Have you ever wondered, “How many more years will I be able to fly fish?” I’ve tried to avoid that question for a long time, hoping that if I didn’t think about it, I’d never have to deal with the inevitable effects of an aging body. I love reading about old geezers who are 20 years my senior who fly fish regularly. Maybe that’ll be me when I’m four score and seven years.
But recently, I’ve had to stare the question of how many more fly fishing years I have left in the face. The most recent threat has been an arthritic left hip. Since November, my mobility has been very limited. And as such, so has my fly fishing.
One of the reasons I began fly fishing was because basketball had gotten to be too hard on my joints, golf was too expensive, and swimming just wasn’t much fun. I liked the challenge of fly fishing; I liked being out in the beauty of God’s creation; I liked being able to do it with a friend; and I felt some primal need was being met when wading across cold, rushing rivers.
But even fly fishing, a sport that is relatively easy on our old bodies, can get to be a bridge too far.
My arthritic hip keeps me from bending over and reaching down to my knees, from walking more than 50 yards at a time, and from lifting my foot more than 10 inches off the ground. For me, it’s move slowly or don’t move at all.
I’ve known other fly fishermen who have endured handicaps and continued to fish – back problems, eye problems, loss of balance, the shakes, knee and ankle issues. With the help of friends, they’ve been able to soldier on. I’ve known many with similar issues who have had to hang up their rods. Everyone is different, and as the great philosopher, Dirty Harry, advised us, a man’s got to know his limitations.
I tested my limitations a couple of times over the Christmas holidays while in Georgia. My son-in-law had access to some private water on the Soque River (pronounced so-KWEE). He told me that we could drive up to within 20 yards of the river and that the river bottom was mostly smooth and sandy along that stretch. Sounded perfect, so far.
But I had a sneaking suspicion there might be a problem when he told me there was a rope available to help fishermen get up and down the steep bank into the river.
The reputation of the Soque as one of the best places in Georgia to catch fish that were bigger than your net was enough to make me throw caution to the wind, and before I knew it, I was sliding down a slick bank and wondering if I would ever get back up it. My son-in-law and I caught seven to eight trout each in a couple of hours; he caught the monster of the day which literally would not fit in his net.
With a little bit of help, I managed to get back up the bank, but then I ran into another problem. I was so stiff that I couldn’t bend down far enough to untie my wading boots. I was beginning to learn that my handicap required me to ask others for help doing things that a child can do.
A few days later, Doover and I went fishing on Smith Creek, a delayed harvest stream in Unicoi State Park. I’ve fished it dozens of times before and I knew the section just below the dam would be the easiest to traverse with a gimpy hip. Since I couldn’t move real well, I wound up fishing each hole slowly and thoroughly.
Doover was as patient as NY Jets fan waiting on a trip to the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t fair to expect him to hang out with me in such a limited area. I finally persuaded him to work his way downstream to some of the areas that weren’t as heavily fished. After he left, I also began moving slowly downstream, fishing a streamer, and finding it easier to wade downstream than upstream.
About the time I was ready to call it a day, I slipped on a rock and fell forward on my knees. I was in about eight inches of water so I wasn’t in any danger of drowning, but it was so weird to be there on my hands and knees and not being able to stand up. With my waders on and several layers of clothing, I didn’t have the flexibility to get my feet under me to push myself up.
I thought about that TV commercial with the lady on the bathroom floor saying, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Could that be me? I’ve always thought of myself as being physically able to do anything. Now, just a stupid hip problem has made me so vulnerable. It was really humbling.
Do I call for help? Do I crawl to the bank and find a tree to use as leverage? I needed something with which to hold onto to pull myself up. Fortunately, I had an adjustable walking stick with me and was able to shorten it to about 24” and I was able to push myself up with it.
The experience didn’t scare me so much as it made me fear for my future as a fly fisherman. What if it had been in deeper water? Is it safe for me to go out by myself? Am I that close to the end of my fly fishing days?
Doover was kind enough to fetch the truck from where we parked it and drive it where I didn’t have as far to walk. He had a good day down the river bringing many trout to hand.
I only caught four, but these days, each trout is sweeter than ever before.
Yesterday, I was scheduled for hip replacement surgery. I had the other hip replaced 15 years ago so I knew my quality of life would improve with a new hip. I got to the hospital at 5:30 am, went through the tedious check-in procedures, got in that ridiculous gown with the hole in the back, answered all the questions about my meds, and got an IV.
The last thing was the Covid test. I tested positive. They gave me another test. I tested positive again. They sent me home without a new hip. The next opening for surgery is March 24. I’m a little bummed.
Do you have a handicap? Have you been able to compensate, or has it put an end to your fishing? Any advice for me, or suggestions of good books, until I get a new hip and it becomes stable enough to meet that primal need to walk across a river?