A dozen flyfishers, representing every corner of the commonwealth, recently converged on Bedford County, PA for a weekend of fly fishing and healing as part of the 3rd Annual Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Yellow Creek Outing. They were treated to a fabulous weekend, with the opportunity to fish three of the area’s best trout waters.
The PHWFF veterans began arriving throughout the afternoon on Friday, and were able to fish the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River which flowed directly beside the cabins that they would call home for the weekend on their own schedule. After fishing at their leisure, they settled down to enjoy dinner, relax, catch up with old friends, make new friends, and get ready for the official event to begin on Saturday morning.
After a hearty breakfast cooked at their cabins on Saturday morning, the veterans drove to the nearby Bob’s Creek to meet their guides, all generous volunteers from the local TU chapter who turned out to assist and mentor the veterans on their home waters. One of those guides was John Zielezinski, who has been fishing these waters for decades, and also volunteering since the first year of this event. When asked why he continues to come out and help the veterans, he said, “It’s good to pass it on, the skills and the information. I get a lot of enjoyment from being out here, it’s nice to help others enjoy it out here”. The enjoyment of the outdoors, the fly fishing and the camaraderie amongst the participants are all key parts of the healing process for the veterans, and the selfless assistance offered by the guides plays a huge part in allowing that to happen.
Bob’s Creek was especially low and clear, making for tough and technical fishing. Most of the veterans found the task of fishing the “skinny water” a challenge while also being a great opportunity to hone their skills. Regardless of the difficulty in dealing with the conditions, the veterans still managed to catch a good number of trout, with a mix of stocked and wild fish being caught and released throughout the day.
Mike Fuhrman, a participant from the Lebanon program, was one of those taking advantage of the benefits offered by fly fishing with other veterans, and appreciative of what he is gaining from PHWFF. He remarked, “It’s great to get around other veterans like this. It’s a program that I would like to see more veterans get involved in”.
Jocko Harris, an Army veteran with the West Bradford program, has been a participant with Project Healing Waters for about a year. He had more positive things to add about the PHWFF organization. “Everybody here is humble. Everybody’s willing to help, but you also have to be willing to give back sometimes”. He added, “Some of us have outer injuries, some of us have internal injuries. Project Healing Waters is not just about fishing. It’s about bringing you peace and contentment so that you can live a more productive life”.
On Sunday, the veterans fished another local stream, Yellow Creek. While also low due to the time of year, Yellow Creek proved to be much more fishable for most of the veterans. Again, a good number of trout were caught, including many wild fish, which was a new experience for many of the veterans. One reason for that success was volunteer Tim Clingerman, who provides his time and expertise to guide, along with his contacts to obtain access to some highly desirable private water for the veterans. He commented, “When you have people learning how to fly fish, you do not want them to go away empty handed. All of these guys listen to what we suggest. They’re eager to learn, they pay attention, and they pick it up. You can see the great camaraderie, they’re cheering for each other, it relaxes them, and they do so much better that way. I had some great mentors when I was younger; that’s why I’m happy to in turn be passing it along now”.
After a weekend full of fishing, the veterans, along with their guides, met at the Horn O’ Plenty restaurant in Bedford for a delicious and private pizza dinner. The restaurant, along with the cabins that the veterans stayed in throughout the weekend, is owned by Jeff Horn and his wife Mandi. The Horns have graciously made their facilities available to the PHWFF veterans for the past three years, as well as provided all of the meals, including streamside lunches. When asked why he is such a solid supporter of the PHWFF organization, Horn said, “I know that when these guys are together fishing, everything is okay for them”.
Another solid supporter is the Fort Bedford chapter of Trout Unlimited. As in each of the past three years that this outing has taken place, they have hosted the veterans and provided all of the guides for the veterans, as well as supplying each one with a fly box stocked with flies appropriate for the local waters, all tied by the TU members. Rylan Schnably, president of the Fort Bedford TU chapter, said that his group anticipates this event every year. “Our guys can get out here and hang out with guys that are fun to fish with. As much as you guys love coming here to fish, we really appreciate you guys coming down here”.
Craig Brandick, Erie program lead and the trip lead for this outing, probably knows better than most about the healing properties of these outings. Besides his involvement in PHWFF, he is also an ordained minister and counselor. His background offers him a unique perspective on the ability of fly fishing to help mend the disabilities experienced by the participants on these outings. He noted, “When we see a person who is in trauma, a person who is troubled through events and other scars of life, it is easy for any of us to become self-absorbed. What I try to demonstrate in front of our veterans is ‘What is it that you most want somebody to do for you? Find somebody who needs help and do that for them'”. He went on to add, “We are not a fishing club; we are not a one time event; we are not a group for recreation; what we are is a program for rehabilitation. There are various and varied levels of experience when it comes to fly fishing; the readiness and willingness of some of our participants to help others who might not have as much experience, that stands out. It only works if we’re not selfish”. Along with talking about participants being eager to help fellow participants, he was also quick to thank and note the assistance of the TU guides. “This has been such a phenomenal weekend. They’re willing to step out and help our veterans with limited mobility. One of the guides was always ready with another rod rigged up and ready to go. When the veteran would get tangled up, he would hand the second rod to the veteran, take the first rod, and work on getting the fly out of the tree while the veteran was able to continue on fishing. That takes patience, and takes a person who is first and foremost there to help our veterans”. Clingerman had similar praise for the PHWFF participants, saying “I can tell, it really relaxes the veterans. We talk about this pretty much all year at TU. We really look forward to the veterans coming here. It’s a huge honor for us to fish with them. I would love Project Healing Waters and Trout Unlimited to continue our relationship”.
As stated in their mission, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is 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. Events such as the Yellow Creek outing allow for that rehabilitation to take place, through bonding with veterans in similar situations. Perhaps Harris summed up the PHWFF mission best when he said, “Everything that’s negative in the outside world, we don’t have here at Project Healing Waters. And if the world would adopt the principles of Project Healing Waters, we wouldn’t have as many problems as we have”.