Ailing man's wish to fish fulfilled

Hospice nurses arrange first trip in three years for man, 91, battling heart disease

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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For three years, John Russell has wanted nothing more than to get back on the water.

For three years, doctors have told the Vancouver man he can no longer partake in the outdoor sport he loves.

But on Thursday, the avid fisherman’s wish was granted, despite the heart disease that limits his physical activity.

Nurses at Hospice Southwest organized a fishing trip so Russell, who turned 91 Monday, could again experience holding a reel and hooking a fish.

The fishing was great, Russell said. The catching, however, was not.

Still, Russell managed to haul in a small sturgeon during the afternoon trip on the Columbia River.

“It was a marvelous time,” Russell said. “A good trip, a good trip.”

Hospice nurse Denise Hood and her husband, Randy, accompanied Russell on the trip. Hood’s friend Matt Justis offered up his boat and afternoon to take Russell steelhead fishing.

Memories of the trip are now among those from the hundreds of other trips Russell’s taken throughout the years.

Russell cast his first line when he was 10 years old. Since then, he’s fished in Hawaii, Mexico, Canada and southern California. He’s gone deep-sea fishing in Alaska nine times.

He’s caught countless salmon, albacore, rainbow trout and sturgeon. He reeled in a 115-pound halibut at age 88.

He even took his bride, Millie, fishing at a lake in Northern California on their honeymoon 67 years ago.

Of all the trips, Russell said Thursday’s sunny afternoon skies offered some of the best fishing weather he’s ever experienced.

“You couldn’t ask for a better day,” he said. “It was a perfect day, beautiful.”

While Russell’s declining health has prevented him from fishing, it hasn’t kept him from staying up to date on fishing news. He checks the daily fish counts (Friday’s numbers were much better than Thursday’s, he noted) and reads all of the fishing stories in The Columbian.

Decades of experience on the water tell Russell that his favorite fish — albacore tuna — should be all along the Oregon and Washington coast this time of year after migrating north from Mexico. As long as the feeding stays good, he said, the albacore will stay in the area.

“I’d like to go albacore fishing tomorrow because they’re out there,” Russell said Saturday. “Nobody checks the fish counts more than I do.”

Russell’s daughter Judi Shelton said many of her childhood memories involve her father and fishing. She remembers fishing with her father and eating their catch for dinner on numerous occasions.

Getting back out on the water meant everything to her father, Shelton said.

“Doctors have told him, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that,’” she said. “Fishing has always been his love. The fact that he can get out there now is the frosting on the cake.”

Russell had been eagerly awaiting the trip since learning about it two weeks earlier. On Thursday morning, he was up and dressed in his baseball cap, sunglasses and T-shirt that read, “To fish or not to fish, what a stupid question,” well before it was time to head to the dock at the Port of Camas-Washougal. He paced as he waited to leave the house, Millie Russell said.

“He just really couldn’t believe this trip,” she said.

Russell was grateful for the break from medical restrictions and for the people who made the trip possible.

“I’m very appreciative of the fact that someone thought of me,” Russell said. “I don’t think that happens enough in this world.”

When he had his own boats, Russell said he participated in trips to take disabled people fishing so they could experience holding a reel and hooking a fish.

This time, though, it was Russell’s turn.

“I didn’t go out there to meet the fish,” he said. “I went out to enjoy myself.

“I enjoyed just being there.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.