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.
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