Blake Muhlenbruck survived a horrific industrial accident that mangled the right side of his body. During the painful rehabilitation process and in the drug-clouded aftermath, he didn't want to survive.
He wanted to die.
Fishing saved his life.
"In the beginning, I was out of it. I was a vegetable," he remembered.
"I couldn't tie knots. I couldn't thread guides. I couldn't cast.
"But I enjoyed it from the first day that Aaron [his brother-in-law] took me fishing after the accident. I'd sit and touch and feel. I'd smell the air and the water. I'd hear the birds singing.
"That's why I tell people today to take someone fishing and change a life. The outdoors — fishing — literally saved my life."
Avid fishermen already understand the value of fishing as a stress reliever. But as Muhlenbruck discovered, its healing powers are nothing short of miraculous.
Kathy Magers agrees. She didn't want to miss a Bass'n Gal tournament just three weeks after doctors cut open her chest.
Her recovery regimen included exercises that she hated. "One day, I thought to myself that fishing would strengthen those same muscles without the boredom," she recalled.
With the doctor's approval, that's what she did. Then she traveled across the country to compete.
Riding in a boat hurt and I didn't fish well. But I didn't miss the event," she recalled.
"After the tournament, my doctor said he had never seen anyone heal so fast and regain use of an arm and side so quickly. I think it was a combination of the Vitamin D from sunshine, which aids in healing; the physical exercise of casting and retrieving; and being with friends that helped me heal so quickly. It's not always about the fish."
Maybe not, but sometimes the fish can be part of the therapy, too.
Muhlenbruck caught and released 1,568 pounds of largemouth bass, rainbow trout, and 15 other species during one of his almost three years of recovery with Aaron. Focusing on what he was catching helped keep the Colorado angler "in the moment," as did every little ritual and task associated with fishing that others simply take for granted.
"I had to re-learn everything," said the owner of Naked Bait Co. and member of the Centennial Bass Club.
"Sometimes I'd just sit and cry. I was so angry and frustrated. But Aaron would tell me not to feel sorry for myself and force me to do something. A really cool thing was that he'd park me at the lake and then walk over to the other side. It felt like it would kill me to do it, but I'd walk over and join him. It seemed to take hours just to tie a knot sometimes, but we continued until things became almost second nature again."
In addition to learning how to compensate for the nerve and muscle damage on his right side, Muhlenbruck also had to contend with a multitude of prescription drugs, as well as deafness in one ear and failing vision in one eye.
"We had to fish evenings and nights because the medication made me allergic to the sun. I learned to do everything by feel. Aaron would cast out a weight so I could learn to feel the bottom. Later on, I went to a jig.
"Today, I'm probably an expert nighttime bass fisherman."
As is Aaron. "He's one of the most amazing anglers," Muhlenbruck said. "He's a natural. And who else was going to sit and talk with me for 10 to 12 hours a day about fishing?"
The bond forged by Blake and Aaron and by others who spend time together on the water is yet another healthy aspect of fishing, according to Dr. Ron Radzikowski, a lifetime angler and recently retired chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge, La.
"Fishing is great for developing relationships," he said. "I have wonderful memories of my father and grandfather taking me fishing, and I'm doing the same thing with my son and grandson. I hope their memories will be as good as mine," added Radzikowski.
"That's a very healthy thing."
Just What The Doctor Ordered
When you go fishing, you spend much of the day on your feet and your body goes through a wide range of motions. Casting, retrieving, bending and stretching all require some level of beneficial physical exercise.
"You burn calories and at the end of the day you're tired," observed Dr. Ron Radzikowski, a fishing physician from Louisiana.
Catching a bass — especially a big bass — is also good for your heart, according to well-known Texas angler Kathy Magers, who speaks from personal experience.
"The doctors tell us that we need to do any exercise that will get our pulse rate up for at least 20 minutes at a time," she explained.
"If you will notice, from the time a big bass pecks at a lure until the time you've landed it, measured it, taken photos, kissed its lips, and laughed and screamed, 'Woo hoo!' 10 times, 20 minutes will have elapsed and you'll be healthier for it."
You'll be healthier, too, if you can learn to equate good habits with bass fishing, said Potomac guide Steve Chaconas.
"Instead of being home and having a houseful of food at my fingertips, I have well-planned snacks," he said.
"Also, being active and drinking water helps keep my weight down and my blood pressure in check. When I'm fishing, I've learned to drink not just from thirst but from habit."
The Ultimate Mind Game
Fishing can be the ultimate source for mental therapy, according to its greatest practitioners.
"I know even when I'm not looking for the relaxation of fishing, I'm reminded of it as I listen to nature and contemplate my next cast," said Bruce Holt, executive director of G.Loomis.
"More often than not," continued the Oregon native, "I find myself missing fish because I'm watching an osprey or an eagle soar over the lake.
"I've always felt that fishing was a bonus to being outdoors. Most of the time, you don't even notice how much you relax until you get back to the reality of the office. It's far better than aspirin."
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