Jim Kelso

Jim Kelso

A Class Act on the Salmon River

  • By: Robert W. Streeter
Jim Kelso is an institution along New York's Salmon River and throughout the Lake Ontario tributaries when the salmon and steelhead are running. If you've ever been to any of these places you may have seen him. He's a regular at the fly-fishing-only areas when the salmon and steelhead are running. You may have even met him, especially if you were struggling with your fishing and encountered a kindly gent with an ever-present smile and trademark brush cut who handed you a fly and told you what you were doing wrong.

Many people have met him, but few know how much he has had overcome. In 1997, Jim was experiencing pain and numbness along his right side. His troubles continued until he started losing his balance and falling at his job as an industrial mechanic. His problem was traced to a fall from a helicopter during the Vietnam War, in which he had injured his neck.

Jim faced with a dilemma that few of us could fathom. His doctor told him he needed an operation that would remove two vertebrae from his neck and rebuild them to remove calcium spurs that were pressing on his spinal chord. Without the operation, he was looking at spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even with the operation, the doctors told Jim he would likely experience some form of paralysis.

The doctors performed the operation and Jim persevered in his recovery. Although he continues to deal with some lasting effects of his fall and surgery, Jim can fortunately still pursue his passion for fly-fishing. He was forced to take a disability retirement at work because he could no longer lift or move heavy objects, but retirement has given him more time to fish. "My basic problem is that my motor control is a little off, and I don't have the sensitivity in my fingers to detect strikes like I used to," he said.

To overcome this problem, Jim modified his fly gear to suit his needs. He developed a fly rod for fishing the tributary streams that has a thick butt with a special section on the grip that has a graphite ring the same diameter as the cork. He calls this his "megaphone." The special fly rod is as sensitive as holding directly on to the rod blank, and with it, Jim can feel even the subtle take of a steelhead.

Jim, in overcoming his difficulties with his usual good cheer, discovered that even though he lost his career, he still had something to give. Jim has taken what he has learned and has helped a number of other physically challenged individuals enjoy fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead. His good friend, Art Pond, is legally blind, but Jim often guides Art, setting him up on a good run-after which Art does the rest. Jim also shares his fishing time with a number of other folks who need a little help. He has guided several anglers with little or no eyesight. Other anglers that he takes out are deaf or have some have other physical disability. Jim also teaches fly-fishing and fly-tying to youth groups.

The next time you are standing there flailing away on one of the Lake Ontario tributaries and a happy guy wearing a welder's cap hands you the right fly and helps you with your fishing, please say hello to Mr. Kelso.