Liz Springer of Portsmouth was recuperating from stage 4 brain cancer surgery in 2013 when fly fishing made her life better.
Medically retired from the Navy as a second-class petty officer on the USS Enterprise, Liz wanted to stop worrying as she moved to a new life. Learning to tie woolly buggers and other fishing flies, cast rods and go on peaceful fishing trips was a good antidote for Liz.
She credits the Tidewater Virginia Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. with helping her adapt to living well with illness. Meeting twice a month with volunteers and disabled service members and disabled veterans is therapeutic. Instead of dwelling on her personal woes, Liz has learned to tie flies while getting to know others also overcoming health challenges. She has gone on fishing trips in Virginia, North Carolina and the Catskill Mountains in New York for what she calls therapeutic “CPR trips – catch, photograph and release.”
“I love the camaraderie and meeting new people,” Liz says. “Fishing is both a release and a relief. You don’t think what is wrong with you while you are doing it.”
Liz is now friends with PHWFF participants who have post-traumatic stress disorder, amputated limbs or other disabilities. Through fly fishing “we focus on getting better together,” she explains. At age 34 Liz is one of the youngest participants and was the first female to join the Tidewater Chapter after it formed in 2013.
At age 64 Bob Demi of Virginia Beach, a retired Navy lieutenant commander with a disability from a neck injury, gets teary eyed when he talks about how PHWFF helps him. Learning to tie intricate flies has improved motor skills in his right hand – the only one this former left-hander can now use.
“To say I caught a fish on a fly that I tied just makes me emotional,” says Bob, who was introduced to Project Healing Waters at a Veterans Day event in 2015. Recalling happy days fishing as a boy, he was hooked on therapeutic fly fishing from day one. Bob makes sure PHWFF’s afternoon meetings on the first and third Thursdays of each month are “one of the first things on my calendar.”
At the gatherings, as many as 18 participants and volunteers work one on one. “You don’t tie the most difficult tie the first time,” Bob says. “But there is no pressure, and anybody can do this.”
After meeting regularly in Norfolk since 2013, this month the Tidewater Chapter moved to Community United Methodist Church at 1072 Old Kempsville Road in Virginia Beach. A typical two-hour afternoon session includes learning to make a new kind of fly, casting practice, casual conversations and planning excursions to quiet, trout-filled streams. There are fishing trips scheduled each month. Right now participants and volunteers are focused now on filling their trout boxes with flies for the annual multi-day summer trip to the Catskills.
Portsmouth Naval Hospital sponsors the local chapter — one of 200 affiliates around the country. PHWFF started in 2005 in Maryland to help heal wounded service members at Walter Read Army Medical Center and soon spread throughout the country.
Volunteers often are retired military personnel who love fly fishing. “These people really want to help us,” Bob says. Volunteer Jim O’Brien of Norfolk, a retired Navy captain, describes the joy he feels when someone with PTSD, who may have feared leaving home, goes on a peaceful fishing trip with friends and catches his or her first trout.
Volunteer Bill Campbell of Virginia Beach, who served in the Navy and retired as a federal civil servant, is program lead for the Tidewater Chapter of Project Healing Waters. He remembers vividly the call he got in 2013 from a fly-fishing friend asking him to help start a local chapter.
“I was standing in my kitchen with the phone to my ear and my arm raised as high as it would go,” Bill recalls. “I couldn’t think of a more worthy cause to be involved in, and that thought hasn’t changed in almost four years.”
On Friday, May 19 the third annual Suds & Buds party at Norfolk Botanical Garden will raise funds for the Tidewater Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. The nonprofit is the 2017 special charitable partner for this after-work party with a purpose sponsored by the Rotary Club of Norfolk. Proceeds also will benefit the many charities the Rotary Club supports as well as Norfolk Botanical Garden. The May 19 party is from 6 to 10 p.m. Advance tickets cost $45. Details and tickets are at sudsandbuds.org.
At the Suds & Buds party PHWFF participants and volunteers will demonstrate fly tying and rod casting. The organization will use its share of party proceeds to help fund its annual Catskills trip for as many as 16 participants. Proceeds also will help the organization buy more rods for casting practice and materials used on fishing trips like leaders, tippets and flies.
Anyone with a Veterans Administration disability or who is in the process of getting one can participate in PHWFF for free. Anyone interested in serving veterans and active-duty personnel can volunteer. To learn more contact Bill Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (757) 635-6522 or visit projecthealingwaters.org. The local chapter also maintains a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/portsmouthvaphwff. The next PHWFF chapter meetings are May 4 and 18 at 1 p.m. at Community United Methodist Church in Virginia Beach.