Honoring a Husband’s and Father-in-Law’s Love of Fly Fishing

Written by: Miles Townes, Orvis Arlington


Helen’s first trout was a beautiful wild brook trout.
Photo courtesy Orvis Arlington

Helen came to our shop on a slow Tuesday morning with a carload of fishing equipment—mostly fly rods and assorted tackle, but also spinning rods and massive surfcasting rods. She told us she had a goal: she wanted to catch a trout, ideally using the equipment spread out in front of us.

We had only fishing staff in the shop that morning, so the three of us had fun sorting through her collection, picking out the best rod and reel setup, organizing her flies, and making sure she had good tools. She told us that some of the stuff had belonged to her husband, and some had belonged to his father.

Helenʼs husband, TJ, passed away two years ago, and his father several years earlier. TJ had cancer, and when it got bad he decided he wanted to fish in New Mexico one last time – to catch a trout in the streams he had fished with his dad as a kid. In Helenʼs collection was an old fishing vest, and in one of the pockets we found her father-in-lawʼs last fishing license, from 1999.

Helen and TJ flew to New Mexico to visit his brother and family. They rented a cabin near a stream, but soon after they arrived TJ began to have difficulty breathing. The cancer had spread to his lungs and spine. They went to the hospital, where TJ was treated, then returned home without getting a chance to fish. TJ died a week after their return.

After his passing, Helen decided she was going to catch that trout—to honor her husbandʼs memory, but also because fly fishing looked like fun. She wanted to do it for him, but also for herself.


Catching a trout was a way of connecting with her late husband and his father.
Photo courtesy Orvis Arlington

When Helen talked about her trout, it sounded like she was building it into a long quest, with lots of preparation and training. In fact, it had already taken her two years just to get things settled to the point where she could think about learning to fish. We told her that she could probably get it done in a couple months. Helen had never cast a fly rod before, so we gave her a quick lesson and scheduled her into a Fly Fishing 101 class.

Because I usually work weekends at the shop, Iʼm always looking for people to fish with during the week. When I learned Helen could fish weekdays, I offered to take her to trout water and help her find fish. We compared calendars and found a Thursday that worked. In the meantime, she had about a month to get into FF101 and practice her cast – which she did, diligently.

When our designated day got close, I realized I couldnʼt get away to fish. Helen took the news with good humor, and said she might go out anyway. She stopped by the shop to pick up wading boots; when she mentioned our postponed outing, one of my co-workers offered to take her instead.

They went to the Dry River, in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia. The weather was good, the water was perfect, and the fish were hungry. Using her husbandʼs 5-weight outfit, she tied on a size 12 Adams and started fishing. In short order, Helen caught her first trout. Then her second. And third. In total, she caught seven trout – all wild brook trout, bright and healthy.

When Helen told me about her luck, I was happy for her—but also sorry I had missed such a great day fishing. She and I are scheduled to fish again in a couple weeks. It wonʼt be as poignant as her first trout, but it will still be pretty awesome. And maybe someday, maybe soon, she will go back to fish New Mexico at last.

Miles Townes is an associate in the Fishing Department at Orvis Arlington (Virginia).

21 thoughts on “Honoring a Husband’s and Father-in-Law’s Love of Fly Fishing

  1. Larry

    What an awesome story and such a great tribute for Helen to honor TJ by learning to fly fish and catch that trout!

    Reply
  2. Matt

    What a great story, good for you Helen. A beautiful brookie is a great way to be ushered into fly fishing. Your story also serves as a good reminder to enjoy things as much as possible and to savour the good things in life. Even when fishing by yourself I can’t help but think you’ll still have two fishing buddies by your side.

    Reply
    1. Helen Caldwell

      I love this, Matt, and agree. I’ll always have my best fishing buddies right beside me. Thank you for the kind thoughts.
      ~Helen

      Reply
  3. Jes Turley Russo

    I grew up with Helen and was overjoyed to see this article. We’ve lost touch over the years but I’m pleased to see that we still enjoy similar things. And such and AWESOME way to celebrate the life of someone she loved so very much. Helen is one of the most genuine folks I’ve ever known and I love seeing this great big smile on her face 🙂

    Reply
    1. Helen Caldwell

      Hi Jes,
      It is wild you saw this posted. Thank you for all the sweet comments. I would love to go fish with you sometime, and catch up on all those lost years. We had such great times growing up together.

      Much love,
      Helen
      Xxoo

      Reply
  4. Doug

    What a great story. Sad, but a great tribute to her family. Welcome to the awesome sport of fly fishing. Hope it brought you joy.

    Reply
  5. Karen

    “I jumped right in, I participated, I had a great time! . . . Don’t be afraid to live your dreams. Don’t be afraid to live your life.” ~ T. J.
    Helen, you and T. J. are two peas from the same pod. Sounds like you had a great outing and found a new hobby to share with T.J. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Reply
  6. Bonnie S.

    Helen,

    I’m sure that Teej and Uncle Tom were right there with you, giving you “mystic” pointers and rejoiced in your first catch with you! Thank you for sending this, for yes, it does remind us all that you need to live life to the fullest as long as you can. Blessings to you and love you tons!

    Reply
  7. ray

    Not surprising that Helen was such a prolific fisherwoman on her first outing. She has an incredible capacity for learning and an athletes capacity for concentration and single mindedness. Im sure she looked like a veteran in her waders and fishing vest. The lady is unlike anyone Ive ever met. Much like the man she married, T.J. Solan.
    Loving and missing you both.

    Reply
  8. Mary Caldwell

    Wow … wonderful first fly fishing trip! Congratulations, Helen! There’s nothing like fishing, especially when the fish are biting. Add the scenery of a mountain stream on a beautiful day; well used and loved equipment; plus the memories of a cherished and beloved husband (and his memories of his father) — so many layers to make these good times even richer. Enjoy your “new” sport! GREAT story.

    Reply
  9. Robin George

    I have known Helen for quite some time and this is truly who she is..Determined, smart, focused, and most of all loving, serene, compassionate, and loyal. What better way to start a new challenge than meeting the brookie.. Being from New Hampshire I had the great pleasure of falling in love with our native rainbow trout..In those pristine waters of the Connecticut lakes, the natural beauty of the mountains and the whoosh of the fly hitting the water one can travel back in time and connect with inner emotions and look at ones soul reflecting back…over and over again…There TJ’s memory will be eternal…that’s what life is all about….and getting back to nature is cleansing for one’s soul…I am proud of my friend for following her dreams and reaching out to catch a falling star….love her

    Reply
  10. Fran Baker

    Having just hiked the River trail at Harpers Ferry with Helen and her sister Liz two weeks ago, I can attest to her love of nature. She’s all the words used above to describe her and more – one of the compassionate women I’ve ever met and as beautiful inside as out. She and TJ were there for me during my battle with cancer, and we can’t talk about him without tears coming to my eyes. Such a perfect match and she’s honored his memory in so many ways. This is the latest and hopefully will lead to many more calm, serene days on the Rivers!

    Reply
  11. Your Father's aspirations

    I have fished my Dad’s old 5 weight with the reel I never knew he had until he passed away and one day I decided to take this setup out for some leisurely “down the street” fishing and netted a ridiculous amount of trout. The cork fit his hand and I thought of him and his pursuit of trout. I am still trying to prove myself to him as a fly fisherman.

    Reply
  12. Linda Wible

    Helen, you’ll always be little (and special) to me. Miss our days on Midway.

    Regards,

    Linda

    Reply
  13. Blaire

    What a beautiful story Miles about our amazing Helen! TJ was truly there with her that day for her lucky “7” trout. Go Helen! Next, we can learn to cook and eat them 🙂

    Reply
  14. John Swain

    Great story. Every time I cast I’m also casting in memory of my father and brother. They both loved to fish, so when I go it’s an active way to honor their memories.

    Reply
  15. Michele Medina

    I cried when I read this. What a lovely way to honor a life cut too short. I never met TJ but he must have been a wonderful person to inspire such a tribute. I am impressed by Helen’s determination to learn the sport and I hope that she continues to fish. I suspect all of her ancestors and family members who loved to fish are equally thrilled with her accomplishments. Thank you for a great story.

    Reply
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