Reel Kids

Rummaging through my nostalgia files in search of inspiration for an article for the club newsletter, I came across a piece we did in 2014 for the Fly Fishers International (formally Federation of Fly Fishers) magazine. Since we hope once again to have a Reel Kids retreat this year, probably in August, and since many of our newer members may not be familiar with the program, we thought it appropriate to share an updated version of that article.

Way back in 2004, the High Sierra Fly Casters became involved as volunteers for Reel Recovery, a nationwide organization providing fly fishing retreats for men living with cancer.  At the same time, we also began to volunteer with Casting for Recovery, another nationwide program, serving women living with breast cancer.  We were so impressed with how well these programs worked that in 2007 we came up with the idea of doing the same thing for children living with cancer, and their families.

At that point we had obtained the expertise, funding, equipment and volunteers to begin this program, which to the best of our knowledge had never before been attempted.  The immediate challenge, however, was finding a source of participants.  Through a series of fortuitous events, too long to relate here, we found and partnered with the Northern Nevada Children's Cancer Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating support services for childhood cancer families.

Our retreat offers a full day of fly fishing, fellowship and food (of course, since we are also an eating club) at the Deer Run Ranch in Beckwourth, Plumas County, CA.  Northern Nevada children, ages 9-17, who are in treatment for or recovering from cancer are invited along with their parents and siblings (this works for the whole family) to experience a unique day of support and fun in the Eastern Sierra.  Full disclosure – Deer Run Ranch is a bass and bluegill fishery, but highly exciting! 

Over the past years, we have found that this program provides a safe, reflective environment for participants to discuss the disease and coping mechanisms with other local families who are facing similar experiences.  We constantly marvel at how easily these kids take to fly fishing, as they learn a new skill and form a healing connection with nature.  And yes, we have even managed to turn a few parents into enthusiastic anglers.

Since 2007, we have served over 250 children and family members.  Financial support from numerous local service clubs, churches and individuals have been very gratifying. And the retreat support from individual volunteers has been overwhelming.

As one can imagine, our experiences of the past 14 years have produced many heart-rendering, uplifting, and downright incredible stories.  But I think one of our dads best summed it up in 2014. As we were walking along Pleasant Valley Creek (that was our venue in those days), he stopped, looked around the valley and said “You know, my family spends most of its time in hospitals and doctors’ offices and we don’t get to experience the outdoors any more. Thank you for bringing us to this beautiful place. Just for today, my son has forgotten he has cancer.”

To the casual observer, the kids with cancer/fly fishing thing might seem a little odd, or even depressing. We can assure you, however, that it works in amazing ways and has been a profound experience for those of us fortunate to have been involved. When those courageous kids are fly fishing, they forget they have cancer.

So that’s Reel Kids up to date.  Any questions or comments, please contact Todd Wilcks, Kurt Zeilenga, or Jim Norton at

HSFC member helping a Reel Kid fight a fish.

This article was authored by Jim Norton, President Emeritus of the High Sierra Fly Casters.