Two pros: Ace surgeon gets master fisherman back in the river

Aug. 6, 2019
Charles Duke gets ready to go fishing
Charles Duke tore his rotator cuff in a fall on his driveway. After surgery and extensive physical therapy, he’s back to his passion of flyfishing. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

The fisherman stands in a tributary of the Arkansas River as it snakes through a meadow near Leadville and effortlessly casts his line so the fly lands in the perfect spot to entice a hungry trout.

Towering over Charles Duke are two of Colorado’s 14ers, Mt. Elbert, the state’s tallest at 14,439, and neighboring Mt. Massive, elevation 14,429, which sprawls like a giant with enormous shoulders.

Duke reads rivers the way rock climbers find elusive holds on sheer granite cliffs. The rest of us don’t see all the possibilities. But, Duke does. He points to a fork in the river where a current of moving water meets a still pool.

“That’s where the fish like to hang out,” says Duke, 61.

He grins because the river is his happy place. And so are the ski slopes, the golf links, tennis and paddleball courts and his cabin in the pines where the Eagle River rushes past the back deck.

“Charles is the quintessential Coloradan. He grew up here. His life is about enjoying everything that Colorado has to offer,” said Dr. Ted Schlegel, Duke’s friend and the man Duke trusted to fix his shoulder when a fall on ice on his Littleton driveway left him with a devastating and very large tear to his rotator cuff.

The damage was bad. But Schlegel and his team pioneered the minimally invasive surgical technique that offered hope to Duke. He was willing to endure surgery and a challenging recovery in hopes that he could get back to fishing, skiing and all his sports.

Learning to fish from a legend

Duke has been fishing all his life. He learned from his dad, a legend in Colorado who helped start the Vail ski area and, along with his wife, worked to preserve open spaces in Colorado.

Duke’s father, Ben Duke, earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in the 10th Mountain Division, the elite skiers and mountaineers who fought in Italy during World War II. His mom, Maud Duke, also served during the war. She joined the renowned WACs or Women’s Army Corps, the first women other than nurses to serve in the U.S. Army. Maud was stationed in India, where she rode on transport planes that flew “the Hump,” a dangerous route over mountains to supply China in their war with Japan.

Charles Duke fishing in a tributary of the Arkansas River
Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s tallest peak, towers in the background as Charles Duke fishes in a tributary of the Arkansas River near Leadville.

Both of Duke’s parents were ski racers and talented athletes who loved the outdoors. They taught their five sons to serve their communities and Ben Duke passed on a genius for fishing.

Charles remembers spending hour after hour quietly watching his dad tie flies on his rod and whip translucent lines into Colorado’s most beautiful rivers.

He learned how peaceful it was to stand in waders with water flowing past him.

“It does take you into a meditative state. The light glistens on the water. You’re focused,” Duke said.

The beauty of fishing

His dad used to tell him there were three kinds of fisherman.

“The first is where you talk about how many fish you caught. When you graduate from that, you talk about how big the fish was. The final level is where you talk about how challenging it was to get the fish. It was in a hard pocket with currents going in several directions. You had to put the fly under a willow where it wouldn’t move. And finally you got the fish,” Duke said.

Fisherman Charles Duke casts in a tributary of the Arkansas River with Mt. Massive in the background.
Charles Duke has loved fishing all his life and is grateful that he can still cast with his right arm. Mt. Massive is in the background to the right and Mt. Elbert is in the distance to his left. Both are 14ers.

Duke is that kind of fisherman. He throws back every fish he catches and loves simply being out in nature.

“The beauty of fishing is all the beautiful, wild places it takes you,” said Duke, who runs a specialty food business called To-Table, which supplies the public, caterers and private chefs alike. “It’s the sport, not the catch.”

Schlegel has gotten to see his buddy fish and is thrilled that Duke has been able to get back to the sport he loves.

“There’s this connection with nature and this inner peace,” Schlegel says. “Because he’s fished for so long, he has this ability to synchronize the motion of his line with the movement in the water. It’s this beautiful harmony of two things happening at once.”

Schlegel approaches medicine the way Duke has mastered fishing.

He served as the team doctor to the Denver Broncos and is Director of Research and Innovation for the UCHealth Steadman Hawkins Clinic Denver.

Head shot of Dr. Ted Schlegel, an expert on knee pain.
Dr. Ted Schlegel

Steadman Hawkins has a stunning new center that caters to professional athletes, students and weekend warriors alike, with cutting-edge orthopedic care, physical therapy, research and training facilities to boost sports performance. The facility features a state-of-the-art motion analysis lab along with an outdoor field so doctors and therapists can see patients of all levels in action.

Schlegel and the clinic team dedicate themselves to continuously improving. Along with partners at labs around Colorado, they meticulously research the best ways for patients to heal and recover. And while Schlegel is a surgeon, he doesn’t always recommend surgery. Sometimes physical therapy or another option will serve a patient better. Schlegel specializes in mending shoulders and knees. (Click here to read Schlegel’s advice about knee pain.)

A pro to heal a pro

Duke’s fall happened back in January of 2016. It was one of those sunny Colorado winter days when it was nice enough to play some paddle tennis outdoors.

“I was in sneakers with no traction, not paying attention when I fell,” Duke recalled.

He knew the minute he went down that the fall was bad.

“Well, boys, this is trouble,” Duke said out loud, as he looked over at his two yellow labs, Winston and Tucky, who were just inside the fence, gazing over at their humbled master.

Fisherman Charles Duke prepares his line before heading into the river.
Charles Duke says fishing puts him in a meditative state.

“That just changed everything,” Duke thought to himself.

He knew his right shoulder was in terrible shape, but not wanting to bail on his buddies without an explanation, Duke used his left hand to push himself up off the driveway, drove to the paddleball courts and explained that he was injured.

One of his next calls was to Schlegel, who is also a friend.

“He’s a spectacular man and fun to be around. You always learn a lot from Ted,” Duke said.

Plus, he’s a pro.

flies in a tackle box
Charles Duke keeps dozens of flies with him. Picking the right fly is an art in itself that depends upon the conditions and the time of day.

“You’d be watching the Broncos and he’d be there on the sidelines,” Duke said.

Schlegel had Duke come in for an MRI.

The results confirmed Schlegel’s suspicions. Duke had suffered a severe rotator cuff tear. It was so bad that Duke would have found it very difficult to keep using his dominant shoulder for all his favorite activities including fishing and skiing.

Schlegel told Duke he could try physical therapy first, but surgery would probably be necessary no matter what.

Duke decided to have surgery sooner rather than later. And it went very well.

Schlegel’s favorite aspect of his work is helping people get back to activities they love.

“I feel so lucky to be in the position I’m in. There’s great satisfaction when you know you’ve been able to help a person get through a difficult situation,” Schlegel said.

And the new facility brings all the key players together in one beautiful place: from researchers to clinicians to experts in motion analysis and training.

“Putting all these experts together in one space creates the best outcomes for patients,” Schlegel said.

“We’ve been taking care of all these high-level elite professionals and Olympic athletes and we’re using all the exact same techniques to keep all patients healthy and active…We’re open to all.”

‘Fishing with reckless abandon’

While the surgery went well, Duke said the recovery was tough and quite humbling.

In order to give his shoulder time to heal, Duke had to keep it totally immobilized for nearly four months. Unable to comfortably recline, he had to sleep in a chaise lounge. His wife of 35 years, Lisa Duke, had to tend to him.

“You can’t put your own pants on,” Duke said.

The couple has four children, and at the same time Duke was recovering, one of their daughters suffered a knee injury while playing lacrosse in college in Maine. The Dukes headed across the country, where Lisa cared for both her husband and their daughter.

“We had to get her to classes. That’s the main reason we were there,” Duke said.

Charles Duke shows off a fish. He throws every fish back.
Charles Duke loves the strategic challenges of fishing. Here, he shows off a catch that he throws back moments later.

He’s the primary cook in their home and did the best he could with one hand.

Physical therapy came next. Duke worked with Mike Allen, who motivated him through twice-weekly sessions.

“Slowly, I started to get things back,” Duke said.

He took it easy on his shoulder the first year after the injury, then set a goal for the summer of 2017. He hoped to spend at least six days a month fishing. And before he knew it, he was right back in his element.

“I fished with reckless abandon,” Duke said.

This year, Duke got to take a trip with his wife to visit their oldest daughter, who lives in Argentina. And he got to fish there quite a bit, which was a wonderful new experience. Every time he sees Schlegel, he lets him know how happy and grateful he is.

“Ted’s the best,” said Duke, who has a contagious grin and delivers perfectly timed one-liners.

The walls of Schlegel’s office feature jerseys from professional athletes who have benefited from his care. The way Duke sees it, he fits right in.

“I consider myself a pro fisherman. I’m surprised he doesn’t have my fishing vest up on his wall,” Duke said with a wink.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.