Casting hope: Fly fishing program, festival aims to provide healing for military, vets

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From left, Joseph Smith and Chris Jackson, both of Zionsville, work with the Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program and are helping to bring the Heartland Fly Fishing Festival to Lebanon Jan. 20-21. (Photo by Desiree Williams)

By Desiree Williams

Joseph Smith built a career in advertising, but fly fishing was always his passion.

Now that he’s retired, the Zionsville resident is helping others find hope through his favorite hobby as the program lead of the Indianapolis chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.

“Our program is designed to take veterans who are inexperienced or have never fly fished before and use that therapeutic benefit of fly fishing to help them through certain emotional times,” Smith said.

Project Healing Waters will open its doors to not only disabled military personnel but the entire fly fishing community during the inaugural Heartland Fly Fishing Festival, Jan. 20-21 at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds.

The Project Healing Waters team joins members of the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources during an outing in May 2017. (Submitted photo)

Project Healing Waters begins

Retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson founded PHWFF in 2005 after his stay at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The nationwide nonprofit’s mission is to emotionally and physically rehabilitate disabled active duty military personnel and veterans through fly fishing outings and education.

The program relies on military participants, volunteer instructors from fly fishing clubs and Dept. of Defense or Dept. of Veteran Affairs facilities to host the events. The Indianapolis chapter collaborates with the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center.

Smith, a U.S. Army veteran, said he takes an average of 35 participants on 12 outings each year. Six events are held at the VA. The others are at streams around Indiana. He also plans a few overnight trips throughout the Midwest.

Participants learn to fish, tie flies and build rods while immersing themselves in social situations with other military personnel.

“What I’ve seen, personally, is life saved,” said Chris Jackson, PHWFF Midwest deputy regional coordinator and ambassador. “We have people with severe physical deficit, but we show them that you can be successful in this activity with just a few adjustments, overcoming some obstacles and not letting that obstacle define you.”

Jackson, a Zionsville resident, is an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He retired in 2014 for medical reasons.

Jackson said he struggled transitioning back to civilian life, where he had fewer rules and lacked a team. He had heard about PHWFF while in the service and decided to attend a class on impulse.

“The transition left me without a sense of purpose,” Jackson said. “I was surrounded by family. People that loved me and people that I loved, but I just couldn’t connect until I came into confluence with (Smith). Once that happened, it showed me a formula and how to apply that to my transition.”

Jackson and Smith met more than two years ago and now work together to coordinate events.

Jackson said the true value of the program cannot only be found in the camaraderie and sense of belonging the program creates for the veterans, but also in the activity of fly fishing itself.

“The mechanisms of fly fishing force you to be in tune with your surroundings, force you to know what you’re capable of and present that,” Jackson said. “It’s very artistic and beautiful.”

Joseph Smith of Zionsville displays a smallmouth bass he caught.
(Submitted photo)

Spreading awareness

PHWFF organizers created the Heartland Fly Fishing Festival to introduce the nonprofit to potential participants. The two-day public event at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds will host more than 40 vendors and presenters from Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

It will include guides to discuss trips, fly-tying presentations, outfitters demonstrating gear, equipment for trial and an indoor casting pond for practice. There also will be educational clinics and seminars.

“By providing an opportunity for these vendors and Boone County (residents) as well to come in, it just promotes the whole community idea that we’re founded on,” Jackson said. “It also gives everybody an opportunity to serve, to add in and to pay tribute.”

For more, visit heartlandflyfishingfestival.com.

Heartland Fly Fishing Festival

When: Jan. 20-21

Where: Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds, 1300 100 S, Lebanon

Cost: Tickets are $12 for one day, $15 for a two-day pass and $6 for those 18 and younger. Tickets are available at Wildcat Creek Outfitters in Zionsville, Orvis in Carmel and FlyMasters of Indianapolis.

More info: heartlandflyfishingfestival.com

Fly fishing tips for beginners

  • Don’t be afraid of fly fishing
  • Take a class
  • Realize you won’t catch a fish right away
  • Enjoy your surroundings
  • Slow your pace
  • Catch and release
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