Back in 2002 I was enjoying a long, detailed introduction
to fly fishing. Paying attention to advice from friends
and online gurus, I had taken a course in fly fishing and
another on fly tying from Jon Cave (the creator of Cave's
Wobbler) at the local community college. My total fly
fishing experience at that time was a little over two
years, and as well as fishing locally in saltwater, I had
been fortunate enough to have taken guided float trips on
the Flathead River in Montana and the Snake River near
Jackson Hole. I had also experienced the extreme pleasure
of fly fishing in Yellowstone.
In those days I practiced a lot. Near my home there is a
small park, and in that park is a pond. It's just a
retention pond, really, but it contains some bass and bluegills.
Most mornings would find me at pond's edge with a five-weight
in my hands, casting away with a small popper. I did catch
a few fish – there was the 3-pound largemouth that got my
heart pumping – but the effort was really to practice fly
casting, putting into practice what I had learned in my classes.
I practiced casting with either hand; I was better left-handed,
but I could cast with both. I had always been somewhat
ambidextrous. I've always cast spinning tackle right-handed,
but cast bait casters left-handed. I learned that I could
switch off hands with the fly rod, depending on where the
wind was coming from.
It's ironic that I had not taken up fly fishing much sooner.
My mother likes to tell the story of how, when she was
pregnant with me, she would scull the little jon boat so
that my father could fly fish for bass in the sloughs of
the Warrior River in Alabama. But by the time I was old
enough to take up fishing, my dad was using conventional
tackle, so that's what he taught me. I missed my
opportunity early in life, so I made up for it with the
enthusiasm of a new, fascinating hobby later in life.
Everything changed, though, on April 5, 2002. On that day
I suffered a stroke. The doctors have a fancy name for it,
but it was simply a burst blood vessel in my brain. I was
lucky and made it to the emergency room very quickly, so
the stroke was treated right away. Within hours I was in
the operating room undergoing brain surgery to remove the
blood clot and relieve the pressure.
The next few months were a blur of hospitals, doctors, nurses,
and therapists. I had physical therapists, occupational
therapists, speech therapists, vestibular (balance) therapists –
even a driving therapist so that I could be cleared to return
to driving. I even had a therapist to treat a therapy injury,
a torn rotator cuff. During all this time my wife patiently
drove me to and from all the doctor's appointments, tests, and
therapy appointments. In another irony, my wife's profession
is physical therapy. But she told me quite firmly, "I'm your
wife and I love you, but I'm not going to be your therapist!"
During all this recovery time, of course, there was no fly
fishing, at least outside of my imagination. At a time when
I couldn't walk without using a walker, when I couldn't talk
clearly, when my right side wouldn't do what I told it to do,
I was taking mental trips to Slough Creek, the Yellowstone River,
Soda Butte Creek, and the Madison. I would put myself in a
drift boat floating down the Snake River, casting for cutts
with the Tetons flowing by above me.
After a few months of this I graduated from the walker to a
cane. My gait was still stumbling; the stroke injured the
part of my brain that processed the signals from my inner ear,
so my sense of balance is permanently gone. But I learned
to compensate by using my vision and the input from my legs
and feet to balance. Soon I was ready.
I put a fly rod in the car and drove down to the pond.
With the cane in one hand and my fly rod in the other, I
managed to walk to the water's edge. I congratulated
myself just for getting there, and it was wonderful.
The sun was out and there was a slight breeze blowing,
making small waves on the water. I breathed in the air,
a slight piscatorial aroma came to my nostrils, and I
felt like I had come home.
I stripped off some line and quickly discovered that I
can no longer cast with my right hand – it just won't
carry out my orders faithfully and accurately (there's
a medical term for it, ataxia). But I could still cast
left-handed just fine. There were some interesting
adjustments I had to make, of course. Turning my head
to watch my line on the back cast caused some interesting
things to happen with my balance. Casting left-handed
forced my right hand to act as my line-hand, so shooting
line and trying to double-haul were quite challenging.
(Even today, almost five years down the recovery road,
my double-haul is not reliable.)
But I could fly fish, by golly! Looking back, I can just
see that fellow now, a guy standing by the side of the
pond, walking cane leaning against his leg, casting a
fly rod. Since then we have been on annual vacations
out west that included fly fishing. The first couple
of years after the stroke, my wife arranged for wheelchair
service at the airports. I must have looked pretty odd,
being pushed around the airports in a wheelchair, fly rod
tubes in hand!
John on the Yellowstone in YNP after the stroke!
Since that first day I've been down to the pond many times.
I've found that both my practice times and my fishing times
are shorter than they used to be because my stamina is much
reduced. But I can do it, and whereas before the stroke
fly fishing was an enthusiastic hobby, now it feels like
a gift from God. Someone once said that when you hook a
fish, you feel the tug of the universe. I think I know
what he means. ~ John Howell - "FlyFlinger"