Wetting a line helps wounded warriors heal.

“Strip, strip, strip, striiiip. SET! Oooh, just missed him.”

Volunteer guide Chuck Jochen is high on the bank, spotting big trout for Stan Abshire who is doing his darnedest to get a big rainbow into the net. Tricking the wily trout at Suzie Q Farm outside Bridgewater, Va., is no easy task, but Jochen and Abshire are not your average fly fishing team. They are at Suzie Q as part of Project Healing Waters, which uses fly fishing as a way to assist in the physical and emotional recovery of wounded military veterans.

In 2005, the seeds of PHW began to germinate in the mind of Navy captain and life-long fly fisherman Ed Nicholson while at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. On the verge of retirement, he was struck by the need to help his fellow wounded soldiers, so he started the best way he knew how: by taking them fishing.

“Fly fishing is a very special kind of fishing,” he said. “It’s the fly rod and the casting of the fly rod and the tranquility you have on a nice trout stream. It’s a special thing; it’s kind of a tension breaker. It relieves stress and is especially good for individuals who have, and are dealing with, a lot of stress.”

From these humble beginnings, Nicholson’s idea began to catch on – and fast. Over the past eight years, PHW has grown into an organization that runs 130 programs in 46 states enlisting the help of an army of volunteers along the way who do everything from teaching classes to hosting events. Volunteers donated over 97,000 hours to PHW in 2011, which helped more than 3,000 disabled and recovering veterans to participate in sponsored activities. These activities include fishing outings like the one at Suzie Q.

“I think the healing really goes on not so much because you have a fly rod in your hand but you’re with people who really care, be they volunteers or other disabled veterans,” said Nicholson.

Volunteers hold weekly classes at military hospitals to teach casting, fishing techniques, fly tying, and even rod building as part of their recreational therapy program. The classes not only provide wounded soldiers with exercises in hand-eye coordination and motor skills, but also a sense of accomplishment that may be absent since they were injured. The experience of being on the water, being able to catch fish and perform the same kinds of tasks they did before they were injured, can be a major boost, says Nicholson.

“It’s a confidence builder, especially for some of these younger kids who are just now reckoning with the fact that they are ‘disabled.’ They are missing an arm or leg. They have post-traumatic stress. A lot of times they feel more comfortable in the confines of the hospital or veterans center, but we help bring them out because they have to do that sooner or later. They’ve got to get on with life, and I think we help them do that.”

Sergeant First Class Walter Morse was recovering at Walter Reed from injuries sustained in Iraq when he was introduced to fly tying through the PHW.

“I was in the occupational therapy clinic and saw a couple of guys tying flies. They had me doing these puzzles and chess and I said, ‘I would much rather try that.’”

Morse credits the nature and organization of PHW with its success. By bringing younger and older disabled veterans together in the outdoors under a common interest, PHW creates an environment conducive to emotional healing. It also allows the older generation of soldiers to mentor the younger and see how life can change for the better over time, even with a disability.

“I fished with a Vietnam veteran, very successful in life, but I got out on the river and realized that the same things I was going through, he went through,” said Morse. “If you take 12 soldiers and put them in a clinical session with a psychiatrist, it’s going to be absolutely dead silent. You take those same 12 people and put them out on the river and healing is in process.”

Nowhere is the adage of “teach a man to fish…” more appropriate than when talking about PHW. The ultimate goal of the program is to help participants get to a place where they can and want to perform the skills learned in the program by themselves. Over the next five years PHW’s strategic plan calls for the program to nearly double in size. For Jochen and Abshire, that means plenty more chances to hook into that big rainbow in Mossy Creek.

For more information on Project Healing Fly Fishing and to see how you can get involved, visit their website at www.projecthealingwaters.org.

Project Healing Waters from Summit Publishing on Vimeo.

Other programs 

Soldiers to Summits

This program focuses on mountaineering as a way to help disabled veterans set ambitious goals, work through personal barriers and reclaim their lives. Their documentary High Ground premiered at the Boulder International Film Festival.

Veterans Expeditions

This Colorado-based organization uses wilderness challenges to create a common bond and promote camaraderie and recovery. Rock climbing, mountaineering, and hiking expeditions are all part of  VetEx’s program.

Wounded Warrior Project

All encompassing support system of wounded vets including mental and physical support as well as a growing peer and alumni network.

OASIS: Outdoor Adventure for Sacrifice in Service

Mainly working in the Fingerlakes region of New York, this group helps disabled veterans get back into the outdoors by offering instruction, equipment, and support for disabled veterans.

Ride 2 Recovery

Ride 2 Recovery holds events and races that raise money to benefit cycling programs in V.A. and military recovery centers. This nationwide organization uses cycling as a rehabilitation and recovery tool.