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Fly-Fishing Through Type 1 Diabetes

By September 20, 2018Fresh Air Blog

Words by Brad Lee Photos by Brooke Pressey and Janet Babula

I thank my lucky stars that I fly-fished long before I got T1D.

The learning curve wasn’t nearly as steep, or with the same potentially dire consequences, but like managing diabetes on my own, it has always built an appreciation of the possible.


In the immediate aftermath of diagnosis, there was all the work in finding balance by determining ratios, and figuring basals and boluses. All the persnickety bits of information turned into knowledge and practice that suddenly became necessary to avoid dreaded complications. There was a simple rationale for self-management: do it this way to avoid outcomes that could go that way.


It seemed at the age of 34 – when T1D entered my life – I’d somehow been there before. It was early autumn, while sitting at the news desk of the Toronto Star, when I heard from my doctor. For whatever reason, my mind became more firmly focused on the end of trout season. I knew the diagnosis was bad, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. 

It was a lot to think about, and I remember it required immediate visits back and forth to my doctor, then being introduced to a diabetes team at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Diabetes – my diabetes – seemed overwhelming. It took on a life of its own. Through it all, I hung onto faint promises of the last days of the season.


My thoughts retreated amid the onslaught, to the safe places I knew on rivers and streams, where I knew the fish held in certain current breaks, or in the back eddies behind large rocks. I’d picture the cast, a silent line lifted gently away from the water, popped backwards at a high angle, and then redirected forward into the flowing water. A quick or slow retrieve, perhaps an absolutely still dead drift, then cast again. And again. And again, and again.


Rhythm in life is what we make of it. It has as much to do with things that happen to us, as it does with our own choices. The mind works in strange and wondrous ways, and constant repetition can sometimes yield breakthroughs. To cast a fly over water, in anticipation of what might happen next, is ultimately an exercise in hope and faith that everything will be okay.

Eighteen years ago this autumn, I was full of hope in my life and career. My wife and I had recently moved back to Canada. I was reclaiming a life in the outdoors that I’d missed when we lived in the urban sprawl of Hong Kong. Fly-fishing was my connection then – and it still is today.


There’s an intricacy to the cast that can be explained as much by the science of physics, as it can be observed as an art. Reflecting on a past half-life with diabetes, it’s pretty much the same thing. There’s an entire history of scientific discovery and medicine that benefit the body, but there’s also the small, practical victories in living well with chronic illness that heal the soul.

And in both pursuits, the rules are simple:

Rule #1: You can do nothing wrong, so long as you learn from experience.

I don’t beat myself up over blood-sugar highs and lows, nor do I apologize or chastise myself for a poor cast. Untangling lines cast into trees or around dock pilings can be meditative, though sometimes it takes a good measure of patience. Shooting insulin and learning to cast a fly, similarly, imply humility. But they also encourage acceptance and forgiveness. 


Rule #2: Your hook must be in the water to catch a fish.

As in diabetes, there are certain realities that we must accept. Fish live in water, and though they literally may rise to the occasion of a well-presented fly, a successful connection relies on knowing and acknowledging the circumstances.


Rule #3: Finally, it’s not about how big a fish is, but rather how we choose to tell the story.

With diabetes, we can choose to live well, or to become bogged down and lost in the details. The bigger picture helps with context, and answering the reasons why. In both fly-fishing and diabetes management, what we tell ourselves – and what we relate to others – defines who we are. 

The cast, in theory and practice, is the cornerstone of fly-fishing, and life as I choose to understand it. Like a shot of life-sustaining insulin, it is instantly affirming and always delivers clarity of purpose. If all goes well, my blood sugars will balance out, and I might even catch a fish.

About Brad Lee

Brad Lee is a recovering journalist and avid fly angler who’s as happy chasing fish, in rivers or by Hobie kayak, as he is introducing others to the sport. Sixteen years on, he’s still learning to live well with Type 1 diabetes. He enjoys sharing good food with friends, cooking, travelling and exploring Ontario and the world.