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Fishing for recovery

Organization helps wounded warriors

MSgt. Josh Heistand, 2nd Brigade, 2nd BSB, pays close attention as he ties a fly in preparation to going fly fishing. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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Putting a fly-fishing rod in the doctor's bag is a great step toward recovery.

"Fly fishing gets your mind on something pleasant," said retired Marine Corps infantry officer Chuck Tye, the Northwest Regional Coordinator for Project Healing Waters, as he sat at a large table with a number of soldiers assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB).

"It's a wonderful tool for taking their minds off some of the not-so-wonderful things they each must deal with," added the fly-fishing instructor.

The WTB at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is one of two battalions that are part of the Madigan Army Medical Center.

For many veterans, the emotional struggles of adjusting to life with disabilities can exact a toll.

It is at this point that Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) puts a rod in the doctor's bag.

"It's not a magical tool, but fishing is an important tool to helping their recovery," continued Tye.

Founded by retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson in 2005, PHWFF has served wounded military veterans as they recover.

Today, the organization has developed into 20 regions through the country involving military and veterans hospitals in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

In 2015, over 3,500 PHWFF volunteers donated more than 200,000 hours.

PHWFF provides basic fly-fishing, fly-casting, fly-tying and rod-building classes to soldiers whose abilities range from having never fished to those who have extensively fished.

"A lot of these guys and gals are outdoor kids," continued Tye, who began fly fishing decades ago during a trip to Yosemite National Park.

"Some think they can't fish due to their wounds.  That's not so, and this program gets them away from here and helps them on the road to recovery."

All fly-fishing and tying equipment is provided at no cost.  Fishing trips, both one day and multi-day, are free to participants.

Recently, nine servicemembers met at the WTB with Tye to tie flies in preparation for a fishing trip.

"Here you have it - grown men making things out of pink feathers to go fly fishing," said Jim Wood, an Army veteran and PHWFF volunteer, to a chorus of laughter.

Fly tying is the process of producing an artificial fly used by fly fishers to catch fish.

Joining Wood and Tye were Cpl. Cole Smith, MSgt. Josh Heistand, MSgt. Paul Huston, SSgt. Brian Foster, Maj. Aaron Sarver, SSgt. Nate Cooprider and his father, Gary Cooprider, and TSgt. Kurt Lewandowski.

Foster smiled as he worked.

"It takes a couple of minutes to tie a fly," he said, as he attached a small piece of a partridge feather to a hook in creating a fly, called a caddis bird of prey.

"But it takes me ten minutes or so to make one."

In front of the servicemembers and volunteers was an explosion of feathers, yarn, hooks, weighed cone heads, and threads situated on a wooden table.

The mood in the room was upbeat, optimistic.

"My doctor told me about this program and to do this," said Smith, a former marine dealing with PTSD.

"I have never done this kind of fishing; now it's all I want to do."

To his right on the table were six flies he had already tied.

"I enjoy this."

For the next several hours the tying continued.  

"Come fishing with us," said Tye.  "Learn to tie and to fish.  It gets your mind on something pleasant and get well."

It's just what the doctor ordered.

For more information about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, visit or contact Tye at

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