For one weekend last August, autumn fell early on Mackay, Idaho. A cold front blew the season’s smoke from the clouds, and with it the heat, leaving behind the high-domed sky of Custer County, and below it, three men wading gingerly in Wild Horse Creek.
There, Pete Williams sat midstream, pulling trout from its murmuring eddies as easily as he might pluck grass from the ground.
“Thirteen!” he shouted, as his rod snapped downward, and he dragged it back to set the hook.
Williams looked to be in his 60s, but moved with a cautiousness beyond his age. Cancer and its treatment had sapped his strength—he couldn’t stand for long, and would later wheeze and sweat through the chill as his two companions helped him up the sloping bank toward the road to camp. The disease also brought him to Idaho2Fly, a nonprofit organization that organizes fishing retreats and support groups for men across Idaho who are fighting, or have fought, the disease.
That’s what put him right on one of fellow retreat participant Mike Okamura’s favorite casting spots, a straight stretch before the river bends and loops toward the mountains, where Pete Williams was about to catch his 14th fish of the day.
That Sunday, the retreat was winding down. There was time for lunch, then reflection, then for the 14 guests and some than 20 volunteers—“fishing friends,” like Okamura—to return to their lives back home.
And, as always, there was time for one more cast.
“One more cast.” When Boise neurologist Dr. Dick Wilson was looking for a motto to pin on Idaho2Fly, he simply went with the constant refrain of the men who fished the river during the group’s retreats: “one more cast.”
Now in its sixth season, Idaho2Fly will return to Wild Horse Creek Ranch this weekend for the second of its three free retreats planned this year. The formula hasn’t changed: fish some, talk more and expand what they call “the circle,”—a community around the experience all attendees share, battling their disease.
“I understand, as a physician, that guys don’t like to talk about their disease,” Wilson said.
As a patient, too. Wilson has had several minor skin cancer scares, but is the first to say he hasn’t faced the full brunt of the disease. He began volunteering with Reel Recovery, a national group that serves as 2Fly’s model, before founding his own organization in 2012.
An avid fly fisherman—and regular on the waterways in and around Blaine County—Wilson knows amazing things can happen on the river, even when it looks like nothing’s happening at all.
There, the men can talk as much or as little as they want, in large groups or small ones. They can say nothing, and forget about their disease altogether.
Dr. Bob Calhoun, a clinical psychologist at St. Alphonsus in Boise, facilitates group discussions. “Fishing friends,” many of them touched by cancer themselves, let the conversation flow like the water they fish. Guys like Okamura, whose parents both died from cancer. And Alex Klokke, who remembers how his own father rejected help after a cancer diagnosis.
“He just curled up into a ball,” Klokke said. “He couldn’t let himself be vulnerable.”
According to Calhoun, a growing body of research suggests that cancer patients see better outcomes if they have some form of “an outlet”—something to address the psychological side of the disease.
On that front, men are hard to reach. Many, if not most, react like Klokke’s father. They turn in, and bolt the door.
“When men are first diagnosed, there’s a cocooning effect,” Calhoun said. “They stop communicating. Or, they don’t know how. A lot of times, anger is a part of that.
“These men, they were yearning to express themselves. They just didn’t know it yet.”
Fly fishing, with its metronomic waiver of the rod, the occasional twitch of the line, is in itself a kind of bait, a lure to get these people out into a different world, away from their families and chemo and daily lives, and into some place beautiful, and new.
As Wilson said it, “Fishing is just the hook.”
“Fishing is one aspect,” said Raulo Frear, a volunteer from Boise. “Men don’t open up easily. They keep everything in. That pent-up energy, it gets dissipated through conversation. It’s like breaking an ice dam—once it goes, it’s amazing how much emotion comes out.”
Dee Jensen first came to a retreat while he was a patient at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise. Doctors gave him 14 months to live. Their talk went from treatment, to comfort, to, miraculously, remission. He got through it, and attended another retreat last year; his cancer was in remission, and his prognosis was good.
But the journey’s been tough. Every day he’s reminded of his disease in some way, large or small.
Now, when Jensen has follow-ups at St. Luke’s, he takes a few Idaho2Fly brochures with him. Men will sit side by side for hours in the hospital’s infusion center, and never get past small talk, he said. They never think to try. After a day on that river that first time out—his second group discussion—Jensen was sharing things with a dozen strangers that he hadn’t told his wife.
“When you say, ‘Chemo kicked my butt all around the block,’ they’ve been there,” he said, seated for lunch among the hewn beams of the Wild Horse Creek Ranch common area. “When you say, ‘This will probably be the thing that terminates my life,’ some of them have been there, too.”
Jensen’s cancer created some dark holes in his mind, he said. Out in the world, he wouldn’t speak of them. At the retreat, he dove in.
“You feel kind of like a pressure cooker. When you reach a certain point, you’re going to blow. You need a release, somehow. This is the valve.”
For Jensen, the hardest part is leaving.
But, before they did, the men formed one last circle in the ranch’s lawn. The guests stood on the inside, shoulder to shoulder. Their guides—some, now closer to friends—stood behind. On the other side of the building, cars began to pull in up the gravel drive. Family members, rides home.
Keith Murphy, a facilitator, spoke above the wind.
“I don’t want to say this is an end,” he told the group. “This is a beginning, for everybody who is here. All of your stories—every story shared—is a link in a chain. They’re powerful.”
Some hands smeared tears from eyes. Some heads fell, as if in prayer.
“We’ve been asking you a lot of questions,” Murphy continued. “Here’s one more: What are you taking with you that’s going to help you deal?”
Pete Williams was crying.
“I’m taking friendships,” he said. “Many, many friendships.”
“I didn’t know,” said Darrel Rysel, “All I knew was my own disease. It was a big deal to me. Now, it doesn’t feel as big anymore.”
“We share a very unusual bond, once you break the crust and get to the soft stuff,” Jensen said. “It gives you hope, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe it’s not a train.
“I will be changed. I have been changed, in these past 48 hours.”
Then, once again, Murphy took the floor.
“Be joyful, in the moment, in every moment we have on earth,” he told them. “Keep in mind that every day should be like this.”
The circle cinched tight on itself, and the men put their hands in the middle. Murphy counted down. Three. Two. “One more cast,” they shouted in unison—there’s always time for one more cast.