01/03/2020

An SCI member on kidney dialysis, and suffering from severe spinal stenosis, travels from California to Tennessee and North Carolina to fly fish for trout and striped bass.

Fisherman looking at lakeI often gaze from the chair in our family room at the sleek, silver model of the F-86 Sabrejet fighter my squadron buddies and I flew in Korea, and feel a twinge of nostalgia overcome me. And, as I hear of the passing of one or another of these gallant men, I am reminded of lines from a quatrain in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.

Eleventh-century Astronomer, Mathematician, Poet, Tentmaker — call him what you will — but that wily Persian got it right, in my belief, when in his writings he advocated living life to its fullest. I have tried to follow that doctrine throughout my life.

Age takes its toll, so the saying goes, and as I reached my 85th year on this planet I came to realize the truth in this familiar adage. I had sailed through the first 85 years in relatively good health, still able to pursue the field sports I so dearly love, but aware that changes were on the horizon. For several years my blood tests had indicated a probability of eventual kidney failure. Then, one day in 2016, I was advised by my nephrologist (kidney specialist) that it was time to surgically create a fistula in my arm in preparation for kidney dialysis. For a person who has been an active worldwide sportsman all his life, this came as sobering news.

In January, 2017 my kidneys began to fail; and as the month progressed, my condition worsened. I became very nauseous and weak, unable to walk more than a few steps at a time and slept 18 or more hours each day. I commented to my wife, Sandy: “I never knew a person could feel so bad and still be alive”. All the while, age-related degeneration of a portion of my spine (spinal stenosis) caused a pinching of a nerve to my left leg. The result was excruciating pain in that leg if I attempted to walk. I sadly missed the SCI convention and a planned quail hunting trip in Arizona.  

In February, 2017 I was put on dialysis. This entails my sitting for almost four hours three times a week while attached to a machine that cleanses my blood. So, my world turned around, and with that turning came the grim realization that I would no longer be able to travel to many of the remote locations that had played such an important role in my adult life. Sub-Saharan Africa, where I had been on 45 safaris from the north to the south and the east to the west during the preceding 46 years, immediately came to mind. The high mountain ranges of the world, where I had pursued sheep and other mountain game with bow, rifle and handgun, was another. I thought to myself: “It is what it is, and I am determined to make the best of it.”

Trout stream In early March, I decided to try traveling while on dialysis. Being an avid fly fisherman, I opted on a three-stage program in Tennessee and North Carolina — two excellent flyfishing destinations. The plan would include fishing in three locations: one in Tennessee, one in central North Carolina and one in coastal North Carolina. It would also include my taking dialysis in three locations in North Carolina: Asheville, Oxford and Cedar Point. I would take three treatments in each location, for a total of nine treatments while away from Walnut Creek, California, where our home is located. I had heard of the outstanding trout fishing on the South Holston and Wautega rivers in Tennessee, so for Stage One I contacted 28-year-old Tony Marcucci, General Manager and guide at the South Holston River Lodge in Bristol, Tennessee, and booked a two-day, two-night package for two anglers. Dates were April 7-9. My companion was to be 37-year-old Jason Yeomans, whom I have known since he was an infant in California, and who currently lives with his family in Asheville. Jason had fished with me many times during his youth but had never flyfished.

I took dialysis on April 3, and on the following day Sandy and I flew from San Francisco to Asheville, via Chicago. Sandy had arranged for a wheelchair at the airports. On April 5 and 7, I took dialysis in Asheville.

After I received my dialysis treatment early the morning of the 7th, Jason and I departed for the lodge, driving through the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains en route. We arrived that evening in time for a delicious dinner prepared by Chef Dakota Windsor. Our guide for our stay was to be Tony Marcucci himself, who turned out to be extremely knowledgeable, capable and a wonderful casting instructor to boot.

During dinner, Tony explained that we would be dividing our time between the South Holston and Wautega Rivers. The South Holston and Wautega are tailwater fisheries; that is, they begin below dams forming Lakes South Holston and Wilbur respectively. Their water flows are determined by releases from water managers and can vary significantly from day to day. This means prudence must be exercised when fishing them.

On our first day, Tony elected to fish the trophy section of the Wautega. This proved to be a good choice, for soon after we launched Tony’s 16-foot Clackacraft drift boat, Jason hooked the first fish of the day — a colorful rainbow trout of about 14 inches. The fish took a Pheasant Tail nymph, and fought rigorously, tail walking across the water in a startling display of aerial acrobatics, until Tony put the net under it. It was Jason’s first-ever fly-caught trout, and a broad smile crossed his face as Tony gently released the fish. From that point on, it was non-stop action as we slowly drifted down that picturesque waterway through idyllic scenery, punctuated by the plaintive calls of wild geese. We lost count of the number of fish we caught, but they included gorgeous brown trout as well as rainbows.

At the end of the day, Jason had become a fairly proficient caster. Tony had set us up with 10-foot, 5-weight Orvis flyrods that weighed three ounces each — mere fairy wands — and floating lines. Attached to the lines were 11 1/2-foot leaders with two wet flies and a strike indicator on each. This combination made it possible for a quick learner like Jason to pick-up Tony’s coaching to maximum benefit.

Thankfully, I did not experience pain in my leg while sitting in the boat. When we finally pulled the boat out in the late afternoon, however, it was a different matter. Walking back to the vehicle resulted in my crying out in intense pain every step. Later, when climbing the stairs to our upstairs bedrooms at the lodge, it was more of the same.

Dinner that night was another gourmet affair, after which plans were laid to fish the South Holston river the following day. When we launched, the low water level looked a bit challenging, and Tony announced: “Today stealth is the name of the game.” But our concerns were soon dispelled, as Jason caught six fish in the second hole we stopped to fish! Tony’s ability to maneuver the boat through boulder-strewn, low-water rapids was something to behold.

Jason and I again caught many trout throughout the day. In the afternoon, Tony switched to a dry fly on Jason’s line. He had noticed a hatch of Blue Wing Olives — a type of Mayfly — coming off the water and jumped at the chance to give Jason his first experience at catching a trout on a dry fly. On Tony’s signal, Jason presented the fly to a rising fish and a beautiful rainbow trout engulfed it with a mighty splash. Jason responded with a hook-setting jerk and the fight was on.

The vitality of these South Holston and Wautega fish is remarkable, and this fish was no exception. Time and again it vaulted completely clear of the surface, thrashing wildly as its brilliant colors gleamed in the sun. When it reentered the water, it would plunge to the depths of the pool, struggle for a few seconds, then repeat the process all over again. When the fish finally tired and was netted, Jason thanked Tony for such a rich experience.

TroutWe departed the South Holston River Lodge in late afternoon of April 9 and arrived in Asheville a short time later. I took dialysis again on Monday, April 10 and Sandy and I departed for Stage Two of our trip on Tuesday. We drove several hours by rental car to Henderson, North Carolina, where our fishing friend and fellow outdoor writer Walt Bowen and his wife, Susan own a waterfront house on Lake Kerr.

On Wednesday, April 12, I took dialysis in nearby Oxford, and the following day Walt and I fished for largemouth bass with conventional tackle. Walt is an exceptional fisherman, and he caught several nice bass while I managed to catch only one. I had always wanted to fish Lake Kerr, and Walt’s invitation made that possible. The lake boasts 800 miles of shoreline and extends between Virginia and North Carolina.

On April 14, I again took dialysis in Oxford; and on April 15, at my request, Walt and I drove to Weldon, North Carolina, known as “The Rockfish (striped bass) Capital of the World.” The nearby Roanoak River hosts an annual migration of sea-run stripers that is known far and wide. Best of all, I had heard that these fish are ready takers of a properly presented fly.

Soon after we launched Walt’s bass boat, I cast a size 2/0 chartreuse-and-white Clouser fly into the swift current and felt a jolting strike. The fish fought hard for its size, and a short time later it was brought to the boat. As the day progressed, I boated two more smallish fish and lost another, larger one when my line tangled with someone’s discarded line that had become snagged on the river bottom. I was using a 9-weight Reddington flyrod, a Teton flyreel and an Airflow Depthfinder flyline. This setup proved just right for the existing conditions. The Depthfinder is one of my all-time favorite lines and I have caught many fish with it in locations as far away as Africa.

As far as timing goes, we were early, as the epic striper migration is in May. The smaller, male fish were all that were present when we fished. The larger, female fish would follow later.

Author fishing in streamWalt, again using conventional tackle, caught several stripers and we finished-out the day satisfied and exhausted. As was the case in Tennessee, I luckily did not feel pain while seated in the boat. Only when I attempted to walk back to the truck after pulling the boat out did the pain come back with a vengeance.

On April 18, after a very pleasant Easter with Walt and Susan and their young grandson, John, Sandy and I left Henderson for a several-hour drive to Hubert, where we were to spend the next week with our son Eric Draper and his family. Eric at that time was a U.S. Navy medical doctor stationed at the nearby Camp Lejeune Marine Corps facility.

According to plan, I took dialysis in Cedar Point on April 19, 21, and 24. Unfortunately a planned flyfishing trip for bluefish with a guide out of Morehead City was cancelled when a violent storm moved in. Quality time was spent, however, with Eric, his wife Carol and grandchildren Emma, Ella, and Max. On a few days, Max and I tried fishing from the shore in several locations but met with no success.

So, our cross-country fishing adventure while on dialysis came to a close. On April 25, Sandy and I drove to Raleigh-Durham airport, where we boarded our return flight to San Francisco. We had proven such a trip could be done, with certain limitations. Some time after our return, my leg pain miraculously went away. Already plans are in the works for a fishing trip to Georgia, a deer hunting trip to Montana and an antelope hunting trip to Wyoming next year. At 86 years old, I say, “Nobody lives forever. Why not?”--Mel Topance

Hunt Forever