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Wounded Warriors, Fly-fishing, and the Importance of Protected Public Lands

WV project healing waters

Outdoor recreation has been found to be a heart-warming method to heal the physical and psychological wounds of war for America's newest generation of veterans and wounded warriors. Many programs, such as Sierra Club's Military Families and Veterans Initiatives Program, the Wounded Warrior Project and Project Healing Waters fly-fishing, have been developed due to the generosity of funders and volunteer instructors. 

I started the Project Healing Waters fly-fishing program at my local Veterans Administration Medical Center last year when I noticed the program was already available at many Virginia and West Virginia VA facilities.  Working with our Trout Unlimited chapter in Winchester, Virginia, I was able to recruit over 15 volunteers, receive a donation of 10 Temple Fork fly-rods and reels from the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program and get assistance from a local fly-fishing shop in Shepherdstown, WV, Kelly's Whitefly.  Fly-tying equipment and supplies were donated by Project Healing Waters fly-fishing in LaPlata, Maryland.

One week a month we have fly-casting and fly-tying classes for the vets at my VA hospital with the goal that they will go fly-fishing with the flies they have tied.  At a local pond or river, the vets will hopefully catch a fish on “their” flies, and thus make the connection between tying a fly, learning about what fish eat and the natural cycle of insect “hatches.”

Another connection that I have a personal interest in making to new fly-fishers, is the habitat those fish live in and what the future has in store for that habitat.  This is an especially important connection for our cold-water species in Appalachia like the native brook trout, which is the prized quarry of many a fly-fisher. 

Brook trout are very sensitive to changes in water temperature and quality, so having landscapes that provide cold, clean, fast-running water is important to maintaining trout populations. The proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would provide additional protections for the headwaters of six important trout rivers in West Virginia while still allowing for state management of fish and wildlife game species, restoration of the Red Spruce forest, and allowing age-old Appalachian activities like harvesting ginger, morals mushrooms and other native forest products.

The meditative and spiritual nature of fly-fishing, along with the camaraderie of their fellow veterans and fly-fishers makes for a relaxing and enjoyable outdoor experience for our veterans.  But it is also an opportunity to learn about the importance of protecting our public lands, the intricacies of the web of nature, and the threats from climate change, extractive industries, and bad development decisions. 

-- by Paul Wilson, Sierra Club volunteer and Vietnam veteran


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