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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fishermen who spend time in and around the Potomac River tributaries don’t all have the same opinion about the Northern Snakehead, but rest assured, they all have an opinion. And there’s a good chance it will be a strong one. Some fall in the “they’re destroying the fishery and must be eradicated at all costs” camp, others in the “they must be protected as a sportfish before it’s too late” camp. And some, believe it or not, actually fall somewhere in between.
There are four agencies who regulate the fishery and have a great interest in gathering data on the Snakehead population: U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, DC Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). These agencies are working together to gather data about Snakehead in the Potomac tributaries, and part of that collective effort includes doing shock surveys, tagging, logging and releasing fish back into the system. Fisheries biologists at VDGIF, led by Snakehead expert John Odenkirk, generously invited myself and David Coffman, editor of VDGIF’s Outdoor Report, to come along for one such tagging survey.
Fisheries biologist Mike Isel skillfully piloted the boat into some tight spots!
Mike also operated the generator and controlled the flow of electricity to the probes that dragged through the water. Once the generator, which supplies the juice, was turned on, Mike operated a foot pedal which distributes electricity into the water.
Jarrett Talley, Fisheries Technician, manned a net on one side of the boat, while Odenkirk worked the other side. In this photo you can see the probes in the water.
It was quite interesting to watch different species of fish react differently to the electricity. Snakehead have an air bladder that, upon shocking, expels air. So they tend to sink, giving the netters just one shot at them most of the time. Here Odenkirk quickly gets the net under a snakehead.
The fish are then brought into the boat and placed in a live well. Tags are applied later to all the fish collected before they are released. For a short video showing John Odenkirk netting a Snakehead, click here.
The snakehead are often netted with samples of the vegetation and food sources they like best. The Banded Killifish, shown here, Odenkirk says are very commonly found in the places Snakehead are captured. Is it just me, or is this Snakehead eyeing that one in Odenkirk’s hand?
Once the shocking and netting is done, the fish are removed from the live well one at a time (roughly in order of their level of cooperation) and placed on a board for measurement.
This sample is about 72 centimeters, or just over 28 inches.
Out of the ten Snakehead fish netted in this survey, two of them were ‘recaptures,’ fish that already contained a tag.
All the others received tags. Here Odenkirk tags a beauty, and the tag number is logged. Previously tagged fish are logged by tag number as well, then released with the others.
The high visibility tags contain instructions for any angler who catches a tagged Snakehead. You are requested to kill the fish, then report the location to the phone number printed on the tag.
Mike Isel logs the new tags, along with date, location and length of each fish.
Odenkirk tosses a tagged fish back into Little Hunting Creek.
The bright orange tag is visible even in murky water conditions. There are probably a few Snakehead targeted by everyone from Herons to bowhunters who would prefer that the tag were a drab olive.
Isel hits the throttle as we exit Little Hunting Creek. Next to him David Coffman, and Jarrett Talley stands up front.
I can’t thank the VDGIF’s great team on Snakehead control duty enough for letting me ‘tag along’ today. Dammit, I was going to avoid that pun, but it’s late. Forgive me.