Skip to main content

Reeling in Serenity Offers Fly Fishing as a Healthy Alternative to Addiction

Fly fishing helped a group of recovering alcoholics find better lives.

Reeling in Serenity Offers Fly Fishing as a Healthy Alternative to Addiction

Rebecca Klein (left) and Sylvia Huron (right) are two of the founders of the nonprofit Reeling in Serenity, a group that uses fly fishing to help alcoholics and other addicts with their recovery and long-term mental and physical health. Leslie Battle (center) is a retreat participant, and her partner is a board member. (Israel Patterson photo)

It was early fall, and northern Georgia was in the middle of a drought—hardly the best conditions for trout fishing. Walking down the old logging road, I could hear the soft sounds of an unhurried river tumbling over rocks and splashing around partially submerged logs, both possible holding lies for trout. Rounding the final bend in the road, I spotted a small group of men and women quietly tending to the chores of the morning before participants arrived. From all appearances, they could have been a local TU chapter or another angling group preparing for an outing.

But this was actually a gathering of souls with one common objective: finding a sense of support, strength, and peace as recovering addicts. Everyone chattered and laughed as they prepared for their fishing day. This was a big deal—quality of life, and possibly life itself, could hang in the balance. Simply showing up was not a decision made lightly.

Getting Sober

Over the past two decades, there has been tremendous therapeutic success centered around fly fishing. The best-known programs may be Casting for Recovery (castingforrecovery.org) and Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (projecthealingwaters.org). Casting for Recovery (CFR) has provided free fly-fishing retreats for women with breast cancer since 1994 and in 2023 will sponsor more than 40 retreats in the U.S.

It’s such a positive experience that CFR has inspired similar efforts in six other countries, and garnered corporate sponsors, including Orvis, Costa, Buff, Simms, Yeti, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela’s. The organizational platform for CFR is second to none, and has been used to begin other, comparable efforts. I’ve volunteered with CFR every year they’ve held retreats in Georgia. Many participants have told me it’s a life-changing experience.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), founded in 2005, takes a slightly different approach to their mission. PHWFF is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of injured and disabled military veterans through fly fishing and associated activities. While Casting for Recovery, by design, provides one weekend of a deep dive into the physical and emotional traumas of a breast cancer diagnosis, PHWFF offers ongoing support through a variety of channels, including fishing trips, fly-tying, and rod-building classes.

Much like CFR and PHWFF, Reeling in Serenity (reelinginserenity.org) is a serious, well-organized group. Their inspiration came from a close-knit group of ladies in the Atlanta area: Rebecca Klein, Sylvia Huron, and Jennifer Gilbert. They were all serious fly anglers before they ever met. Each of them, unknown to the others, also happened to be a recovering alcoholic who had discovered on her own that fly fishing brought them a sense of peace and healing.

Rebecca Klein told me about her path from busy professional environmentalist with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (chattahoochee.org) and struggling alcoholic to her decision to get sober, and later to help others fighting addiction.


Rebecca Klein stands in shallow water at the edge of a river, holding a boat net laughing.
Rebecca Klein works for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and has been active in the groups Georgia Women Fly Fishers, Casting for Recovery, and many others. She is battling Stage IV cancer, and at the same time helped found the nonprofit Reeling in Serenity. (Israel Patterson photo)

“In 2016, I picked up a fly rod, three days after walking into my first 12-step meeting. I decided I needed to clean up my act. Like someone shared this morning, I went to work, I paid my bills, I did everything I needed to do, but everything revolved around drinking. While my peers were busy saving money, buying homes, having families, I was stuck in this forever party.”

Rebecca met Sylvia and Jennifer through the Georgia Women Fly Fishers (georgiawomenflyfishing.com). The commonality of fly fishing and recovery led them to form a strong bond. Jennifer Gilbert had been fly fishing since 2014 because it gave her an opportunity to spend time with her husband. She was soon fishing every weekend.




“But in 2016, I was drinking a lot and I got myself into trouble,” said Gilbert. “I couldn’t control it, life was a hot mess, and I ended up in rehab. When I got into recovery, fly fishing naturally became the instant substitute for drinking. It was something to be passionate about, something to get up every morning and be focused on. I love it!

“The river is that spiritual connection, and fly fishing is an awesome sport that has given me something positive to do. I love being out on the river in the morning when the fog is lifting and the sun is rising and it’s just you and that river. I feel connected, and it’s just peace. Then you start fishing and you’re doing these repetitive motions, tying on your fly, and figuring out this puzzle. It’s easy to just get lost in the moment. I’m not thinking about time or my phone, or anything I have to do. I’m just a live human being.

“I’m not sure how to explain it, but this is what fly fishing brings, just a total peace from existing, and nothing else matters. It slows me down, calms me down, and I can go back to my life feeling that much better. Now, with Reeling in Serenity, I’ve discovered I can help someone else and get the same feeling as I do when I’m fishing. I’m so thankful I found this, and I get to share it with other people.”

Recommended


I met Sylvia on the river with her favorite fishing partner—her adult son Ian. Her initial comments reflected on her battle to recover. “I’ve been sober almost five years now. In 2017, an intervention was done for me, and Ian was part of that. I had been drinking most of my adult life, but a couple of years prior to this it had gotten to be very heavy. So I went to rehab for three months, relapsed, went back, then went to a sober living environment for six months.

“Thanks to Ian and my friends, I got on the right track. But when I came out of rehab it was a whole new thing. I had lost my job but found a new one while in rehab. When I got out, Ian said to me, ‘Mom, you should take up fly fishing.’

“I had fished all my life but thought, ‘Fly fishing? Who fly fishes around here?’ I knew nothing about it other than having seen the movie A River Runs Through It. I did some online searching and found Georgia Women Fly Fishers, got involved with them, and have been hooked ever since.”

Two anglers kneeling around a netted rainbow trout.
Reeling in Serenity Program Director Jen Gilbert with her husband Jeff Gilbert. They have found that fly fishing has brought more peace to their relationship than any substance ever could. (Israel Patterson photo)

Ian chimed in: “Just to pick up on what Mom was saying, we were in a pretty bad place prior to that second try at rehab. If you’re familiar with the addict’s mindset, they go hard, whatever they do. When you step away from any sort of substance you’re abusing, you have to fill that void with something or you’ll lose your mind. I read a lot and recalled an article about fly fishing and how difficult it was to become proficient. I was thinking this could take a lot of time and totally engross her, which could be a good thing. I mentioned it to her and she just ran with it.

“It took a couple of years on the water before she could convince me to join her. I was not an angler, but I could see the effect it was having on her, so I went. I found it to be wildly satisfying, incredibly absorbing, but it’s also so soul fulfilling. It was the thing to fill that void.”

Sylvia said, “For me, being in recovery, when Ian asked me to try fly fishing, it was the gift of a lifetime because it did save my life—I honestly feel it has. It has kept me on the right track. It has also taught me patience and forgiveness. I mean, you get messed up all the time; you’re in a tree, you’re hooked on a log, and you just have to tell yourself to slow down, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s fishing! It got me to appreciate where I am. No one is judgmental about being in recovery, particularly my son. Some of our best memories center around fly fishing together. It has changed my life, and it’s changed our relationship.”

Mission Statement

All the participants in the program I attended were experiencing fly fishing for the first time. They spent about 30 minutes after lunch giving heartfelt reports of their personal struggles and journeys from addiction to sobriety. It’s obvious this accountability is an integral part of their recovery. Most of them did not know the other anglers before attending.

The day we gathered wasn’t about catching a lot of fish, but every fish in the net was celebrated with hoots from up- and downstream. Reeling in Serenity is more about introducing anglers to fly fishing, in the hope the sport might help them find a way to a better life.

The first Reeling In Serenity event, in 2019, was for women only. At that time it was called Reeling in Recovery, but the group was forced to change its name for legal reasons. The success of that first event encouraged the organizers to try something on a grander scale. They’ve created a board of directors, established a 501(c)(3) status, developed a trademark, and created a website (reelinginserenity.org). In 2023, multiple free retreats are scheduled in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and other states. Reeling in Serenity celebrates life free from drug and alcohol addiction by embracing nature and the spiritual connection that fly fishing has brought so many.

A group of seven anglers stand in a river holding hands in a circle with bowed heads.
Although participants do catch fish on their outings, their main goal is to help people discover fly fishing and build a healthier life in the outdoors. (Israel Patterson photo)

“We do this through free fly-fishing retreats that are open to those who have chosen to live their personal truth—a life without alcohol and drugs. We also serve as a safe space and resource for the sober fly angler who is doing the work one day at a time.”

Personal Journey

When I was a teenager, my father was an alcoholic. His drinking may have been one result of his terrible experiences during his military service on the Burma Road during World War II. Thanks to a family intervention, the Veterans Administration, and Alcoholics Anonymous, he recovered. Fortunately, his chosen recovery activity was growing flowers and ornamental shrubs, which had been his passion earlier in life.

Before the war, my father earned a degree in horticulture from the University of Georgia. In recovery, he built a greenhouse in our backyard, and you could find him there every day. Puttering around in his greenhouse and in the yard provided my dad with the peace he needed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I understand now that, for my dad, gardening is what fly fishing has become for me, and for many others in recovery.

Ultimately, as I watch lives being changed through involvement with fly fishing, I can’t help but wonder what the secret may be. Does it have the same effect on everyone? Or could it be that there is a mysterious, magical healing potion in fly fishing? It may simply be the natural combination of recreation, relaxation, focus, camaraderie, and support that ends up providing a superb opportunity to focus on something positive, challenging, and fulfilling.

For human beings, these are essential components of living. If these crucial ingredients are integral to a healthy, balanced life, we may also find healing and recovery when needed. If we’re fortunate to discover it works for us, it may also present the occasion for helping someone else, which may be the most positive outcome of all.


Jimmy Harris owns Unicoi Outfitters in Helen, Georgia.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie the Harrop Ant

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
Destinations/Species

Rio Dorado

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
How-To/Techniques

Building the Perfect Fly Rod with Mud Hole Components From Blank to Casting

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
Destinations/Species

South Platte River Flooding, July 31, 2023

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
Gear

Simms Wader Makers

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
News

FF Mag Promo Aug-Sep 2023

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie the Ol' Mr. Wiggly

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
News

Mending the Line Panel Discussion

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
How-To/Techniques

George Daniel's Hauling Tuck Cast

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie the Useful Speed Blood Knot

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
News

A Celebration of Life for the Incomparable Dave Whitlock

Mending the Line represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fish...
News

Mending the Line Trailer

Fly Fisherman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Fly Fisherman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Fly Fisherman stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Fly Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now