By Christian Fichtel.
Recently, I had the opportunity to head north from the mountains of North Carolina to chase steelhead with friend and veteran Matt Smythe. As it worked out, the dates I had available coincided with Project Healing Waters’ annual event on the Salmon River. Having done some fundraising to benefit Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing in the past, I couldn’t wait to see their work in action.
On rare occasions, the time that we spend on the water isn’t measured by conventional means. We don’t recount the number of fish we caught or the weight of the monster brown we horsed out from under those exposed roots on the far bank. Instead, the memories are made of new friends and the inspiration that comes from spending a weekend on the water with a group of veterans.
Our lodging was generously provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and we arrived in a light snowfall to a gracious welcome from the fine folks of the NYSDEC. After opening remarks and dinner, the fly tying commenced. From the accomplished tiers to those who had never held a bobbin, all were encouraged to participate and learn. Even Matt’s young son, Cam, was put to work on a vise.
A late night with new friends faded into a cold morning, and we suited up and headed to the Salmon. I had long dreamed of swinging flies for steelhead on the Salmon, and to share my first steelhead experience with such a fine collection of men and women was a privilege. Dan Morgan, of the Syracuse Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, opened the proceedings on the banks of the Salmon and paired anglers with volunteer guides. As a former guide myself, I commend those guides who gave their weekend to such an admirable and deserving cause.
For two full days, through ever present freezing rain and light snow, we fished. What struck me the most was how quickly the wounds, both mental and physical, were swept downstream and into Lake Ontario. Tired faces were replaced by beaming smiles as fish were brought to hand. As would be expected, many fish were lost. What I came to realize, however, for these men the thrill of a ten-pound steelhead ripping line off of a reel was nearly as exhilarating as dipping a net into the icy water and pulling one of the silver streaks from his aquatic environment.
Throughout the first day, I watch as one particular veteran broke off fish after fish in the fast-moving water. After losing half a dozen sizeable steelhead, I could see that he was becoming frustrated. Yet, the sting of each lost fish was quickly forgotten as his guide helped him re-rig, gave him a couple attaboys and the next fish was hooked. He ended the day without landing a single fish, and I’m sure his disappointment greater than what he was letting on. On Sunday morning, however, his luck changed. I watched as he battled a bruiser in shallow riffles, expertly giving line and gingerly leading the fish to his feet. With wide eyes and a smiling face, he held his prize just inches above the moving water. He was proud, and he deserved it.
I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of veterans, some of them not yet twenty, who give so much to preserve and protect the freedoms that we enjoy here at home. Some of them come home with debilitating physical injuries or unimaginable mental scars, but all carry the weight of their experiences with honor and pride. To see those burdens eased by frigid water and chrome-colored fish is an affirmation that chasing fish with a fly is not about catching the most or catching the biggest. Instead, it is about using the fly rod as an implement of healing.
Tonight, sitting at my tying desk in the mountains of western North Carolina, a familiar freezing rain begins to fall. I’m brought back to a night spent recounting fish stories and other tall tales in the NYSDEC training barracks. For that night, and for the rest of the weekend, our sport provided an outlet for the veterans to cast aside their worries, their burdens, and their wounds. We fished, we fished hard, and I’ll never forget the memories of new water and new friends I brought home with me. We owe these men and women our freedom and security; the least we can do is take them fishing.
Christian Fichtel is the author of The Tailing Loop (www.thetailingloop.com), a fly fishing blog with literary allusions. He lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, chasing trout and grouse with his Brittany pup, Tucker.
Photo Credit: Grant Taylor, granttaylorphoto.com.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.
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