Fly Fishing While Handicapped

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.

This Pat’s Rubber Legs eater was the first of the day. Small, but sweet to me.

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.

This one didn’t fit in the net. The log on the left is where we climbed up and down the bank.

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?


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23 thoughts on “Fly Fishing While Handicapped

  1. Your hip replacement will, as you already know, reopen a lot of water to you. 6 mths you can be throwing a fly again. A year, can maybe be back to where you were a year or more ago. Also, carry a second collapsible staff, the new “hiking” poles are very easy to adjust, strong, and close to a manageable length that doesn’t have to be a nuisance if you need them. Yeh, probably makes sense to always go with a partner now. That’s a small compromise vs no fishing. I don’t go ice climbing anymore, especially solo. Had a knee replacement and couple of big toe jt replacements and they all seem to settle in after a year or so. Almost feel normal (sort of).
    Big concern right now is thumb base arthritis. The surgery is pretty drastic I think. If anyone out there has any post op experience with respect to fly fishing (or XC skiing, sailing, and such) would appreciate sharing it.
    That “aging gracefully” is crap reserved for wealthy socialites or something, who don’t have to do a lot of their own “labor”, or go out to the challenges nature can offer. But we have the cards we are dealt, and can only do the best we can.
    I am thankful for the TU Forum for the feedback that made me feel much more positive about the possible impact on my activities of choice following my knee replacement. For the most part, I am able to do most of the fishing I did before, and have been able to sail, XC and downhill ski (within some bounds) and other things.
    Keep asking people for their experiences and advise. Do it til you just can do it no more. Then do it a few times again and find something else to enjoy about it.
    Best of luck with your hip replacement. I empathize. Maybe see you stream/shore side and commiserate over a snack and rest. Keep those bones and muscles moving!!!!

  2. to Doug Carter I had the thumb base repair 3 years ago wit no problems and since then no more pain
    Find an orthopedic doc you like and do it I haven’t got any additional problems with fishing or sculling other than my loops are too big when I cast and I still am the slowest shell on the river

    1. Is the loop problem related to the thumb surgery? Or just an enjoyable excuse for being human while fly fishing? haha thanks

  3. I empathize. With me it’s hand and vision issues that now make simply tying on a fly an exercise in frustration on top of not being anywhere near as steady wading or even getting to the stream as I once was.

    Keeping my arthritic fingers crossed that your hip replacement goes well and as scheduled, and that you gain back a lot of fishing options and opportunities as you recover.

    1. Walt, I also have the arthritis in fingers and impaired vision so I had the same problems with tying on flies, particularly when going out to the Swift River where #24 flies and 7 or even 8 x leader are the order of the day. I remembered the snelled hooks of my youth and using that model I started “snelling” my small flies and tippets. I tie the fly on the tippet at my fly tying desk under good light and my magnifying glass with no distractions then I put a simple loop on the end. The length of the tippet is whatever it needs to be from 8 inches to 18″. I then put the same type of loop on the end of my leader and add a fly by doing a simple loop to loop connection. When I need to change flys I have to cut the old one off and loop to loop the next one. Not as good ,maybe, then a traditional blood knot but very my easier. I keep the snelled flies stored on old tippet spools so they do not get tangled in a fly box.
      I will turn 70 in a few months and I feel the effects of aging every day. But like Dylan Thomas wrote “I will not go gently into that dark night”
      Good luck

  4. I certainly feel your pain. I have only been able to get to the river twice in the last 3 years now after my stroke 3 years ago this month. And I fell each time. Too dizzy still and off balance. It’s just not getting any better. And my whole body strength is waning as a result. Same problems just trying to get up off the floor to stretch and exercise. Can’t imagine what would happen now if I fell in the river.

    I have tried to figure out how I could retrofit a walker to use while in the river as a wading staff (or 2) just doesn’t cut it to save my balance. I know it would be a bizarre sight. Too many people would have to shake their head and think “This guy really shouldn’t be here”. If I tried now, they would probably have to fish the body out. But if they find a nice 20” trout on the end of my line, they would know I went out a happy man.

    I really need a robotic exoskeleton but Medicare doesn’t offer that option.

    I too have dealt with arthritis in my thumbs, toe, knee, and hip but have avoided surgery by been able to cure it with a certain supplement that no doctor will tell you about. You can e-mail me if interested. Jo has my e-mail.

    Unless something miraculously happens, I fear that my flyfishing days may be over. And I just can’t sit by a lake in a lawn chair and throw bait. Not for me.
    It’s been some party.

    1. Hi Bob.
      Sorry to hear. How about from a guide boat? I did that when recovering from knee replacement and when unable to walk due to a herniated disk.
      And there are placewhere u can put a chair in the water to cast from. Just need to go with someone who appreciates your desire to enjoy the water, and doesn’t mind helping. It’s not the same freedom. But it’s not the prison of being denied either.
      As for your alt treatment for arthritis. Please share. Especially the thumb problem. Both are killing me even with injections every 3-6 mths. And I have a long awaited trip to Iceland coming up.
      Doug Carver

      1. Doug. I am more than happy to share how I dealt with my arthritis. The pain in my thumbs bases and my knee where getting very painful. I figured I’d be needing replacements down the road. A chiropractor told me about this stuff and I no longer have any pain there for years now. Arthritis is an inflammation and dealing with root cause rather than the effects is the way to go. This is a cure, not a pain killer.
        My e-mail is bo****@ya***.com. We are all in this boat together.

        1. ugh. email won’t show. So I’m going to try coding mine. Mine begins with “carver”. Then an old adress I had began with “3781”. My email has always been at (@) aol which is a dot com

    2. Hy Bob, flyfisherman from the Netherlands. For me it’s almost the same. A have a hard time to walk balance and stand. Found a hunters walking stick. The top folds out so I can sit/lean back on it. Takes the Weight of. Works for me

      1. I guess I would have to see what kind of a set up that looks like. Do you have a link to Amazon of that item? Nothing has improved in my situation so far. I dream of the good old days on the rivers.

        1. Hy Bob,

          You can search in Amazon Ossenberg zitstok.
          It’s translate as sitting stick. Look at the picture and all wil be clear. Hope that with this you get some of the good old days back. Thight lines ki*********@ho*****.com

  5. Thank you for your lamentations, Bill. Dang – sorry for the postponement on the hip. After reading others’ musings, I think I’m encouraged – I will grow older, I will fly-fish, I may need to find kinder rivers than my previous local favorites.
    Bill, your Lamentations helped my soul. Now write your Romans.

  6. Good to see Hobie actually catching something and tell him hey from me. First time I found out I needed reading glasses was trying to tie a fly on one early morning at dawn. It literally felt like one morning I could see, the next I couldn’t and 15 mins later, I still hadn’t gotten the tippet through the eye. I’ve noticed I don’t jump from rock to rock like I used to and I move slower as well. Hope I have another 25 years left in me.

    1. At this point, it may be the quality not the quantity that we focus on. Probably should have done that from the beginning. But when the calendar is as infinite as it is, BEFORE you realize that YOUR calendar isn’t, things change. And there are no hands that can turn the pages back.

  7. Might want to start focusing on Stillwater Fly fishing? Lots of trout ponds in Maine and warm water fishing in MA is a blast at times.

  8. Came across your blog while brousing. .impressed by comments and would encourage all to keep trying. I’m 94 and about to fish 3 days floating the Muskegon tiver for smallmouth.I’d rather wade for trout…it’s different magic,..but hey, magic is magic.This might be my river swan song, but,I’ll settle for a pond that I know has at least one fish, cast from a lawn chair and remind myself how come it’s magic.

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