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5th Annual Project Healing Waters Kettle Creek Event

May 25, 2023

Thanks to Gary Rihn, Pittsburgh participant, for providing this summary of the 2023 event.

Fifteen disabled military Veterans were treated to a weekend of fly fishing at the 5th Annual Project Healing Waters outing on Kettle Creek at Cross Fork, PA, May 5-7, 2023.

The Veterans began gathering for the weekend on Friday around lunchtime, getting checked in to their lodging at the Kettle Creek Lodge and Cabins. In preparation for the following day’s fishing, they were then offered streamside casting and tight line nymphing clinics. Following these sessions, the Veterans traveled to Renovo, where they rallied up for the Patriot Parade back to Cross Fork. The parade is a 20 mile ride up the Kettle Creek valley, where the Veterans are escorted by fire trucks from the Kettle Creek Hose Company, Combat Veterans motorcycle riders, and others, and then hundreds of locals turn out to cheer and thank them as they pass by. Veteran Brad Vig said of the parade, “It was amazing, coming through the mountains, all of a sudden you go around a bend and another group of people waving flags, over and over. There was one lady blowing us all kisses. It gave me chills.” Veteran Bill Nelson, who never got a proper welcome home after Vietnam, added, “You get a feeling like ‘What’s all of this? All of this for just us 15 guys?'”

Once back in Cross Fork, the Veterans met their mentors for the weekend, and enjoyed a catered dinner at the fire station, before retiring for the evening, to prepare themselves and their gear for the following day’s activities. Asked about his expectations for the upcoming event, Vig, who had yet to previously attend a PHW outing, expressed, “We all went through shared experiences, have a common core, but lost that when we got out. Now we have that again in fishing, I’m looking forward to building friendships built on that.”

Saturday morning started early with everybody back at the fire station for breakfast. Once bellies were full and pots of coffee had been finished, everybody was off to the nearby stream. Mentors offered advice, Veterans compared notes, and the fishing began in earnest. While only the Veterans fished, the mentors were always nearby to offer assistance and encouragement. Some Veterans appreciated their mentor for helping with footing and stability while wading in the stream. Some Veterans wanted to learn a new technique, such as streamer or dry fly fishing, that their mentor could help with. Sometimes the Veteran only wanted help netting a fish. Other Veterans were experienced enough that they just enjoyed having somebody beside them to chat with while they fished. Nelson said, “I learned to fish a three-fly rig. I never dreamt of something like that.” One of the mentors, Mike Saxion, said at the end of the day of the Veteran that he fished with, “He can go down there now on his own and catch trout. I love passing on knowledge that he’ll carry for the rest of his life.”

Everybody caught fish through the morning and into the afternoon. Ever-present as in past years were the locals who showed up to watch and cheer on the Veterans. The “Bridge Brigade,” as they have come to be known, take up a vantage point on the bridge over the stream watching all of the action from above. They always keep the Veterans entertained throughout the weekend. When asked why they come out to watch the day’s activities, Dan Morris, known affectionately as “Guru” for his ability to come up with innovative ways to create and build tools and gadgets that are handy for fly anglers and fly tiers, that he then generously passes out to anybody wanting them, said, “It’s an honor to be here. I learn so much from the Veterans about themselves and their experiences by talking to them”.

A few of the more memorable moments of the weekend, beyond the numbers and size of fish being caught, laughing back at the Bridge Brigade, the incredible weather, and sighting a black bear crossing the creek downstream of the event, included, “Meeting my mentors; they truly made my day, they had me laughing all day,” said Veteran James Richards. What made Saxion’s day was seeing the excitement in the Veterans’ eyes when they would hook a trout. When one Veteran was asked about the highlight of his weekend, it actually had nothing to do with the actual fishing. Aaron Larson chose to sleep on the enclosed porch of a streamside cabin that was offered by a local resident. Larson said the best part of the outing for him was, “Waking up at the cabin and looking out at the stream to start my day.”

When asked why they came out to help as a mentor, Richard Burns replied, “I think sometimes I get more out of it than they do. We met and half a day later it’s like we’ve been friends forever. He totally trusts me. He said, ‘Dude, we’re friends.’ That’s an incredible feeling.” Another mentor, Jim Reese, jumped in with, “I look at it as more about making a friend and less about teaching a man to fish. It surprises me how much these guys want to open up and talk. I never pry; I never know their background, I just let them talk.”

When the fishing wrapped up for the day, the Veterans put their gear away, returned to the lodge for showers and a change of clothes, then returned to the fire station for the Kettle Creek Watershed Association’s annual banquet. KCWA is a non-profit, all-Volunteer organization that pledges to enhance, preserve, monitor, protect, and restore Kettle Creek in north central Pennsylvania. There they had a great dinner along with sharing stories and participating in raffles that benefitted KCWA in their mission of local stream improvements. Jim Toth, KCWA Chairman of the Board and organizer of the weekend’s events, said, “When I found Project Healing Waters, I thought ‘This is me. It fulfilled my mission of giving back to veterans.'” KCWA provided the stocked fish, meals, and lodging for the Veterans throughout the weekend.

After spending another night at the lodge, the Veterans met for breakfast and a morning of informal fishing where they were free to fish at their leisure, refine new techniques that they had learned the day before, and solidify new friendships. The mentors also got a lot of fulfillment out of the weekend. Burns said, “My Veteran was worried. He said ‘I’m not going in the water.’ Once we got him in waders though, he changed. He was acting like he couldn’t do this, he was so apprehensive. But I watched him change before my eyes.”

Project Healing Waters helps Veterans in-need by assisting them in tying flies, building rods, casting instruction, education related to fishing including stream entomology, and more. Another large part of the Project Healing Water concept is outings where the healing and rehabilitation takes place between Veterans on the water. Veteran Dale Conrad said, “Fishing is part of it, but just talking is a bigger part. We talked like we knew each other for 20 years. That’s pretty neat.” Nelson reflected back to an earlier outing: “Last year I met a younger boy on one of our outings. He was very quiet, but we kind of hit it off. His mother gave me a hug and said, ‘When you’re around him, I’ve never seen him smile as much as he did today.’ When they were leaving, he lowered the window and said, ‘Goodbye my friend.’ It brought a tear to my eye,” reinforcing that concept.

Project Healing Waters helps to heal and rehabilitate both physical and emotional injuries. “I have a torn rotator cuff. If others can still get out there, how bad can my injury be?” asked Larson. Another Veteran commented, “This brings me out of the house. I’ve found that Project Healing Waters gives me hope, something to look forward to. With PTSD you tend to isolate; with Project Healing Waters, you have an itinerary. Two or three days ahead I start to anticipate it, that’s what this organization gives me. It’s now ‘I have a job today’ again.” Along those lines, Vig said that one of his reasons for participating is to help other Veterans. “I want to get that 22-a-day number lower,” he said.

As the Veterans had their fill of fishing and gauged their drives home, they slowly and individually started to leave the stream and pack their gear for the final time of the weekend. Last-minute stories were told, and memories relived both from the weekend and years past. Conrad said the weekend was “100% better” than he expected it to be before he got there. Larson looked back and said “It blew it out of the water.”  Veteran Scott Winters said that he got along so well with his mentor that he had made plans to travel to his mentor’s home state of North Carolina to fish with him. “We just bonded so well. I’m having a blast,” he said.

Reflecting back, Richards noted that his father was a Vietnam Veteran who found his solace afterwards on the water, and who started taking him fishing at a young age. One thing that Richards remembers his father telling him years ago concerning being on a stream is that “This is like church, whisper now and then”. Richards said that indeed, he does whisper on the stream.

The weekend may have best been summed up by Reese when he said, “I wouldn’t have the freedom to fish if I didn’t have these Veterans providing that freedom for me.” Project Healing Water’s mission statement is that they are “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.” For more information, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org, and www.kettlecreek.org.

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Pittsburgh Cabin Fever 2023

May 16, 2023

Thanks to Gary Rihn, Pittsburgh participant, for providing this update about the 2023 Penn’s Woods TU Cabin Fever event.

The term “cabin fever” is frequently used to describe the feeling of being pent up and not being able to do a favorite activity after being stuck inside all winter. Fishermen in particular use it as spring approaches as they look forward to getting back out on to their favorite streams and chasing fish again.

The Penn’s Woods West chapter of Trout Unlimited also uses it to describe their premier fly fishing expo held each year during February in western PA. After two years off due to the Covid pandemic, “cabin fever” had an even stronger meaning for those attending this year’s show, the 22nd annual event.

The show featured nationally known fly anglers, speakers, fly tyers, vendors, a casting area, conservation community members, and other members of the fly fishing community. There were more than 60 vendors and over 1000 attendees. Among those having a presence at the show was the Pittsburgh Program of Project Healing Waters, a group dedicated to the healing of disabled veterans. Volunteers from the program manned a booth where they interacted with show attendees to explain the organization and hopefully connect with more local veterans who could benefit from PHW. Pittsburgh Program Lead Amanda Thompson explained, “We like to have a booth at Cabin Fever because it gives us the opportunity to educate the public about our mission. We’ve missed that connection with anglers for the past two years, so we were eager to attend this year.”

During the course of the day, PHW Veteran participants and volunteers (who lead fly tying, rod building and other activities for the participants) took turns staffing the booth and interacting with the public. One of the attendees that they talked to was Tony DelVecchio, an Army Veteran. Prior to the Cabin Fever show, he had never heard of Project Healing Waters, but after talking to the PHW folks at their booth, he had this to say: “It sounds like an awesome opportunity for Veterans interested in fly fishing. I’m definitely going to look into it.” Another person that stopped by said that although he wasn’t a Veteran himself, his father was a Vietnam era Veteran, and that he was going to be taking some promotional information home for him.

Shows like this are an excellent way for PHW to spread the word about their program, what they have to offer to more local veterans, and how they could help. Thompson said, “We definitely made a lot of new angling friends and supporters and had two Veterans express an interest in joining our group. Whether folks were interested in volunteering, participating, or making a donation, we provided them with all the information they needed. We also received an in-kind donation of rod blanks. In addition to that, we connected with local guides who offered us discounts and waive fees for private water.” 

It is also a great way for organizations like Trout Unlimited to educate the fly fishing community about their mission of conservation and water improvement. When asked about why they host a show like this, PWWTU Ian Brown said, “This show is our primary fundraiser for the year. It allows us to things like stream improvement projects and also to have money available to help other groups like Allegheny CleanWays that help to keep Pittsburgh’s three rivers and surrounding areas clean.”

Project Healing Waters and Trout Unlimited both rely on quality places to fish and are therefore both conservation-minded. On that front TU’s Brown said that in the Pittsburgh area, there aren’t as many traditional cold water trout fishing streams as is other parts of the state, so their chapter has started to shift to a broader view. At the Cabin Fever show, the first thing to meet attendees was the Conservation Corner, with all of the conservation partners on display. Brown explained, “We have chosen to focus more towards the conservation mission, dealing with warmer waters and partnerships. We are doing great work in the Pittsburgh region and figuring out how to best help other TU chapters because of our lack of traditional trout waters in this area.”

Shows like Cabin Fever are a great venue for both PHW and TU to get their messages out to the public, and make them aware of what each organization has to offer.

The mission statement of Trout Unlimited states that they “aim to conserve and improve cold-water fisheries, protect the environment, restore watersheds, and educate tomorrow’s leaders”. For more information, please visit www.pwwtu.org or www.tu.org.

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The 5th Annual Project Healing Waters Yellow Creek Tournament

May 16, 2023

The 5th Annual Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing: Yellow Creek Tournament, hosted by PHW Altoona, PA, was held on April 15th, 2023. Forty anglers paid to come out and be paired up as teammates with 20 PHW Veterans, three to each team, in a day of friendly competition on a private trout stream in the beautiful hills of southwestern PA. 

Volunteers began showing up on Friday afternoon to prepare for the following day’s event. Tent canopies were set up, food preparation areas were set up in the pavilion kitchen, wood was prepared for the fire, and “beats” were marked out on the stream bank for the competition. Dave Thomas, PHW Altoona Program Lead, has been coordinating and running the tournament since its inception. Each year, he has tweaked and improved it. It began as a friendly competition of Veterans fishing against non-Veterans. That evolved into pairing the two groups into mixed teams with everybody’s fish counting towards the team total. Last year the “tournament” was forced to be a non-competitive event due to a PA Fish Commission season conflict, so it was a “fish together” opportunity. This year, Thomas found another way to place more emphasis on the veteran aspect of the event. This year only fish caught by the Veteran counted towards the team total for first, second, and third place rankings. Dave explained, “We changed the format so that everybody helps the Veteran more, since these are disabled Veterans. But everybody still gets to fish; one team member is always able to fish while the other is able to focus helping the Veteran as needed.” And everybody got to compete for the largest trout caught of each species. 

Some of the Veterans also showed up on Friday afternoon to get a little bit of pre-event fishing in. One of those Veterans, Ron Bernik, was asked about his expectations for the following day: “I’m anticipating the person catching the first fish. It’s like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning!”. He went on to say, “If you catch a fish tomorrow, you’re overjoyed. Some people are great fishermen, but just won’t catch one. None of this is a given.”

Saturday morning began with Veterans and team members showing up an hour before daylight, and then being met with a light rain as dawn broke. After registration, donuts and coffee, followed by a quick rules and safety briefing, the first half of the group was off to the stream to begin the rotating shifts of fishing. The format for the day consisted of half of the teams fishing on ten assigned beats for 45 minutes, while the other half of the teams prepared and spread up and down the stream into their assigned positions. After 45 minutes, the “A” flight moved off of the water and the “B” flight replaced them. This continued all day, with each team also rotating downstream to another beat, or stretch of water, so that nobody fished the same section of water twice to ensure equal chances for everybody. Stationed at each beat was a volunteer controller to measure and record on score sheets all fish caught. These scores were then tallied at the end of the day to determine team winners as well as the largest fish. 

Asked about his anticipations for the event during a break during the day, Veteran Charlie Yeager said he expected to catch a few fish, but regardless knew he would have a good time. He mentioned that he got to fish with a person that he knew was struggling with PTSD, got him to start talking, and got him into a few fish. “That’s what was the best for me about this whole thing,” Charlie said. 

One of the non-Veteran teammates was Dave Cain. Cain said that while his entire family served in the military, a combination of factors led him instead into the medical field where he is now an Emergency Room Physician’s Assistant. When asked why he came out to fish in a Veteran’s event, he said, “It’s nice to be able to put my skills to use to help in a medical facility, and now to come out and actually help disabled Veterans fish as well”. 

Not all of the teammates in the tournament were necessarily non-military. Some were Veterans who chose to pay to fish as team members. One of them was Brian Marcyjanik. He said he came out to fish because something in his world that is seemingly small may be everything in somebody else’s world, and he loves to share that opportunity and make a difference when he can. He stated, “I get a lot of fun out of interaction with a purpose. It’s especially enjoyable walking to the water with a Veteran and seeing something like flipping a switch in them. I still can’t pin down the exact feeling, but I have this overwhelming desire to help others who are genuinely struggling, along with keeping that help very simple and to the point. I’ve seen very dramatic results that I can’t explain given the level of input and assistance I’ve offered. There’s some sort of synergy at work that logic won’t begin to capture”. 

A major part of Project Healing Waters, and events like this, is exactly that. It is interaction, it is getting Veterans together, it is getting Veterans with non-Veterans. During lunch, Veteran Mike Yauneridge expressed, “Project Healing Waters gets me out doing stuff. It gets me out here fishing with these guys. It gets me tying flies. It gets me building rods. It gets my mind off other things for a while.” Another Veteran, Dan McIntyre, mentioned how much he enjoys looking forward to class and relaxing with other veterans. Fellow Veteran Ron Marsh echoed, “A team didn’t show up, so they put three of us Veterans together at the last minute to fill in as a team. We all talked about what we did in the service. You can’t always do that somewhere else. So what I’m doing today is actually helping other Veterans while we fish”. Kathy Thomas, who helped to run the kitchen, commented, “I talked to a Veteran who never fly fished before. He was part of a group in the service. Now he’s part of a group again now that he’s out.” 

Throughout the day, fish continued to be caught, measured, and released. The score board was updated, and teams constantly checked it between their turns fishing. Lots of good-natured ribbing took place, especially amongst the teams near the bottom. Few were concerned about the comments being made as everybody knew that the word “tournament” was in title only, and comments only encouraged more in return. One of the team members that was experiencing his first exposure to a PHW event like this was Doug Williams. “I couldn’t have appreciated the great camaraderie and bonding before I got here,” he said. “I really appreciate what this organization stands for and consider it a privilege to be fishing here with these guys.” 

On the theme of teammates helping the Veteran that they were fishing with, Williams noted that he was fishing with a Vietnam Veteran with mobility issues. “We were both very cautious for him. He expressed some balance issues to us. We helped him into and out of the stream, and one of us was always near him. We were very protective. Then we got to talk a lot between beats.” Others that talked between beats were team member Wyatt Kosicki and his Veteran. When asked if his Veteran revealed anything surprising about himself, Kosicki remarked, “I was shocked to hear about some of his military injuries. I never would’ve guessed. You just can’t take things for granted I guess.” That observation ties in well with PHW’s mission of helping Veterans dealing with a wide range of both emotional and physical disabilities. 

Some Veterans in PHW were so moved and inspired by their experiences at prior gatherings that they went on to create their own nonprofit organizations helping Veterans. One of them at this event was Ed Transue. When asked how PHW benefitted him personally, Transue replied, “I get to make a difference in people’s lives now”. He went on to note that the often-quoted statistic of 22 veteran suicides per day is now up to 32 suicides per day. “If I can take somebody away from where I was, I know I’m doing something good. Project Healing Waters got me there.” 

At the end of the afternoon, scores were tallied, awards were handed out, and dinner was served. Looking back at the day’s event, Cain reflected, “It was nice to see how close everybody gets in a short time, and watch relationships form. You don’t see a single person upset, even the people that got skunked; there’s just a general happiness. When the biggest fish gets caught here everybody gets excited, everywhere else they’re jealous.” 

Marsh looked at the day and compared it to his days in Vietnam: “That was a bad movie, and I never have to go back and see it again. Now I just go enjoy my time fishing and being with fellow Veterans.” 

Project Healing Waters’ stated mission is its dedication to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings. Days like this go a long way towards that rehabilitation. For more information on the local Programs involved with this event, visit www.facebook.com/PHWFFAltoonaPA and www.facebook.com/PHWFFPittsburgh.

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Fly Fishers’ Club of Pittsburgh Recognizes PHW Program Lead Amanda Thompson

January 20, 2023

In December of 2022, the Fly Fishers Club of Pittsburgh formally recognized Amanda Thompson, Program Lead for Pittsburgh PHWFF with their Fly Fisher of the Year award at their holiday social on December 11, 2022. She was supported by a few of her program participants and volunteers.

The Fly Fishers’ Club of Pittsburgh is a group formed in the late 1940’s to early 1950’s by Bob Runk and it patterned after the Fly Fishers’ Club of Harrisburg, PA. That group was established in 1947 by legendary anglers and writers Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro. The concept was based on the idea of an organization with no dues, no officers and no political agenda was appealing to many. Meetings were held as a clearing house of information and education on fly fishing techniques, fly tying techniques, waterways near and far and fly tackle.

Amanda has been a club member for some time and had the opportunity to present to the Pittsburgh group how her passion for both fly fishing and support for veterans led to her involvement in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF). Her presentation afforded the club members with many insights regarding PHWFF, its mission, core processes and testimonials as to value of the organization in support of our disabled veterans.

Subsequent to her presentation, the club voted unanimously to present her with the Fly Fisher of the Year Award for 2022.

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PA Participants Enjoy a Long Weekend in Bedford County

May 25, 2022

Many thanks to participant Gary Rihn for providing this summary of our recent event in Bedford County PA.

Twelve anglers from five Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing programs across PA recently met in in beautiful Bedford County for a weekend of fishing two local streams. This was the fourth time this event has been held, and it is always a favorite for veterans from across the commonwealth.

The veterans began arriving throughout Friday afternoon, and settled into cabins that would serve as their base for the weekend. Dinner was already supplied in each cabin, and just needed heated up on each veterans own schedule, allowing full flexibility. After most of the veterans had picked roommates, eaten dinner, and generally gotten moved in, a campfire was started and everybody started gathering.

Some of the veterans were old friends, others were meeting for the first time, while others were experiencing their first overnight trip with PHWFF. One of those on his first overnight outing was Chad Strickland from the Wilkes-Barre program. When asked about his expectations for the upcoming weekend, Strickland said that he was envisioning a day of fishing, socializing, and talking to other veterans. “It’s humbling; I’m grateful to be here, honored to be here. I never ask for anything, I never thought I’d be included in something like this”, Strickland said.

On Saturday morning the veterans traveled to Bob’s Creek, a smaller stream in the area, and met their guides from the Fort Bedford chapter of Trout Unlimited who were waiting for them at the stream. After introductions and pairing up guides with veterans based on backgrounds and experience, it was time to split up and start fishing. Due to a recent high water event, the fishing was harder than expected, but fish were still managed to be caught. When asked how his day was going, Chuck Kramer of the West Bradford program commented on his guides. “Not as many fish as I hoped for, but do we ever? The volunteers always make me better. They help refine my skills, my casting, my ability to read the water. I even learned the bow and arrow cast better today”.

One of those volunteers is Ryan Braman, the president of the Fort Bedford TU chapter. Braman was responsible for recruiting and coordinating the 15 volunteer guides for the weekend. “It’s a perfect combo of Project Healing Waters mixing with what we can offer as a chapter and as locals. We get to share pure fun with these guys”, he said. “It’s getting people newer to the sport, getting them whatever they need to succeed. Guidance, fish to the net, everything in-between”.

After a full day of fishing, the veterans returned to their cabins, where they found another catered dinner waiting in their refrigerators. After cleaning up, cooking, and sharing a meal at the picnic table, most chose to again spend the evening around the campfire, where more stories were told and bonds strengthened. An impromptu casting lesson even sprung up, where the PHWFF PA casting champion Ed Transue of the Wilkes-Barre program treated a few of the more eager veterans to some pointers and refinements on their casting techniques.

Sunday morning dawned with the threat of rain and storms, but the veterans were off to Yellow Creek regardless for another day of fishing, and another day of the fish not wanting to cooperate. During a break for lunch, a couple of the guides offered to give a short class on tenkara fishing to the veterans who had never experienced it, then allowed the veterans to fish with their tenkara rods to actually experience it. After lunch, two lines of thunderstorms rolled through, catching most of the veterans on the stream, and pretty much bringing the day to an end. Before ending the day though, Dwight Chrvala, a veteran from the Pittsburgh program, commented on how he spent the day passing time on the stream with his guide. “Besides talking fishing and casting, we talked about old music. Rock and roll. Bluegrass. Star Wars! Yeah, Star Wars! Dogs.” This falls right in line with PHWFF’s purpose of helping veterans to relax and heal. 

After a shower and fresh clothes, the veterans were treated to a fabulous pizza dinner in the town of Bedford at the Horn O’ Plenty restaurant, owned by Jeff and Mandi Horn, who also own the cabins where the veterans stayed. This is the fourth year that the Horns have graciously donated their cabins and all of the meals for the veterans. 

The stated mission of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is to be dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities. Sometimes a veteran can get both at one time. After dinner, Pittsburgh program veteran Jim Leone looked back on the weekend. “I caught my very first trout on a fly rod this weekend. The only thing better is if it was on a fly I tied, but now that gives me a goal, to refine my skills”, said Leone. “This helps me stay calm. I’m a strong Type A, I need to focus my energy. It’s also great therapy for my hands, my dexterity. So, it’s a double benefit”. 

Other veterans say PHWFF helps them in other ways. Chrvala said, “It helps me relax and reset, it gives me time off.” Kramer added, “It gives me the skill to utilize to go out and recenter.”

Strickland continued, “Now that I think I can catch a fish I’m even more excited to go fishing, and to try other things too”.

Greg Schafer, one of the TU volunteers, said he was surprised at the amount of involvement and emotions shown over the weekend. “It was a whole lot more than I expected. Here I thought I was the one giving whenever I offered to help out over the weekend; I was wrong, at least in my eyes. I feel like you were there for me instead of the other way around”, commented Schafer. “The level of concern and care for each other was amazing”.

Also noticing this was Amanda Thompson, Pittsburgh program lead, who was acting as the trip lead for this trip. Even though she has been a program lead for many years, and led numerous day outings, she had never been on an overnight trip with veterans, and able to experience them as they interacted on a more personal level.

Thompson reflected on the weekend, “It’s so overwhelming. I don’t know how you put into words what I saw this weekend. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. Listening to the veterans tell their stories; one minute dead serious, next minute laughing, joking. I laughed and cried this weekend. It was very emotional. I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it was going to be. To be a witness to veterans’ lives changing for the better, it’s an honor.” 

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PHWFF Erie learns about the threat of invasive species

May 24, 2022

Thanks to Gary Rihn for providing the following summary of a great educational seminar provided by PA Sea Grant to the Erie PA program.

Recently, a group of participants and volunteers of the Erie program of Project Healing Water Fly Fishing were treated to a presentation by an expert on local invasive species of particular concern to their area.

Amber Stilwell, who is a scientist with PA Sea Grant, and works as their Coastal Outreach Specialist as well as a Master Watershed Steward Coordinator, came to the Gem City Sportsmen’s Club where the PHWFF program holds their meetings and spent an hour talking to the group about what invasive species are, their impact, and how to prevent their spread. 

Stilwell said that a species can be native, introduced, or invasive, along with the differences. “An invasive species has a high growth rate, no real predators, typically a high reproduction rate, and very adaptable to their environment”, she explained. As an example of high reproduction rates, she used the zebra mussel, where one female can have one million offspring per season. She also spoke about the round goby, saying that it is a generalist feeder, basically eating anything from algae particles to zooplankton to native mussel larva which impacts the food chain for other fish and aquatic animals. 

Some of the impacts of of invasive species are crowding out of desirable native species, by taking away habitat and resources that they need to survive. Another often misunderstood detrimental effect takes place in the water itself. “I often hear, ‘But the zebra mussels are filtering and cleaning the lake’. What they’re doing though is removing that turbidity from the lake, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper than ever before. This can produce toxic algae blooms that are harmful to us, and our dogs swimming in the lake, affecting our organs and our nervous system. What we’re talking about is potential change for entire ecosystems”, explained Stilwell.

Beyond these, there is a huge economic impact. In PA, fishing tourism accounts for $4.5 billion each year. If water quality in places like Lake Erie suffers, and if fishing and boating around the state suffers, invasive species could have a direct negative consequence on that number. In addition, local communities spend $5 billion dollars annually combating invasive species in the Great Lakes. PA state parks also spend $40-50,000 every year spraying herbicides in the battle against aquatic plant invasive species, which has further potentially negative consequences.

Stilwell went on to talk about what flyfishers can do to help prevent the spread of invasive species. The common mantra is “Clean Drain, Dry”. She said that draining any boat drain plugs and livewells while still at the body of water prevents moving live specimens between them. Thoroughly cleaning your boat, trailer, fishing gear, etc. by removing any vegetation, mud, should be done after any day on the water before leaving the area, then again at home with hot water. Thoroughly drying everything for a minimum of five days should be sufficient to kill any invasive species, larva or eggs that may have been missed. Stilwell mentioned that as a scientist, she often must move between multiple bodies of water in a single day while doing studies. When she does this, she has multiple pairs of waders and boots, so that she can change into clean gear between stops to prevent spread. Another source of spread is releasing pets such as turtles and dumping aquariums containing fish, plants and invertebrates.

Stilwell finished up with what she called biosecurity. She said that if you were going to be fishing two bodies of water in the same or succeeding days, where one has a known higher risk factor, that you make that your second stop to minimize the transfer risks, after cleaning as thoroughly as possible after the first stop. It’s up to everybody who fishes and boats to help prevent the spread of invasive species. If you see what you think is an invasive species, you can take a picture and report it to the PA Fish and Boat Commission, to PA Sea Grant, or to whoever is responsible for the body of water that you are on.

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PHWFF Pennsylvania Holds 2-Fly Competition

May 24, 2022

Many thanks to Daniel Miller, Harrisburg-East APL and PHWFF Ambassador for providing a summary of this year’s Pennsylvania 2 Fly event.

On April 30th and May 1st 2022, the Pennsylvania region of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing welcomed the beginning of May, with our regional 2-Fly competition at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in beautiful Millersburg, PA.  On Friday the 29th, Program Lead Glenn Klinger greeted the participants from Pittsburgh, Royersford, Erie, West Bradford, and Wilkes-Barre PA, as well as participants from the Harrisburg hosting chapter, delivering room keys and welcomed them to an evening dinner of pizza.  This represented a small step back to normality as the last year the event was held was in 2019, prior to the Covid pandemic. Reinstituting this event was eagerly awaited, by leadership, volunteers, and most of all by the participants.

April 30th 1st opened as a cool morning and participants were greeted with a continental breakfast and hot coffee. Participants were brought to their assigned beat of the Wiconisco Creek at 0700 and given the opportunity to fish the beat until 0900 after which they moved to an adjacent beat to fish till 1130. When the sun peeked over the tree line, it became apparent that the event was going to be successful. Many fish were caught and released, welcomed by the smiles and cheers of the participants and guides.

At 1130 the participants were greeted by Glenn and Kathy Klinger and served a hearty picnic lunch of burgers and sides at the Ned Smith Center. Team scores were collected and tallied by the guides and Glenn Klinger, as the Program Lead and host. One of the benefits and collective reasons for the event has become the opportunity to see the cheer and camaraderie that develops between the participants as they tell fish stories from the morning session around good food. After lunch the participants were led to their third and final beat for the Saturday session.  During the afternoon session the tallies of fish caught continued to climb and the scores narrowed on teams for first, second, and third place. At lunch the tallied fish equaled 57 total fish caught across 9 teams. The contest placing was for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place of total fish caught and safely released, with a special category for the largest brown trout, rainbow, and brook trout caught and released. The last beat was fished from 1300-1630 providing many fish in the friendly competition. At the closure of the evening, scores were updated and stories were shared as the participants returned to their rooms at the Lyken’s Valley Golf course.  Dinner was shared at the Swing Restaurant on the premises. 

The morning of May 1st opened with clear skies and open opportunities for the remaining beats. The participants were met again with a continental breakfast and introduced to their second rotation of guides. This morning, the participants were taken to their beat at 0730 and provided the opportunity to fish till 1130 when the final scores were to be tallied and the winners selected. Although the morning session fishing was slightly slower than the previous day, many fish were caught and released.  As the scores were tallied it was awesome to see every participant with a smile on their face.  Everyone had caught a fish. The total number of fish caught and released for the weekend was 112. 

Lunch was served by Kathy and Glenn Klinger, an awesome Chicken Breast sandwich with picnic sides. After everyone had eaten, winners, prizes and bragging rights were delivered to the participants. 

The largest trout caught for the weekend was caught by Daryl Mosher from Erie, a Golden Rainbow 21.5”, caught in the final minutes of the morning beat. 

The largest Brown trout was a 17.5” Brown caught by Jonathan Rice from Harrisburg. 

There was a tie for largest Brook trout of 16” but it was broken by Chuck Kramer from West Bradford having caught the most Brook trout. 

The winners of these scores were presented their choices of donated rods to PHWFF Harrisburg.

The team competition winners were:

First Place with associated bragging rights was Jesse Hilton and Keith Kerns from Harrisburg

The second place team was Mike Gainer and James Richards from Harrisburg

The third place team was Jose Ortiz and Gene Wolfe from Wilkes-Barre.

Each of the winning teams were presented generous prizes donated by the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art and a plaque of the PA 2 Fly Event.

The entire Harrisburg-East Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program and the PA Region would like to thank all the donors, notably Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Lykens Valley Golf Course, and the volunteers that gave their time to make this event a resounding success.  

Here’s to planning 2023!

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PHWFF Altoona’s Fish With A Veteran Day

March 31, 2022

Many thanks to Erie Participant, Gary Rihn, for providing this summary of the day’s activities.

The 4th Annual “Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing: Fish With A Veteran Day”, hosted by the Altoona, PA program of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, was held on March 26th, 2022. Twenty PHWFF veterans were teamed up with 40 non-veteran teammates, one PHWFF veteran with two teammates on each team, in a day of friendly competition on a private trout stream in the beautiful hills of southwestern PA.

Attendees shared 3 meals together and lots of hot coffee!

The weekend began with setting up the venue on Friday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday’s event. Dave Thomas, the long-time program lead for the Altoona program, created the event in 2017. “It began as a great way to get vets out with other people. They don’t always fish with people outside of their own group”, explained Thomas, when asked what inspired him to first develop the event, and what keeps him motivated to redoing it each year. He also said that he learned things each year, such as increasing teams from two members to three for more interaction, leading him to make changes each year to continually improve the event. Recent changes included pairing veterans with non-veterans instead of with each other as had been done in the past, which everybody enjoyed and agreed suited the purpose of the event better. A last minute change this year was also universally well-received by everybody in attendance. Rather than an official competition with every fish being measured, recorded, and scores kept, this year was restructured into a “fish together” format, following the former layout of teams, time limits, and moving to different stretches of stream on a revolving 45 minute basis, but with no tape measures or scores sheets in sight. The event has become so popular over the years that there is now a waiting list for teammates, who make donations to PHWFF for their spots on the roster as part of the fundraiser aspect of the day.

Another lead-up to the event was the opportunity for some of the veterans to spend Friday night in a cabin together at the stream. Some were meeting for the first time, and quickly developed new friendships. Alan Gladish was one of those veterans, and had never participated in the event like this in the past. When asked for his thoughts in anticipation of the following day, he relayed, “I’m looking forward to getting out with great people. Everybody has been wonderful to me so far”, referring back to his three months in the Pittsburgh PHWFF program. He said that as a new fly fisherman, he was hoping to learn from more experienced teammates, watching them and asking questions. Another PHWFF veteran, Howard West, had fished the event multiple times in the past. Still, he had high anticipations for the upcoming day. “It’s always a good time, good people. The fish are just a bonus. I get to meet new people each year who help Project Healing Waters a lot, putting faces to names. It’s pretty cool to be able to actually talk to them, and to thank them in person”, West said.

Saturday morning started early with coffee and donuts streamside, a big fire to take off the chill of the falling snow, and the assigning of teams. After introductions, briefings on safety, and quick strategizing amongst teams, it was into the water for some fierce rainbow, brown and brook (there are no cutthroat trout in PA….) competition. The action started quickly, with fish being caught, and released, within minutes. One of the first fish caught was a beautiful 26″ brown trout.

The event was a little different than a typical event for PHWFF veterans where the outing group is strictly made up of disabled veteran program participants. This event was designed to invite non-PHWFF teammates to fish directly with the veterans. Beyond the friendly competition aspect between teams, the day was an opportunity for both groups to get together, fish alongside each other, share stories, and maybe learn not only a new fishing technique or new fly pattern, but also a bit about the disabilities that veterans deal with. One of the teammates that may have been more aware than most of what veterans sometimes deal with was Megan Turner. As a nurse at the Altoona VA hospital, she explained, “I came in blind, I didn’t think I could help anybody with fishing, but I had a blast last time fishing alongside these guys”. After a day of talking about the veterans’ service, her job taking care of veterans, comparing fishing experience and admiring some beautiful flies, both sides agreed that they had a lot in common, and were mutually supportive. 

Volunteers and Participants brave the snowy conditions

On the other side of the equation, the PHWFF veterans also were happy to offer their experiences with their teammates. Brian Kern, a recent transplant to the Pittsburgh PHWFF program from North Carolina, talked about fishing with his teammates. “I’m extensively into flyfishing, so we talked about tying flies, compared places we’ve fished, and all fished different strategies until caught fish then we changed to what worked”, he said.  Another PHWFF veteran, Fred Gutshall, had less experience. “I had no idea what I was getting into, fishing with a team, but I came out to learn”, he said. His teammates shared with him new fly patterns, how to rig his gear for the conditions, assisted him in tying his flies on when his fingers got cold, and introduced him to fishing nymphs. In between their turns fishing, he spent time waiting on the bank, sharing stories with his younger teammates of his experiences as a photographer in Viet Nam. At one point, Gutshall found himself worn out after a long walk and leaning against a tree along the stream bank. Two teammates from other teams came along, got under his shoulders, and helped him back to the fire. After a short warmup, Gutshall, who is 75 years old and has artificial knees, said, “I’m ready to go fishing, I didn’t come here to sit by a fire. Let’s go catch some fish!”

Teammates assisting Fred Gutshall to the campfire

When the clock finally said that the last relay of the day was finished, the last teams climbed out of the stream, a little colder and a little more tired than they were at sunrise nine hours earlier. But everybody in attendance seemed to be in agreement that the bigger purpose of the day had been accomplished; sharing the brotherhood and sisterhood of a nice flyfishing stream, mingling two groups that are sometimes curious about each other and allowing those groups to share a casual day participating in personal conversations with each other. 

Gladish reflected back, “Strangers handed me flies, helped me, took time with me. It’s very therapeutic”.  One of the teammates, Travis Bobik, who came out to spend the day on the stream with the PHWFF veterans commented after the event, “It was great fishing with the veterans. We talked about the classes that they do with Project Healing Waters, about their fishing experience. It was nice just spending time listening to their stories”.  Another teammate, Todd Galebach, added, “It was a great time intermingling with all of the vets throughout the day”. Galebach had fished the event in prior years when it was set up more as a tournament. He said that he much preferred the new format. “The biggest thing here is the camaraderie. Now we have time to talk, slow down and catch up with each other”. 

A major reason for holding events like this is to assist veterans is dealing with disabilities, both physical and emotional. West noted that for him, “I had 30 years in uniform, then one day I wake up and I’m not a Chief. I had to find out who I was. Project Healing Waters helped me find my identity physically, mentally. You can’t just show up and tie flies, it’s an all-encompassing program. Look around, there are 90 people here right now, and every one of them cares”.  Gutshall added that in his case, he tended to not associate with groups. He said that “Conversations were all around me, but never at ‘my end’ “. After discovering PHWFF, he found other veterans in similar situations. Being a photographer, he had taken pictures of almost anything they had experienced, so they realized that they could relate and could talk openly. “When tying flies with Project Healing Waters, sometimes I just listen. For 40 years, I never had that”.  PHWFF veteran Howard West, summed things up after the event, “It was snowing, blowing, cold, and not real comfortable today. But I laughed until my stomach hurt. It was well worth standing in a stream, in the snow, to spend time with all of these guys today. Without a doubt”.

Some very big fish were caught and released

Project Healing Water Fly Fishing’s stated mission is it’s dedication to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings. Days like this go along way towards that rehabilitation.

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Pittsburgh and Erie Veterans Spent the Day Fishing Together

October 21, 2021

Many thanks to Gary Rihn, Erie Participant, for providing this summary of a great event.

Fly fishing with friends is always a good thing. Making new friends while fly fishing just makes a good thing that much better.

Recently, a group of disabled veterans gathered at the village of Volant, PA to fish Neshannock Creek together. The veterans are all participants in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, from the Pittsburgh and Erie programs. They had come together as part of a joint outing designed to help veterans from the two programs in western PA fish and heal with each other.

Amanda Thompson, Pittsburgh program lead, explained her thinking in putting the joint outing together. “For the past two Summers we have been unable to have regional outings because of the pandemic. Neshannock Creek is a great halfway point for both programs to get together and have a day of socializing, catching up, and fishing. Veterans from the two programs have gotten to know each other over the years and have become friends.”

Neshannock Creek made for a perfect meeting location for the outing. It sits almost exactly halfway between the two cities, making it equally convenient for both programs. It is also one of only 22 sections of streams in the state to be designated as Keystone Select waters, which are stocked with larger and older trout, in a 2.7 mile Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only waters, offering anglers the chance at much better fish than average. 

Sean Britt, from the Pittsburgh program, who had never fish the Neshannock before related, “It’s a wider, relatively calm and easy to wade stream.”

Veterans from both groups appreciated the opportunity to meet and fish with fellow PHWFF vets that they had never met before. It gave them an opportunity to not only fish with each other, compare techniques and flies used, but also to share experiences that help in the healing process, a key element of the PHWFF mission.  

Jon Krahe, of the Erie program, said, “Not only did we get to fish together, but we shared stories, compared treatments, and gained insights.” He continued, speaking on a more personal level, “Stream therapy is outstanding. It taught me to relax, to close out intrusive thoughts. My anxiety could be up to here, but on the stream it goes down to here.”

In between stretches of fishing, the veterans were able to relax on the patio of the Neshannock Creek Fly Shop, situated a mere 50 feet from the stream, and with a prime stretch of water directly behind the shop that many of the veterans took advantage of. Shop owner Mark Collier was gracious enough to not only offer his facilities as a home base for the veterans, but also asked other fishermen to please avoid fishing that stretch of water for the day to give the more physically challenged vets a place with easier access and a more pleasant experience for the day. When asked what it meant to watch the vets fishing there, when he watches other people fishing literally every day, he related, “This is a special group of people. I loved seeing their smiles as they got to spend a day with their buddies. They were really enjoying themselves out there.” 

The participants were also treated to a catered lunch provided by a nearby local business, Michele’s Homemade Vittles. More reflection took place over lunch, with Erie participant Dorothy Molder noting that PHWFF helps bring her out of slumps. “I enjoy getting out and doing things with the other veterans. These are some people that I respect and admire. I can’t wait to do these things more often now that we can get together again.” She said that Neshannock Creek was a very convenient location for both programs to meet for more joint outings. 

Before breaking up for the day, offers of steelhead fishing in Erie were made to the Pittsburgh vets, while offers of fishing in the southwest corner of the state were made by the Pittsburgh guys in return. Despite some occasional rain, the idea of a joint outing was a big hit, and the vets looked forward to the next one. “It’s low key, very relaxing, people can be themselves”, said Matt Darwin, a Pittsburgh program veteran relatively new to PHWFF and on his third outing with the group. Regarding PHWFF, he continued, “It helped being able to connect to other veterans, to dive deeper into fly fishing. It’s very therapeutic, very relaxing and serene. Project Healing Waters is great for veterans; it’s great to have people help and guide you. I caught my first fish on a fly on this stream in July.” 

Thompson said that she could tell how excited the veterans were to see each other when even the rain couldn’t keep everybody from showing up for the day.

After watching the veterans spend the day fly fishing, catching up with old friends and making new friends, Collier summed up the day with, “Fly fishing has a medicinal value to it. It gets you out on a stream, lets you relax, find peace, physically, psychologically, meditatively. It’s good for the soul. These guys show that.”

Project Healing Water Fly Fishing’s stated mission is it’s dedication to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings. Days like this go a long way towards that rehabilitation.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/PHWFFPittsburgh , www.facebook.com/PHWFFErie , and  www.projecthealingwaters.org .

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Pittsburgh Disabled Veterans Gather to Fish Again

September 10, 2021

Thanks to Erie participant, Gary Rihn, for providing this update on the Pittsburgh program’s first 2021 in-person outing.

There is no doubt that the recent coronavirus pandemic affected everybody. However, some people were affected in different ways than others. 

One group hit particularly hard were veterans who were cut off from their peers who they rely upon for support. These veterans who were used to regularly meeting with their fellow vets suddenly found themselves isolated and alone.

Fortunately for the veterans in the Pittsburgh, PA program of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), their support system was able to continue in the virtual world. Throughout the pandemic, their veterans were able to participate in virtual meetings where they could continue to learn about fly fishing and fly tying on a regular basis. PHWFF Pittsburgh program lead Amanda Thompson explained that volunteers would lead fly tying classes, educational talks, presentations and other things related to fly fishing that veterans could “attend” to keep them engaged. 

But nothing replaces actual face-to-face contact with friends, and within days of PHWFF headquarters loosening restrictions on unlimited in-person gatherings, Thompson was arranging outings for her veterans. She explained that she kept in touch with her outing hosts throughout the pandemic so that as soon as restrictions were lifted, they could hit the ground running. She said, “The hosts kept asking, ‘When can you come back?’ I think they missed seeing the veterans too!”

The first outing took place in mid-August at Conway Sportsmen’s Club in Zelienople, PA, where the PHWFF participants were able to finally fish together since early last year in the club’s four acre pond. Close to 40 participants  and volunteers showed up for the day, which included fishing, lunch, storytelling, and even a few fish being caught. One of the veterans in attendance was Dave Laepple, a Viet Nam veteran who remarked about the day, “I liked the in-person talking today. It wasn’t good for me during Covid. Project Healing Waters does special things; I’ve become friends with these guys, even better than guys I knew before”. Another participant, Jerry Mong, added that he missed the camaraderie and personal friendships, and was happy to be back with his fellow veterans. 

Volunteers are also crucial to the success of PHWFF and its programs. One of the volunteers attending the event was James Hill, who has been with the PHWFF Pittsburgh program for four years. He related some of the difficulties of operating in the Covid environment, for both volunteers and participants. Even though the programs sent out pre-packaged fly tying kits each month for the participants, and held video classes led by volunteers so that the participants could stay involved in tying, it wasn’t the same as being together.  “The technology was a hurdle, especially for some of our older veterans. We knew we didn’t have as many participants tuning in; it was concerning to us, wondering how they were doing”, he said. Thompson also had high praise for the volunteers who consistently came forward to help. “I was so impressed with how our volunteers jumped in and offered to hold virtual sessions. They are so talented and willing to share, and they knew how important it was for us to continue to interact with the veterans”. 

Much of PHWFF’s mission of being dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings takes place during events like these, where vets are free to relax, talk, and share with their buddies while enjoying a pastime that is proven to help in their healing process. Mong shared, “Project Healing Waters is awesome hands-on therapy; making new friends that understand each others situation that may be on their mind”. While fly fishing can be an intense sport, it is also surprisingly relaxing. One huge benefit to veterans is that while they are concentrating on casting and their fly while waiting for a fish to take it, their focus is diverted from the world around them. 

With PHWFF being a non-profit organization, they rely on donations to keep the programs running. One form of donations is offering facilities for the use of the veterans. When asked why the Conway Sportsmen’s Club graciously provided their grounds and pond, club members Brian Lippert and Ray Eppinger explained that the club is the perfect size for an event like this, and offers easy access for handicapped veterans with limited mobility. In fact, after a similar PHWFF event at the club two years ago, they raised funds and constructed a wheelchair-friendly dock extending into the lake specifically for events like this. One of the veterans who uses a wheelchair and was able to take advantage of the facilities was Dave Gifford, who said, “It is inspiring to see my fellow veterans who have their own medical issues come out and be part of our group again”. He mentioned that his fly tying and fly fishing had come to a stop during the pandemic, and was grateful to be able to be back out with people that he had lost touch with.

As the day was wrapping up, the overall consensus was a definite feeling of positive energy about being able to finally start getting together with old friends again. For one afternoon, they were able to put aside what was bothering them, hang out with those that understand, and make new memories together. Lippert and Eppinger noticed that it took a long time for some of the veterans to even get their gear ready and to start fishing. Eppinger observed, “We expected more competition. It turned out that it didn’t even matter if they caught a fish.”

Mong summed up the day with, “Today was about great friends getting together again; therapy is everywhere”.

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