Photographers' Blog

Fly fishing with veterans

December 16, 2013

Hopeville Canyon, West Virginia

By Gary Cameron

In the summer of 2012, I photographed the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball team as they played against local teams in central New York. Veterans of the Afghanistan, Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, their horrific wounds were quite evident; everyone on the team had a minimum of one limb missing, if not more. If there was one common factor that I learned from that story, it was that veterans, no matter what their military affiliation or tour of service, have a quiet understanding among themselves that bonds them with the awful experience of war. These men and women, attempting to continue on with their lives and families once home again, have seen too much conflict. At a very young age, they have had too many tours, too many nightmares, and too many difficulties in re-adjusting back from a world where things blow up on a daily basis and friends are seriously injured or killed.

Project Healing Waters is a program that began in 2005 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its purpose was to provide veterans with access to the many aspects in the art of fly fishing, and the serenity that accompanies this art.

I love fishing and spending time on the water with my family and friends, but you must understand the difference between those who fly fish, and those who simply go to a store, buy a rod, reel, line and lure, and “fish.” I fall under the latter category.

Those who SERIOUSLY fly fish construct their own rods. They hand tie their own flies. Hook selection for these flies is a process in itself. They study and recognize the thousands of different insects that a fish will rise to eat or attack. Freshwater or saltwater? Nymphs, streamers, or wooly-buggers? Feathers or fur? Dry or wet? The process and pursuit of fly fishing does go on and on……

And they talk. Boy, do they LOVE talking about lures, line weights, knots and casting techniques. Endlessly. It is not a sport really, but an ancient religion and a form of communication IF you understand the language. I go to a Bass Pro superstore and walk down the numerous aisles and choose my lures and line off the rack. I ask, “When do we get to fish?””

Fly fishermen play chess.
I play checkers.
Fly fishermen prefer a nice, 1992 Pinot Noir; I drink the three dollar stuff from Trader Joe’s.
Fly fishermen are deep, thoughtful artisans in every aspect of their sport and craft.
Fly fishermen ask: “How will we fish?” “What will be the timing of the latest midge hatch?” “Pupae or larvae?”
I like to be on the water on a beautiful summer morning fishing top water lures for bass. In a boat. Out of a package.
Fly fishermen like to pursue rainbow trout in winter blizzards because cold weather is prime-time. In waders that step carefully over slippery rocks on a raging river. In conditions that have ice forming on their rod guides.

For three days, and for the third year, all of this is taught, shared and experienced by fly fishermen volunteers and veterans with the Ft. Belvoir, Quantico, Richmond, Martinsburg, Winchester, Virginia and Atlanta chapters of Project Healing Waters. Everyone gathers at Harman’s Fishing Lodge and Cabins in West Virginia, which has the north fork of the south branch of the Potomac River running through it. Predominantly attended by Marines, the inter-service ribbing and competitiveness is shared by Army, Air Force and Navy vets as well. And at no cost. All of the awards, fishing equipment, instruction, housing, food and volunteerism is done for free FOR the veterans. As it should be.

All meals are prepared by a Marine veteran and his crew. The chow is good and plentiful; meals are communal. A few war stories are shared, but most of the conversation centers about the art, the craft, and for some, the religion of fly fishing.

The canyon, river, and forest around Harman’s are quiet and serene. No one has to worry about being ambushed or stepping on an IED. All you really hear, all that really matters for now, is the river.

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