A couple of disabled military veterans met their match on Crab Creek recently with Hilary Hutcheson, a bundle of positive fly-fishing energy who stands 5-foot-2 in wading boots.
The host for Trout TV, a syndicated fly-fishing program, let the veterans run the show as her cameraman filmed an episode about Project Healing Waters. But she had the right fly when the fishing was tough and spot-on presentation when trout had to be caught.
She offered tips for hooking rainbows and peppered conversation with queries to bring the men out of their shells and to the point:
Learning to cast flies into a river and mend a line is therapeutic for vets struggling to mend their minds from the ravages of war.
Project Healing Waters has 140 chapters in 50 states where fly-fishing volunteers reach out to veterans, said Norm Scott, organizer of the chapter serving the Inland Northwest.
Most Trout TV episodes deal with discovering fly-fishing nirvana in the West.
This outing in the scablands north of Sprague, Wash., zeroed in on angling novices casting for rewards larger than trophy trout.
G.L. Britton of Double Spey Outfitters led the group to hot spots on the five miles of Crab Creek he leases for guided fishing.
Britton walked upstream to start the day with Shawn Graves, an Iraq War veteran from Medical Lake.
Hutcheson teamed with Harold Watters of Cheney, an Army vet who deployed to Vietnam in 1968, then to Operation Desert Shield in 1991.
Healing Waters isn’t a one-shot deal, said Scott as he watched the vets fishing. “So far we have about 20 vets involved here with a support crew and the Spokane Fly Fishers who get them into fly-tying classes and casting lessons,” he said, noting that he got involved after retiring from the Navy.
“They all have a mentor who helps keep them motivated.”
Graves and Watters already had joined hosts on the Coeur d’Alene River last summer. They entered a two-fly contest with 22 boats of veterans and hosts on the Yakima River in September. Watters landed a 3-pound rainbow in the upper Columbia in March.
Volunteer Al Barrett has made personalized fly rods for them with custom reel seats handmade by local rod builder Steve Moran.
Graves and Watters handled the rods with care rivaling reverence.
“Now some of us are making our own,” Watters said.
Healing Water outings are geared to showing vets how to put wars behind them. Britton, who’s been guiding for 25 years, occasionally offered tips as Graves worked a small nymph under an indicator through a run.
“Keeping the rod tip low to the water sets you up for hooking a fish or loading the rod for the next cast,” he said. “It gives you more degree of arc as you raise it back and lets your rod do more of the work.”
Hutcheson was advising Watters on presentation when he lost his balance and fell into the stream.
“I don’t look that graceful when I fall in,” Hutcheson said.
Seemingly unfazed, he said, “This isn’t the first time I’ve been down and had to pick myself up.”
War veterans come home with a wide range of experiences, issues and injuries they must learn to deal with, Scott said. “One man we’ll be taking fishing was hit by seven rounds from an AK-47. Another might be disabled with no physical scars.
“Harold’s medals include the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He healed from being shot, but he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and unmentionable memories.”
Acting as spokesmen for Healing Waters, the two vets opened up to Hutcheson and her cameraman as the group took a streamside picnic break.
Watters, 67, warned her that he served in the Army artillery. “I don’t hear, but I read lips very well.”
He said he eased in before taking the plunge.
“I started by tying flies,” he said. “That led to going fishing and getting out of my isolation. I thought I didn’t really deserve it. Thinking that way is part of my disease. I put my feet in the water and here I am, out with people and catching fish.”
His family said he’s calmer and talking more.
He’s upfront with young soldiers of war he meets. “I tell them to accept that they may have a problem. Speak up.”
Hutcheson nodded, “Being aware is the first priority for being a good fly fisher, too.”
Fly fishing is a good fit, Watters said, noting that practice and focus are good therapy for disabled vets.
“When you’re deployed, if you lose somebody or get injured, you just get up and go. That’s what you’re trained to do for the mission and survival.
“Afterward, you have to take care of everything you’d pushed aside. The nightmares have to be dealt with.”
Watters said he ties flies not only to catch fish but also to honor the fallen. “They didn’t make it but I did,” he said. “It’s something I think about.”
One fly in his cap mimics the color pattern of the Iraq campaign medal ribbon worn on uniforms.
“I hope you know how much we appreciate you and your service,” Hutcheson said as he showed her the fly.
They both fought back tears, a task made easier by the beckoning of a nearby trout stream.
Although he’s 30 years younger than Watters, Graves said he’s reaped similar benefits from Project Healing Waters.
“I’ll never do anything like this alone,” he said, noting that he endures each day with the help of powerful medications. “But now I’m making friends who will do this with me. They’re incredibly generous with their knowledge.
“I’m aware of my disability and capability,” Graves said. “People with good intentions want to jump in and immerse you in it, but I have to be leery of their enthusiasm. I might look normal, but I have major issues. Not everyone has a missing leg or other visible injury.
“Doing too much will lay me out for a week or two. That’s not just hard on me. It’s really hard on my wife.”
He tried kayaking but found it too taxing. Fly fishing is a better fit, as he sets his pace.
“There are certain things we don’t talk about, and only certain places where we do,” he said, indicating that Trout TV and Crab Creek fit the bill.
Graves suffered shrapnel wounds to his abdomen, chest, lungs and esophagus from a suicide bomber in one of the worst attacks against U.S. forces in the Iraq War, an enemy infiltration that claimed 22 lives and wounded more than 70 other people inside a forward base. Surgeons saved him at the cost of 7 feet of his intestines. A mesh covering exposed his digestive system for two years before he could be sewn up.
“I’ve been there,” Hutcheson said.
Graves paused, noting that few other people can relate to his medical odyssey, especially athletic females who’ve never been at war.
During a pregnancy in which she ballooned, as she put it, “to enormous proportions,” Hutcheson’s abdominal wall was rendered paper thin.
“That winter I was skiing and I popped off a little jump, did a 360 (twist) like I’ve done many times, hit the ground – and my intestines burst out. They couldn’t sew me up for a long time, either.”
As jaws dropped around her, the vets nodded knowingly.
They all walked off for more fishing, joking about Gore-Tex waders and touching briefly on the plusses and minuses of using Gore-Tex mesh for reinforcing abdominal walls.
“It’s something we’ll relive together every time we sneeze while fishing,” Graves said.