Fly fishing helps disabled vets on recovery path

I’ve been a fly-fishing guide for 25 years and during that time have had the pleasure of fishing with hundreds of folks from all walks of life.

Most of the time, guiding was a great way to make some extra money in addition to my fulltime job, but those outings brought with them many other rewards beyond the monetary.

Seeing the look on the face of a novice who has just caught his or her first fish or sharing the moment with a veteran angler after landing the biggest trout of his life or simply making a new friend after a day on the stream together are all priceless experiences that have helped enhance my personal appreciation for fly-fishing.

But few times on the water have been as rewarding as the times spent with members of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities.

Project Healing Waters began in 2005 through the efforts of retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson of Port Tobacco, Md.

Nicholson, an avid outdoorsman and fly-fisherman, began working with Col. Bill Howard, chief of occupational therapy services for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to start a program enabling injured veterans to participate in fishing and other outdoor activities as part of their rehabilitation. That summer Nicholson contacted the HomeWaters Club on Spruce Creek in Huntingdon County about finding a special fishing destination for the first group of outpatients in the program.

Mike Harpster, membership director for the HomeWaters Club, said, “I still remember when Ed Nicholson called me looking for a place to bring his group of recovering vets. I told Ed we would love to open the club to them, and our guides and the entire HomeWaters staff jumped at the chance to give back a little to those who have given so much to our country. That August he brought five disabled vets to the club for an overnight stay and a day of fly-fishing. It is hard to believe that was 8 years ago, and we have proudly hosted a Project Healing Waters event at HomeWaters each year since. We just completed our ninth-annual Project Healing Waters event last week.”

I’m proud to have been a part of that first Project Healing Waters event. Each of the five young heroes we fished with that day had lost an arm while serving in Iraq. Watching them adapt and overcome the challenges they faced to catch some great trout and doing so with such enthusiasm and resolve was inspiring and tremendously emotional. I also had the opportunity to spend time with Ed Nicholson as he explained his vision for his fledgling organization. And just eight years later, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing has far exceeded those early expectations and continues to grow.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing now comprises about 160 local programs at Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics in 47 states that will involve more than 3,300 veterans in 2013. It remains a volunteer-run organization funded through the generous donations of private and corporate donors. The programs offered include basic fly-fishing, fly casting, fly tying, rod building classes and other clinics designed to help the participants adapt their skills and develop new abilities. There is no charge to the veterans for any of the fly-fishing and fly-tying equipment or the special fishing trips provided by Project Healing Waters.

I’ve guided veterans on several fishing trips with Project Healing Waters, including the recent event on Spruce Creek, and each experience has been extremely gratifying and worthwhile. Last week, my fishing partner was Shawn Horsley of Camp Lejeune, N.C., one of six American heroes hosted by the HomeWaters Club for two days trout fishing. Shawn was a capable caster and fisherman, and we had a wonderful morning together during which he caught several big trout. Later that afternoon, I was stunned to learn what this young man had overcome to be out there on the water.

Shawn served for 13 years in the Marine Corps and suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq in 2006 when an IED exploded near him. His recovery has been long and ongoing. He became involved with Project Healing Waters about three years ago when he started tying flies while still in the hospital. He began fly-fishing as part of his rehabilitation as well, and while he confided to me that he still has many problems to deal with, I have to believe the joy he experienced catching and releasing some trophy trout helped his healing process.

If you are a fly angler, fly tier, or rod builder who would like to donate time or money to this most worthy cause, check out the Project Healing Waters website at