Cancer hits hard, but the fish at Sportsman’s Paradise strike harder.

For the better part of a decade, an elite group of men take over the trophy trout filled streams the first week of October as they fly fish and connect over their varying stages and forms of cancer through Reel Recovery.

This year, 13 men participated in Utah’s 35th Reel Recovery retreat. By year’s end, hundreds of men will have had the opportunity to spend quality time on the water at destinations around the country as they possibly forget about their diagnoses for a few hours.

“It is an interesting thing for me to watch these men get together who have shared a common experience,” volunteer Scott Berrett said. “As men, we don’t talk about these things. I have had men tell me things that they didn’t feel like they could share with children or a spouse. It puts them in a situation that isn’t formal where they can open up and be real and form strong bonds.”

Berrett, a Wellsville resident, said volunteering to be a fishing buddy for Reel Recovery came after losing two of his closest fishing buddies to cancer.

“In 2004 my brother-in-law, who was one of my best friends and fishing buddies, passed away from brain cancer. At that time he was lying in his deathbed and he wanted to go fishing one more time,” Berrett said. “I wasn’t sure where I could take a guy fishing who can barely sit up. I ended up calling Grant White at Sportsman’s and I brought him over with the nurse.”

Reel Recovery

A Reel Recovery vest with former participants names written on it sits on a table during a retreat at Sportsman's Paradise earlier this month.

Shortly after the fishing trip, Berrett’s brother-in-law passed away and he couldn’t help but get emotional connecting the story of his family to a participant at this year’s event.

“One of the people this year, Dan Nelson, has terminal stage 4 brain cancer. He told me it was probably going to be his last time fishing. He caught the biggest brown trout that has probably been caught since I’ve been part of this,” Berrett said. “He stopped after that fish and told me if it was the last fish he ever caught he was happy.”

Berrett said the No. 1 thing he hopes for each time he volunteers is that at the end of the day he can give the participant a few hours to get out of their heads to forget about their cancer.

Stan Golub, Reel Recovery executive director, said by year’s end the organization founded in 2003 will have hosted 296 retreats and served over 3,400 men.

Golub said that even though the three days are spent with a fly rod in hand, the time is more than just fishing.

“The motion of fly fishing and learning a new skill for some is important, but the focus is intense in fly fishing,” Golub said. “We ask them at the end of the day if they thought about their cancer. They all pretty much say no. What a gift it is to go a day without thinking about that.”

Reel Recovery MAIN

Reel Recovery participant Dennis Sumsion, left, fishes with Scott Berrett during a retreat at Sportsman's Paradise earlier this month.

Building relationships between the participants is key to the therapeutic environment, Golub said. While time is spent with buddies presenting flies, the “Courageous Conversations” and fishing vest signing can be the more powerful moments as men realize they are not alone.

“Every retreat is powerful. Each man is invited to share his unique story around cancer. We hear a lot of similar trials and travails,” Golub said. “We have six Courageous Conversations over the two and a half days. To witness the courage that these men exhibit as they go through some pretty tough circumstances makes us all feel blessed to be with them and honored to hear their stories.”

Golub said it is an immense privilege to sit in the circle and hear the honest, heartfelt stories from the men ranging from those in remission to recently diagnosed.

Brett Prettyman, who serves as the president of the Reel Recovery board, said as an angler he knows the therapeutic power of fishing, but watching the healing power it provides for those with life-threatening diagnoses is amazing.

“I went to a retreat in 2005 and was really captured by what was done,” Prettyman said. “There is something really special about these retreats. I learn about what it means to be alive without personally being told I have cancer. I learn so much about how we should live life.”

Prettyman, who works as the intermountain communications director for Trout Unlimited, said the men who attend are part of an elite club and he routinely thanks them for showing him how he should embrace life while forgetting about the silliness of the daily grind.

Grant White, owner of Sportsman’s Paradise, will tell anyone who asks about Reel Recovery how moving it is to see a group of men roll in on a Monday evening that seem lost and without hope.

“Many of these men feel as if they have nothing to look forward to, but when they are here the weight of the world is taken off them,” White said. “They are different people by the time they leave. The opportunity to be in service to those people who are in such dire need and share our portion of paradise is something I’m glad we can provide.”

Reel Recovery

Stan Golub, executive director of Reel Recovery, explains the names written on fishing vests during a retreat at Sportsman's Paradise earlier this month.

The impact Reel Recovery has made in the lives of countless men — and their families — is ever apparent as the participants scout fishing holes and sit in the cool fall shade wearing a fishing vest with their name and the names of other anglers before them at other retreats.

“Each time I see those vests … with hundreds of names on there … their memory lives on because of that. I can’t talk about this without getting emotional. It is emotionally fulfilling to do this. It is the highlight of my year,” Berrett said.