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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.
I drove over the bridge that spans the Potomac River near our house this afternoon and thought the skies might just be perfect for a sunset. I had been wanting to paddle upstream and find a spot to photograph a great sunset from the middle of the river, and tonight was looking promising.
I picked up a sub for dinner and a couple beers and packed my camera gear in a dry bag. I opted to keep things simple, leaving dogs and fly rods at home. I thought I’d have my hands full trying to set up a camera tripod while anchoring a kayak and trying not to slip and lose everything. So I set out upstream, first heading up the C&O Canal from the ramp. It felt great to be out on such a beautiful evening after about a week of humid, generally unpleasant weather. That shape ahead of me to the right is a raft containing being propelled by my friend William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing.
William and his clients had a long, fun day on the river and got into some fish too. It was cool running into William here on my home water.
Then in the span of about forty minutes, every cloud in the sky vanished. I was not going to get that awesome sunset after all. So I decided to get some exercise, paddling upstream much farther than I ever had before. My new Werner paddle had a lot to do with that! It felt good to make so much upstream progress, and I found a great place to anchor in the middle of the river and chill out for a while. This is a beautiful place, but there just wasn’t anything happening in the sky. In fact, all the action was in the water. Remember the brilliant “I’m not gonna bring a fly rod because I’ll be busy taking pictures” thing? Well not only was I not busy taking pictures, fish were jumping all around me. There was a Great Blue Heron on the next rock outcropping over from me and at one point he looked over to me and said, “Can you believe this shit?”
Here’s a nice view of my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5, she was a joy to paddle tonight. I packed light, just the cooler, camera stuff, anchor and that’s it.
I love the iPhone pano! Click on this image to get a better view, I think it really gives a sense of what it feels like to have this river all to myself. I will definitely be back for evening paddles again, and next time you can bet I will have a rod with me!
I’m not often the last one at the boat ramp, but it’s kind of cool.
Well, over the last month or so I’ve had times when I really wish I had my camera. Or when I had my camera with a wide angle lens and wished I had a zoom. Or when I had a zoom and wished I had a polarizing filter. I’ve had times when I brought a fly rod and wished I had brought a camera, and tonight when I could have done without the camera but damn did I wish I had a fly rod. I’ve had days when I got somewhere and really wish I had brought my dogs. Shit happens. But if it keeps happening, I may have to travel with a full camera bag, both dogs and a 5-weight at all times!
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.
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.
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.
Saturday evening’s banquet begins with another favorite tradition, the escort of the servicemen and women by the Virginia Patriot Guard.
The Gold Top County Ramblers are always a fantastic addition to the Saturday evening festivities.
Capt. Kimberly Smith, USMC, receives a few pointers from a volunteer, and for the camera.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday brought a stunning sunrise, and some butterflies in the stomachs of a few participants.
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.
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.
SGT Justin Burdette, US Army, finds success at the ‘Road Hole.’
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.
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.
Michael Hatfield waits for SPC Kyle Pletake, US Army, to get that ‘bow a little closer.
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.
Former Army Ranger Jason Baker, an excellent fly fisherman, nets one of many for the day.
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.
Just because it’s a competition, doesn’t mean there isn’t time to smile and share in a special moment!
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.”
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.
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.