Laura Dean Bennett
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Along the cold, rushing water of Back Creek, below the magnificent dam at the Bath County Pumped Storage Station, 10 anglers and 10 guides cast hand-tied flies into deep pools hoping to make passing acquaintance with big fish.
Some took longer than others to land – first one, then several beautiful rainbow trout.
All had many wily trout hit their flies then slip away, but no one was disappointed. They had three days of fishing and many chances to hold a beautiful rainbow trout in their hands before sending it back into the stream.
This is a catch and release outing where the catching is the goal, not the keeping.
These anglers use barbless hooks so the fish are released, unharmed. The fish live to swim away and provide sport for other anglers.
And maybe it’s not even the catching of fish that’s the real payoff on this particular trip.
These anglers are all disabled active service personnel or disabled veterans taking part in the Healing Waters fly fishing program.
Everyone I spoke with told me that this program is about more than just fishing.
It’s about physical and emotional wellbeing – relaxing outdoors in a beautiful setting among good company.
It’s about making lasting friendships and finding peace and balance in life.
Oh, and participants also become accomplished fly tyers and fly fishers who will probably land a lot of trout.
Since 2007, first, once a year, and now every spring and fall, Dominion Energy hosts the Healing Waters Virginia chapters at this fly fishing event on Back Creek.
Dominion provided $2,500 for the event and bought fish from Virginia Trout Company in Monterey to stock the creek with rainbow trout.
Donny Bowers, a Dominion employee, and an angler himself, helped stock the fish.
“The trout we stock are really big – in the fourteen-to-twenty-inch range,” Bowers said.
“We put them in near deep pools. The trout want a cold deep place to hang out.”
Dominion also provides its conference center for meals and station employees offer assistance.
The anglers stay at the Warm Spring Inn.
They arrived Tuesday evening and had a banquet at the inn. The rest of their meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – were served at Dominion’s Conference Center.
It features a tall stone fireplace and a rustic, but modern log cabin atmosphere offering the perfect camping feel for a fishing trip.
The anglers would be between the inn and the “healing waters” of Back Creek for three days before returning home with fish stories and memories, not to mention new or renewed friendships.
Healing Waters members and participants on this trip were from Virginia, with a few from Pocahontas County, too.
Phil Johnson, a founder of one of the many Healing Waters chapters, Fly Fishers of Virginia, sat inside the Dominion Conference Center tying flies with Will Helmick.
Johnson quoted some 2018 stats about Healing Waters.
There are 3,400 volunteers working with the National Healing Waters organization with 9,000 vets participating as of 2018. Twenty percent of the 3,400 volunteers are former participants.
In other words, a lot of veterans who originally come for a fishing trip, stayed with the organization to give back to their fellow veterans.
That’s what happened with Pocahontas County native David Hissom.
“Being a vet myself, I like to help other vets,” Hissom said. “I want to let them know somebody cares about them. I’m giving back. And it’s a good feeling.”
The Price Hill resident joined Healing Waters for a fishing trip three years ago and quickly rose to a leadership position.
He assumed Pocahontas County resident Mike Burns’ role as leader of the Hot Springs program.
Hissom’s now a project leader, welcoming new members and guiding them through the fly fishing experience.
Hissom is a committed volunteer, and not just to Healing Waters. He also drives the Virginia van to the VA hospital, and he volunteers at the Snowshoe adaptive ski program.
But, as a dyed-in-the-wool angler, this gig is special.
“I help people learn how to fly fish,” he said. “I get a chance to bond with other veterans, and they get a chance to make friends.
“Sometimes it’s hard for vets, especially those who are disabled, to open up to other people, but it’s usually easier to open up to other vets.”
On this trip, Hissom is working as a fishing guide, paired up with new Healing Waters member Mike Fuller from Gap Mills.
Fuller, busy casting into a dark, deep hole shaded by a large rock in the creek, travelled the hour and 35 minutes to Back Creek to attend the fly fishing event.
“And I’m glad I came. It’s a lot of fun!” he said.
At lunch, back at the conference center, Sean Fridley, Station Director of the Bath County Pumped Storage Station, chatted with Johnson and Helmick as they tied flies.
Fridley has been associated with Healing Waters for 10 years, ever since he came to the Power Station.
“The partnership we have with Healing Waters is one of the best programs we sponsor,” he said. “It’s an absolute pleasure to host them here.”
Fridley is an experienced angler himself.
“There are two different kinds of fishing,” he explained. “There’s spin cast and then there’s fly fishing. I do both.”
When asked if he preferred fishing in Virginia or West Virginia, Fridley wisely took a diplomatic tact.
“I live in Greenbrier County, so I pass through Pocahontas County regularly, and I fish there a lot,” he said with a smile. “I can tell you that the trout fishing there is wonderful.
“But we’re proud of the great trout fishing we have right here at Back Creek.”
“And I’m proud that Dominion supports Healing Waters. I’m always pleased to see these vets come here to fish.
“All the employees and everyone here at the station looks forward to this event.”
There are 15,000 vets in the Shenandoah Valley and 4,000 of them are disabled.
Healing Waters wants those vets, and vets in West Virginia, to know that they are welcome to join the program.
The organization attributes its recent growth in Virginia to an advertising campaign featuring print ads and TV commercials produced by Dominion in 2012.
Healing Waters has become an integral part of the transition process for disabled veterans across the country as they are getting ready to go home.
All of Healing Waters’ chapters, in Virginia and around the country, are associated with VA hospitals.
Disabled veterans and disabled active service personnel usually have their first introduction to Healing Waters through the recreational therapist at their VA Hospital.
There are several chapters in Virginia. Each chapter meeting usually has 12 to15 participants.
The Pocahontas County contingent, which is aligned with the Hot Springs program, has only a few members, but they are looking for more.
If you’re from Pocahontas County, you probably know the name, Mike Burns.
Burns started working with Healing Waters when he retired 10 years ago.
Healing Waters member and Dominion spokesperson Dan Geneste invited Burns to a Bath County Pumped Storage Station Healing Waters event, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Burns, a Pocahontas County resident, retired from a 30-year career as a teacher at Pocahontas County High School. He’s also famous for his fiddle playing.
He and his wife, Mary Sue, are part of the popular local bluegrass group, Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters.
His easy way of relating to people and devotion to giving back to the community make him a pillar of the Pocahontas County community and the Healing Waters community, too.
As the anglers tucked into a lunch of barbecued pork and all the fixins’, Burns addressed the group, and made a few “typical Mike Burns” wise cracks as he assigned their “beats” (fishing locations) for the afternoon.
There’s lots of “fly talk.”
Apparently some anglers were having luck with “White Wooly Buggers” and some preferred the “Mop Fly.”
Burns is famous in local Healing Waters circles for inventing his own fly – the “Back Creek Black Fly.”
His fishing advice was served up with a healthy dose of humorous jibes at one fishing guide or another and when he sat down with Dave Hissom, the friendly banter got turned up another notch.
Burns’ acquaintance with Hissom goes back a long way – all the way back to the days when Hissom was a student in Burns’ forestry class.
“Well, he was a fair student- that is, when he showed up to class,” Burns laughed.
“Yep, I guess I missed some school – about one day a week – to go fishing,” Hissom admitted.
All that practice made Hissom an accomplished fly fisherman.
Now he’s passing along his knowledge to newcomers to Healing Waters.
“Disabled vets can really develop a bond with other vets,” Hissom explained.
“Healing Waters does more than give vets a fly fishing experience – it gives them a support group – a group of friends for life.”
And vets don’t have to even like fishing to enjoy these fishing trips.
Those who don’t want to fish can enjoy learning to tie flies.
“We have some Pocahontas County vets who belong to Healing Waters,” Johnson said.
“We’ve taken fishing trips to Knapps Creek and to the Elk Springs Resort.
“Although we’re officially called the Hot Springs Program, we’re the Pocahontas County contingent,” Hissom said.
Back down by the waters edge, some veterans were practicing the graceful casts of fly fishing and looking to catch a rainbow beauty.
While his service dog watches closely from up on the bank, Sean McNeal graciously took a break from fishing to talk.
McNeal lives with his family in Northern Virginia, but has a camp in Arbovale, and says he loves spending time in Pocahontas County.
He’s working as a volunteer guide during this trip, and he had a lot of good things to say about the Healing Waters program.
“Some people have the mistaken impression that fly fishing is hoity-toity,” he said. “It’s not.
“It’s about as down to earth as you can get.
“You’re outside, enjoying nature and meeting people you have something in common with.
“It’s just relaxing. After a day at the stream, you really feel like you’ve gotten away from it all.
“And Healing Waters takes care of everything.
“There’s no cost to the participants. They supply all our gear, even the waders.
“They put us up in hotels on out of area field trips like this one.
“We get to travel. And it’s a good way to make friends,” McNeal concluded.
Vets can go to www.pro jecthealingwaters.org and find the contact info for the Healing Waters chapter nearest them.
Any disabled veterans in Pocahontas County who’d like to learn more about the Healing Waters Fly Fishing program may contact David Hissom, Program Lead of the Hot Springs Program.
“I’d like to recruit some new members,” Hissom said, with a smile.
“We’re way more than just a fly fishing club. If they’ll just give us a try, I know they’ll enjoy it.”
Call him 315-767-1916 or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pocahontas County volunteers go on field trips, and meet once a month at New Hope Lutheran Church in Minnehaha Springs to tie flies, trade fish stories and get ready for fishing trips.