Somewhere on the cusp of Appalachia, where the vast stretch of suburban metropolis that is Northern Virginia gives way to the Highlands and Shenandoah Valley, is a special place in Madison County where positive change is put into the world as the lives of warriors, young and old, are given a true sense of renewal through the simple action of casting rod and line. You could probably guess that at the crux of this special space –a river runs through it. For once though, this isn’t entirely about what swims beneath the surface, but the courageous men and women who stand above it.
Sure , you could say there are some fish in this glorious mile or so long stretch of pristine, restored trout water— a lot of fish actually. The Rose is a piece of God-given perfection to those with fish on the brain. But most streams have fish. There are some big ones, some small ones, some with spots, some you should throw out, and others so beautiful and rare that they ratify your faith in this thing we call life. But that would be calling these magnificent organisms something more like a vehicle for spiritual and physical renewal rather than what they actually are— fish.
Hell, you can catch them on a variety of things. They all fall victim to worms and this manmade goo called “Powerbait” ALL THE TIME. That said, homemade concoctions comprised of what appear to be mostly belly button lint, thread, and feathers tied onto steel is the preferred method by most fly anglers. Sometimes you’ll even convince a fish that the feather metal combo is real and they’ll rise from the depths to sip your fly in what can only be described as the soft-core porn of natural predations in the Animal Kingdom. Despite that description, it’s one of the more heart-stopping moments in all of sport. Fool a fish once on a dry fly and ironically, you’ll be the one that’s hooked. It’s a proven fact (and pun). Regardless of success, you keep fishing.
Then in that same hole, you’ll find a fish propel itself from the depths with such violence and reckless abandon at your fly that you have no time to react and things get strangely quiet on the water. There was no hook set. For all you know it missed the fly. Maybe it wasn’t even your fly that it flung itself at. But even as you scratch your head on the bank trying to put together what just happened, your rig completely thrashed and possibly in a tree—there is no better feeling. Regardless of success, you keep fishing.
But then the fish adapt. Times get tough and they stop rising. They instead take on a new form, gluing themselves on the bottom – mere specters flashing and teasing their potential presence in the depths. But being the stubborn creatures we are--we adapt. We overcome their survivalist instinct and put weight on the line ahead of the fuzz and thread to make it sink to their level. We boldly drift our creation through their place of refuge, attempting to imitate which we can only hope is “natural”. A silver flash in a deep, green pool signals the eat, provoking a primal instinct and reassurance in the unknown that is ultimately comprised of the elements that define this sport –wishful thinking, perseverance, and blind faith. Regardless of success, you keep fishing.
I’m not sure this has been said before. It probably has and I’m infringing on intellectual property rights but it feels right. With each stream you fish the world gets bigger. With each fish you catch, the world gets slightly smaller. You progress from that quiet mountain trout stream in your hometown to the main river a few more miles downstream to chase bigger game. From the river you make your eventual way down to the bay in pursuit of even larger quarry. As time progresses, you’ll find yourself in the salt….then everything gets weird…and you can forget everything I mentioned above. You won’t though—because everyone remembers that first time they were rejuvenated by the flow.
But back to that quiet stretch of river in Madison County at Rose River Farm- the special place where the battle scars of warriors, young and old, are healed by a pure stream of mountain water and the efforts of Project Healing Waters. This is where the journey that is fly fishing has taken these heroes, to a celebration of their incredible efforts and the tangible evidence of their new lease on life. But that’s what this sport does for people. I guess you could say that Project Healing Waters and Rose River Farm are really on to something. But then again, they’ve been on this train for a while.
Since 2005, Project Healing Waters has been serving wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, PHWFF has expanded nationwide, establishing its highly successful program in Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, and Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics.
The Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program provides basic fly fishing, fly casting, fly tying and rod building classes, along with clinics participants ranging from beginners who have never fished before, to those with prior fly fishing and tying experience who are adapting their skills to their new abilities. All fly fishing and tying equipment is provided to the participants at no cost. Fishing trips, both one day and multi-day, are also provided free of charge to participants.
Not so surprisingly, these heroes overcome it all—no arm, no leg, no problems—with the help of PHW. But often for these courageous men, it’s a long road to recovery. To relearn functionality in an appendage is a sobering lesson in the determination and the will power of all men to overcome any obstacle. But through the sport of fly fishing and all the repetition that goes with it (casting, knot trying, fly trying, stream knowledge, fly selection, etc) PHW teaches wounded veterans a new sense of normal. Says COO of PHW Dave Folkerts:
I think our biggest difference from other organizations is that we focus on the long term relationships we make with the participants in our programs. We are not a one event, shake their hand, then thank them for their service as they walk out the door. Our programs meet on a regular basis. Some meet up once a week, some every other and some once a month. They teach fly fishing 101, fly tying, rod building and pretty much anything to do with the sport of fly fishing. Many of our programs are doing 15+ fishing outings throughout the year for their programs participants. We continually keep them engaged with the program and give them the choice to stay connected as long as they want. The big events like the 2-fly tournament in Virginia and the fly fishing trips to places like Montana and Alaska are incredible experiences but are just a small part overall of what PHWFF offers.
In essence, fly fishing becomes the motivating factor and catalyst for their convalescence. But regardless of the fish, a group of men entirely committed and determined to overcome their limitations, transcend them, and find inner peace is an incredibly powerful thing to witness first hand. Talk about true strength. With the help of generous sponsors, volunteers, and tireless employees at Project Healing Waters, these moments are not so rare in this world. Throughout the year, PHW runs numerous events for wounded warriors all over the country. Branches of this great organization are starting to sprout up on primo fishing destinations all over and special events like the Two-Fly Tournament represent a celebratory culmination of their efforts to not only restore streams, but lives. I cannot stress this enough, the Two-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm is only one weekend but the work PHW does with these heroes leaves a lasting impression.
Each year, a handful of veterans are selected to participate in the Two-Fly based on their participation in program classes, meetings, and clinics throughout the PHW calendar. Once selected, the participants are given the opportunity to put their newly honed skills to the test on the trout mecca that is the Rose while accompanied with a professional guide. As you could guess from the name, the tournament is based on the Two-Fly premise (two flies per angler, choose any fly you want but lose both, you’re done fishing for the day). The event raises a substantial amount of money each year for PHW events and helps sustain the operating costs for their wonderful mission. And it should.
For the farm is a place where a warrior with no left arm can successfully convince their first fish to rise to a dry fly while casting with their right. There are no words to describe how beautiful a moment that truly is.
It is that special place where a hero with no legs can provoke the equivalent of a Sean Taylor headshot on their properly presented fly, lose the fish, and at the end of the day— laugh about it over a beer. Tarnished rig be damned.
Most importantly though, it is a space where the lessons learned from PHW mean more than the fish landed. A special place where persevering, critically thinking, and adapting your mental and physical game plan to overcome an obstacle most would deem vastly more insurmountable than fooling a large, finicky trout happens every single day.
Regardless of guide, it is a true challenge to any fly fisherman’s focus and determination to win this tournament. Lose your fly in a tree? Done. Lose that fly on a 20” rainbow? Done. Lose that second fly in your guide’s swollen lip (dip included)? Done…although the dip gets you points back at the gazebo. Despite their physical limitations, there are no exceptions on this stream. Everyone is equal. Lose your flies and you’re done.
But fishing isn’t all about losing flies and persevering, right? For there are perfect moments in this sport. Like when you catch that 23” rainbow that’s been hiding from the world for 5+years in the final 5 minutes of regulation with only one, difficult cast to make into a submerged rose bush with a size #18 stone fly and getting the drift just right so that holding that fish in your hands before time expires feels as if you’re holding your new born child? Legendary.
Ever wonder like it is to be a hero?
We’re about to find out.
Follow us APRIL 26th-27th at the Project Healing Waters’ Two-Fly Tournament on their National Home Water at Rose River Farm in Syria, VA. We’ll be bringing the action to you live on InstaGram and Twitter @FlyTimesDC using the hastag (#) #PHWFF2FLY. To find out more about this incredible organization check out https://www.projecthealingwaters.org/.
Every day is a gift, that’s why we live in the present.
With water temps finally starting to push 50 degrees after a seemingly endless, F*CK#*@#* TERRIBLE WINTER – spring has finally sprung in our beloved District.
With warm weather comes the instinctual urge to do funtivities outside. Joggers, bikers, and all those kept contained inside for way too long hatch in a glorious manifestation of life and passive fitness. It also means hell on the local traffic scene – but I digress.
For us in the District, spring means a few things...
Cherry blossoms and tourists…
Nats games (I’m an O’s fan but beer is beer) and times spent meandering around Cantina Marina….
We've been spared the Caps annual game 7 home loss (aka the Red Wedding) this year (thank god)…
And of course, fishing some…or a lot…or all the freaking time now that there is no need for a gajillion layers or routine trips down I-80 to chase the local population of brutish salmonoids.
How liberating is that?!
But if any of y’all read last year’s #WordHatches around this time of year, there’s a pretty distinct chance you saw a pattern of irrational and reckless behavior that resulted in some great catches and funny stories.
Well, I can’t make any promises (I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two), I’m just gonna say it comes with the territory—especially if the fishing is as spectacular as it was last spring. See, once spring finally rids itself from the demented clutches of winter – my fishing options not limited to one local stream and a handful of productive trout waters – I tend to lose my shit.
In short, I’m talking about the deterioration of all things resembling rationality and a normal, functional life...all for a shot at that one fish.
In other words, things are about to get awfully fishy around here (if it looks like I haven’t slept…I haven’t).
The next few months will be a total immersion into the fly life as I’m looking forward to fishing way too hard until this all starts slowing down….hopefully around next December.
But just in case you missed all the #WordHatches from last year, here is the typical spring rundown around these parts-
After a long winter pounding the trout water and occasionally Four Mile Run with a goddamn vengeance – the Nation’s River smiles on us all and finally warms up to 50 degrees. Giving everyone hope. Trout guys curse the oncoming flood of fair weather fishermen….and powerbait.
Everyone starts talking shad in late February despite the facts that global warming has decided to punish this region by extending winter well into March in recent years. Maybe one year we'll be graced with an early season...Until then Shad start showing up in early April and the line for a boat at Fletcher’s starts at 4am. All time before/after work is spent at Fletchers for three weeks straight as water temps everywhere start to get primo.
At this point I’ve stopped shaving. After another week, I’m seriously contemplating a No-Shave-Shad-Run for the entire two months period these mini-tarpon enter the river. Hell, I’ve even started to smell like a shad (hickory, not gizzard. Thank god).
But like an addict—come late-April, I’m done with shad…I need a stronger pull...and really want a spey rod….
By now the run is fully on. Fletcher’s becomes too crowded. The majority of folks are keeping all the shad they can despite the postings about river herring and shad being endangered. There are no rules. It’s gross.
To boot the banks are lined with dart chuckers (non-derogatory term, I enjoy spin fishing a lot) and the channel completely lined with row boats making it tough to get back to the boathouse at times without taking a dart to the jugular. That said, it’s an incredible time.
If you live in the District, you need to experience it at least once.
But it’s time to roll out—people are starting to give me funny looks.
The run will continue for another month or so.…until the Dogwoods blossom….
Late April-Late May
Striper run starts mid-late April with the bigger fish pushing through the system first. The stripers range from 8”-40”. The big ones are rare on fly gear –especially in places that are accessible from the shore. But I dream nonetheless.
I start planning my life around the Alexandria tide chart hitting up every tidal creek outflow and inlet I can at “good” times. Everything from dates to beers with friends and family affairs are all strained and meticulously calculated against the tides –all for a shot at that one fish.
3:30am wake up calls for outgoing tides on school nights becomes the norm as you make the transformation from human being to thing that goes bump in the night. Sleep deprivation is nothing but a thang. Coming back to the park to fish an hour before it closes seems like a good idea even when you've already fished there from 4am-7am that day and again from 6pm-8pm.
You start to lose yourself in the calmness of a DC sunrise…..only hours after losing yourself in the serenity of a cool, spring night…You start not to care about the little things. The cast, a natural extension of yourself at this point. The initial mend upon fly hitting the water, like breathing. The retrieve synchronized to the point that you don't even recognize yourself doing it anymore. It just does...and you make another cast.
In other words, my friend - you start fishing.
You swing until you can’t anymore- that point where either the fish or the elements decide your fate for you. Moments denied when you are betrayed by the tide and at other times by an oncoming monsoon. Some of the best tides are ruined by a flooded river. Moons wasted on angry, chocolate water. So you tie flies.
Big flies. Some with clouser eyes, others with the Clear Cure—in every “PROVEN” combo you can think of. Once your armory is restored - the river gets its act together and it’s game time again. You wonder if it will ever happen…And then it happens.
You feel the bump, strip set, and realize you hooked something that really, really didn’t like being stuck in the face. The rod loads and you can feel the power of this magnificent force as the line shoots through the guides. In the soft glow of the surrounding street lights you hear, not see, the fish break the surface. In your mind you know it’s a solid fish. Over 25”…whatever the hell it is.
You hope it’s that striper you’ve been chasing every week for the past month. The thought crosses your mind it’s a snakehead…but pshhh. You pray it’s not a big blue cat. And then, in that same soft light that prevented you from seeing said beast break the surface from 80yds away –your finally given that glorious gift of sight. The fish coming into view, broad silver stripes and burly shoulders busting through its prison bird suite lateral lines in full, furious glory…and things suddenly feel complete.
You can finally sleep.
But even when you eventually stick that nice fish or too mixed in with the schoolies, you tell no one. It may have taken you days, weeks, months, or even years to accomplish the rare fate of pulling a 30” striper out of the shallows. But the shad beard compels you to do weirder things.
A life of secrecy is hard to maintain on a blog with 3K+followers. But sometimes you gotta speak up….like when you almost get arrested for “entering the Potomac” (still sounds like some sort of sexual deviancy) at 2:30AM near a busy, National Airport…
Time to lay low for a while….the stripers are slowing down…
The next show is in town.
Snakeheads, largemouth, and smallmouth bass have long ago emerged from their winter slumber offering up fun for those not obsessed with shad or stripers.
For bass, this means moving from shelves in relatively deep water into the shallows to gorge themselves. The creeks become a playground for anyone with a clawdad, small clouser, or frog.
Those alien snakeheads? Not so much.
After rising from their muddy, wintry resting places—water temps in the mid-50s inspiring them to start shagging all over the place at Chain Bridge—these bastards won’t eat a single thing until their done with their biznazz. But in May that all starts to change with some fish finishing said biznazz and finally deciding to eat something –as the summer continues, it only gets better.
The Tidal Basin becomes a second home for these aliens. Urban whale watching and day dreaming become one and the same. It’s the fish that doesn't see you that eats the fly. Be seen and you’re done.
I chase them with abandon until the grass gets too thick to fish without a boat….and the target keeps moving.
If you’re up for it, challenge yourself. There is no better place to become an ALL-AROUND fly fisherman than the Potomac watershed and its surrounding area.
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC. A self taught fly fisherman and fly tier, Rem graduated from Rhodes College with a double major in fly fishing and English in 2012. He has been celebrating the fly life ever since. Just remember, if it's dark out, there's a shark out. Above all else, stay fly. #flytimesdc