How a Bluegill Saved My Life

Professional writer and angler Debbie Hanson has authored articles on fishing and the outdoors for publications such as the Visit Florida Official Florida Vacation Guide, Times of the Islands Magazine, the blog and Game & Fish Online.


Debbie Hanson as a child

Humble Beginnings

My childhood started off in much the same way as most other middle class kids growing up in the ‘burbs of Chicago. We’d giggle while running through the grass barefoot during the summer months, catch fireflies in a Mason jar, jump through the sprinklers, anxiously await the sound of the ice cream truck headed down the street… and spend as much time with our grandparents as possible.

I was fortunate enough to have an awesome Grams and Gramps who loved the outdoors and had a house in the upper peninsula of Michigan on Stanley Lake. An avid hunter and fisherman, Albert Johnson (AKA my grandfather) knew how to whittle a whistle out of a cherry branch, smoke a musky in a tin can and make the best dang raspberry jelly known to mankind.

At the tender young age of 4, I became Grandpa Johnson’s official “fishing partner” and had no reservations about jumping into the 16-foot aluminum boat for an adventure with the coolest man on the planet (aside from my Dad of course). Grandpa would teach me how to properly bait my hook with wiggly earthworms so I’d catch a nice bluegill, or show me which Rapala lures were best when trolling for musky, or demonstrate how to use a Hula Popper around the lily pads at the North end of the lake for bass. Then, after fishing for a few hours, we’d take our picnic lunches and head to an island in the middle of the lake to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while discussing what we caught that day and how excited we were because Grams was going cook up a mean fish fry when we returned.


Troubled Teen Years

Fast-forward a few years. I somehow turned into a moody, troubled teen that just wanted to hide in her room, listen to depressing Depeche Mode songs on cassette tapes and cry. I got involved with a somewhat (cough) narcissistic boyfriend who preferred to go to the tanning spa several times a week and flex his muscles in front of all his guy friends than spend time with me (admittedly, I probably wasn’t the best company). Then I got braces, the boyfriend dumped me, I grew even more socially awkward and ended up as the primary bashing target of a select group of female high school bullies. Awesome huh? Surely college life would be better!

Ummm… yeah. When I went off to college, I suddenly had this overwhelming need to be perfect. Get perfect grades, have perfect hair, be the perfect weight, embody the perfect sorority girl, be the perfect daughter and do all the perfectly right things. Since I neglected to realize that perfection wasn’t possible, I developed a DANDY of an eating disorder, ended up at having to drop out of college for a semester, got put into a treatment facility and felt so useless that I pretty much wanted to take a long walk off a short pier — never to be seen or heard from again. I had completely convinced myself (and the rest of the world) that I had about as much value as a Canadian penny lying on the floor of my Ford Escort GT.


Finding Healing in Reeling

Well, after I was finally deemed “healthy” by the docs and had packed a few back on, I’d go visit Grandma and Grandpa at the lake, drop a fishing line in the water and somehow the royally screwed up world seemed right again. And it was… for a time anyway.

Until I graduated from college, got married, moved to Florida, started fishing a few saltwater tournaments, was cheated on again, got divorced, started dating a new boyfriend from Miami, fished when I could in between, moved to Miami with boyfriend, ended up finding out that the boyfriend from Miami was not interested in women (after dating him for 3 years), packed up and went back to Fort Myers… THEN DECIDED THAT IT WAS JUST SIMPLY TIME TO FISH MY BUTT OFF!

Trust me, there were more than a few unhealthy, totally self-destructive thoughts that went through my mind after 20 years of making bad choices, but the best choice I ever made was to channel all that anger and sadness into one thing… fishing.

Because when I was on the water, nothing else mattered. I felt empowered, happy (although sometimes humbled by the ones that got away), and just plain thrilled to be in the great outdoors — a place where no one cared much about the size of your jeans, if your hair was perfect or if you carried a Louis Vuitton purse. Stress melted into the waves and fishing took me back to those days I spent with Grandpa in the aluminum boat out on Stanley Lake catching bluegill (or bass, perch, walleye or musky). No worries, other than making sure Grams knew what time we would be coming home with the catch of the day

So when people ask me, “how did you get so passionate about fishing?” I usually just smile and say, “because a bluegill saved my life.”

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2 Responses

  1. Debbie Hanson

    Thank you to ADDYA Outdoors for sharing my story and for supporting efforts to continually educate women on the benefits of fishing and the outdoors. So appreciated!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you, Debbie! Your work to educate women about fishing and the outdoors is important and we appreciate you.

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