In the quiet waters of the Chestatee River, cancer survivors find peace with fly fishing

“This is the time to release all other fears and concerns. I can attest you’ll let it all go once you see this beautiful space.”

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Frog Hollow Fly Fishing
Donations cover the cost of the women’s gear and experiences.

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Set against the backdrop of the Chestatee River, five women, each with a fishing guide by her side, steady their feet on the riverbed and pitch back their arms. There’s a split-second, mid-air pause before their lines whip forward and are cast out, and their flies land in the current.

For each of these women at Frog Hollow Fly Fishing, a family farm and angling service just outside of Dahlonega, the normal flow of their lives was suddenly interrupted by the same diagnosis: cancer. They’ve battled stage I to stage III breast cancer and a rare blood cancer that struck one woman at the age of 26.

Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, said it’s not fly fishing if you aren’t looking for answers to questions. The disease and its treatment have left these women with much uncertainty. But as they stand in the brisk water of the Chestatee, waders and belts cinched, hands gripping fly rods, cancer seems to recede far into the background.

Since 2002, the Georgia Women Fly Fishers have hosted Casting for Confidence, a free, annual, day-long retreat that teaches fly fishing basics to female cancer survivors. Spearheaded by Janet Piskurich, a former assistant professor of pathology and immunology at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, and her friend Eva Persons, the event was inspired by Casting for Recovery, a national program founded in Vermont by a breast reconstruction surgeon and fishing guide. The duo partnered with Georgia Women Fly Fishers, whose mission is to make fishing—historically a male-centric sport—accessible and fun for women. “It is an absolute joy to share my passion for fly fishing with these women,” says Jennifer Gilbert, the organization’s president, who’s participated in the past two Casting for Confidence events. Several of the program’s participants have gone on to join the club, she says.

“This is the time to release all other fears and concerns. I can attest you’ll let it all go once you see this beautiful space.”

On a sunny and brisk October morning, 14 cancer survivors arrive early and grab some coffee and a bite from the extensive breakfast spread before getting a crash course in the basics, from entomology—“match the hatch” by flipping over a rock in the river and identifying bugs to best match what’s in your fly box—to how to throw the perfect cast. Each participant receives a 30-page booklet covering key information such as knots, rods, tippet, reels, and the mayfly life cycle. The guide was written by Deb Bowen, a longtime member who died from cancer in March 2018 at the age of 61. On the front cover is a picture of Deb standing in the water with her waders on, fly rod in hand, a cap covering her hairless head, a smile on her face.

Wanda Taylor, an instructor since the 1980s who’s known as “the South’s First Lady of Fly Fishing,” is here to teach the complex art of casting. She takes the group down to the water’s edge to practice on the grass with hookless lines. The women are awkward at first and laugh at themselves as they struggle to get lines where Taylor is telling them they should go. But Taylor is a patient teacher, and before long, the fly lines begin to loop gracefully the way they should.

Jameca Barrett was 26 when she was diagnosed in 2003 as one of the youngest-ever documented cases of multiple myeloma in the state of Georgia, a cancer of the bone marrow plasma cells. She has been in remission for the past 15 years. For the Atlanta native, Casting for Confidence is a welcome break from the biannual check-ups. “Cancer [can be] a terminal illness, so you have faced one of the most frightening challenges life can bring,” Barrett says. “This is the time to release all other fears and concerns. I can attest you’ll let it all go once you see this beautiful space.”

The day isn’t about the size or number of fish caught (though a few first-timers were able to pull in some baby browns, to much applause). It’s about having time and space to reflect. The process of catching a fish and releasing it back, the women say, reflects the precious and fleeting nature of life. It is a reminder to the rest of us, Barrett says, to “take time for you. And for living, laughing, and loving.”

To sign up for the 2019 Casting for Confidence or to donate to the Georgia Women Fly Fishers, go to georgiawomenflyfishing.com.

This article appears in our August 2019 issue.

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