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2020 Project Healing Waters Alaska In Review

December 28, 2020

Holiday Greetings to All!

This has been an extraordinary year filled with unexpected challenges as well as a light at the end of the tunnel with the announcement of vaccines.  On March 13th, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Headquarters suspended all in person activities but encouraged us to initiate Virtual Meetings and keep our participants engaged in core activities including tying flies, fish education and rod building.  The Anchorage and Wasilla volunteers quickly learned virtual skills and started the first virtual meeting on April 7th using Facebook Live. Since then we have held twenty-seven meetings using Facebook Live and then transitioned to Zoom in August because it allowed better live interaction.  The sessions featured fly tying, knot tying, bead making, rod building, float tubing, catching and safely releasing fish and a presentation about fishing on Christmas Island. Most of these educational sessions were recorded and posted on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PHWFFAlaska/ .

In addition to the Virtual Meetings, volunteers held numerous individual Zoom sessions to assist participants in completing the rods that they started during February.  Many participants entered their completed rods in a national virtual rod competition.  Their rods will be highlighted on our Facebook Page and on this blog after the winners are announced. An example of one rod built by Marco Rico appears below.

Rod built by Marcos Rico

Since we could not host in person tying sessions, we opted to order and send one or two fly patterns including feathers, hooks, and vises (if needed) to all interested participants using PostFly.  The packages were sent once a month and tying demonstrations were available on line.

Our final virtual session included our annual Family Holiday Gathering where participants and volunteers from Anchorage and Wasilla enjoyed discussions of their summer fishing outings and participants were given gifts just like during all of our previous Holiday Gatherings.  Hopefully, next year we can meet in person and enjoy a wonderful holiday feast like we did during 2019. The photo of that gathering appears at the top of this post.

Although we were not able to go on any trips this year, which disappointed everyone, we continue to serve our disabled veterans primarily through virtual programming.  As soon as the VA and other organizations re-open and Headquarters receives approval from our insurance company and legal team, we will be able to resume some activities including one-on-one interactions and progressing to small group interactions with appropriate mitigation strategies.  Wishing everyone good health and happy times next year!

2019 Holiday Gathering

Anchorage Program Announces 2019 Participant and Volunteer of the Year Awards

December 17, 2019

By Leslie Holland-Bartels

On December 13, 2019 the Anchorage Program of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing announced the selection of Ken Smith as Participant of the Year and Charlie Hune as Volunteer of the Year at the Program’s annual Holiday Awards Dinner.

Ken Smith has been an active and engaged participant since joining the program in 2017. In 2019 over fifteen participants signed up the rod building program, which exceeded available equipment. Ken stepped up and pulled out all the stops to build new jigs out of high quality countertop material that also included tensioned line guides using ice fishing rod tips. These jigs were presented as a surprise to the Program! They have made learning thread work so much easier for our beginner builders. Thanks you Ken for always being fun and positive and bringing so much to your fellow participants and volunteers!

Ken Smith tying a fly

Charlie Hune has been volunteering as an expert fly tying instructor since 2016 enjoying helping participants interested in fly tying competition efforts. In addition, this year he helped organize instructional materials and supplies for our 36-week tying session. Over the busy summer Charlie often took over program lead site responsibilities making sure the room was set up, materials ready, and that everything was safely closed up at session end. His selfless teamwork to help participants and other volunteers is recognized by the 2019 Anchorage Volunteer of the Year Award.

Charlie Hune demonstrating a fly

Wishing Everyone a Happy Holiday Season!

Veterans Enjoy Fall Fishing Fun on the Kenai River

September 26, 2019

Fishing on the Kenai River in Alaska is a dream that many individuals have. Seven Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing disabled veteran participants from Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Alaska traveled to Soldotna and fished for three days with Alaska Fishing and Lodging.  The guides, Tyland and Damond, asked everyone what they wanted to catch.  Since Cohos were present in the lower river, all participants wanted to catch some and take them home.


A spectacular evening along the Kenai River

Everyone experienced the joy and frustration of hooking fish and losing them. The secret to landing them includes keeping the rod tip low while slowly reeling them into the net.  Raising the rod tip too high or reeling too fast actually causes the fish to fight more and jump out of the water, which results in losing the fish.  Cohos have very soft mouths and the hooks can pull out easily. Everyone caught numerous Cohos and took them home to share with their families and friends.  It is amazing how many new friends they acquired when they posted photos of their catch….

Unloading Cohos

Mike looking at his 12+ pound Coho

George showing off one of his Cohos


Tyland filleting the fish that still have sea lice on them

Some individuals also explored fishing in the Middle Kenai River, which is renowned for rainbows, Dollies, Sockeyes, Cohos, and whitefish. They traveled 30-minutes up river to Skilak Lake and then fished their way back down the river.  Lots of rainbows, Dollies, and Sockeyes were caught and released along with several whitefish. Cohos were not targeted here because they spawn in this section of the river.  The scenery was spectacular with all the fall colors alongside the unusual azure blue color of the river caused by glacial silt.


We were very fortunate on this trip.  Forest fires started in this area on June 5th and as of September 21st, it has burned 167,000 acres but it is now 68% contained.  Some smoke was still visible over the mountains and we drove through smoke on the highway. Heavy rains during the past several days are really helping to control the fires.

Morning sky with smoke hanging in the mountains

A special “Thank You” goes out to Smokehouse BBQ and St Elias Brewing Company for giving us substantial discounts on our meals. The food and service were outstanding!

Learning at the Fly Fishers International Expo by Eivind Brendtro

September 23, 2019

Written by Eivind Brendtro

It was enlightening to attend the classes at the Fly Fishers International (FFI) Expo.  The instructors were able with a few simple tools to significantly improve the students’ casting abilities and even enable them to diagnose and improve their own cast.

The first simple tool they used were two cones centered off the casters rod tip.  By using even acceleration and pausing at each cone the caster would let the fly line stop and lay out on the grass.  By analyzing how the line lay on the grass it could be determined if the acceleration was even.  After practicing until the line would lay in a straight line, false casts in the side plane were produced and line loops were observed.  Based on how the loops progressed would tell whether the acceleration and stop angles were still where they should be.  If the loop was too open the caster needed to increase acceleration, or if too tight slow it down.  If angles were incorrect the line would not flay out in a smooth straight line.

Another simple tool was to use a small foam block placed between the wrist and the reel seat.  The angler would hold it in place by steady even wrist pressure.  If the wrist broke during casting motion the block would either compress or drop to the ground.  If it compressed it meant that the wrist broke in the forward plane.  If it dropped to ground then the wrist had opened up in the reverse plane.  By practicing casts with the block in place a memory of proper wrist orientation was achieved.  After a few minutes the block could be removed with improved results.

Finally, the angler would practice his or her false casts starting as a side cast and then moving to an overhead cast, then releasing the cast to the grass.  Nice cast were now far easier to produce!

Eivind (in bow of boat) enjoying a day of fishing on the Yellowstone

The right angle nymphing class was also interesting.  Students were taught how to fish the deeper holes on the river where often fish would lie.  By using an adjustable bobber, small weights, and a weighted fly, those deeper holes could be fished most effectively.  This was practiced on the Gallatin River.   The bobber was adjusted to the depth of the water so as to allow the fly to just tick off the bottom.  The instructor suggested using a small simple weighted jig with a few strands of marabou feathers tied on.  These type of flies, when tied on with the hook oriented upwards made for less snags on the river bottom.

Mindful flyfishing was a wonderful way to learn to enjoy the sport of flyfishing even more than already enjoyed.  By stopping, taking ones time, and simply observing ones surroundings, made one more productive in his or her cast as well as more relaxed; improved fish hookups may even occur due to being more observant.  Although caching fish is the goal, enjoying all the aspects of that pursuit makes the whole experience more enjoyable.  This class was held on Spanish Creek. The water was crystal clear and after approaching the river quietly and observantly using all of one’s senses, students were taught to read the river for potential casting spots.  Then the target areas were attempted with deliberate, careful accurate casts.  This was done all the while taking in the beautiful surroundings of the river.

About the author:

Eivind, born in Minnesota, spent much of his growing up years in Norway, loving the mountains and streams of that beautiful country. Returning to the United States for high school, Eivind loved the desert and high Sierra country of California, enjoying fishing and hiking. Eivind enlisted in the US Army for 3 years as an NBC specialist, serving both stateside and in the DMZ in Korea. In 2003, Eivind reenlisted, serving the Alaska Army National Guard for 5 years as an aircraft/avionics electrician for Blackhawk helicopters, serving the state of Alaska and in other critical missions such as border patrol and Haiti. In 2009, Eivind enlisted in the Alaska Air National Guard serving in an Active Duty Guard (AGR) position for both C130s and C17s, serving missions including to Afghanistan. He attends the Anchorage Program of Project Healing Waters and enjoys rod building, making flies, and talking to other veterans. It has given him the hope that, while life may be different, there are still activities that he can do, people that understand, and hope for the future.

Summer Recharging at the FFI Expo

September 23, 2019

Summers are short in Alaska so I tend to spend long days fishing and enjoying life. For the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Fly Fishers International (FFI) Expo and intend to add this to my annual calendar. This year it was held in Bozeman July 23 – 27th and it was an amazing event. Nine participants from Alaska travelled there to learn a variety of skills including how to cast better, how to read and fish streams, and how to tie different types of flies. Everyone took one or more classes/seminars and toured the exhibit hall where master tiers demonstrated their awesome skills.

On Thursday evening, the All American Beef Battalion of Ashland, Kansas, treated all PHWFF volunteers and participants to a BBQ at a local park. The Battalion drove to Montana to serve a “steak feed” for our PHWFF group. What a wonderful evening. Thank you All American Beef Battalion.

Enjoying the evening BBQ

Front row:  Rick, Teresa, Jan & Todd

Back row: Richard, Eivind, Gary, Marcos, Rick & Dave

Lots of people crowded the casting fields on Friday morning to see the PHWFF National Casting Competition. Rick Knight and David Widby, the first and second place winners respectively of the casting competition in Alaska competed in the event. Following the competition, Maxine McCormick, a young World Casting Champion demonstrated her amazing casting form.

Maxine McCormick demonstrating her casting


Todd Desgrosseilliers awarding certificates to Dave Widby and Rick Knight for winning the Alaska Casting Competition

Marcos Rico (Anchorage) who won a first place in the 2018 PHWFF Tying Contest demonstrated his tying skills on Saturday. His salmon flies are awesome.


Marcos demonstrating his tying skills


Everyone learned so much at the various sessions and hope to pass this new knowledge on to others in their respective programs.


A Fresh Perspective of Life’s Stressors at Freedom Ranch

August 30, 2019

Last week I had the pleasure to lead a trip of eight disabled veterans to Freedom Ranch, which is located a few miles from Wise River Montana along the Big Hole River. It is a peaceful valley surrounded by mountains and majestic views that beg the eyes to constantly look around to soak in the beauty and cause the heart to relax and regain a slow natural rhythm. This scenery is the setting for healing disabled veterans who have a variety of ailments from broken bones to emotional scars including PTSD. Each veteran has stories to share many of which have never been shared with others previously. This along with fishing everyday with another veteran creates the calming waters that lead to healing. Talking with others who have been through similar traumatic experiences helps to validate memories and gives hope for a new future normal. Life involves both giving and receiving to create harmony and true healing, which can be achieved through interactions with others in a serene environment like Freedom Ranch. Listed below are comments from a trip to Freedom Ranch during August 20 – 24, 2019.

The group getting ready to go fishing


John – “Being at Freedom Ranch was a surreal experience. The camaraderie from the other veterans and the incredible hospitality by the volunteers proved to be more beneficial than I ever thought possible. These things, coupled with the beauty that is Montana, allowed for a fresh perspective on life’s stressors. My rookie frustrations in attempting to master fly fishing came to an abrupt halt as I realized the healing properties of being outside with friends, standing in cold water, and watching faces light up when a big brown grabs a fly off the top. We saw beautiful landscape, ate wonderful food, hung out with great people, and even caught a few fish. Freedom Ranch has had a positive life-changing effect on who I am and words can’t begin to properly express my gratitude to Project Healing Waters and everyone that made it possible.”


John landing and showing off his brown

Sean – It was a wonderful trip. I learned so much about casting from a drift boat. Previously, I knew how to mend up river so that the fly drifted down river without being dragged underwater. Our guide showed us how to mend for three different speeds of water when casting across the river. Truly amazing! It was so much fun using really large flies as strike indicators with small droppers.

Sean landing a nice bow

Jeff stated “I had three days of uninterrupted sleep with no intrusive thoughts or dreams. Thanks for three days of Freedom and a wonderful fishing adventure.” It was a wonderful learning experience. The Freedom Ranch staff was awesome!

Jeff caught the first bow of the day

Fred, a Vietnam veteran, mentioned that he finally caught a Whitefish, which was on his “bucket” list.

Fred ventured into the pond to reach the fish rising on the other side

Fred can really cast long distances

Philip – Fishing is much more technical than I ever imagined. We changed flies frequently to determine what the fish wanted. I saw my first cutthroat. What an education!

Philip’s brown trout

Rick – It was a great learning experience. Our guides took the time to teach us how to fish on the river.

Rick caught lots of fish

Bart – Montana was on my bucket list and I finally made it here where I caught my first Brown. I had a great time and met some wonderful guys and had lots of fun.

Bart really enjoyed Montana fishing

Eddie – I thoroughly enjoyed it and want to come back. I caught cut bows, brooks and Browns!

When waiting for our departure planes, we ate at the Copper Horse Restaurant in the Bozeman terminal and I was pleasantly surprised when the server mentioned that all veterans would be given a substantial discount on their meals. A special thanks goes to the staff and owner of the Copper Horse Restaurant for their excellent service and discount. We truly appreciate your hospitality.

Alaska Veterans Go Fly Fishing for Sockeye Salmon

August 28, 2019

Kenai River Drifter’s Lodge Trip August 10 -11

Written by Ralph McHenry, Trip Leader

Before I begin my thoughts I’d like to say thank you to the staff at Kenai River Drifters Lodge, Cooper Landing Alaska. First to Bob, thank you for your unyielding support to our veterans and Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Second your support staff was as always excellent and amenities were second to none. Finally, our guides Shawn and Tige were super and supportive to our participants throughout the day.

As always the Kenai River was beautiful. We started the day by loading up at about 5 am into the trucks and hauling down to the Skilak Lake launch. It was a long, but beautiful drive down to the launch point where we loaded up our boats and headed out fishing. This year had an epic, and longer than normal sockeye salmon run so that is what we targeted. Everyone caught fish and had a lot of fun flipping to the sockeye.

Probably the funniest point in the trip was when one of our participants accidentally hooked another guy’s boot. As he was removing the hook his life vest which was an auto inflating one apparently got into the water activating it with a startling pop.

Landing a red can be tricky

We all had a good laugh and after replacing the mechanism and cartridge in the vest we launched out to fish for rainbows, dollies and coho’s. We caught a few fish as the sockeyes hadn’t yet started to drop eggs yet and had a nice float down to the take out point. After returning to the lodge we all loaded up and headed back to the valley. It was an uneventful drive home, I think everyone had a great time.

I’d like to title this section why I/we volunteer. I have been volunteering with PHWFF for the past 3 years. As a veteran I wanted to help my fellow vets especially those who have served in combat and experienced difficulties related to their military service. As a proud Air Force Veteran I’ve served in combat operations but I feel it’s quite different when you are on the ground and directly involved in the fight and have the utmost of respect for those who have. I believe that being out in nature is healing as our organizations name states. During this trip I was reminded that that is in fact the case. One of our participants is Heath. He is a recent Air Force retired veteran who is losing a battle to cancer. I must say I admire Heath’s attitude and positivity in battling this disease and his willingness to share his stories and talk about his fight. It makes sense that he struggles but through his positive nature and outward appearance it’s not readily apparent. During the trip after catching a number of sockeyes he made the comment to me and the others that he was appreciative and really needed this day out. That right there readers was worth being there for me! Thank you Heath for reminding me that this is about you and the other participants and helping you/them have the opportunity to heal. Even when we don’t see an outward expression such as Heath’s I believe that we are helping our veterans.  Thank you to all my fellow volunteers throughout PHWFF, you make a difference in the lives of our veterans and I hope this snapshot helps your motivation to continue on.

Finally I’d like to ask for your thoughts and prayers for the people on the Kenai Peninsula. A wildfire kicked on June 5th 2019 and was named the Swan Lake fire. At latest reporting it has burned over 100,000 acres and is currently encroaching on Cooper Landing. Prayers for the people and businesses who call this area home and for all the wonderful firefighters and incident personnel who are battling to keep people and properties safe.

Tangle Lakes Memories

August 15, 2019

On June 27th, disabled veteran participants and volunteers headed to Tangle Lakes, Alaska – only 290 miles from Anchorage. The 5 to 6 hour drive is long but spectacular with miles of black spruce tundra and mountain ranges capped with glaciers. Following dinner and fresh homemade ice cream for dessert, everyone relocated to the day use area approximately one mile from the campground where stream fishing began around 8:30 pm. Since it never really gets dark in the land of the midnight sun, the fishing improves after 9 pm when the bugs emerge in large swarms that resemble fog rolling across the river. What fun!

Francesca, Frank, and Joe enjoying the day

The next two days of fishing were awesome! The temperatures hovered around 75 – 80 degrees, a rarity in these mountains. The water was still cool and the bugs were hatching so everyone caught grayling. All you had to do was drop your fly in the water and let it drift and soon it would disappear, which was followed by “fish on”. The grayling were not picky; they took a variety of parachute style flies, renegades, Purple Haze, Cracklebacks, and beadheads.

A beautiful grayling

Special thanks go to numerous groups including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) boat drivers from Glennallen and Fairbanks, AK who transported everyone down river to spots were everyone could fish easily. Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment (WISE) provided meals for the BLM and coordinated special potlucks for all participants and volunteers. The Tangle River Inn provided wonderful meals for participants during which they could view the entire lake and river system. Bob Dobranski contributed substantial financial funding for this trip as well as numerous previous trips. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing also funded four participants from Virginia, Montana, and Idaho who were able to stay several extra days.

A group of volunteers and participants at the Tangle River Inn

It was such a pleasure to host these four participants – Cheryl, Alex, Derek and Mark. They truly enjoyed their trip to Alaska and they stepped up to help out when needed. When a medical emergency occurred that resulted in a staff shortage at the lodge, they quickly volunteered to fill in as waiters, dishwashers and cooks. Thank you ever so much!

Sunshine and fishing makes Alaska fun at Tangle Lakes

July 17, 2019

By Francesca Popp-Wright

When perfect weather and unlimited fishing/catching are combined, one might say that Tangle Lakes certainly tantalized the senses. The journey is sometimes half the fun and with this year’s frost heaves on the roads, it was a true carnival ride.

Tangle Lakes is a place where the paved road ends and the gravel road of the Denali Highway begins. I can’t forget to mention how the scenery seems endless with rolling hills of tundra and snow capped mountains.

The annual trip for Project Healing Waters Alaska took place June 27-30 and welcomed participates from the Wasilla, Fairbanks and Anchorage programs, as well as four national participants from Virginia, Montana and Idaho. It gave people the opportunity to unplug and just enjoy their surroundings.

Jason and Francesca

This was my second trip to Tangle Lakes. It proved to be as good as, if not better than, my first trip two years ago. The last trip was fun, but rainy, windy and cold. This adventure was warm, sunny, and had a light breeze, which made fly casting conditions optimal. Additionally, it was so warm (temps in the mid to high 80s), I ended up wet wading (a rarity in Alaska) since my waders sprung a leak.

Francesca with one of many Grayling

The catch of the day was mostly grayling. One participant was even fortunate to land a whitefish. However, the legendary Lake trout dove to depths beyond reach. I lost count of how many grayling I caught after five, but I know some participants nabbed more than 100 of these beauties on the second day of fishing.

A nice Grayling

Grayling have always been an exciting fish to catch. There were many times a fish would be on the line the second the fly hit the water. A few times, I even hooked one or two on the back swing when I was about the recast my line. The grayling sight fishing was so much fun, especially when the strike was on a fly I tied, while using a rod I built.

Lining up for a photo op

I am so incredibly grateful to be a part of the Anchorage program and look forward to participating for many years to come. The Tangle Lakes trip is one trip many people look forward to every year. It would not be possible without the support from Bob Dobranski and businesses and organizations including the Tangle River Inn, the Bureau of Land Management in Glennallen and Fairbanks, and Wrangle Institute for Science and Environment (WISE), as well as many dedicated PHWFF volunteers.

Fun river fishing with lots of action

Anchorage PHWFF Welcomes Athletes to VA Golden Age Games

June 6, 2019

On June 5th at the start of the Golden Age Games designed for veterans who are 55 and older, the VA sponsored a Health and Wellness Expo that featured information tables on a variety of health and wellness services available to VA veterans. PHWFF Anchorage staffed a table designed to illustrate the core activities of fly tying, fly casting, fishing education, rod building, and fishing outings that aid in the emotional and physical rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans.

Jan and PHWFF Participant

Many athletes specifically stopped and talked to us about their local programs in California, Arizona, Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Illinois, Tennessee, Florida, Maryland, and New York and some were wearing their PHWFF hats! It was pure joy to listen to them talk about their programs and how PHWFF saved and improved their lives.

Two PHWFF athletes from LA

A special thanks goes to Leslie Holland-Bartels for helping to staff the information table.


Numerous PHWFF volunteers and participants are serving as volunteers for this event during the next five days. Best wishes to all the athletes!