Rain clouds parted and the sun shone down Saturday at the 4-H camp in Thornwood as 40 veterans, accompanied by volunteers, took to the river and lake banks of Pocahontas and Randolph counties during the Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing weekend.
Project Healing Waters began in 2005 for wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Through the help of West Virginia Trout Unlimited chapters, the program brings West Virginia and Virginia veterans to The Birthplace of Rivers to learn or hone their skills in the art of fly fishing.
While several groups branched out and fished at Elk Springs Resort, in Monterville, and Elk River Touring Center, in Slaty Fork, a few vets stayed closer to the camp and fished at Lake Buffalo.
First timer Kevin Kinzer, of Beckley, learned about Healing Waters through the VA hospital in Beckley and decided to give it a try.
“They recommended it as recreation therapy,” he said. “I’ve been deep sea fishing before, but never fly fishing.”
Armed with a fly rod he made last winter, Kinzer was ready to take on the task of learning a new way to fish.
“I caught my first two blue gill today,” he said. “All the guides have been real nice to us. I’m learning a whole bunch and all the guys, they’ve been giving their knowledge. It’s just very nice.”
Kinzer was joined at Lake Buffalo by fellow fly fishing newbie Al Cogar, of Renick.
“I fly fished one time,” Cogar said. “A year ago with the Wounded Warriors group. I saw posters advertising [Healing Waters] at the hospital and other people mentioned it so I looked it up online. It sounded like a good group to do something with, with other veterans.”
Cogar also made a fly rod last year which peaked his interest in the sport.
The veterans weren’t the only newcomers to Healing Waters. Volunteer Steve Pugh, president of the Southern West Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited, is new to the program, as well.
“It’s great, outstanding,” he said. “It’s a great outfit. I’ve been fly fishing, off an on, about five years. I started as a teenager and just got out of it. I just got back into it about three years ago.”
Along with fishing the rivers and lakes, the program included fly tying and casting demonstrations.
Imparting his wisdom to the group was Jack Bell, a premiere caster with 51 years of fly fishing under his belt.
“Larry [Orr] and I used to do the TU fly fishing schools,” Bell said. “I did that for thirty years, and then I’ve been doing casting demonstrations at National Hunting and Fishing Day up at Stonewall Jackson and Prickett’s Fort. I’ve done some demonstrations up in Morgantown for their outdoor show.”
It may seem like fly fishing is simply a back and forth motion before letting the line land into the water, but there is a science and fluidity that goes into the perfect cast.
“There’s a lot of things with fly casting,” Bell said. “The biggest thing is the distance – it looks great, but if you watch me fish, it’s close. Very seldom do I have more line out than ten-to-twelve feet. If you can cast ten or twelve feet of line and your leader accurately, you’re probably going to catch a fish. If you watch people who are really good fly fishermen, we try and fish as short a cast a we possibly can get by with.”
The most important thing to fly fishing, according to Bell, is practice.
“You never stop practicing,” he said. “I still practice, and I’ve been doing this for awhile.”
Anne Mitchell and Mark Hengemihle of Knapps Creek Trout Lodge in Marlinton were also on-hand for the event to share their knowledge with the warriors.