Fishing Found to be Therapeutic for Kansas City Veterans
The healing effect of fly fishing for some veterans dealing with war time trauma
Mike Davis waded into the swirling current of the Bennett Spring trout stream and became immersed in his favorite type of therapy.
These are healing waters, he will tell you. An obsession with fly fishing has become his lifeline.
He still fights to forget the events of June 18, 2004, when his life changed forever.
“I was a combat engineer in the Army and our whole job in Iraq was to remove bombs out of the ground,” said Davis, 49, who lives in Kansas City. “We had big targets on our backs.
“We had an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blow up on our Humvee and I took the full brunt of it in my head. My helmet was full of holes.
“They weren’t sure I was going to make it.”
After an extended stay in hospitals and numerous treatments, Davis did make it and received a medical discharge from the Army in 2005.
Still, he carried the mental scars of battle. “I was messed up,” he said. “I knew something had to change.”
That’s where the fly fishing came in. Though Davis had been a fisherman in his younger days, he had never fly fished. But he decided to give it a try when a VA hospital offered him a chance to participate in a trout-fishing outing in Idaho for wounded veterans.
There, he heard about Project Healing Waters, a national nonprofit program designed to give veterans, many of them with PTSD and brain injuries, hope through fly fishing.
The program was founded by Edwin Nicholson, a retired Navy captain, who was impressed with the resilience of disabled veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was being treated for prostate cancer in 2005.
That inspired Nicholson, a longtime fly fisherman, to form Project Healing Waters. The goals were to teach them how to tie their own flies, building their own fly rods and go on outings to catch fish using their handmade flies and rods.
The concept has grown beyond Nicholson’s wildest imagination. There now are more than 200 Project Healing Waters programs in 50 states, and 8,470 injured and disabled veterans and military personnel were served in 2017 alone.
Davis is among those whose life has changed as a result of the program. He helped found the Kansas City chapter with Bob Barnett and Jim Kissane five years ago, and he has thrived in the program.
“He’s really come out of his shell,” said Barnett, who is the project lead for the Kansas City chapter. “He was pretty withdrawn when he first showed up.”
“But today, he is confident and just loves everything about fly fishing. He is one of our success stories.”
Davis and Barnett, along with other program volunteers Bruce Storts and Joe Miller, were out on a beautiful spring day at Bennett Spring, trying to fool the trout.
Davis opened a tin filled with flies he tied and pondered his options. He chose a tiny gray fly he nicknamed the Smoky Joe after his fly-tying mentor, Joe Miller. Minutes later, he waded into the water below the dam at Bennett Spring and started casting that lure into the current.
Time and time again, he made casts to the edge of the current and followed his strike indicator downstream. Finally, the indicator jumped, and Davis quickly set the hook. Several seconds later, the rainbow trout flopped in his net and Davis smiled.
The group caught and released others throughout the afternoon, though they had to earn every strike. But that was OK in Davis’ mind; he was in a beautiful setting, preoccupied with fishing. That’s what mattered.
Through Project Healing Waters, Davis has fished famous trout waters in places such as Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and even the country of Chile.
He takes pride in the 27-inch brown trout that he caught and released on one of the flies he tied. He also can show you photos of the 13-pound carp he landed on a fly rod he built.
Time on the water is important, he said. But so are the monthly meetings, the fly-tying and rod-building sessions and the support group the disabled veterans have.
Davis is the outreach coordinator for the Kansas City chapter, recruiting other disabled veterans who aren’t sure if the program is for them.
The local chapter has 25 active participants, and Davis and Barnett would like to see that number grow even larger.
“For me, it’s rewarding to share my passion with these veterans,” Barnett said. “It’s so rewarding to see the healing that takes place at the fly-tying tables and our events.
“We try to show them that there is hope.”
For more information on the Kansas City chapter of Project Healing Waters, email Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.