Fishing for those who served

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Folks often ask me how difficult it has been to come up with a topic for a new outdoors column week after week for almost 18 years.

Most of the time, it’s not a problem. Because I embrace a wide range of outdoor pursuits throughout the year, my biggest difficulty in choosing a topic for a given week is deciding just what to write about from several possible options. But the unrelenting rain this summer has presented more than its share of obstacles.

I don’t have to tell any local anglers that the monsoon-like conditions we’ve experienced for the past three months have made our local fishing difficult to impossible. On the handful of days that the water conditions were decent, fishing has mostly been good. Just not enough of those good days to fish. And it’s Friday morning, and as I sit writing this week’s column, rain is pouring steadily outside.

Flash flood warnings are predicted. I know I probably won’t be fishing anywhere around here for at least another week. I am grateful. however, for the opportunity earlier last week to fish with some special folks in Project Healing Waters.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is 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.

Thirteen 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.

Last Monday, my fishing partner was Bill Boykin, a retired US Navy submarine captain. Spruce Creek was high and off color, but we managed to take a few trout on nymphs during the morning. On one of my favorite pools, we tied on a black Woolly Bugger, and I coached Bill to work the streamer around the edge of small logjam. He did a fine job and hooked large trout. The big fish stayed deep in the heavy current and it was 10 or 15 minutes before we even had a glimpse of it. Just about then, several members of the Project Healing Waters Staff arrived to watch the ongoing battle. That audience only added to the exhilaration and relief I felt when I finally was able to slide my net under that great 24-inch brown trout, a full 35 minutes after the initial hook-up. It was the perfect end to a morning of fishing under some tough conditions.

Unfortunately, it rained heavily that afternoon, and by the following morning, Spruce Creek was terribly high, muddy and virtually unfishable. In spite of those conditions, the veterans were willing to try to fish. My fishing partner that morning was Major Pete Way, a US Army paratrooper who lost his right leg above the knee in 2003. I was somewhat deflated when I arrived at our fishing spot, as the stream was totally ugly, high and muddy brown. Pete opted to put on his prosthetic leg, complete with a computerized knee joint, which would provide him with remarkable mobility on the streambank.

We walked a short distance to the shallow tail-out of a large flat. I explained our strategy would be swinging big streamers across this area hoping to tempt some of the big fish that I knew would be hanging out there. I knotted a size 6 black rabbit strip streamer to the end of a stout leader with some split shot to get the fly down in the stiff current. On the third cast, a 22-inch rainbow smacked the streamer. Several casts later, a 25-inch brown followed suit. It was another great morning with another great day on the water with those who have served and sacrificed so much for our country.

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