Fly fishing for those who served

Fly fishing has been a large and rewarding part of my life over the past 50 years. During that time, I’ve had the pleasure to meet and fish with hundreds of folks who share my passion and devotion to this wonderful sport.

But few days 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 was conceived in 2005 by retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson of Port Tobacco, Maryland. 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. The management and staff of the club embraced the opportunity to host the vets with unbridled enthusiasm and hospitality.

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 Nicholson as he explained his vision for his fledgling organization. Twelve years later, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing has far exceeded those early expectations and continues to grow.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing now comprises nearly 200 local programs at Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics in 49 states. 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.

Two weeks ago, Project Healing Waters returned to Spruce Creek for their thirteenth annual event at the HomeWaters club, and like the previous twelve episodes, those two days were filled with many moments of inspiration and fellowship for both the vet and the volunteers, not to mention catching some great trout in the process. On the first day, I was privileged to guide a talented and enthusiastic fly angler, Navy veteran Jessica Callihan. She grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan, and after high school earned a full academic scholarship to Western Michigan University. After a year in college, Callihan followed a deep desire to make a difference and serve her country and visited some recruiting offices. The Navy impressed her and she enlisted.

Callihan’s career path in the Navy took a terrible turn, however, when she was severely injured in a fall during training that damaged the right side of her lower body. Complications from surgery caused permanent nerve damage and left her in constant in her leg and back. She has endured a total of 11 surgeries since 2007 to deal with those problems, including having a neurostimulator implanted in her spine. How this bright, young woman has dealt with her daunting physical difficulties over the past decade is remarkable and uplifting.

While recovering from one of her many surgeries, Callihan discovered a talent for art. Being able to sit and paint helped take her mind away from the incessant pain. A few years later, she was introduced to Project Healing Waters and learned to fly-fish, which she says, “gave me purpose and turned my life around.” She then combined her art with her newfound passion for fly-fishing after one of her last surgeries. “I couldn’t fish, so I started painting the first thing that came to mind, which was a rainbow trout,” Callihan said. “The only two times I don’t feel pain is when I’m out there fishing and when I’m creating art.”

Although Callihan introduced herself as a beginner with just two years of fly-fishing experience at the start of our fishing day, I had to rate her skills as well above the novice level. She is an excellent caster, has good line control on the water and can play big fish well, including a pair of hook-jawed brown trout measuring better than 20 inches she landed.

That’s probably because she has packed a lot of fishing into those last two years. Along with fishing for trout in 18 different states, she has made fishing journeys to Alaska, Scotland, and Belize. Callihan, who now resides in eastern Tennesee, has yet to fly-fish in her native Michigan, however, but I think it’s a good bet she’ll check that off her list soon as well. And to top off her many other accomplishments, she enrolled at Maryville College in 2012 and graduated with honors in just three years with a degree in fine arts.

You can view Jessica Callihan’s art on her website, jessicacallihan.com. If you are a fly angler, fly tier, or rod builder who would like to donate time or money to Project Healing Waters to help that most worthy cause to help those who have served and sacrificed so much for our country, check out the Project Healing Waters website at projecthealingwaters.org.

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