Trout season is staring to pick up in a lot of states, and with it is the launch of the Reel Recovery season as well.

Reel Recovery is a non-profit group that takes men with cancer (of any stage, including remission) on destination-based fishing retreats. Based out of Maine, Reel Recovery has retreats in 13 states. I had the blessing to participate in the Wisconsin retreat last year.

The Reel Recovery retreat consists of an average of 32 men: 13 men with cancer and 19 volunteers and staff. “The program for Reel Recovery is simple,” explained Robert Bernard, coordinator of the event. “We take men with cancer out fly fishing. They (the participants) get their hotel and meals paid for. We (the program) provide them with all the fishing gear necessary, some fly casting lessons, and a fishing buddy to help them along the way.”

The two-and-a-half day event consists of workshops called courageous conversations where the participants are encouraged to talk about their experiences with the disease, opening and closing ceremonies, fly casting lessons, and three fishing trips: two three-hour trips and one six-hour trip, each time paired with a different fishing buddy.

The retreat started out with an introduction to the program with the staff, volunteers, and participants. After dinner, the participants went to their private conference room for their first courageous conversation while the staff and volunteers held their meeting. “I want you to understand something,” Mike Fidler, the event facilitator, told me. “We are here for the men in that room over there. Our job is to make sure they are comfortable and having a good time. Fishing is one-third of the core of this retreat. The largest portion is going to be camaraderie and fun.”

The next day, the retreat started off with the opening ceremony, where the men are assigned their fishing gear and sign the fishing vest they are about to wear–a tradition in Reel Recovery. Fidler explained the reasoning, “Every man in every Reel Recovery Retreat signs the vest. Most of the participants are with us today–some are not. The ones who are not physically with us are with us in spirit.” Then the participant got paired up with their first fishing buddy and headed over to a riverside park to meet with media, get some fly casting classes, and do some fishing. The men caught largemouth bass and bluegill.

After lunch, the group went on the second outing, a six-hour excursion. Due to the geographic area of the Onalaska location, the men went to different streams in the area. Many of the area streams are easily accessed from the road and provide a vantage point for people of many different abilities to fish. What I found interesting is how the men gathered at two different pools. “I love this area, it’s simply beautiful and peaceful, yet so close to town,” said Ted Larrison, staff psychologist. “I stopped by one location, and guys weren’t even fishing. There were fly rods laying all over the place, and guys were sitting on the ground and rocks just chatting, taking it all in. THIS is what Reel Recovery is all about.”

The last day consisted of the final fishing trip and the closing ceremony, where the participants form a circle and the volunteers and fishing buddies form an outer circle around the participants. The staff psychologist walks around the inside of the participants’ circle, places his hand on the chest of each angler, and offers words of encouragement. At the end of the ceremony, the volunteers and fishing buddies give each fisherman a box of flies as a gift.

“There are many firsts at this retreat that made Onalaska unique,” Findler said at the finale. “In a normal retreat, we would have the lodging located right on the water so guys can come and go, and we would have the guys fishing close to each other on a river or a pond. Here in Onalaska the hotel is nowhere near the water, and we have guys scattered all over. We have guys fishing on the Mississippi River in NuCanoes, we have guys on three different trout streams, and we have guys in boats God knows where. And for the first time in Reel Recovery history, we have a participant giving a fishing buddy a casting lesson. I love it!”

Reel Recovery is always looking for participants, volunteers, and donations. To learn more on how you can contribute to Reel Recovery or find a retreat in your area, visit their website at

Image by Anthony Larson

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