Saltwater fly fishing group helps veterans heal
The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C.
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Ask most fly fishermen why they love the sport, and they will tell you it’s about connecting with nature and letting everything else fall away.
For a group of local anglers, that mindset is what it’s all about: relaxing and healing while learning to fly fish on the coast.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. is a far-reaching organization with 159 programs in 47 states and a mission aimed at “physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing” and associated activities.
The program offers fishing, locally and beyond, all expenses paid.
Dr. Pat Curley, a retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. and the outreach director for The Science House at the NC State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City, began a local program, the Project Healing Water Camp Lejeune/Crystal Coast Program in September.
He said what makes this program unique is that it is one of the few saltwater fly fishing programs in Project Healing Waters.
Saltwater fly fishing is a different beast than the freshwater sport, according to Curley who says the elements are different, the fish are bigger and the equipment is heavier. But it’s no matter if an angler has never tried his or her hand at it.
“We’ll teach them everything,” he said.
Unlike many programs which offer one-time fishing events for veterans, this program will offer continuous fishing opportunities in a club-like environment, he said.
The program meets the second Tuesday of each month from 6:30 to 8:30 at the VFW Post 9960 located at 246 VFW Road in Swansboro.
They teach members about certain species of fish on the coast and how to cast and tie flies.
Curley said on Saturdays, the club puts their new skills to the test fishing along the coast, trying to catch the species they learned about during the Tuesday meeting before.
Curley said they also plan to take different trips across the state and nation.
The program accepts those with a Veterans Administration disability rating of 0 to 100 percent, the combat wounded, and people who are looking for therapy or an adjustment to civilian life.
“There’s a lot of research done on the power of nature, a lot of research on the power of art, of recreational physical activity. If you look at fly fishing, it’s all of those things combined,” Curley said.
When Curley was stationed in Onslow County as a Marine, he said he had no idea of all the great opportunities for fishing. Now he wants to spread the word.
Fly fishing to him is not solely a sport, but a combination of biology, science and physics.
“Some guys don’t even fish, they just tie flies,” he said, describing the beauty of discovering how to make a fly resemble an element of nature and how cathartic it is.
Curley said they are always looking for volunteers, military and civilian, who want to teach the sport to new members.
Two volunteers, Jason Barnes, a teacher at Queens Creek Elementary, and John Mauser, who works at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, have never been in the military, but volunteer because they said they want to share their passion for the sport. They say it offers a great escape from the stresses of life.
“Getting out in nature, you don’t think, ‘I’ve got to pay my bills,’ you’re completely at peace,” Mauser said. “It’s completely healing of anything that’s bothering you. Those guys that are in the Marines, or the navy or the army — the stuff they’ve had to see, the stuff they’re dealing with, aches and pains — I know for a fact they’re not thinking about it while they’re out there.”
He said volunteering is “just a tiny way to say thank you,” adding that even if the peace they feel is only for a few hours.
Ben Sargent, a retired Marine sergeant, served just less than 14 years before medically retiring for back injury.
The first weekend of October, he traveled with Mauser to Cherokee, on a Healing Waters trip.
Within 45 minutes of being in the water, he reeled in his first fish on a fly rod.
“Honestly it was pretty lucky,” Sargent laughed. “I think the fish spotted me as a rookie, and helped me out a bit.”
But Sargent said the simple act of reeling the rainbow trout was joyous.
“When I first pulled him in, I felt genuinely good,” Sargent said.
Sargent said he thinks the program lives up to its mission of rehabilitating disabled military.
“A lot of guys who are injured get stuck indoors and it becomes a great inconvenience to get outside and try anything new,” he said. “These guys are so welcoming and just honestly good people who want to teach you something.”
He added that the program works to help members with all of their needs, whether it be limited mobility from injuries or just inexperience. Sargent added it’s easy to get lost in one’s thoughts on the water concentrating on the rod.
“You disconnect and reconnect at the same time,” Sargent said. “You disconnect with all the trivialities and reconnect with nature and your surroundings and even yourself a little bit.”
Sargent said he hopes others will get involved. As soon as he got home, he said he wanted to go back out.
Barnes said the motion of casting a fly rod is peaceful in itself. And the concentration it takes to tie flies can be therapeutic.
“Everything else falls away,” he said of the intricate work.