For our grandparents, it triggered memories of a period of unprecedented financial hardship sandwiched between the great wars of the 20th century. For them, the notion of depression as a mental state or even an illness was less familiar. Everyone experienced sadness or stress in their lives, but they were expected to “get over it”.  The idea that depression could be a medical condition as real (and debilitating) as influenza, polio or the other major diseases of the era was completely foreign to most folks, even if it was slowly gaining traction in the medical profession — especially amongst those doctors dealing with traumatised and shell-shocked servicemen returning from distant battle fronts.

Today, there remains a lingering tendency in parts of society to dismiss depression as a character trait: a weakness of personality marked by an inability to deal with the slings and arrows that life inevitably casts our way. There are still some whose well-meaning advice to sufferers is to “buck up” and “get over it”.

Many others understandably ask: “What have you got to be depressed about?” Wherever we look there are people seemingly coping in much worse day-to-day situations than ours. It feels almost indulgent for First World citizens in a country as lucky as Australia to talk about depression while others in less fortunate parts of the world go hungry, or flee en masse from the horrors of war and oppression. But the fact remains that clinical depression knows no boundaries and is rarely a reflection of our affluence, good fortune or physical situation. It’s an illness like any other. Telling someone with depression to “pull themselves together”, “toughen up” and “get over it” makes about as much sense as offering the same advice to a sufferer of measles, malaria or meningitis… or to someone with a broken arm!


Depression and anxiety are real and can affect anyone, at any time. Sometimes, these conditions are triggered by specific incidents of trauma, grief or stress. More often, however, there are no obvious catalysts. The root causes may be chemical, genetic or social, but the end result is very, very real… and potentially fatal.



British statesman and charismatic wartime leader, Winston Churchill, is widely credited with having coined the term “black dog” to describe the terrible bouts of depression he regularly battled, especially during his earlier life, before World War Two. At his finest, Churchill was a brilliant thinker and strategist with a razor sharp wit and a keen sense of humour, but he was also a man afflicted by bouts of crippling inner darkness. Today, he would most likely be diagnosed as suffering from either manic depression or bipolar disorder.

Despite his close connection with the term “black dog”, history suggests that this canine metaphor stretches back far beyond Churchill’s time, at least to the writings of Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale and others, and perhaps even down through the aeons to ancient Greek and Roman mythologies.

Whether or not Churchill came up with his evocative black dog metaphor independently, or borrowed it from the writings of others, is less important than the fact that his public acknowledgement of those mental struggles helped to finally bring this important issue out of the closet and into the mainstream.

Today we understand that depression is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. In Australia, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of the population will experience a mental health condition at some time in their lives. That’s virtually every second person. Each year, about a million Australian adults experience depression, and more than two million suffer from anxiety. And those numbers are growing.



While depression and anxiety are different conditions (see the fact box hereabouts describing various mental health issues), it’s not uncommon for them to occur at the same time. Over half of all people who experience depression will also exhibit symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, one condition can lead to the onset of the other, or aggravate it.


In more extreme cases, these very common and widespread mental disorders can become truly debilitating, making it impossible for sufferers to function normally, go to work, or maintain healthy relationships with family and friends. Left untreated, severe depression or anxiety can ultimately lead to self-harm or even suicide.

Suicide is fast becoming an epidemic, especially in the developed world, out-stripping many other, more obvious causes of death. On average, at least seven Australians take their own lives every single day. Stop and think about that sobering statistic for a moment… It adds up to more than 2,500 souls each year: more than double the number of people who die annually on our roads these days. Those figures don’t include attempted suicides, nor a significant number of unexplained deaths from causes such as single-vehicle accidents on straight stretches of road, at least some of which are likely attributable to suicide.

Staggeringly, at least three quarters of all those Australians who take their own lives each year are men. There are probably a number of reasons for this significant statistical anomaly, not the least being the fact that men are more likely to choose a lethal, non-reversible method of suicide. But there’s also no denying that most men simply aren’t as well-equipped, emotionally or socially, to either recognise or deal with mental illness, nor as likely to seek the counsel and help of others in dealing with it. Aussie men, in particular, are notorious for bottling up their emotions, suffering in silence, and especially for “self medicating” with alcohol or other drugs. They pay a high price for their apparent stoicism. In fact, far too many pay the ultimate price.



While I’ve never written or spoken about it publicly before, the truth is that I’ve suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety throughout most of my adult life. While the majority of these episodes were relatively mild, things took a significant turn for the worse in the first decade of the new millennium. Eventually I sought help, initially from my GP, who in turn referred me to various specialists. I underwent therapy with a psychologist and was also prescribed anti-depressants, which I took for well over a year.


Garry McDonald is one of Australia’s best-loved actors and comedians. Photo courtesy of Brad Sissens/shottobits

Despite common misconceptions to the contrary, most modern anti-depressant medications are not fast-acting “happy pills”, at least not in my experience. It took many, many weeks before I noticed any affects at all from the ones I took, and even then, those indications were mild. Eventually, however, the black clouds in my mind began to disperse. I explained this to my doctor by telling him that the music in my head had turned back on. He smiled, nodded and clearly understood exactly what I meant, even though it wasn’t something I’d ever considered before. Looking back, I realised that there’d almost always been some sort of music or a song playing in my head, perhaps something I’d heard on the radio that morning, or been reminded of through the day. That music fell silent when more serious depression kicked in, and I lived almost a full year without it. Sadly, I hadn’t even noticed that my inner music was gone until it finally clicked back on one day.

Of course, medication also has its downsides and unwanted affects. Anti-depressants made me lethargic, sapped my motivation, killed my libido and caused me to put on weight (something I certainly didn’t need!). Coming off the medication was also a bumpy ride. But looking back, I must grudgingly admit that those little pills might well have saved my life… I’d been in a pretty bad place.

Over the years, I’ve met plenty of other men who’ve been through similarly dark times. Some are willing to talk about their experiences, others less so. Fortunately, my friend, keen fellow fisher and much-loved Aussie actor, Garry McDonald (better known to many through his alter ego, Norman Gunston) is one bloke who’s always been happy enough to talk about his personal struggles with severe anxiety. These came to a head in a very public breakdown during the 1990s. Garry eventually sought professional help and brought his demons under control, despite another bout of depression in 2002 following the death of his long-time friend and “Mother and Son” co-star, Ruth Cracknell. Today, Gaz will openly tell you that he has learnt to manage his condition rather than beat or control it. He’s also become a vocal advocate for the public discussion of mental health issues, particularly anxiety, which he regards as the submerged and often ignored portion of the mental health “iceberg”.

I first got to know Garry in the midst of his darkest days, near the end of the 1990s, and I’d like to think that some of the wonderful fishing adventures we later enjoyed played a small part in his overall recovery process. I also know for certain that his willingness to discuss such matters has given me the strength to finally go public with my own battles. I owe him a great deal for that.


The author, Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling. Image courtesy of Brad Sissens/shottobits



Let’s get something absolutely straight: fishing on its own can’t cure depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress. It would be nice to think that it might, but it can’t.

Recreational fishing is simply not an effective form of therapy in itself. In fact, just like self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs, fishing can actually end up amplifying and exaggerating the very condition we’re attempting to escape. If we take our depression or anxiety into a recreational activity such as fishing, we run the very real risk of creating a toxic feedback loop in which the activity itself becomes a part of the problem, rather than a component of the cure.

Sadly, depressed people tend to make depressed anglers. Negative thoughts and anxieties are easily transferred onto the task at hand, meaning that fishing’s inevitable setbacks and hurdles can actually feed the black dog, rather than driving that cursed hound from our doorstep. Blank days, tangled lines, snagged lures, lost fish, failed trips… Let’s face it; our sport carries its fair share of challenges!

All that said, fishing can certainly form a part of any comprehensive treatment strategy. For starters, physical activity and exercise are proven to produce chemicals in the brain that reduce the impacts of depression and anxiety. When I was at my lowest ebb, I found that a simple walk on the beach (even without a rod in hand) often worked wonders in terms of dissipating those internal black clouds and dragging me out of the pit, albeit temporarily. The big problem is that it’s hard to motivate yourself to begin such physical activity when the dog is standing, slobbering over you. The added incentive of casting a line just may make the difference and provide the motivation to climb out of your bed or armchair.

This link between the activity involved in angling and relief from depression or anxiety is more than a theory. It has been proven in clinical studies overseas. In one widely reported study, levels of cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) were measured in a group of Iraq war veterans before and after a weekend of fishing. Those who’d been on the fishing trip experienced lowered levels of cortisol for as long as three weeks following the event. Researchers from several American universities also noted that the patients who’d fished for a weekend slept better, expressed lower levels of depression and anxiety, reported fewer symptoms of stress, and were far less likely to experience the feelings of guilt, hostility, fear or sadness so often associated with post traumatic stress.

In addition to the beneficial aspects of exercise and exposure to fresh air involved in fishing, I firmly believe that the whole angling process demands sufficient focus on the present moment and the intricacies of the activity at hand to help clear our minds of most other things, including negative thoughts, self doubt, worry and stress. Much like gardening or cooking, fishing demands a hands-on presence in the here-and-now. This is exactly the definition of the new-age concept of “mindfulness”.

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Whatever you might think about trendy terms like “mindfulness” (and I’ll freely admit they make me cringe!), there’s definitely something to be said for immersing yourself in an activity that’s sufficiently engrossing to demand attention, without being so hard or mentally taxing that it simply creates more stress. Fishing — and especially active forms of fishing such as lure or fly casting — definitely hit this mark.

Groups devoted to helping people overcome mental health issues have embraced this notion of “mindfulness”, and activities such as fishing now form an integral part of many of their recovery programs. One of the newest and most exciting of these organisations is the brainchild of another good mate of mine. Matt Tripet is the resident trout guide and fly casting instructor at Lake Crackenback Resort, near Thredbo, and with the assistance of a committed team of like-minded folks, he’s created The Fly Program, specifically aimed at helping men with mental issues via a series of outdoor activities built around fly fishing and mountain bike riding in the Snowy Mountains. (You can read more about The Fly Program in a fact box at the end of this feature and watch a video about its launch here.)



The good news is that mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, phobias and the like are all eminently treatable these days. Most can be either “cured”, or at least brought under control, through the application of therapy, medication or a combination of the two.

Today, depression and anxiety are most often treated with cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). These relatively straightforward therapies train patients to identify their own negative or unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, then go on to help them to develop healthier skills and habits for dealing with those destructive thought processes and behaviours as they occur in daily life. If correctly administered by a qualified professional, these modern, cognitive therapies have an excellent track record when it comes to reducing the impact of mental health issues, whether used on their own or in conjunction with various medications.

In my opinion, the single biggest step on the road to recovery from any mental health condition is the acknowledgment that you have a problem in the first place. This acceptance needs to be followed by the sharing of that knowledge with others: family and friends to begin with, but also health professionals who are trained to help. Your family GP is an obvious starting point. Talk to him or her.

For too long Australian men, in particular, have tended to tough it out and suffer in grim silence. The man I described in the opening paragraphs of this feature — the one curled in a foetal position in his bed, head filled with dark thoughts, unable to function normally — is not a fictional character. He was me, just a handful of years ago. But he could as easily be you, or your brother, or your dad, or your son, or your best mate. The good news is, he can be helped… He only needs to reach out.

Important Note: If this blog has raised any issues with you personally, or given you reason to be concerned for someone you know, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78. There’s also a detailed listing of these and other help lines, websites and organisations below… Never hesitate to reach out for help.


Common Mental Health Conditions

Here’s a brief description of some of the possible symptoms of a few common mental health conditions that are relatively widespread in the Australian population. Please remember that symptoms are likely to vary widely between individuals, as well as from day to day. If you experience any of the following symptoms for more than a week or two at a time, seek professional help:

Depression: A mood of sadness, pessimism, lowered self-esteem and reduced motivation that persists for at least a week or two. Sometimes accompanied by feelings of anger, guilt and irritability. May cause changes to sleep and eating patterns, often resulting in fatigue and lack of energy.

Anxiety: Persistent feelings of worry, dread, pessimism and concern. Sometimes accompanied by a racing heart, tightness in the chest, hot and cold flushes, sweating, trembling, obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour, including avoidance behaviour. Some phobias also cause these or similar symptoms of anxiety.

Bipolar Disorder: Formerly known as manic depression. Typically characterised by dramatic and sometimes quite sudden mood swings, often from extreme highs to extreme lows.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Typically a reaction to a particularly stressful or traumatic event or series of events, especially life-threatening incidents or extreme violence (real, threatened or imagined). Up to a quarter of all people exposed to such events will go on to develop PTSD. May cause flashbacks, fear, extreme anxiety, feelings of numbness or disconnection with reality and a general loss of interest in day-to-day activities.


The Fly Program

As society’s awareness and understanding of mental health issues grows, more and more groups — both formal and informal — are established to help those struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. One of the newest of these organisations focuses specifically on men’s mental health issues, and relies on fishing and other outdoor pursuits as its prime source of “therapy”.

The Fly Program’s stated mission is to provide Australian men touched by mental illness with a release, and to improve their quality of life through hands-on participation in the natural world: specifically via mountain bike riding and fly fishing.

This wonderful, not-for-profit program is the brainchild of fishing guide, fly casting instructor and mountain biking tragic, Matt Tripet. Matt has a very deep and personal motivation for wanting to help other men who’ve hit a few snags, ruts and potholes along life’s twisting trail. Three years ago, his much-loved and admired brother-in-law Justyn took his own life. The impact of this tragedy on Justyn’s extended family and vast network of friends was profound. As a result, Matt decided to do something that might help prevent other families from experiencing similar grief. That “something” has finally coalesced into The Fly Program.

In order to fulfill his dream, Matt Tripet has surrounded himself with a highly capable team, including his wife Amelia, who serves as the organisation’s Secretary and Public Officer, as well as fellow Directors Mark Sands, Mark O’Brien, Cade Brown and Michael Fardel. Wallabies and Brumbies Rugby Union Captain, Stephen Moore, is The Fly Program’s ambassador, and the group has already attracted some powerful financial backers, including major sponsor, Anytime Fitness.

You can expect to hear plenty about The Fly Program in coming months. Meanwhile, if you’d like to find out more, make contact with the group, or perhaps pledge a donation (tax-deductible over $2), please check out their community page on Facebook (search for “The Fly Program”), go to or email



Here’s a list of Australian organisations offering emergency assistance to people suffering from various mental health issues:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

beyondblue: 1300 22 4636

MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

Salvo Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

Black Dog Institute:

941abce1-da4b-4c66-821c-317018deef6cThis blog originally appeared as a full-length feature article in FishLife magazine. Click here to link to the original feature in a free, on-line version of the magazine.