The healing properties of fly fishing have been well documented. In the United States there is a huge and lavishly funded program called the “Healing Waters Fly Fishing Project” that uses the calming, focused activity and gentle repetitive motion of fly casting to ease the physical and mental injuries suffered by wounded soldiers. The program has a significant presence in veterans hospitals, military transition units, and Veterans Affairs medical centers and clinics.
The notion of fly fishing as a healing activity motivates other organizations in the US such as “Warriors and Still Waters” and “Wounded Warriors Fly Fishing”. In Canada, “Heroes Mending on the Fly” aspires to be a national organization with the same goals and objectives: to introduce wounded soldiers to the sport of fly fishing as therapy for both the psychological injuries many suffer (PTSD) as for his physical wounds. And wounded soldiers aren’t the only group for whom fly fishing can be beneficial. “Cast for Recovery” and other programs bring the healing benefits of sports to cancer survivors.
In the formative years of the Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC), Dennis Edell, the fledgling group’s president, met with his counterparts in the Western New York Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) to explore ways to cooperate with the its chapters. He was introduced to the work being done by the New York group under the umbrella of the Healing Waters Project.
Volunteer members of the organization hosted weekly fly tying clinics at Buffalo area veterans hospitals, frequent casting clinics and annual fly fishing trips. Inspired by his work with American service men and women, Edell presented the idea of a similar but more modest program in Niagara to members of the Niagara chapter. Although the chapter’s mandate and purpose is cold water conservation, many members are fly fishermen, and with their involvement the local program was launched in 2013.
Called “fly fishing boot camp,” the three-day program introduces Soldiers to the sport while allowing ample time for social interaction and camaraderie development between participants and their coaches. Feedback from soldiers had been overwhelmingly positive and, surprisingly, it is the social aspect of the three days that often receives the most praise.
Participants have spoken of never leaving the base since their injuries, one of them rarely leaving their basement. Walking to the training ponds, one veteran confided that he was walking on grass for the first time since he was injured three years ago. Breaking down these barriers and meeting caring volunteers who provide a safe and welcoming environment is an important step for many in the program.
Upon arrival in Pelham and after an evening of presentations and basic information about fly fishing and what distinguishes it from lure or bait fishing, volunteers and soldiers share a meal and explore the art of tying delicate and beautiful flies that fishermen use to lure. fish Focus, fine motor skills and the satisfaction of fly tying is another aspect of the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing.
The next day, the troopers gather at a local pond provided by one of the chapter members in a rural area of Pelham, where they begin learning how to cast a fly rod. Picking up the basic motion needed to cast weightless flies ten or twenty meters is half an hour’s work, but any fly fisherman will tell you that perfecting the cast is a lifetime’s work.
The objective of the program is to provide basic knowledge and technique and inspire participants to want to progress, developing a passion for the sport that will allow them to enjoy much more than the three days. Catching one of the bass in the ponds helps develop that passion! In the evening, after dinner, participants are encouraged to tie their own flies with the goal of catching trout the next day on one of their own creations.
Day three is spent at one of Southern Ontario’s little-known gems, the Caledon Mountain Trout Club. Members of this prestigious country club welcome soldiers to the magnificent grounds and the early 20th century Victorian mansion that is the clubhouse. Spring-fed ponds set among manicured lawns and flower beds hold large club-raised rainbow and brook trout.
Club members volunteer their time to train the soldiers after receiving them and giving them a brief tour of the impressive building. If the spectacular surroundings and newly learned casting skills aren’t enough to inspire, catching a big trout on a fly you’ve tied will “hook” many a beginner into a dedicated fly fisherman.
Since 2013, the Niagara chapter of the TUC has hosted soldiers from across Ontario and Quebec annually, interrupted for two years during the pandemic, but resuming this year for the eighth time. For the past three years of the program, the Fonthill Legion has provided a central location for the activities and dinners that are an important part of the social interaction so valuable to the success of the program.
The Legion also provides funds that help the Niagara Chapter continue the event. At the last meal before their departure for Caledon, the soldiers are each given a fishing rod and reel combo donated by Bass Pro in hopes that they will be inspired enough by their three days of fly fishing to continue the sport when they get home.
Past participants have stayed in touch and many have played the sport they were first exposed to here in Pelham. A veteran is now the president of a fly fishing club in Kingston, where she welcomes other “graduates” of the Niagara program.
Soldiers who attend the three-day “boot camp” aren’t the only ones to benefit. TUC volunteers look forward to welcoming a new group of soldiers each year and take great satisfaction in offering them the opportunity to benefit from a recreation that can provide a lifetime of enjoyment and, for some, profit significant therapeutics.