Reel Recovery – Helping men fight cancer

Signing the vest and adding strength upon strength

“This is a sacred moment,” Stan Golub, the executive director of Reel Recovery, said, as a group of men wrote their name on a flyfishing vest before starting a day of flyfishing along the Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone National Park.

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 by a group of avid fly anglers inspired by their fishing buddy’s ongoing battle with brain cancer. It’s a national non-profit organization that conducts free flyfishing retreats for men recovering from life-threatening cancer. Combining flyfishing instruction with directed “courageous conversations,” the organization offers the men a time to share stories, learn new skills, form friendships and gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of recovery.

One of the organization’s traditions is that they wear vests previously worn and signed by previous participants. “This is our legacy here,” Golub, said, “think of this as a river of strength. And remember that someone, a few years from now, will be wearing this vest and sharing your strength.”

Golub, who lives in Needham, Massachusetts, was one of the founders of the organization and is the organization’s only employee. The core of the program is a network of volunteers who organize retreats, facilitate discussions, and, of course, take participants fishing. This past week at a retreat held at Dome Mountain Ranch, a number of area fishing guides, and this reporter, took days off from guiding to become “fishing buddies” for participants.

I was a buddy for Josh, a computer programmer from Missoula, who is recovering from throat cancer. Last year he went through surgery and radiation for his cancer, losing several months of work as he coped with his illness. Josh, as it turns out, is an experienced angler, so didn’t need any instruction and when we went to a private pond on the ranch, did well, latching onto seven nice trout.

That afternoon, I was a buddy for Jim, a retired rocket scientist (really) from Hamilton, as we floated with Randy Kittelson, a Presbyterian minister and flyfishing fanatic from Denver. Randy was at the retreat as a facilitator, with a unique perspective, in that he first came to the program as a volunteer, and then as a participant after he came down with prostate cancer—his second serious bout with cancer. Unfortunately, Jim, a beginning angler, didn’t catch any fish though we didn’t feel bad about it. It seems that if you didn’t have the right fly, the fish weren’t hitting. The hot fly, it turns out, was a lavender-bodied grasshopper imitation.

Why trout would prefer a lavender hopper makes no sense. Surely they’ve never seen a real bug like that, but sometimes that’s how it works.

Reel Recovery, which initially received some money from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, held its first retreat in June 2003 in Loveland, Colorado, and did their second retreat in October of that year.  In 2004, they held six retreats. In 2011, they’ll be holding 19 retreats in 14 states. Retreats are free for participants, and Reel Recovery gets funding from a number of foundations, corporations, Trout Unlimited chapters and fishing clubs, as well as local fundraisers.

Though participating in a Reel Recovery retreat is generally a one-time event, many past participants come back as volunteers, often acting as facilitators and starting retreats in states that previously hadn’t had retreats.

Of course, some people also get hooked on flyfishing and one facilitator remarked that he’d heard from the wife of a participant that her husband came home, went to a flyshop and bought one of everything. She was ecstatic. “He finally has a reason to get out of the house.”

“We encourage the men to stay in contact,” Golub said. “We hear that many of the guys get together regularly and they’ve become the best of friends.”

Participants go out, Golub concludes, “To have fun, get a break from their routine and to get a new perspective on dealing with cancer. Certainly, they get to know other people whom they can relate to in a special way.”

Finally, Reel Recovery’s motto: Be well; fish on.

For more information, they’re online at