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Casting for Recovery: Healing through trout fishing

By Karen Grimes
From the September/October 2014 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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Casting for Recovery aims to help women recovering from breast cancer through trout fishing: Sylvia An eagle soars through crystal blue sky, drifting over gold-kissed leaves and limestone bluffs. Below her, clear, chilly waters from Siewers Spring wind through the trout hatchery at Decorah, where young fish whisper trout secrets amidst a crowd of weekend visitors. 

Perhaps curious, the eagle circles as an unusual cast assembles—14 women decked out alike in drab khaki waders, tan fishing vests and light tan hats sporting pink flies and purple lettering. They hail from all parts of Iowa, differing in backgrounds, incomes and interests. 

They share one commonality: their struggle with breast cancer. And for one weekend in the crisp October air, they can suspend their worries. Away from the doctors’ offices, the institutional rooms, the critical decisions: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy. The nagging questions: How much? How long? What if? Here, they can focus on placing a dry fly where a trout can’t resist it. Wellness. 

The eagle glides in to perch in a maple tree. The women point, ooh and ahh. Then chatting and laughing, they turn to the task at hand—taking a group picture to commemorate a weekend of shared laughter and tears, healing and compassion and mostly the freedom to absolutely be themselves.

The retreat is part of a national program, Casting for Recovery, to promote and support mental and physical healing for women with breast cancer. They’re allowed to be ruthlessly honest, share their fears, anger, hopes, knowledge and empathy as they face a future that’s largely unknown. 

As the women pair off with river helpers—excellent trout anglers and guides—each is greeted, “It’s an honor to serve you.” It’s a salute to the women’s courage and strength, and their decision to take part in an expenses-paid, three-day retreat aimed at meeting their social and psychological needs. While their physical conditions range from newly diagnosed, still in treatment, to those who’ve felt breast cancer’s advance and those holding it at bay, they are celebrating life. 

Anglers and guides grab fly rods and reels, leave the hatchery, past the world-famous Decorah eagles—favorites of 480 million webcam viewers—and turn north to fish the waters of Trout Run. 

Each pair picks a spot along the 2.2-mile trail which parallels Trout Run, running from the eagles’ nest to where the cold, clear waters of the stream join the Upper Iowa River. 

Kathy Leibold of Dyersville and her river helper, Kate Lodge, from Geneseo, Ill., trek through dew-glistened grass and luminescent spider webs to reach a high bank. Eight feet below, the stream glistens as it swirls over riffles and into a deeper pool. From this high bank, the water below is transparent, the pool’s surface calm. Lodge points to a shadow in the pool. Could it be a brookie or maybe a rainbow? 

Lodge and Leibold like the spot and there are no nearby trees to snag this nouveau fly fisher’s fly. Leibold tries her first cast. 

“Keep your thumb on top of the rod,” Lodge coaches. “Come up gently, get it straight, strength, get it out there. We want to get it farther and farther out there.”

After a few frustrating tries, Leibold’s fluorescent line sails out in a rhythmic swoosh. Swoosh. Swoo-oo. Whoonk. Woonk. The dry dogbane beetle fly lands perfectly, the leader invisible and just a small circle breaks the water’s surface. 

The repeated arm twirl needed to place the fly also stretches soft tissue, similar to exercises prescribed after surgery or radiation. The difference is: when fly fishing, the focus is on the cast, not the pain. 

“Gently, gently. Give it a little flip and then go up,” Lodge encourages. “There actually is a beetle that looks like this fly.”

Some casts fall short and some go awry, catching in the tall grass behind them. “There are weed gods and tree gods, and they will often take your fly,” Lodge philosophizes. 

Despite miscasts and no bites, Liebold is enthusiastic, “It’s been a great experience the whole weekend.”

Lodge relates to Liebold because she, too, has had breast cancer. “When you have cancer, you are alone. It’s really important to talk about the experience,” Lodge says. “You are going through so many things emotionally and physically. A doctor just can’t share in that. It’s important to have that connection with other women.”

Later in the morning Lodge and Liebold look to a spot they’ve abandoned, where another angler snares a trout. “Is this a buffet? We left that spot. They’ve caught five,” says Leibold indignantly. ”Maybe those fish don’t want their pictures taken.”

Casting for Recovery aims to help women recovering from breast cancer through trout fishing: Cheryl Hood and Jason Skoda | Iowa Outdoors magazineAlthough the angling today is catch and release, it’s hard not to envy those who are catching. One of the top catchers, Cindy Robinson, fishes from the bank, avoiding the chilly waters coursing through Trout Run. The stream never freezes and temperatures range from about 42 degrees on the coldest winter day to no more than 57 degrees on a hot August day. 

That’s what makes this nine-county area of Iowa special, according to Brian Malaise, DNR hatchery manager. Northeast Iowa is part of the driftless area, a never-glaciated, 25,000-square-mile chunk of four states. “Trout need cold, clear water to survive. Seventy degrees or colder. They prefer cooler,” he says. The springs bubbling out of limestone bluffs stay cold.

Mike Jacobs of Monticello, flytying teacher and owner of the business, Hawkeye Fly Tyer, helps Robinson learn the technique, pearlescent chartreuse line repeatedly circling in the air until laying the fly gently on the water surface, letting it drift downstream to catch the attention of a hungry rainbow. 

Left hand on the line, Robinson feels the trout strike, gently sets the hook and watches the rod bend, the silver body flexing on the end of the rod. Ernest Schwiebert, one of the founders of Trout Unlimited, once described it: “Our methods of seeking them are beautiful, and we find ourselves enthralled with the quicksilver poetry of the fish.”

Robinson’s excitement continues throughout the morning as she lands eight trout, nearly hooking five more. She revels in her success, the perfect sunny day, the scenery (so different from much of Iowa), the line unreeling in graceful descending loops to ultimately land on the rippling waters. 

“It’s been awesome to be around all these other women who’ve been through the same thing we’ve been through. We’ve learned a new sport. We’ve made best friends. I’m going to tell my husband a fly rod is what I want for Christmas. And I’m going to turn him into a fly fisherman.”

Trout Run is the most popular trout stream with residents of Winneshiek County, says Malaise. “Although trout anglers from across the state voted another Winneshiek County stream the most popular, North Bear Creek.” 

Part of the popularity comes from accessibility, part from the eagles. Trout Run is the most handicapped-accessible public trout stream in Iowa. The recreational path and flat topography make it an easy walk. Benches provide resting places. 

But the eagles. “In just one weekend last year, we had visitors from 28 states and two countries,” Malaise says. “One of our visitors came from Hawaii. She and her husband hadn’t had a vacation for five years. As an anniversary present her husband gave her a choice of destinations: Paris or Decorah. She chose Decorah to see the eagles.”

The sentinel eagle, wings outspread, glides across the stream from a nearby woodland. Jackets start to come off as the crisp, cool air of early morning warms up. Beneath the bicycle bridge, the water is shaded. Apparently this is where hungry trout hang out. 

“Good catch,“ says Deeann Richards to her neighbor on the streambank. 

Her river helper, Lisa Davis from Moline, Ill., is determined Richards will be successful. Davis changes flies. “I’m going to put on what we call a dry fly. We set it up such that feather material will set on top of the water, like an insect. I find a lot of luck with something called a caddis fly.”

The line swirls through the air, chartreuse green sparkling against the sky as the rod flexes and Richards hopefully casts the new fly. She shares that she was diagnosed as terminal when she was 27 years old. “I hate that they used to say, ‘You have five years.’ And here I am.” 

Casting for Recovery aims to help women recovering from breast cancer through trout fishing: Sylvia She survived the damning diagnosis, and it’s so far behind her she has two adult daughters. Both of them have had breast cancer and one is also at the event. “My daughter here is Terese. Richards’ oldest daughter, Nicolle, was pregnant with her second child when she found out she had breast cancer. She went through treatment and now her son is almost 3.”

Although she did not catch any fish, Richards says the event is wonderful.

River helper Robert Bernard of Urbandale puts a nymph on Judy Pertzborn’s line. “Today’s the culmination. They practiced casting and tying knots yesterday. They had some sessions listening to medical and psychological information. Judy’s good though. 

She’s smart. She learned how to catch weeds. One of the nice aspects of this Casting for Recovery, we’re all here to have fun and help people.” 

Like Lodge and other river helpers, he’s committed to this first event and ready to help out in the future. He’s also involved in REEL Recovery, a fly fishing cancer recovery group for men. 

In between casting, Pertzborn shares, “I’m so thankful to the Norrises for organizing this and the chance to talk. Here you can share things you maybe can’t talk about with your husband or your family. It’s nice just to step away and enjoy the weekend.”

It takes much planning, organization and money to host a state event. Cost alone for the participants runs about $1,000 to $1,300 per woman, according to Annette Norris, who with husband Kirk, brought the national program to Iowa. Avid fly anglers, the Norrises were flying back from a trout fishing trip when they read an inspiring article about Casting for Recovery. 

It was a natural progression for Kirk Norris, top administrator at the Iowa Hospital Association, to work with the national organization and state partners for an event here. He was well suited to recruit John Stoddard-Unity Point and Genesis Health System cancer centers, along with the IHA, as primary sponsors. 

Three national trainers provide volunteer training and staff this first Iowa event. “We are here to provide an opportunity for the women to be who they want to be right now,” says Susan Gaetz from Austin, Texas. “Scared. Mad. Happy. Distraught. Here it’s OK to say that and know someone who’s been through it will understand. It’s an opportunity to be themselves and bond with other women. We know that 70 percent of women who come to a retreat have never been to a support group.

“It’s not about the fishing. It’s when someone says, ‘I finally got distracted.’” It’s also a chance to learn from specialists. “We bring together breast care navigators, cancer or lymphodema specialists, physical therapists, sometimes oncologists,” adds Gaetz.

“I’m not a breast cancer survivor. I just love to fly fish,” coordinator Peg Miskin, from Hamilton, Mont, says. “I call it my control-alt-delete. It’s being in the moment.” Miskin says they select participants at random, aiming for a range of anglers. Only 14 are selected per event, with 10 or 12 alternates in case some cannot come.

Northeast Iowa is an ideal place to find peace and inspiration. Nestled amongst the rugged limestone cliffs, the sparkling waters emerge from their subterranean origins feeding 450 miles of trout streams.

Healing the waters by reducing sediment and pollutants has resulted in 72 streams that are fully naturally reproducing or showing signs—up from just six in the 1970s. 

Along with the psychosocial benefits, the rhythm of casting and being outdoors in beautiful surroundings help the women abandon cares and worries, if only for a few days. As Terese Stephenson of Des Moines says, while she grins and reels in her fifth trout, “The group of women has been really great. But it hasn’t been all about learning to fish. We’ve exchanged emails and we’re going to meet up at the Susan G. Komen walk.” 

Providing tools to live full lives after this devastating diagnosis was the aim of the founders, a breast cancer reconstructive surgeon and a professional fly fisher. Developed in 1996 in Manchester, Vt., Casting for Recovery focuses on healing, not research. As one participant proclaims on the national website, “Fly fishing is a metaphor for how we will live with our lives after breast cancer: stay focused and aware of what surrounds us, move slowly and with grace, and be fully present in what we are doing.” 

More information at www.castingforrecovery.org.
 

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