Learning to tie a fish-catching fly is part of fly fishing, an aspect that some prefer to actual fishing. As therapy for injured soldiers, it provides development of fine motor skills, concentration, and focus. BRIAN GREEN

Niagara Chapter of TUC’s program resumes after two-year break

The healing properties of fly fishing have been well documented. In the United States there is a huge, lavishly funded program called “Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing” that uses the calming, focused activity and gentle repetitive motion of fly casting to alleviate both physical and mental injuries suffered by injured soldiers. The program is a major presence in Veterans’ Hospitals, Military Transition Units, and Veterans’ Affairs medical centres and clinics. The notion of fly fishing as a healing activity motivates other organizations in the U.S. such as “Warriors and Quiet Waters” and “Wounded Warriors Fly Fishing.” In Canada, “Heroes Mending on the Fly” aspires to be a national organization with the same aims and goals: introducing injured soldiers to the sport of fly fishing as therapy for both the psychological injuries many experience (PTSD) and their physical wounds. And injured soldiers are not the only group for whom fly fishing can be beneficial. “Casting for Recovery” and other programs bring the healing benefits of the sport to cancer survivors.

In the formative years of the Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC), Dennis Edell, the president of the fledgling group, met his counterparts in the Western New York Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) to explore ways their chapters might cooperate. He was introduced to the work being done by the New York group under the umbrella of Project Healing Waters. Weekly fly-tying clinics at Buffalo area Veterans’ Hospitals, frequent casting clinics, and annual fly-fishing trips were organized by the volunteer members of the organization. Inspired by their work with American service men and women, Edell pitched the idea of a similar but more modest program in Niagara to the members of the Niagara Chapter. Although the chapter’s mandate and purpose is coldwater conservation, many members are fly fishers, and with their participation the local program was launched in 2013.

Dubbed “fly fishing boot camp,” the three-day program introduces the soldiers to the sport while allowing ample time for social interaction and the development of camaraderie among the participants and their coaches. Feedback from the soldiers had been overwhelmingly positive, and surprisingly, it is the social aspect of the three days that often gets the most praise. Participants have spoken of never having been off the base since their injuries, one having seldom come out of his basement. Walking to the practice ponds, one veteran confided that he was walking on grass for the first time since he was wounded three years ago. Breaking through these barriers and meeting with 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 introductions and some basic information about fly fishing and what distinguishes it from spin or bait fishing, the volunteers and soldiers share a meal and explore the art of tying the delicate and beautiful flies that anglers use to attract fish. The concentration, fine motor skills, and satisfaction of fly-tying is another aspect of the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing.

The following day, the soldiers assemble at a local bass pond provided by one of the chapter members in a rural part of Pelham where they begin to learn to cast a fly rod. Picking up the basic motion required to launch weightless flies ten or twenty metres is the work of half an hour, but any fly fisher will tell you, perfecting the casting stroke is the work of a lifetime. It is the aim of the program to provide the basic knowledge and technique and to inspire the participants to want to progress, developing a passion for the sport that will provide enjoyment long beyond the three days. Catching one of the bass in the ponds helps with developing that passion! In the evening after dinner, the participants are encouraged to tie their own flies with the goal of catching trout the following day on one of their own creations.

The third day is spent at one of the unknown gems of southern Ontario, the Caledon Mountain Trout Club. Members of this prestigious country club welcome the soldiers to the magnificent grounds and early 20th century Victorian mansion that is the clubhouse. The spring-fed ponds spread among manicured lawns and flower beds hold large rainbow and brook trout, raised at the club. Club members volunteer their time to coach the soldiers after they are welcomed and given a short tour of the impressive building. If the spectacular environment and newly learned casting skills aren’t enough to inspire, catching a large trout on a fly that you have tied yourself will “hook” many beginners into becoming dedicated fly fishers.

Since 2013, the Niagara Chapter of TUC has welcomed 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 the evening meals 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 to continue with the event. At the last meal before their departure for Caledon, the soldiers each receive a fly rod and reel donated by Bass Pro in the hope that they will be sufficiently inspired by their three days of fly fishing that they will continue with the sport when they get home. Past participants have remained in touch, and many have taken up the sport they first were exposed to here in Pelham. One veteran is now the president of a fly-fishing club in Kingston, where she welcomes other “graduates” of the Niagara program.

The soldiers who attend the three-day “boot camp” are not the only ones to benefit. TUC volunteers look forward every year to welcoming a new group of soldiers and take great satisfaction in providing the opportunity for them to benefit from a recreation that can provide a lifetime of enjoyment, and, for some, significant therapeutic benefits.