STOUGHTON — “There are times for quiet reflection and times for interacting in groups. Those who are most successful with managing their PD do both.”
That’s how Jonathan Hill of Stoughton summarized a fly fishing clinic he helped form several years ago to help people deal with Parkinson’s disease.
Why fly fishing?
“It provides some exercise, a way to enjoy the outdoors, a feeling of inclusion, you are accepted as part of the group, and helps with your balance, coordination, mobility and focus,” said Hill, 66, a lifetime Trout Unlimited member diagnosed with PD in 2014. “There’s walking, good. There’s big arm movements, good. Hand-eye coordination, good. All good (PD management) things fly fishing offers.”
PD is an incurable but treatable neurological disease whose progression, research has shown, can be kept at bay through intense regular exercise, medication or deep brain surgery. Symptoms include tremors, salivation, slow short gait, slurred or soft speech and muscle stiffness.
Hill, retired after 30 years as a financial advisor for small businesses, said the idea for offering PD patients a one-day free clinic teaching the basics of fly fishing came at a PD support group session. His plan received organizational support of the Wisconsin Parkinson Association which coordinates participants and places to fish while TU chapters supply equipment and volunteer instructors.
“Trout farms are ideal locations for this type of event,” said Hill, a native of Sioux City, Iowa ,whose family moved when he was young to Milwaukee where he fished the Milwaukee River with cane poles.
“One day I broke my cane fishing pole and Dad came back from Sears with a two-piece (bamboo) Ted Williams fly rod and reel,” Hill said. “From age 13 I started doing it. The last 15 years I’ve been fly fishing seriously. It’s something you can really get into.
“When I’m out fishing or tying flies, PD doesn’t seem to be an issue. I struggle tearing open a package of crackers. It’s a matter of focus. You don’t play with fly fishing, you live it.”
Hill said his clinic discussions draw people into fly casting differences from traditional casting and spinning rods, techniques and gear and basic entomology.
“I simply break down the type of insects you use to imitate are those that fly and those that don’t,” Hill said. “Sometimes your ‘fly’ may not be a fly at all (like) leeches, scuds and minnows.”
Clinics are about more than catching trout. The last part of the “discussion” is about choices.
“People living with PD have choices same as everyone else,” Hill said. “Some decide to fight PD tooth and nail and follow all steps to keep PD under control. Some give up and begin that downward spiral that can end rather tragically.
“Fly fishing has helped me deal with my disease and the more and better I take care of myself the longer I can continue to enjoy this sport.”
Most at the clinics have never picked up a fly rod, but many have fished. Most are in their 50s. Classes are limited to 20 persons.
“Women tend to be better students, probably because they come to class without any preconceived notions about how to cast a fly,” Hill said. “Men catch on once they realize you are casting a line, not a lure. This is not a strength-involved sport, rather a matter of timing and accuracy.”
No longer a fly-over drive-by state, Wisconsin is a fly fishing destination rich with abundant mixed-species warm water lakes and rivers and blue ribbon trout streams.
“I catch more bluegills than trout fly fishing, but I fish far more bluegills as the lakes in and around Madison offer excellent bluegill fishing,” Hill said. “Fly fishing musky, bass, salmon, can give you all the sport you need on a fly rod. Saltwater, a three-foot shark is definitely a wild ride on a 9-weight fly rod!”
The WPA says there are about 20,000 PD patients in Wisconsin, slightly more than one million nationwide.
Asked how many could be expected to take up fly fishing, Hill said, “I have no ideas. I think PD is being more aggressively diagnosed. As word gets out how much some one enjoys their first attempt at fly fishing and that PD doesn’t really get in the way and that the motions and walking are all good for you, they may try it and like it.”
“There’s lots of potential for growth,” Hill said.