Words and Images from Ed Felker

Project Healing Waters

In the Presence of Greatness:
The 10th Annual PHW 2-Fly Tournament

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Project Healing Waters has been doing their important work for over ten years now, and the Tenth Annual 2-Fly Tournament was part celebration of those years, and part fundraiser to successfully begin the next decade of Healing Those Who Serve. This year, a participant from each of the previous 2-Fly Tournaments was included in the field, so there were many heartfelt reunions taking place around Rose River Farm all weekend. J.R. Salzman, pictured above, fished in the very first 2-Fly, and an iconic image of him stalking trout in the gazebo pool is still used by Project Healing Waters today. In addition to being a fantastic fly fisherman, he’s also a world champion log roller and ESPY Best Outdoor Sports Athlete award winner.

We were honored to have Mr. Tom Brokaw as the keynote speaker this year. When I first met him as he arrived it occurred to me that some years had passed since last I saw him on TV. But despite being weary from travel he was warm and gracious with everyone he met. And everyone wanted to meet him. Then when it came time for him to speak, the years I noticed on him outside the tent washed away. He spoke in a strong, familiar voice with brightness in his eyes. He was in his element. He spoke of service and volunteerism and sacrifice. Of coming together as a nation, of duty and patriotism. He weaved nostalgia with relevance, humor with power. He spoke to every man, woman and child in that room and made us each feel like the focal point of his speech and the hope for the future not only of this organization, but of this nation. His words were like the Uncle Sam poster whose finger magically pointed at You, no matter from which direction you approached. He is a consummate professional. He hit it out of the park, without ever once glancing at a single note, and delivered the single best speech I have ever heard in my life. Rob Snowhite, the Fly Fishing Consultant, captured the speech in his podcast, linked here.

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Here he is speaking at the dinner. In the bottom left corner of the photo is his long time friend and fishing buddy, the legendary Lefty Kreh. In front of Lefty is PHW’s founder, Ed Nicholson.

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Douglas Dear, owner of Rose River Farm and Chairman Emeritus of the Project Healing Waters board of trustees, speaks to over 300 attendees, the largest crowd ever gathered for this event.

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This photo of Keith Gilbert (standing), who fished in the 4th Annual 2-Fly, was taken the Friday before the event. He and Joel Thompson, his guide for the tournament, got to meet each other and discuss strategies at a warmup event nearby.

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Sunday morning’s weather, for the severalth year in a row, left a bit to be desired. But these are fly fishermen. We all hoped for better weather, but I never heard a single angler complain about a little rain.

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I spewed the words to the Pledge of Allegiance like a zombie thousands of times as a young kid in school, never even giving thought to the word “Allegiance” or what it meant. The Pledge of Allegiance here has meaning. The National Anthem has power. These are not formalities, things to check off the itinerary. The words therein carry the weight of the sacrifices of the men and women saluting that flag Sunday morning, and countless more who have gone before them. I feel at once honored and unworthy to be in the presence of men like Chris Frost, who lost both legs below the knee when his vehicle was struck by an IED. In addition to his Purple Heart, Chris has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Combat Action Medal and numerous others. I first met Chris when he fished in the 5th Annual 2-Fly.

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Tom and Joanne have been a generous fixture at the 2-Fly for many years, and this year a new addition attended, appropriately attired for a troutcentric event.

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Mr. Brokaw was kind enough to come back Sunday to experience the tournament. Here he shares a laugh with PHW’s Director of Communications and social media guru Daniel Morgan, who worked tirelessly in the months leading up to this event to make sure everything went smoothly.

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In the first round of fishing, the weather deteriorated. But Judge Thomas Hogan doesn’t let a little rain bother him. Judge Hogan, an extremely nice man and a great fly fisherman, has been here for every 2-Fly Tournament.

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Pro Guide Jimmy Aliff nets a beautiful rainbow trout caught by Alvin Shell while the rain was still falling. Alvin fished previously in the 9th Annual 2-Fly.

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Rhonda Burleson, who fished in the 7th Annual tournament, gets a helping hand from Pro Guide Kiki Galvin.

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The weather did improve, albeit not enthusiastically at first. Mist and drizzle hung around for a while before deciding to depart for the afternoon and let some sun in.

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I love this portrait of Artist Michael Simon. All of you Virginians reading this blog who sport the specialty wildlife conservation license plates featuring bass or brook trout on your vehicle might not know that Michael Simon is the artist who created those.

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The fishing was great all day, and raincoats were shed for much of the afternoon. Here is Rhonda and Kiki again with a beautiful rainbow under sunny skies.

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World class fly fishing experts like Ed Jaworowski generously donate their time to come to the 2-Fly to give participants a chance to learn from the best.

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Lefty Kreh tunes up Keith Gilbert’s cast before the afternoon sessions.

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Rhonda tenderly releases a beautiful brook trout, rounding out her Rose River grand slam catching rainbow, brown and brook trout in just a few hours of fishing.

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“The honor is mine, to have the opportunity I’ve had to cover the big stories around the world, to try to get them right, to try to keep journalism on an even course, try to celebrate the goodness of this country and the greatness that is yet to come. Because I honestly believe that. And to be in the presence of Americans who every day wake up, and think about what they can do for their fellow citizens. So congratulations to all of you. And to the veterans who are here, in ways that we can never adequately express, we’re enthralled by sharing this country with you. Sharing this evening with you. And we will go home, and say to our friends and neighbors, ‘I was in the presence of greatness last night.'”

— Tom Brokaw, April 30, 2016, Rose River Farm

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Healing Those Who Serve: The 9th Annual
Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament

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The 9th Annual 2-Fly Tournament, held April 25-26, 2015 at Rose River Farm in Syria, VA, raised over $205,000 for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Many of those in attendance declared it the best event yet, despite some meteorological challenges. When the forecast looks like this 24 hours before the weekend-long event, countless details are impacted. But as always, volunteers and PHW staff stepped up and made sure everything still ran smoothly no matter the weather.

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Early Saturday the rain kindly held off for the Bluegill and Bass Tournament at the pond. But as the evening festivities were just getting started, the skies opened up. This did not deter the Virginia Patriot Guard, however, who each year — rain or shine — escort the participants to the Saturday dinner program. This has become a beloved tradition in the 2-Fly.

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Inside the main tent, guests were treated to great food from Gentry’s Catering Service. Wine was provided by Luna Vineyards, and dozens of amazing items were available to bid on in the silent auction.

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Karen Jonas and her band warmed up the tent on a cold evening with an outstanding performance.

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More entertainment came in the form of Master of Ceremonies Eivind Forseth, pictured here from Sunday’s tournament. Eivind, one of the very first participants when Project Healing Waters began over ten years ago, is extraordinarily funny and just happens to have the best voice you’re likely to ever hear.

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The keynote speakers were Lee and Bob Woodruff of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. In 2006, Bob Woodruff was in Iraq reporting for ABC’s “World News Tonight” when he was gravely injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle. His traumatic brain injury nearly killed him. Miraculously he recovered, and 13 months later he was back at ABC News, but forever changed. Bob and his wife, Lee, were driven by a mission to ensure our injured Veterans had access to the very best support and resources available, and the Bob Woodruff Foundation was born. There are tens of thousands of nonprofits serving veterans, and their foundation works extremely hard to find the best, most innovative programs to help fund. Organizations supported by the foundation must meet the very highest standards, and four important criteria must be met: The organization must produce results, they must be responsible stewards of money, the model they use must be replicable (for instance PHW now has 180 programs in all 50 states), and the organization must work where Veterans live. Project Healing Waters meets all those criteria, and is honored to be supported by the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The Woodruffs were both wonderful, powerful speakers. Veterans in attendance surely could relate to Bob’s story. But Lee’s testimony of the difficult journey of the Woodruff family resonated with the loved ones, the caregivers of injured and disabled servicemen and women. That perspective was most appreciated.

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The rain continued throughout the night but the Rose River handled all the water Mother Nature poured down her throat, and awoke Sunday morning running clear and strong. Then, in defiance of every forecast from the previous day, the rains pushed out, grey skies turned to blue, and by late morning the sun was shining on this great event.

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The Woodruffs were kind enough to come back on Sunday and try their hand at fly fishing. Here Dusty Wissmath gives Bob some instruction on the water…

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…while Lee gets some guidance from Elizabeth Noyes.

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Josh Williams of Dead Drift Outfitters has been fishing in this tournament for many years, and he almost always goes home with a plaque. He ties amazing flies and is a great fisherman, friend and family man.

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The man who started it all, Project Healing Waters founder and president Ed Nicholson.

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The river wasn’t exactly throwing trout into the nets, but the right fly and a good drift were often rewarded. Here a rainbow is released into the strong current of the Rose River.

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If you’ve seen the long running ESPN show Walkers Cay Chronicles you’ll recognize Flip Pallot. The consummate outdoorsman was on hand to teach casting and share stories the way only he can.

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Year after year, over a dozen distinguished professional guides enthusiastically volunteer their time and expertise to guide the Veteran participants. Here Jimmy Aliff (right) shows off one of Frank Ortega’s catches.

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Kimberly Smith fished in last year’s event and is now a volunteer with Project Healing Waters, helping bring in new participants. This beautiful trout, below a tattoo honoring her father, is a new addition and even covers up some scars.

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Gerry McKay releases a catch from the afternoon session while guide Joel Thompson, who flew from Missoula, MT to guide in the event, looks on.

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Enjoying a break in the action are, from left to right, Elizabeth Noyes, Michael Brittin, Dusty Wismith, Thomas Hogan and the owner of Rose River Farm and PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear. Douglas co-chairs the 2-Fly committee with Jerry Nonnemacher, and they put in countless hours all year long to make this event the great success that it is.

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Nicky Dayton, left, gets a helping hand from guide Kiki Galvin. Nicky was one of the three participant speakers during Saturday’s program. Her humble, powerful message of pain and healing brought a standing ovation.

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In the end, after months of planning, countless volunteer hours, dozens of sponsors, thousands of miles flown to bring participants from all over the country, a whole lot of trout with sore lips and a little bit of divine intervention on the weather, it was over. On Sunday evening the handshakes are firmer, the laughs are easier, and the goodbyes take a little longer. And promises are made through open truck windows to not let a whole year go by without wetting a line together. I made a few such promises myself, and I intend to keep them.

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The 10th Annual 2-Fly Tournament will be held April 30-May 1, 2016. This was a tough act to follow, but there are people already working on making it the biggest and best yet!

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Winter Fishing at Rose River Farm

When I packed the truck and headed for Rose River Farm it was nine degrees out and the main roads were still covered with packed snow from the previous day’s storm. I wasn’t fully convinced this was a good use of a vacation day until I was almost there. Driving south in brilliant morning sunshine, the roads eventually cleared, traffic thinned, and finally the Rose River came into view. A clean, dark, glistening ribbon meandering through the snow covered landscape, frigid water tumbling over rocks and logs, leaving behind brilliant ice sculptures along her banks. I had forgotten how much I love winter fishing. Hell, I had forgotten how much I love winter. But I remember now.

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I love having a truck. This was my first foul weather outdoor adventure with my Chevy Colorado, and it’s great fun. I love the workspace of a tailgate as I’m getting ready. While the temperature was quite cold, there was virtually no wind, and the bright sun reflecting off the snow made it fairly comfortable. I decided my ultra warm neoprene waders would be overkill, so I put on my Redingtons and a warm hat and met up with a friend who had been fishing all morning. Bob is a great guy, a fantastic fly angler, and he travels with more flies than I have seen in almost every fly shop I’ve ever been in. “Hare’s ear,” he told me. “They’re killing it.”

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A hare’s ear nymph? This is not a fly I use very often. I think maybe because it’s kind of nondescript. Unremarkable in color and vague in shape, a single example sat in the corner of my fly box, long ignored like that drab sportcoat in the closet with patches on the elbows. You can’t remember the last time you wore it, but won’t throw it out because there has to be some occasion it’s perfect for. Well I can’t show you a picture of the hare’s ear I used, because it was in fact the perfect sportcoat for the occasion, and the trout hammered it until it unraveled. Then I trimmed the material that had come undone and they hammered it some more. Finally, the hook literally broke off of it. This is an example of a healthy hare’s ear nymph, courtesy of my buddy Joel of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters. Joel describes it as a “great and often overlooked nymph.” He also said in New Zealand they call it a ‘hare and copper,’ and it’s an extremely productive fly down there too.

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The first fish of the day came quickly, as did my realization that wetting your hand to handle a trout on a 20 degree day is uncomfortable.

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Catching fish is fun no matter the temperature. But when toes get cold, wading becomes clumsy. And when hands get cold, everything else gets clumsy. Removing a fly, releasing a fish, tying a knot, untangling line. Everything takes longer. I tried a few times to add a trailing fly behind the hare’s ear, but cold fingers and bad eyes (I was wearing a warm hat without a brim so I was without my usual clip-on magnifiers) made tandem rigs just too cumbersome to tie. In addition, trout spinning around in the net tangling in the trailer added a new dimension of frustration. So I abandoned that and stuck with the single nymph.

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Anyone who fishes in cold weather has experienced their guides icing up. At first it happens gradually, ice building up from the water on the fly line gliding by. But once they ice to the point the line doesn’t move, you have to dip the guides into the river (which is warmer than the air) to thaw them. This of course means now your rod is totally wet, and in a couple minutes you’ll have far more ice than before. It’s just a part of winter fishing.

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Once my hands froze, I tried my best to remove hooks with hemostats while the fish was still in the net. But some fish are worth the pain of wetting your hands for a photo. This fatty was my biggest of the day.

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You can just make out this fish in the upper right as I released him. I was a bit late with the photo — did I mention my hands weren’t working very well? — but I thought the swirl of water he left in his wake was pretty cool.

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By late afternoon, the temperature had risen to the high twenties and things began to thaw out. I love this curl of snow slowly sliding off the warm, tin roof of the gazebo.

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The hare’s ear worked all day, until it didn’t. They just shut down for that fly for both Bob and I. Luckily, he had another winning pattern in his fly box and gave me an extra. It was tiny and pink, hard to really see and damn near impossible to tie on at that point in the day. I told myself I would fish it for another thirty minutes or until I broke it off and then I would be done for the day. But this fly too was extremely effective, producing another half dozen fish in that last half hour. This beauty wanted to pose with my beautiful bamboo rod by Jerry Nonnemacher.

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I spent the drive from Madison to Loudoun County smiling about a simply wonderful day of winter fishing. And right around the time I reached Gilbert’s Corner, the feeling eased back to the last of my toes. With warmth and sunshine in the forecast for more than a week taking us into mid March, I think it’s safe to say the worst of winter is behind us. Unfortunately, so is the best of it.


Medicine for the Soul

Originally published in The American Fly Fisher, Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing.
Fall, 2014, Volume 40, Number 4

Every spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together for Project Healing Waters (PHW)’s biggest event, the 2-Fly Tournament. The national program aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and associated activities, including education and outings. The annual 2-Fly, so named for the limitation of anglers to select and fish with just two flies for the entire tournament, is the organization’s flagship fundraiser.

DSC_1147A tournament participant and his guide get in some practice on the still waters of one of Rose River Farm’s ponds.

With 167 chapters in forty-nine states, the limited tournament openings are highly coveted. Nominations come from local chapters all over the country. There are only twelve spots in the Pro/Vet category, in which injured active-duty service members or disabled veterans are paired with professional guides. In 2014, one of those spots went to former Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen, Army National Guard, from Woodland Park, Colorado. When he found out he had been selected, he went through what he calls a normal progression of emotions: “Absolutely thrilled!” he said. “Then nervous. Then panicky.”

Christensen suffers from posttraumatic stress (PTS), and in his excitement it had started to take over. “I was honored to be nominated by my local chapter,” he said. “But I then got very nervous about traveling, being in unfamiliar areas, being ‘trapped.’” His wife, who would be seven months pregnant at the time he was to fly to Virginia, worked with him for days after he received the call. “She knows how strong of a medicine this program is for my soul,” he said, “and unselfishly convinced me to go.”

He began taking that “medicine for the soul” back in January 2013, when he first got involved with PHW. He started with a fly-tying class and quickly became obsessed, actually starting the intermediate class before he had even finished the beginner’s. His wife immediately started seeing a change. “She hadn’t seen me this focused, excited, or passionate since I came home from Iraq,” he said. “And I hadn’t even caught my first trout.”

When summer rolled around, he took part in a few outings, each time fishing alongside one of the mentors who guide participants for the day. Those mentors are often professional guides, and under that guidance, Christensen’s fly-fishing skills progressed quickly. “My learning curve has been a near vertical line because of PHW,” he said. He was ready for the 2-Fly.

Almost a thousand miles away in Missoula, Montana, Joel Thompson was also readying for his first appearance in the tournament. But Thompson, a professional guide and owner of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters, was flying in to volunteer as one of the twelve Pro/Vet guides. He was paired with Christensen for the tournament. Thompson had been aware of PHW for years and was excited about his first hands-on opportunity to help. “Being selected to guide in the 2-Fly was truly one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said.

DSC_0876Before the tournament begins, guide Joel Thompson (left) scouts for trout in the Rose River with Brian Christensen.

Meanwhile, back at Rose River Farm, preparations were well under way. PHW board chair and owner of Rose River Farm Douglas Dear credits the volunteers who make the event possible. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers who make this such a great weekend for the vets.” In the final week leading up to the event, volunteers are busy preparing the grounds, organizing an impressive array of silent auction items, and putting shirts and other merchandise out for display. Food, drinks, signs, tents, chairs, lights, electronics, transportation, lodging, and countless other details all require the attention of dedicated volunteers.

The weekend kicks off with a Saturday afternoon bass and bluegill tournament at a large pond on the grounds of Rose River Farm. This gives participants a chance to meet each other and warm up with some casual fishing the day before the 2-Fly. When Christensen arrived, he didn’t know a single person. “I always feel extreme anxiety when meeting new people,” he said. “But the one thing I have found is that when I am around veterans, it couldn’t feel any more different. There is something unexplainable, unspoken that happens when I am around them. I relax. I feel more calm. I let my guard down.” For Christensen and many others, interacting with those who “get it” is one of the best things about PHW.

Saturday evening features a riverside banquet with live music and an inspirational program that gets everyone excited about the day ahead. Special guests this year included Master of Ceremonies Major Nick Warren, United States Marine Corps (USMC), pilot of the presidential helicopter Marine One; keynote speaker Admiral John C. Harvey, United States Navy (retired); fly-fishing legend and World War II combat veteran Lefty Kreh; and casting guru Ed Jaworowski. But the stars of the night were and always will be the veterans, three of whom took the podium to tell their stories.

The moving testimonies of the men reminded everyone in attendance why the success of the event and this program is so critically important. “Project Healing Waters has saved me, my life,” said Corporal Mike Escarcida, USMC (retired), in front of a rapt audience of more than 200 attendees. “I no longer have to go it alone,” he said. “I no longer have those thoughts of committing suicide.”

Stories like Corporal Escarcida’s are being told from PHW programs across the country. Christensen, who has gained so much from his experience that he now feels the urge to give back, volunteers for the Colorado Springs program. As chair of the Veterans Committee, he sets up local events and recruits vets to get them out on the water. He tells the story of a new participant, a former Marine he recently put on a fishing trip. “He called me and said he had caught eight fish on his first trip, and when his children saw a picture of him holding a trout, they said, ‘What’s wrong with your face, Daddy?’” The feature on their father’s face they did not recognize was a smile. That, Christensen says, is the gift that PHW offers. And seeing that in others has been a healing force in his own life.

Christensen and his guide met for the first time during the banquet. The two immediately hit it off. “Joel told me he had been out by the water ‘reconning’ the areas we were to fish the following morning,” Christensen recalled. “I couldn’t believe he was out there doing that while everyone else was enjoying food and drink in the tent.” Christensen found himself grinning from ear to ear and looking forward to the morning.

DSC_0859Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen (left) discusses strategy with Joel Thompson.

Thompson was already confident they would have a great time together, but it was important to him that they did as well as possible. “I get nervous before every guide trip,” he said. “There are so many factors that we can’t control, and you really want your clients to have success. That is exactly how I felt at the start of the 2-Fly.”

The nervousness that comes from even a fun competition, however, can manifest itself in different ways for someone suffering from PTS. “I normally don’t handle those feelings well anymore,” Christensen said. “My [PTS] treats both positive and negative stress the same.” When positive excitement turns into negative stress, it’s impossible to enjoy the experience. “I start out feeling a thrill for a second, but then it turns into anxiety, then panic.”

DSC_0839A vibrant sunrise blankets Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia, on the morning of the 8th Annual 2-Fly Tournament (27 April 2014).

But early Sunday morning, with the fading remnants of a spectacular sunrise still reflecting on the Rose River, the two men entered the water and shook off any nervousness with the best remedy of all: hooking up with the first fish of the day. Then Christensen noticed something odd: the anxiety, the panic never materialized. “I had an absolute blast during the tournament,” he said. “I can’t explain why my body didn’t react the way it normally does to that stress. But it didn’t.” For the three hours of combined fishing that day, Christensen said he felt “like a normal person.”

Thompson and Christensen were paired as a team with Kansas City, Missouri’s Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert, Army National Guard, and his guide William Heresniak. The two anglers and their guides put together an impressive morning of fishing, and when the scores were tallied, they led the Pro/Vet category at the halfway mark. Heresniak, who runs Virginia-based Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, has guided in all eight 2-Fly tournaments and couldn’t imagine missing the event. “When a soldier says that Project Healing Waters has saved their life,” he said, “it hits home.”

DSC_1042Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert keeps the pressure on a rainbow trout as his guide, William Heresniak, gets ready with the net.

In afternoon fishing, things slowed down a bit for Team Christensen/Gabert. But with all but one scorecard to be tallied, they still held a narrow lead. That last team, however, put up just enough points to grab first place. Winning is fun, of course. But the order of finish here is about as important as you might expect—which is to say, not very. “I could not have been more proud of our team,” Thompson boasted. He is eager to guide again next year.

DSC_1177Joel Thompson stretches out to net a nice rainbow hooked by Brian Christensen during the afternoon session.

Christensen, like his guide, feels a lot of pride in that second-place finish. He has a spot for the plaque picked out already, right above his tying bench. “Every time I see it, I will think of my teammate, Kevin, and our guides, Joel and William. And all my fellow veterans. And all the volunteers and all the donors who make it possible,” he said. “And how small I feel in all of it. But mostly,” he adds, “I will just smile and remember the sun on my back, the trout on my line, and how it just couldn’t ever be any better.”

DSC_1032Brian Christensen hooks up with the first of many rainbow trout during the tournament; guide Joel Thompson awaits with the net.

Christensen plans on continuing his volunteer work on the Veterans Committee, giving back to the program by getting others involved. “Nothing brings me more joy than sharing these experiences with my fellow veterans,” he said.

That passion and willingness to give time and energy to this program, and the bonds that are formed and lifelong friends made, are at the heart of the organization’s success. PHW founder and President Ed Nicholson reflects back on the growth of the program since he first started giving casting lessons to a few wounded soldiers on the lawn of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I am overcome with a sense of wonder that through the passion of so many of our dedicated volunteers, an ever-increasing number of our disabled veterans are experiencing the very special healing that Project Healing Waters brings.”

DSC_1044Brian Christensen and Joel Thompson congratulate each other on a morning of fishing that put their team in the lead at the halfway mark.

Since its inception in 2004, PHW has built programs at VA facilities and military installations in all but one state. But there is more that can be done. “To have been witness to so many lives transformed has been incredibly gratifying,” Nicholson said. “The next decade holds great promise for our project to continue expanding, to serve the thousands of deserving veterans who have yet to experience our very special kind of rehabilitative therapy: a therapy based on the fly rod, the vise, and the incredible power of strong, caring volunteers, fostering a bond of friendship and deep personal relationships. That’s what we are all about.”

DSC_1329The participants and guides of the 8th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament.

For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.


Dead Drifting on the Potomac

Meet Josh Williams. Back in 2004, as an infantry automatic rifleman with the Army, Josh was deployed to Iraq and returned home safely after 13 months. Then he was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX, a squad leader in 1-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. One morning in April, 2006, a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle and changed everything. Josh lost his right arm in the accident.

While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, during what Josh admits was a dark time, he was introduced to fly fishing through a fairly new program called Project Healing Waters. PHW founder Ed Nicholson, a former Navy Captain and Vietnam veteran, was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed a year earlier. He found himself surrounded by young, athletic men and women back from tours cut short by devastating, life-alterning injuries and disabilities, and he knew he could help. Like Josh, Ed is a passionate outdoorsman. He knew from his own experience that time spent outdoors connecting with nature can have the very real power to heal. And on the fishless, manicured lawn at Walter Reed, Project Healing Waters was born. As Josh learned to cast a fly rod on that grass, he knew that the door to the activities he loved so much was not closed. So with the help of a strong and loving family and his girlfriend, Lisa, Josh used his love of the outdoors to find his way — to fight his way — out of the darkness.

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Married since 2008, Josh and Lisa have been blessed with two beautiful children. Josh is studying mechanical engineering, is active in his church, continues his involvement with Project Healing Waters and stays busy with his growing fly tying and outfitter business, Dead Drift Flies. Oh did I mention he juggles all this while working full time as a designer for an engineering firm? So I was honored and excited when he took some free time he does not have, to come up to fish with me for a couple days.

Day One was an evening float on my home stretch of the Potomac. Josh, for whom the concept of not being able to do something is utterly disdainful, took to a pedal style kayak which gives him the freedom to fish bodies of water previously unaccessable on his own. The folks at Appomattox River Company recently set him up with this Hobie Pro Angler 12, and he is already very comfortable on it. And when you see him walking around on it like he’s on a bass boat, it’s important to remember how much your arms aid in your balance, particularly on something unstable.

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I’ve spent some time trout fishing with Josh, he is a very good trout fisherman. On small water, the expert deployment of the roll cast gets his line across the stream and his fly to land gently. But watching him fish from greater distances, while standing in a kayak, using his foot to move the rudder and his teeth to strip in a bass, was a thing of beauty.

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But while Josh was showing off, I was fishing too. As you can see, I had to get a good forty feet of fly line out there to fool this several-week-old smallmouth.

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I actually did catch a decent fish that day. Much to my surprise, a largemouth slammed this “6th Man” fly tied by William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing (more on William in a minute). I’ve fished that stretch of water countless times and never caught a largemouth there before. I will be happy to catch this fellow again any time, he made a big jump and put up two good fights — one in the water and another at my feet loose in the boat.

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We caught a few more, but the fishing was pretty slow. No matter, though, we enjoyed catching up, floating in absolutely perfect weather with the backdrop of a beautiful setting sun. It is fun to watch Josh catch fish, though. He is genuinely grateful, and treats all his catches with care and respect. Here’s a little smallie that came up for a popper in the fading light.

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Day Two had us in William Heresniak’s driftboat about thirty river miles downstream on the same Potomac River, wielding bigger rods, throwing bigger flies and hopefully catching bigger fish. William has given generously of his time and expertise to Project Healing Waters since the program’s inception, and invited Josh to come up to fish with him. I’m thrilled to have been asked to come along. This post makes me realize how many great friendships have formed from that great organization.

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We were blessed yet again with great weather all day. This stretch of river, which I had never floated before, contained stretches with beautiful outcroppings of rock and vegetation everywhere. When the fishing started, right away I knew the one-armed fishing clinic Josh gave the day before was now an Advanced Placement course. Imagine casting huge, weighted flies, one-handed, from a boat, in a stiff breeze. I’m no expert, of course, but I have to use my left hand on the line to haul the line, pulling it through the eyelets on the backcast and forward cast to generate the speed necessary to try and keep the hooked, weighted barbell from smacking me in the skull on its way by. If my left hand slips off the line, all is lost for that cast. Line puddles in front of me and I start from scratch. Josh has developed almost a spey cast style to generate that speed required, and he gets that fly moving. He was hitting little pockets and pools probably sixty feet from the boat with a 6-weight rod he had never fished before. Meanwhile, I was not unhappy with casts ten feet shorter with my favorite Sage 7-weight. There is no shame in getting outfished by Josh Williams.

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I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.

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Well, so the bigger fish thing wasn’t happening for us right away, but we stuck with it, switching from Clawdads to poppers trying to get some surface fish.

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Wildlife abounds in this stretch, which, incredibly, is only about five miles away from Tysons Corner, VA, one of the most densely populated and annoying places on the entire eastern seaboard. Hard to imagine. Great Blue Herons were particularly prolific. Any moment you looked up you would see one flying over, we probably saw a hundred herons. We also ducks, a swan, black vultures, an egret and a couple bald eagles.

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Josh hooked into what he described at the time as “the biggest bass I’ve ever caught.” It turns out it was a bass/catfish hybrid, which explains the size. Also the hybrid ratio was about 100% on the catfish side and something less than that on the bass side. But big fish are fun, no matter how ugly they are. And that big smile on Josh’s face came back about ten minutes later with yet another nice catfish. I caught a big one soon after that but, what with it being ugly and all, I decided to voluntarily let it leave my hook before it reached the boat. Three catfish in about a half hour on fly rods is, I would say, pretty unusual.

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Big flies don’t always mean big fish. Bluegill and sunfish are so aggressive they go after flies with hooks that barely fit in their mouths. This beautiful little fish went for one of William’s famous Clawdads.

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And speaking of William’s fly tying, he tied up a couple of these poppers for me the night before our float, using a cork body and deer hair from a deer I shot this past season. The fly is beautiful, and it was a real treat to catch fish with it. While I don’t tie my own flies, I plan on preserving more deer hide this season for my friends that do.

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William worked very hard for us all day long. That man loves to fish, and to have happy people on his boat. Here’s a fun fact about William: He can free a fly no matter where you have snagged it. For a while, Josh and I had fun wedging Clawdads in between boulders, getting them to spin around tree branches 25 feet up and putting Bassmaster caliber hook sets into sunken logs just to see if we could stump him. Nope. He can get that fly back.

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In the end, we made the most of pretty slow conditions, caught a good number of fish, missed a bunch of opportunities on some others, laughed from dawn till dusk and got pretty sunburned. And almost no one lost their wallet. Pretty good day.

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To connect with Josh, visit Dead Drift Flies online here. Be sure to sign up for his blog, you’ll be glad you did.

You’ll also want to bookmark William’s site, Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, and book a trip or purchase some of the great flies he ties.

To learn more about Project Healing Waters, to make a donation or find out how you can volunteer, visit their site here.

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Healing Those Who Serve:
Project Healing Waters’ 8th Annual 2-Fly Tournament

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Every Spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together to hold a truly special event. Project Healing Waters aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and related activities. The annual 2-Fly Tournament is the organization’s flagship fundraiser, and this year over $200,000 was raised to support 167 PHW programs in 49 states.

It takes hundreds of men and women from every corner of this nation and beyond, from all walks of life, to make this event happen. Countless volunteer hours, generous donations from individuals up to major contributors such as The Orvis Company, community support, tireless dedication of the Project’s leadership and some rare and welcome cooperation from the weather all culminated in one remarkable weekend. Those two days go quickly, but the bonds formed, the friendships made and the good that is done will have a lasting impact.

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The 2-Fly Tournament is held Sunday, but Saturday’s traditional Bluegill and Bass tournament at the farm’s largest pond is a popular ‘tune-up’ to the main event. Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing guide William Heresniak brought his drift boat along, and SGM Jeremy Bruns, US Army, cast for some bluegill from the boat. The tournament was run by long-time supporter Cory Routh of Routhless Outdoor Adventures.

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Saturday evening’s banquet begins with another favorite tradition, the escort of the servicemen and women by the Virginia Patriot Guard.

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Temple Fork Outfitters president Rick Pope, former Washington Redskins safety Reed Doughty and PHW Founder and President Ed Nicholson catch up during the cocktail hour.

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The Gold Top County Ramblers are always a fantastic addition to the Saturday evening festivities.

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Capt. Kimberly Smith, USMC, receives a few pointers from a volunteer, and for the camera.

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Rose River Farm owner and PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear welcomes everyone to the dinner. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers that make this such a great weekend for the Vets.”

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Major Nicholas “Nick” Warren, USMC, was the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Warren is the pilot for Marine One, the Presidential helicopter. One does not get that assignment without being extraordinary at their job. But Nick is as friendly and humble a man as you would ever hope to meet.

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The evening included an address from Keynote Speaker John C. Harvey, USN (ret.), and moving testimonies of three PHW participants on how the program has changed, even saved, their lives. Not one person in attendance will soon forget the power of those testimonies.

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Donations in the form of silent auction bids continued throughout the evening. Happy supporters went home with artwork, fly fishing equipment, guided trips and selections of items donated by each of the program’s 14 regions.

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But reveille comes early, as it always does. So the participants, staff, volunteers and special guests had to say good night to a memorable evening and prepare for the great day ahead.

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Sunday brought a stunning sunrise, and some butterflies in the stomachs of a few participants.

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In perfect weather, fishermen geared up, posed for photos, strategized with guides and teammates, and fueled up with coffee, donuts and a touch of pre-tournament adrenaline.

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When the horn sounded, the first shift of anglers entered the water on their assigned beat and put lines in the water. First-time volunteer guide Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholic Outfitters flew in from Missoula to be a part of this event. He guided Colorado’s SSG Brian Christensen, ARNG. The pair, who Brian said have similar personalities, bonded over the experience of competing together. “We were a perfect match,” Brian said of his new friend. The two have been in contact since they both returned home to the Rockies.

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SGT Justin Burdette, US Army, finds success at the ‘Road Hole.’

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SSG Kevin Gabert, ARNG, hooks up as guide William Heresniak readies with the net. Kevin and William were paired with Brian and Joel, and the team grabbed second place in the Pro/Vet category. “Kevin’s skills were top notch,” Heresniak said of his teammate.

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Guide Eric Stroup directs Jeremy Bruns to yet another Rose River rainbow. Jeremy’s team, with SGT Kyle Pletzke, US Army, and pro guides Eric Stroup and Michael Hatfield, respectively, came in First Place in the Pro/Vet category.

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Michael Hatfield waits for SPC Kyle Pletake, US Army, to get that ‘bow a little closer.

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Fly Fishing legend Lefty Kreh has been a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and our wounded and disabled servicemen and women. He gives generously of his time, for which there is incredibly high demand. He tirelessly gave casting lessons to beginners and tips to more experienced casters. Kreh’s sacrifices, as a WWII combat veteran from the Battle of the Bulge through his selfless devotion to today’s veterans, simply can not be overstated.

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Former Army Ranger Jason Baker, an excellent fly fisherman, nets one of many for the day.

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The hot fishing Brian and Joel experienced in the morning cooled off a bit for the afternoon shift, but they still did well. Here Joel stretches out to net another beauty.

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Just because it’s a competition, doesn’t mean there isn’t time to smile and share in a special moment!

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The Washington, DC area’s own Fly Fishing Consultant Rob Snowhite watches Capt. Kimberly Smith, USMC. They were paired with SSgt. Chris Matthews, USMC and former Marine, perennial guide and devoted PHW supporter Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters. The team was aptly named “Semper Fly.”

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In addition to counting the number of fish caught, each team measured no more than three trout for the day, getting points for every measured inch. Measuring a strong, slippery, angry fish under the pressure of tournament conditions is as hard as, well, measuring a strong slippery, angry fish under the pressure of tournament conditions. Stuff, as the saying almost goes, happens.

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In the end, a few went home with trophies. But all went home with smiles and memories, hopefully enough to last a long time. They deserve that. They earned that. We owe them that.

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