An angler ages

The choices we make when we're young pay dividends—both good and bad—as we age
fly fishing patagonia - rio malleo
Photo: Chad Shmukler

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late
I've done a bit of smuggling, I've run my share of grass
I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast
Never meant to last, never meant to last
—Jimmy Buffett, A Pirate Looks at 40

If you’re under 40, you don’t need to read this. Better you just go about your life, wistfully believing that everything is just fine. No need to give that little tinge of pain in your knee another thought — you know, that little sharp sting that shoots up your leg when you step just a little bit funny. Or that dull throb in your hip after a day on the trail. That slight burn in your lower back brought on by that high-school basketball injury that magically reappears after a day spent standing in the bow of a boat? Don’t give it a second thought.

Just go fishing.

Don’t worry about it. It’s probably nothing. And, as they say, ignorance is bliss.

I once heard a comedian (and forgive me — I can’t remember his name) deliver a line that blissfully defines youth.

“When you’re 30, you can stand in front of a mirror and stab yourself repeatedly and literally watch the wounds heal before your very eyes,” the comic said, or something very close to this. “When you’re 40, and you drop your keys and then accidentally kick them under the car, you just throw up your hands, exasperated, and say, ‘To hell with it. I’ll buy a new car.’”

Well, I’m 53. I’m two reconstructive surgeries into my post-40 existence (and several cars, too), and, as you read this, I’ll hopefully be recovering from a gallbladder removal surgery. I say hopefully, because… well, you never know at this age (I realize I sound like the stereotypical old man, but, if the shoe fits …).

This is a problem I’ve likely had for years. Gallstones can be tricky beasts — they can flare up and limit the bile secretion from your liver into your digestive system, and, during a particularly flamboyant attack, they can make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut by Almádena del Diablo, a rodeo bull I once saw flatten a cowboy at the Eastern Idaho State Fair.

Sure, it’s largely a self-inflicted condition — too much goodness in my life, as far as I can tell. Red meat. Red wine. Fish and chips. Beer.

And, honestly, the gallbladder isn’t the point here. It’s the aging. There’s no doubt I’m slowing down. And no, I don’t necessarily want to slow down — I just don’t have a choice.

Just a few years ago, the thought of going months without picking up a fly rod seemed absolutely unforgivable. These days, often days spent feeling just a bit off thanks to this innards issue, I need a better reason to load my gear in the truck and go. Generally, it’s just too cold. Or maybe too hot. Or the drive is too far. Excuses? I got ‘em.

I realize that fly fishing is one of those pursuits that we can practice well into our doddaring years. But as the doddaring years get closer, there’s also a motivation issue, particularly when things just don’t feel right. I know that when I spend a day on the water, I’m going to come home and be sore. I know my rebuilt shoulder (reconstructive surgery No. 1) will feel … tired. I know my fused lower back (reconstructive surgery No. 2) will be a little angry with me, and I’ll reach for the ibuprofen to improve its mood. But the gallbladder? It doesn’t take a day walking and wading a small stream to irritate this mercurial organ. It just takes a good ribeye and a glass of malbec to piss this thing off.

So, yeah. I did the obvious stuff. I cut back on good ribeyes and solid Argentinian wines. But at some point, the damage is done, right? You can’t really “unmake” gallstones, but there are some holistic treatments that declare they are an effective salve against the worst of the pain (and, yes, I’ve tried them). And there’s no telling when these finicky bastards are going to decide to make your day pretty miserable. And it’s not just the pain. It’s a general malaise. Like, “I’m going to take a nap over my lunch break” malaise.

And that’s just not me. Or at least it wasn’t me. But these days, there’s rarely a time when a nap doesn’t sound like a pretty good idea.

So, under the knife I go, and I’ll hopefully emerge feeling a bit better and perhaps a bit more motivated to get out and do things. Like … go fishing.

But for you youngsters out there, don’t fret. I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’re living large right now, and I don’t begrudge your fishing-every-other-day lifestyle one bit. I did it when I could. I can’t expect you to do differently.

But, if you’re still reading (and you haven’t gone fishing yet), know that, in time, it’ll all catch up to you. I suppose, had I listened to my throbbing lower back and sciatica when it first flared up in my 30s, I might have been able to avoid the back fusion. And the shoulder? Meh… that was bound to happen, given all the bad casting I’d done over the years (I will say this, though: the bum shoulder forced me to be a better, more efficient fly caster).

Living hard and fast takes a toll. And now, with the toll due, I wonder if I should have made some better choices all those years ago.

No … pretty sure I’d still have gone fishing.


He speaks the truth….me, there, right now.
Humbling, but clarifying.

Many of us in the "fourth quarter of the game" can identify with your laments. At 53 you're still a kid. But changes are a comin'.....switch over to veggies, Bran Buds, and water. Let the rod do more work on the cast. Maybe even, consider learning to spey cast. Save up $'s for the next vehicle. Your GB, shoulder, and back will thank you. :)

70 years old, in Montana 30 years fishing my ass off on the wade, in the bow and at the oars. Hit the gym at 50, get fit and stay fit.

Get a grip. I’m 76 and fished near 100 days last year. I showed up at a local pond and I was the youngest there. The others were 78.


I can relate to everything that you said in your piece, “An Angler Ages.” I am bit older than you, soon turning 70, but my brain is just now catching up with my aching body. I too have had reconstructive surgeries, two knee replacements and my casting shoulder is hooked on IBUPROFEN. However, I have found better medicine, grandkids! My wife and I recently moved in order to be able to spend more time with them. My 7 yr old grandson loves going Fly Fishing with me. He gets the biggest smile on his face when he gets a hook set on a Trout. That enthusiasm of youth is enough to keep me sharp enough in order to keep teaching him the skills that he will need to keep improving. So, you just might be in a lull. Just wait until you can take a grandchild fishing.
Tight lines,

Love it! Describes exactly how I feel as I lay here on my couch with an ice pack, waiting for the heavy duty drugs to kick in and pacify three three herniated discs in my back. It's a real and definite pain being over 60...

Hey Chris.

I feel for you but I can't each ya. try writing this at 72. it's a whole new world of slow but still out there. hope all goes well for you.

At 84, hip replacement, surgery on both knees, prostate cancer, surgery on one shoulder...yeah. I knew for sure I was getting older when last summer on Montana's Ruby River as I noticed the guide holding the back of my shirt.

At 57, I stil fish as much as ever. However it takes EFFORT and MOTIVATION to hit the water. I fish in the Smoky Mountains, which can be a brutal environment to wade. As I started 2022, I am recovering my my 2nd major foot surgery from a misstep 20 yrs ago while wading. It doesn't get any easier, but as I continue to become a better fly fisherman, it's still worth it!
Instagram: TailsOfTheSmokies

I'm 63.... and most of them fishing... My only regret is that I didn't start fly fishing much sooner!!!