Age, pain and apologies

As we anglers age, we face unavoidable, inevitable truths
flats casting from bow of skiff
Still on the bow. For now (photo: Chad Shmukler).

I woke up one morning late last month and felt like I’d been doing sit-ups all night. Not that doing calisthenics in my sleep would necessarily be a bad thing, but the muscles in my gut had clearly been involuntarily enlisted into some sort of nocturnal enterprise, and not one I consciously approved of.

As time wore on, the muscle pain subsided, but the internal stuff kept going. A quick trip to urgent care revealed kidney stones and gallstones to be the culprits—common afflictions among men my age and especially among those who could stand to take better care of themselves—neither of which are particularly pleasant. If you’ve ever confronted kidney stones, you know my dilemma. Gallstones are less onerous, but consistently bothersome. And they alter your reality. For an avid angler, this isn’t a good thing.

I’ve been pretty much on the couch since. We did take a trip to the South Fork when the cottonwoods were in their full fall glory, and I soldiered through a day’s wading, wishing the whole time that my water bottle was full of Pepto. Or morphine. But mostly, I’ve been laid up and in a grouchy mood because of it. That my predicament is largely self-inflicted—gallstones are usually the product of a less-than-healthy diet—has made the situation all the more disagreeable.

As we anglers age, we face the unavoidable, inevitable truth that we won’t be able to continue doing all of the things we’ve always done. I started noticing this on a trip to Mexico last spring, where standing for long spells on the casting platform was no longer an option. I lacked the balance and the confidence to get up there and double haul without tumbling into the drink. On my home waters, where I like to wander off the beaten path and chase wild fish in small water, I’ve come to realize that stepping down off the bank into the creek requires a new set of moves. Even just a modest step into the water that I wouldn’t have thought twice about a few years ago has become terrifying—on more than one occasion I’ve actually had to sit down and slide into the water like an old man.

And, for a beefy guy staring 50 in the face, I guess that’s to be expected. I can’t do anything about age but the rest is on me.

My daughter graduates high school this year. Earlier this fall she had her senior photos taken at Grand Teton National Park. The shots were beautiful, complete with the Tetons in the background boasting fresh snow and brilliantly perfect autumn aspens. She even had a series of photos taken in her formal dress, standing shin-deep in the water casting her fly rod.

It was her ode to me. Her old man. For years, she’s been my most consistent fishing buddy. She’s fished with me since she was old enough to hold her head up in the baby backpack. She’s traipsed all over Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with me, chasing trout in far-flung waters, putting up with long drives, gas-station burritos and Margaritaville radio. Last summer, we spent two weeks in southeast Alaska, wandering all over the rainforest in pursuit of trout, salmon and char. She braved bear trails and thickets of devil’s club. She endured hours in cars, on boats, in planes and on foot. She fished and she fished hard. And she did it for me. I’ve never loved her so much.

As she flipped through her senior photos, showing off the images of her casting in her formal gown, I was in the midst of a true, gut-wrenching rebellion—my insides wanted to be on the outside, or so it felt. So rather than mist up and tell her how beautiful she looked and how thoughtful it was to take pictures for me of her casting her fly rod in a formal gown, I grimaced in pain and said, “Your form is off in this one. I bet that cast piled at your feet.”

She was devastated. She’d clearly invested a lot of thought into the photos—and, of course, standing bare-legged in a trout stream in October at 6,5000 feet couldn’t have been entirely pleasant. That I didn’t immediately notice the sacrifice and the love—devoted solely to me—is an indicator of just how scrambled my senses were as the pain crawled through my guts. I immediately felt like an ass for such thoughtless behavior. Yes, my innards were in a twist, and I could barely stand the agony, but that was no excuse.

Being in pain sucks. Getting old sucks. Being the victim of your own less-than-ideal habits sucks. As a friend pointed out to me recently, “If you biked twice a week and lost 40 pounds, you could stand on that bow all day long.” And ... I bet I wouldn’t have been such a jerk to my daughter.

Letting life’s self-inflicted consequences dive into your psyche and twist your perspective really sucks.

So to my daughter, I offer this:

The guy whining and groaning on the couch with the grimace on his face… that guy loves you and has from the moment you blessed his life with your presence. That he didn’t recognize your investment and your sacrifice is inexcusable. It was a wonderful gesture, one forged from love, and that’s never a bad thing. Forgive him this once, please.

But most of all, thank you for being his fishing buddy. For that, he’ll always think your cast is perfect.

And if you need him anytime soon, he’ll be at the gym.


Here's one for you. With two fake knees and a fake, non-casting, shoulder, on the sixth day of a seven day trip to Xcalak, Mexico, I had a slam (tarpon, permit, bonefish). The arthritis in the casting shoulder was killing me, and so I told the guide we would not be fishing the next day. The look of unbelieving on his face, after the slam, was almost as great a reward as would have been another slam the last day. Almost.

I have emergency surgery last February for kidney stones. The cheapest cure is a Magnesium Citrate pill twice a day (1000 mg). Hope that is helpful for other aging anglers!

I hear you. I always remind myself of the adage "Getting old is not for the faint of heart.". At 68 with a bad foot (severely injured at age 6), arthritis in the left knee, three rotator cuff surgeries, tennis elbow and a host of other little things it is clear that aging is taking its toll. Just finished 4 days in the Eastern Sierra and trying to figure out which body part to ice first. Having said all that, I'm reminded of the James Taylor song that says the beauty of life is enjoying the passage of time. Doing all I can to enjoy the trip and not be to disappointed when I have to leave the river after a few hours when my heart wants to stay and keep at it. There is tomorrow.

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With herniated disks L2-S1, I find it difficult at times to get around. However, after reading your piece, I am determined to get out again. Tight lines to all.

Your posting hit home. In the last six months I have found arthritis in one knee and both thumbs.
It scares the hell out of me to think I can not hold a fly rod without dealing with pain. Practice casting this winter has been painful. Due to see the doctor in a few days, but not too hopeful from what I have read.
I have recovered from gallstones, and two rotator cuff surgeries, but arthritis is like a no cure event. I guess we will see what drugs do. How does one live when they can not cast a fly rod????????

For many years I had my thumb on the cork. Then arthritis. Now I just wrap my hand around the cork....looks kind of goofy, and takes some practice to get used to, but doesn't hurt. Might not have worked on the 10 Wt, but those days are over, and 5 Wt is easy.