She feels her demons rising, the anxiety building. She drives to the river. While piecing together her fly rod, she chants to herself, “I can let it go for a while. I’m just going to cast. I can let it go.” With each mend her anxiety eases, her breaths even out, and she is reminded why she calls the river her home. Before long, a fish is in her net and she finds herself smiling, unexpectedly.
Fly fishing is more than a sport to Kayla Lockhart, it’s the tool she uses to manage her recovery from a broken childhood. “Because I come back from the river feeling like I spent hours participating in talk therapy, without even having said a word, I wish I would have learned about fly fishing as a child; I could have used a place to heal while bouncing in and out of the [foster care] system and taking on the world all on my own at such a young age.”
Kayla’s journey toward using fly fishing as a therapeutic tool began early on in her childhood—she explored the outdoors with her father and sisters, often spin fishing in Minnesota lakes. “I remember having a blast running around, playing in the dirt, and being a wild kid, but those good times didn’t last long.”
Around age ten, Lockhart’s home life was torn apart by her parents’ divorce and her mother’s abusive boyfriend taking her father’s place in the home. Kayla and her three sisters endured many nights dealing with a violent, unstable family situation. Quickly, her mother transitioned from being a loving caretaker to a neglectful drug user, and her father started drinking heavily and ended up with several DUIs.
Lockhart’s home was raided by the police when she was 12, and together with her sisters, she was cycled in and out of foster care and put back into the home often. “I tried hard not to let anyone know at school what I was dealing with at home, and tried to stay away from my home as much as I could,” said Lockhart.
“I wish I had fly fishing then, to just have a place where I could go to find quiet that would have just been mine.”
Lockhart and her sisters bonded like soldiers in warfare. “We became each other’s rocks in a world where we felt there were no adults to protect us. It was so difficult to not have a safe place to call home, but even though we fought, at least we had each other,” she said.
When Lockhart was 15, police raided their home for the last time. The court sentenced her mother to prison for a minimum of eight years for selling methamphetamines. Her youngest sister went into long-term foster care, and Lockhart attempted to become emancipated from the custody of her parents. She found a job while remaining at school, and realized she had to grow up quickly in order to create a stable environment for herself. After proving she was able to hold a job, pay her own bills, and continue to go to school, Lockhart was emancipated from her parents’ custody and was on her own.
“After I was emancipated, I fought to gain custody of my younger sister so I could maybe raise her on my own, but she went into foster care with a member of my mom’s boyfriend’s family who wouldn’t let us see her,” Lockhart said.
“I said goodbye to my sister when she was four years old, and I wasn’t allowed to see her until she was nine. That kind of pain is almost indescribable—it’s time I’ll never get back. It’s still really hard for me to grasp,” she said.
Angry, and lacking respect for adults, Lockhart decided she was going to “prove the world wrong,” so she poured herself into learning and building a career on her own. She graduated high school and climbed her way up the ladder at a chiropractic office. “I found I could stay distracted from my negative feelings by teaching myself from YouTube videos how to play the ukulele, or how to do just about anything. I went after various certifications and tried to make something of myself.”
When Lockhart reached a stable point in her career in office management, she realized she was still unhappy. “I was confused, because I had a great job but felt so stuck. I struggled to get out of bed, my depression became debilitating, and my anxiety about my family was out of control,” she said.
During this time, Lockhart happened to watch a movie that introduced her to fly fishing for the first time, and she was enthralled. “Once I had fly fishing on my mind, I started to notice it everywhere—in advertisements, or driving by fly shops I’d never paid attention to before.” She returned home from a long day of work and decided to Google, “How to Fly Fish,” and ended up joining one of Orvis’s Fly Fishing 101 classes the following week.
“Even though I felt terribly out of place at the classes, I ate them up and signed up for every class the shop offered. I just wanted something of my own and I knew I needed to find something I could put my energy into in a healthy way,” Kayla said. From August to October, she spent as much time at the fly shop she could, taking classes, poring through YouTube videos, and then finally made it out on the river to practice.
“My first fish was a brown trout on a dry fly in March, after trying to catch a fish for months. And I don’t know the name of the river because no one would tell me,” Lockhart laughed. “Thankfully, the guy who took me let me borrow his friend’s waders and oversized boots. I remember standing on the bridge, looking down at the river, watching the trout eat bugs off the top—that was my first experience trying to read a river and I’ll never forget that first feeling of stalking a fish.”
Lockhart knew how to get a bit of line out, but like many novices, she cast too frequently. Her friend advised her to allow her fly to drift downstream: “Just as I let the fly drift, a trout came up to eat my fly, and I set the hook. I had the biggest smile on my face; I had finally found my niche and I was immediately addicted to fly fishing. It felt so good just to smile.”
As her journey continued, she realized fly fishing became more than just a tool for distraction, it helped her manage her anxiety and became the hub around which her life was centered. “I started to build my weeks around my fly-fishing trips, working hard during the week to make sure I could go fishing on the weekends,” Lockhart continued. “Fly fishing was changing me, giving me hope, giving me peace, and challenging me to be a better person.”
The Mayfly Project
True to her curious nature and thirst for learning, Lockhart began seeking every opportunity to learn about all types of fly fishing and targeted several species of fish.
“Once I became addicted to fly fishing, I immediately wished someone had led me to the sport when I was a child, because as a child I was so angry and sick of everyone asking me to talk about my problems,” she said. Because of her experiences, Lockhart joined forces with the nonprofit organization The Mayfly Project (themayflyproject.com) where she mentors children in foster care through fly fishing. “What I love about The Mayfly Project is there is a huge need for these children to get outdoors with positive mentors. As you can tell from my story, these [foster] children don’t often trust adults, they don’t want to talk anymore about their difficult lives; but if you can take them fishing and just have fun with them, it’s life-changing for them.”
Lockhart’s youngest sister will age out of foster care this year, and Lockhart plans to make up for lost time by introducing her to fly fishing, and spending some time on the river together. “My little sister and I are the most alike out of my three sisters—mentally, we deal with trauma the same way and we both are bad at dealing with emotions,” she said. “Since fly fishing helped me even have the guts to process my pain, I’m hoping that by introducing this sport to my sister she can receive the type of therapy that I get out of it,” Lockhart says.
But it’s not all “trout and rainbows.” Some days Lockhart struggles with managing her life-anxiety and even though she has healed her relationship with her father, she has now completely cut ties with her mother. “Life always seemed to pop up reminders that I’m not free from the life of my mother. And of course I wish she would get better, but it’s painful going through it all,” she says.
Lockhart celebrated her birthday in March 2018 chasing tarpon and bonefish in Mexico, and she caught her first tarpon, but she knew that no matter how hard she tried to avoid the topic of family on her birthday, it would catch up to her.
“I was reading through my birthday texts, when I realized my mom didn’t even text me,” Lockhart said. “It’s not that I wanted to communicate with my mom, I just had to start worrying about why she didn’t text me and my mind quickly went to dark questions of: ‘was she dead in a ditch somewhere’ or ‘how could she forget her own daughter’s birthday?’”
When she returned home from Mexico, Lockhart immediately went steelhead fishing—in part to contemplate her family situation.
“I just needed to swing a fly and have some river space to myself. And I was afraid to find out why my mother didn’t text me; I couldn’t handle my anxiety without casting, honestly,” she said.
When Lockhart returned to cell service she found out her sister saw her mother’s mugshot, and discovered their mother was arrested on Lockhart’s birthday. “Even though I’ve distanced myself from my mother, I’m still involved in her life and it catches me by surprise. I’m glad I have a way to cope with the anxiety from these moments,” she said.
“When I’m in the river, I feel calmer. I don’t feel pressure to react or figure out something, but the thoughts come one at a time and I’m able to process them easier.”
Because of her found love of life as a fly-fishing fanatic, Lockhart’s goal is to teach as many people as she can about the mental health benefits of fly fishing, and to educate those about the value of conservation efforts.
“I never felt I could make a difference in the world because I’ve always been in ‘survival mode,’ but that has completely changed now. Fly fishing has helped me not only survive, but to see that I can have an impact on river conservation and I can help people by leading them to fly fishing, which is now my top priority. Fly fishing saves lives, and I’m an example of that.”
To find out more about The Mayfly Project, connect through themayflyproject.com or follow Lockhart on Instagram @kayla__lockhart
*Kaitlin Barnhart is a co-founder of The Mayfly Project. She lives in Athol, Idaho.