It is my most eagerly-anticipated fishing trip of the year – The Project Healing Waters Smoky Mountain Grand Slam Tournament. This is the 4th year for the event, and once again I was a volunteer guide for my favorite charitable cause.
Each year I abuse my Editorial Authority and put in a plug for Project Healing Waters. If you are unfamiliar, it is an organization which uses flyfishing as a rehabilitation vehicle for wounded veterans. Thousands of volunteers help teach veterans fly-tying and rod-building as fine-motor therapy. Learning how to cast and fish is used for gross-motor rehabilitation. I do not need to explain the psychological benefit a day in God’s Office has for anyone, let alone someone suffering from PTSD.
For the past 3 years, knifemaker Kim Breed has donated knives to the Grand Slam event. In 2015, he donated an amazing snakewood-scaled Damascus steel presentation-quality Model 15. I won it in the auction at the Friday night banquet, and it is the closest thing to a “safe queen” I own. (I did use it to cut gun cleaning patches from a pile of t shirts. Just so I could use it before putting it up on the shelf).
This year Kim donated 4 of his 6″ neck knives. He expressly wanted me to give one to each of the veterans in my boat. He wanted one to be put in the silent auction, and wanted me to have one as well for reasons both personal and professional. I am truly thankful for his gesture, but felt a little odd receiving one in this context, so I came up with an idea.
I decided to make a matching donation to PHWFF of the final price of the auctioned knife. I was pleasantly surprised when it was won by a veteran with whom I have fished before – Cody Boyer. Cody was a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division and served multiple tours in the Middle East. I was happy to match his $70, and it pleases me that he is excited about the knife. It pleases me even more that Cody and I will both be able to carry this knife as a tangible reminder of experiences shared on the river.
Having the two knives to give away to the vets in my boat was a blessing in more ways than one. Knowing that I literally had them in my back pocket to give them at the end of the day took a ton of pressure off of me as a guide. I knew that even if they were slightly disappointed at the end of the trip, they would each be walking away with a really awesome “consolation prize”. Again, I am thrilled to have one of the knives myself, for the same reasons that I share with Cody.
The veterans in my boat were David and Ron. David, the gentleman on the left, was an Engineer officer in Iraq. Wounded by an IED, his first exposure to Project Healing Waters, and flyfishing in general, was when he was a participant in an early PHWFF event. It became a part of his recovery, and shortly after he left the service he went to work for the organization. He is now the Chief Operating Officer, one of only 11 paid employees nationally.
Ron, the gentleman on the right, served in the Vietnam Era as a helicopter mechanic – rising to the rank of buck Sergeant. A super-nice guy, his enthusiastic attitude helped make our day on the river feel like I was floating with an old friend.
Our day was solid if not spectacular. We landed 8 fish (out of a possible 10 scoring fish), totaling 100″ which was good for 5th or 6th place out of 12 boats. Not as good my 2nd place finish in 2015, but much better than the 1-fish second-to-last performance last year.
In the end it isn’t about the score, enjoyable though the friendly competition may be. It is about shared experience and healing. It is camaraderie, learning, and teaching.
It is about helping mend the lives of those that sacrificed so a trout bum like me can live in freedom in the greatest country on Earth.
Here is a great video on how Project Healing Waters helps change lives. (I make a brief speaking-appearance at the 3:00 mark)
Because it comes up in the comments every year (usually in reference to an unnamed veterans’ charity that has celebrities sending people blankets) here are the financial disclosures of PHWFF. A very respectable 84% of all funds go to programs directly working with veterans.
You can find out more about Project Healing Waters, get involved as a veteran or volunteer, or make a donation at their website: ProjectHealingWaters.org. If you are so inclined.
Oh, and I snapped a carbon-fiber oar, but that is a story for another time – or perhaps in the comments with enough prompting.