Deteriorating sight can't keep angler out of water

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

RENO, Nev. — Deirdre Race cast her line into the Truckee River as the sun set one recent wintry day. She tilted her fishing rod up when the lure hit the water, then reeled her line across the current.

She was mindful of the willows and cottonwoods waiting behind her to snag a lure, but her line bunched up as she reeled it in.

''Ugh. Where's my line?'' she grumbled as she reached for the end of the thin, clear filament. ''That's the worst part of being blind. You can't see anything.''

Considering that degenerative retina disease has made her legally blind, Race, 51, maintains a good sense of humor. She also manages to catch quite a few fish in the Truckee River, where she has been fishing since moving to Reno in the spring.

She described her vision as ''looking through a pair of binoculars backward.'' She has no peripheral vision and very poor night vision. Although the rate of loss has slowed since she stopped working, her vision continues to deteriorate, and she is unable to work.

''She happens to be one of those people losing their sight that has adapted well,'' said Bob Guerrero, a recreational therapist at Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation who helped Race adjust to her blindness and new life in Reno.

''Life's hard, then you're faced with this choice. She decided to deal with it and move on,'' he said.

There are many metaphors for life in fishing. Lures snag, lines tangle, the big one gets away. Anglers need patience and perseverance, Race said, or they won't get far.

Race deftly untangled her fishing line that cold December day, when even someone with 20/20 vision might struggle with icy fingers.

She wasn't always so confident with her disability. For a while, she abused drugs to cope with the loss of her vision, she said.

''Finally I said, 'This is real. Instead of being an idiot, I need to find out what I can do. Live your life. Don't try and kill yourself.'''

All her life, she had a sensitivity to light and wore glasses to correct nearsightedness. As an adult, she often missed exit signs and got lost while driving. She didn't know she had inherited a genetic disease passed on to the first- and fifth-born children of parents with certain recessive genes.

In 1985, while working as an airplane mechanic in the Bay Area, she made a mistake that caused her to see a doctor. She missed a turn on an airport tarmac while taxiing a Boeing 747 airplane.

For the first time in her life, she took a visual field test, the eye examination in which patients click a hand-held device each time they see a dot of light. She did so poorly, the doctor mistakenly thought the equipment was broken and asked her to return the next week.

'''You got a problem,''' she said she remembers him saying when she returned.

Doctors diagnosed her six months later with retinitus pigmatosis. She was in her late 20s and had already lost half her vision.

Years later, Race found Reno online while looking for an affordable Western city. She was looking for a town with minimal traffic after being hit by a car in Los Angeles.

Having always enjoyed the outdoors, she was drawn to Reno by the Truckee River. She rented an apartment downtown near the river.

''As soon as I got here I saw people fishing,'' she said. ''I said, 'Fishing? That'll keep me out of trouble.'''

Her first months as an angler were tough. She hadn't fished much since her childhood in upstate New York, so she had to learn how to tie lures with her limited vision. She broke three fishing rods, lost about $25 in lures and didn't catch a single fish.

''Let's just put it this way: She was kind of green,'' said Richard Lipke, a 62-year-old retiree who lives near Race and fishes the Truckee River.

Race befriended Lipke and other ''old-timers'' who spend their days fishing. They taught her to use 10-pound test line that wouldn't break instead of lighter line and to tie strong knots so her lures wouldn't fall off when she tugged at snags. They showed her how to scout the river and which lures worked best.

''You know, they're kind of the older guys,'' she said. ''Some don't have their teeth. Some go fishing just to drink, I think. Kind of old and crusty, but they tell me the good fish stories.''

Race earned her first fish story in May. She hadn't planned on catching anything but was just practicing casting near her home.

''Boom! First cast in it hit,'' she said.

The fish took off with her line, banging the lure against rocks to dislodge the hook. It was like a moment on the TV fishing shows, she said. The fish was fighting, splashing the water and tugging her line and bending her rod. When it wore itself out, she reeled in a 15-inch rainbow trout.

She stuffed the fish with garlic and parsley, wrapped it in bacon and fried it. From then on, she fished every day through the summer, often catching her limit and eating plenty of trout.

Among the many fish she went on to catch, her four largest — a 19-inch, two 20-inchers and one 21-inch, 5-pound trout — are stored in her freezer for a special occasion. A photo album on a table attests to other fishing adventures.

Many anglers stories focus on the one that got away, but Race has a story about the one she let go.

She went to a favorite spot to fish, but some other anglers were there so she hiked downstream. She tied on a small plastic lure decorated like a brown trout and cast below some rapids.

She knew the fish that grabbed the lure must have been big by the way it jumped out of the water and took her line. She tightened the drag, which creates friction on the fishing reel. The fish swam frantically at the end of her line, trying to escape, but eventually tired.

She measured the brown trout at 25 inches — a real trophy fish. But as she admired its bright red body, yellow belly and numerous spots, she noticed its pronounced hook jaw — a sign the male trout was spawning.

''You were busy doing your thing out there,'' she told the fish, ''so I'm going to put you back. You go make more babies so we can have more fish like this.''

Anyway, she said, she prefers rainbows to browns.

''They taste better,'' she said.

Race said some of the best fishing comes in the winter. Many people she meets underestimate the bounty of the river.

''There's no fish in there,'' a downtown hot dog vendor once told her. ''The only fish you're going to catch around here are the ones in the grocery.''

Other people have expressed their concerns about a blind woman hiking alone along the river. Race said she carries a cell phone in case of trouble, but so far has only been hassled by an angry property owner while traveling along the riverbank.

''One time I stepped on a homeless man while he was sleeping,'' she said. ''He said, 'What are you? Blind?' I said, 'Well, yeah.'''

She once fell down a steep embankment. Another time, she was swept down river by the current.

Walking across the icy rocks that December day, she seemed confident and nimble. She occasionally pulled out her binoculars. To make up for her poor eyesight, she uses the binoculars to look for fish and to scan the river's current and depth.

''I see the beauty of the river in tiny pictures, instead of like a great big giant whole story that gulps you up,'' she said.

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