Hooked on nature, hooked on healing

Jennings Hester, 35, is standing knee-deep in the South Platte River outside Denver. It’s far more tranquil than his earlier days as a 245-pound inside linebacker on a full-ride scholarship to the University of Alabama as part of football coach Nick Saban’s first recruiting class. Now, he’s more interested in fish running and taking the backing off his line than stopping a running back coming through the line.

Sure, fly-fishing can be frustrating at times. Your line gets tangled, tying the knots is a pain, and the fish might not bite. But it’s also tremendously therapeutic, which Hester knows better than anyone. You’re out in nature, standing in a river, alongside the origin of all life itself. It doesn’t even matter if you get a fish on the line. And as well as doing it for his own good, more importantly Hester is doing it for others — especially the other men standing alongside him in the water.

Once people relax, they
can let all the deep, heavy things float down the river.” — Jennings Hester founder of
Fishing the Good Fight

Hester founded Denver-based nonprofit Fishing the Good Fight in 2019 when he realized this was the type of organization he wished he’d had access to 15 years ago. For the past four years, it’s helped improve men’s mental health by leveraging the healing benefits of fly-fishing while destigmatizing the complex intersection of modern masculinity and mental health. It also provides the resources to help men take action.

Colorado is a good state for it. Rating the prevalence of mental illness and access to care, a study by Mental Health America found that, in 2022, 23.16% of Colorado’s adults have some kind of mental illness, ranking it 30th among all states in overall mental health. And more than 80% of deaths by suicide in the state are men. Among its initiatives, FTGF hosts small group retreats in mountain towns that include fly-fishing instruction, group sessions focused on mental health, and one-on-one therapy sessions with licensed therapists. It also subsidizes therapy for those in need and hosts biweekly fly-tying meetups and other programs.

Hester began experiencing ongoing depression while playing football at Alabama. And he’s not timid about it, unlike the fish his participants chase. “I got hurt during my junior year, and then things just spiraled and got worse,” he said. “I struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, but I thought that was just normal.” On average, he said, it takes more than a decade for someone to go from having symptoms to getting any help. “Then I got dragged in by my family to get help and I found nature,” he said.

“My brother-in-law gave me his fly rod, and I was instantly hooked. My brain turned off, and I found peace.”

That boost was the impetus for Hester to pack up and move to Colorado, where getting out in nature was easier. “Nature is so helpful when dealing with depression,” he said, touting such books as The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. “There are significant documented benefits to the healing power of nature and the way it can rewire your brain.” And fly-fishing is a great way to experience it. “You have to be present in the moment and can’t think of any other stressors,” he said. “It’s a healthy, therapeutic outlet for guys. It isn’t sitting in a bar or watching sports. And it gives you a sense of accomplishment that most guys don’t have outside work. I just wanted to do something for guys in my situation.”

When he’s not fishing, Jennings Hester works on fly-tying.

He started by selling hand-tied flies and donating proceeds to mental health organizations. Then he began brainstorming while fly-fishing with childhood friend Baker Arena, an attorney now living in Grand County who was dealing with his own anxiety issues. “We reconnected at a friend’s wedding and went out fishing, and he shared with me what he was going through,” said Arena, now the organization’s board chair and co-founder. “We’ve always been open about our own mental health with each other.”

In a self-professed “ADHD moment,” Arena applied for 501(c)(3) status, incorporated Fishing the Good Fight as a nonprofit, and gave it to Hester as his birthday present. “I gave him a binder with all these documents and said, ‘Let’s get to work.’” It started with selling flies and progressed from there. Four years later, Fishing the Good Fight has a fleet of programs, with hundreds of participants from 20 different states. They host retreats from Friday through Sunday that include fishing on private water everywhere from Wyoming to Colorado and four group therapy sessions with professional clinicians from Denver partner Elevated Wellness, which runs their mental health programming. FTGF also offers the monthly program Off the Water, which connects men in between retreats with speakers, podcasts, fly-tying nights, and biweekly meetups.

“It’s working and I’m so proud to be a part of it and help achieve Jennings’ vision,” Arena said. “One hundred percent of the guys who go through the program go on to get therapy afterward and try to get better. We’ve definitely saved a life or two. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

In Colorado, they head everywhere from the Eagle and South Platte’s Cheesman Canyon to the Arkansas near Salida. “Our programming rotates around the state, but it’s always on private water,” Hester said. “We try to work deals with private landowners as much as we can.”

Water, he added, is the big equalizer. “Most of our group work takes place on the water because it’s so relaxing and peaceful,” said Hester, whose day job is in sales for a sports technology firm — with one client being the University of Alabama. “Once people relax, they can let all the deep, heavy things float down the river. We get everyone — from guys who have never touched a rod to even guides.”

Their participants couldn’t ask for a better role model. “He brings a lot to our organization and mission, especially vulnerability and authenticity,” FTGF Executive Director Jim Flint said. “When he’s speaking to our groups, he approaches it as both a former football player and one of them, relating his own struggles.” Flint said other men see their own story in him. “It takes another man to tell their story and be vulnerable for people to open up and tell their own stories.”

If anyone knows how powerful this can be, it’s Andrew Luter, who came through the program as a participant, then a donor, then a volunteer, and now a board member. Founder of investment firm Rio Chato, which specializes in funding active-lifestyle entrepreneurial ventures, he was suffering from anxiety and depression when he met Hester fly fishing on the South Platte. “That’s where he told me his story,” Luter said. “He told me he tied flies and then went into his background. Here was this big linebacker who got great grades and seemingly had everything, but who was completely opening up to me. I had suffered from some anxiety already, and so we started talking.” Next thing you know, Luter joined one of FTGF’s 2021 retreats on the Roaring Fork outside Carbondale and was as hooked as any fish he had on the line. “It was a transformational experience,” he said. “The outdoors has always been my therapist, and it was super impactful.”

And Hester is the perfect host to break the ice, he said. “He’s a key piece of it and lit the fuse to get it going. If you want to break down barriers for people, you get a big, 6-foot-2, burly former linebacker guy like him crying. It allows other men to open up.”

Fishing on a river is the perfect place for men to do so. “There’s something about standing in the river and moving water that lets you let go of the heavy-duty stuff,” he said, adding it also lets people feed off one another. “When someone gives a little, someone else gives a little more. It kind of creates this permission of people being able to open up,” Luter said. “It allows men to feel their feelings, because he’s a big macho guy and can still share and be empathetic. That’s what those weekends are all about. They let men feel and talk about their feelings. Fishing is the lure, so to speak, but it’s really about creating a safe place for men to express their feelings.”

Luter added that the success of the program can be seen in participants who return year after year. “For many of them, that’s the one place they feel safe to start talking,” he said. “They have permission. Society doesn’t give men permission to do that.” And the key, he added, is getting outside. “That’s where we’re all supposed to be. Inside is the weird place.”

As for Hester, he’s just happy to continue fishing the good fight to help others. “I never thought it’d take off like this,” he said. “I just wanted to do something good.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Forget the bookends of May Day and Memorial Day. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in the U.S. since its founding in 1949 by Mental Health America. The month is observed with media, local events, film screenings, a social outreach campaign, and more. Every year during May, the National Alliance on Mental Health spearheads the movement to raise awareness about it, fighting its stigma, providing support and education tools, and advocating for policies that support the millions of people in the U.S. affected by mental illness. This year, look for its More Than Enough campaign, designed to let everyone know that if even all you did was wake up today, that’s more than enough.

Info: Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month


A former reporter for the Denver Business Journal and 14-year publisher and editorin-chief of Paddler magazine, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years. Buchanan is a former ski patrol and raft and kayak guide whose passion for traveling and writing has taken him to more than 30 countries on six continents. He lives in Steamboat Springs.