A man from Wirral who was once addicted to heroin and crack for seven years has spoken about how fishing has saved his life. 35-year-old Ben Koba’s addiction had left him “living in a tent with a needle hanging out of my arm” until one day he decided to change his life around for the sake of his estranged daughter who hadn’t seen for two years.
Ben, from Woodchurch in the Wirral says he bought a rod, reel, bait and hooks at a fishing shop in Birkenhead with his ‘meagre benefits’ and went down to the water on his own in the middle of winter. He told the ECHO how he was brought to tears as he caught a couple of codling.
He said: “I was that overcome and overwrought that I could get such a high off something other than intravenous drugs. For the first time in years, I felt normal.”
The first 18 months of recovery were “nightmarish” as he couch surfed and slept in bushes hugging his rods “so no one could steal them”. But Ben “just kept going”, saying: “I just concentrated on the fishing above all else. I’ve used it as a life jacket to keep me afloat.”
Now he’s in a better place then he’s ever been. He said: “I love what I do. I wake up with a spring in my step every morning, dive out of bed and look forward to the day, whereas in the past when I was in the tent, you’d be taking bigger and bigger hits, hoping it was going to kill you because you were just that fed up of life.”
People asked to join Ben fishing when they saw how much it helped him stay sober, so in 2018, he launched Wirral Sea Angling Academy. With tackle donated by shops, and donations of £10 to cover the cost of bait, rods and reels, Ben now spends most days fishing with people recovering from substance abuse, along with people with mental illness, veterans, and people with disabilities.
He estimated he’s taken 500 people fishing in the last four years, with people travelling from as far as St Helens and Portsmouth.
He gets a high from seeing “the look of joy on their face” when they catch their first fish, especially those who thought they never could. Ben has a particular interest in helping blind people after a friend, who was born blind, asked if Ben could teach him how to fish. Sitting next to his eight-year-old daughter in the car, he said: “Every time I see one of my participants catch, I feel the same buzz.”
Ben said fishing is therapeutic because just being by the sea offers an escape from the alienation he sees in the modern world. One group this week spent the whole day laughing while they fished, before hugging Ben as they left, telling him it was ‘the best day out they’d had in years”. Ben said: “We can’t guarantee you loads of fish, but we can guarantee you a really good laugh”
Fishing “came back” to Ben when he needed help, and he wants to extend that hand to others. He gives talks in homeless hostels and rehab centres, and he hopes to turn Wirral Sea Angling Academy into a community interest company (CIC), a form of social enterprise that trades for the benefit of the community rather than for the advantage of an individual.
Ben said: “It’s given me, not just my life back, but a second shot at life and having a family. I’ve got a better relationship now with my mum and my daughter than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
If it can do that for me and change my life completely, it can do that for lots of people, even if you just come for a few hours. People come down and they don’t even fish, they just talk. It just the catharsis of being by the river, having a laugh and seeing a few fish come out.”