It’s easy to understand the appeal of fly fishing to nature lovers.

The meditative repetition of casting and reeling while standing in the midst of serene wildlife brings much-needed peace and escape from our fast-paced reality. 

But something that isn’t as easy to understand is cancer. The emotional toll it brings upon its victims and their loved ones can be harder to see than the physical toll.

Stewart “Stu” Brown understood both the peace in fly fishing and the hardships of cancer. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Stu devoted his last few months of life to helping other men dealing with cancer “experience the healing serenity that fly-fishing had offered him.” Thus; Reel Recovery was born. 

Photo by Geep Schurman

Founded in 2003 by Stu and a group of avid fly-fishers, Reel Recovery brings men fighting cancer into the outdoors for an expense-free weekend of fly fishing. Their mission is to help men “gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of cancer.” Equipment, food, and lodging are provided, including a professional fly-fishing guide that works one-on-one with them. Many who come are first time fishers!

“When I first heard of Reel Recovery at one of my cancer support groups, I couldn’t think of anything better,” one participant said. “This is my first year here and I’ve just loved meeting all the guys, hearing about their stories, and understanding that my situation is not all that unique to me – that there are many things that they have in common. We shared all those in the last few days.”

Gary Parsons, a supporter and volunteer for Reel Recovery, learned about the program at a Prostate Cancer support group after having undergone surgery for his cancer in 2014. He went on his first retreat in 2017 and found it to be a very “powerful and rewarding experience” and has been hooked ever since.

“Men can sometimes feel they are expected to have it all together,” Parsons said with his Reel Recovery hat and bracelet on. “It’s eye-opening to have a place where they can talk about their feelings and fears and relate to one another. The bonds you form while here are so special.”

Photo by Geep Schurman

The impact the program has had is evident by the fly fishing vests each participant wears, signed by every man who wore it during his time in the program.

“The vests are just a physical reminder of the connection we all have and that we are truly not alone,” Parsons pointed out as he admired all the signatures on one of the vests. 

Photo by Geep Schurman

The same love for the program that continues to bring Parsons back to the program brought fly-fishing guide Phil Stevens back for his fifth time.

“I never really gave thought to the emotional toll the disease can have on the person or their families, spouses, caregivers,” Stevens explains. “I, of course, understood the physical, but by working with the men it greatly opened my eyes. I am very fortunate to get to work with some of the most gracious people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. This is my 5th time working with Reel Recovery and I plan to do as many as I can.”

Photo by Geep Schurman

Reel Recovery is not only offering an expense-free fishing excursion, it’s also offering a sense of understanding and community. It’s a weekend where men battling cancer can express themselves with directed “courageous conversations,” form bonds with new friends, and feel understood without needing to give an explanation. All while experiencing beautiful rivers and learning/developing a new skill.

“I learned a lot about myself,” participant John Schwarz said. “It made me feel that I wasn’t alone.”

Photo by Geep Schurman

In their closing conversation, the men came together in a circle and connected their hands in the center. The leader asked the group, “what have you taken away from this?” One by one the men answered:

  • “Communicate with your caregiver, with your spouse, with your loved ones, ”
  • “Care for your caregiver”
  • “I learned more about cancer and the different types, I have prostate and it was a very educational process for the other types”
  • “Give thanks to the caregivers”
  • “Sharing”
  • “Comradery and fellowship”
  • “I’m not alone”
  • “Live on and be healthy”
  • “The new friends we made this week”
  • “I gotta go with the fishing. I absolutely loved the fishing and the new hobby that spawned from this and that you guys were apart of it. Thank you”

The buttons on their Reel Recovery hats says it best, “Cancer Sucks.” But Stu said it better when he wrote in the dirty window of his friend’s truck before leaving a fishing trip for a doctor’s appointment, “Be Well! Fish On!” 

Photo by Gary Parsons

To learn more and to donate to this special program click HERE

Below photos by Geep Schurman