When David Folkerts returned from the Iraq war in 2005, learning to fly fish wasn’t exactly the first thing on his mind. He had nearly lost his left arm due to an injury sustained from a bomb blast and, after surgery, was sent to recover at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. So when retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson approached Folkerts at the hospital, asking if he wanted to join a group of other wounded veterans on a fly-fishing trip, he was hesitant to say yes.
“I was afraid of trying something and failing at it and then being more depressed about the situation I was in,” said Folkerts.
Capt. Nicholson, who was himself a patient at Walter Reed, had become used to seeing the beds around him fill up with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As an avid angler, he decided to coordinate with the hospital to hold fly-fishing lessons and outings with wounded, injured and ill service members. Though Folkerts’ left hand was still fully paralyzed, he agreed to give the sport a try.
With help from others, Folkerts learned how to cast with just one hand and operate a fly reel with a special crank, so that he could retrieve the line. He slowly got a feel for the sport, visiting brook trout streams in Maryland and New York. But it was during a five-day trip in Montana that Folkerts truly changed his perspective on life after the military.
“That trip in particular flipped the switch in my head,” said Folkerts, who described a calm, peaceful feeling out in the water. “I stopped focusing on the things I couldn’t do as well anymore or being depressed about my situation.”
Folkerts returned to Maryland and began not only participating more in fly-fishing outings but also volunteering and recruiting others to join the group. Around this time, Capt. Nicholson had turned his program at Walter Reed into a nonprofit organization, now called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
Today, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization with multiple programs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It has nine programs in the capital region and at least a dozen more throughout the watershed, from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Within each program, veterans participate in five different types of events: fly-tying, fly rod-building, fly-casting, fly-fishing education and fly-fishing outings.
In the Chesapeake region, the outings can take place in smaller streams and ponds where fish have been stocked, as well as wild-trout streams in central and northern Pennsylvania, western Maryland the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. The nonprofit’s annual Stars and Stripers event is held on the upper Bay, and while it was canceled in 2020 and 2021, organizers hope to have the 11th annual event in August 2022.
It is through the sport of fly-fishing that the nonprofit helps wounded veterans with their physical and emotional rehabilitation. The events build comradery by bringing together people who have had similar experiences, giving those transitioning from life in the military something to work on and devote themselves to, and offering a form of therapy for those who have experienced high-intensity situations.
“The act of fly-fishing is one of the most calming, peaceful things you can do,” said Bill Webber, a former explosive ordnance disposal specialist in the Navy.
Sitting around a group of a dozen military veterans at a fly-tying event in La Plata, Maryland, Webber was the first to speak up about the benefits of fly-fishing. After a bit of ribbing on Webber for his “Zen” description of the sport, others quickly chimed in.
“You’re in beautiful places. The water’s playing music to you. But it challenges you in every sense of the way,” said Stu Thomas, an Army veteran.
“You have to focus on it so heavily that you kind of forget everything else,” elaborated Mike Nyalko, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot of 30 years.
Finally, Larry Braswell, the volunteer with the organization, described the veterans’ fly-fishing experience with the most poetic line of the night: “When they’re in that water, whatever trouble they’re thinking about washes downstream.”
The sport of fly-fishing requires more attention than typical fishing. After casting, the angler has to manipulate the line, so that it matches the natural pattern of the current. When a fish bites, you have just a second to react. It’s this focus-driven aspect of the sport, combined with the trips to beautiful, natural places, that make fly-fishing such a meaningful activity for military veterans.
Outdoor recreation has economic benefits, but it also has its emotional and spiritual perks. During the pandemic, hiking, fishing, camping and kayaking all increased, as folks looked for ways to connect with nature. Project Healing Waters had to cancel its large, in-person events but continued on with online events, and veterans who had learned to fly-fish through the nonprofit’s programs were able to get out on their own.
As Folkerts pointed out, there will always be a need for these types of programs, even if overseas conflict dies down. He says that some of their best success stories are with Vietnam veterans, who were never given support for their post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Just because a war is over or it happened 30 years ago doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of problems that disabled vets have,” said Folkerts.
This also applies to veterans of the post-9/11 era, many of whom would benefit from lifelong support for their physical and emotional injuries.
As long as there is a need for connecting with nature, there will be a need to restore and preserve it. While nonprofits such as Project Healing Waters strive to connect wounded veterans with streams and rivers, partners of the Chesapeake Bay Program strive to keep those waterways healthy and accessible.
Jake Solyst is a web content specialist at the Chesapeake Bay Program, where this was first published.