Project Healing Waters-- Serving and Growing

By Douglas Dear


   In only five years Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. (PHW) has grown from an informal gathering of wounded soldiers led by PHW founder Captain Ed Nicholson USN (Ret), meeting on the lawn of Walter Reed to practice casting for weeds, to an organization that is in over 95 VA Hospitals, Warrior Transition Units and military hospitals in 32 states, fishing for just about anything you can catch on a fly rod.  PHW is an innovative program that uses fly tying, fly fishing instruction and fly fishing outings as therapy to help injured service members heal their wounds, both mental and physical, and find solace through the fly rod and the outdoors.


Reasons for the programs rapid growth 

If you asked the soldiers that participate in the program you could hear comments like what this SGT at the Ft Belvoir Warrior Transition Unit said, “Project Healing Waters...has allowed find solitude, in a crowd,... to find that I CAN adapt, find new directions, find that my world did not end, with my injury, find myself again.” 

   Or you might hear an injured veteran say, “Project Healing Waters has helped me get out of the house and once again be part of something special. Fly fishing and fly tying has given me confidence of doing something I never thought I could do. It helps me put the pain aside and let go for the moment and have some excitement in life.”

   If you spoke with hospital staff you might hear a comment such as, “Project Healing Waters is an excellent program and we see results in our veterans, all positive” or something as simple as what a VA therapist in New York said, “The veterans LOVE the Project Healing Waters Program.”

    If you spoke with the many volunteers that make the PHW programs possible you might hear “Through PHW, I have met many folks that I consider friends, or better yet, family. Whether they are wounded warriors or the volunteers that I have met along the way, these men and women continue to hold a special place in my heart. For those close friendships, I cannot thank PHW enough. PHW really gives me the opportunity to give something, however so small, back to these true American heroes that have sacrificed so much for me and my family.”

   Or you might hear that helping these warriors fly fish, “is quite simply the most rewarding day I have ever spent on the water—and I never even cast my rod!”

   How has such dramatic growth been possible? At the heart of the dramatic growth of PHW is the way the program is structured. Rather than trying to start its own chapters or clubs around the country PHW has created a program that is similar to a franchise agreement that allows existing Federation of Fly Fishers Clubs, Trout Unlimited Chapters and independent fly fishing clubs start a program in their own community. Through the PHW Memorandum of Agreement or MOA and close interaction with PHW national staff and volunteers, a club is given the full blueprint of how to start and run a local program. 

   The MOA spells out everything from Insurance needs and program requirements to how a club can raise money locally for PHW.  And once a club signs on, National PHW provides equipment as well as regional and national outings that allow participants at the various programs, around the country, to come together and fly fish. National events held last year included: floating the Smith River in Montana, Fishing the Rapid River in Maine, The 2-Fly Tournament in Virginia, a trip for trophy trout and salmon in Alaska and Floating the Green River in Utah.

    “Without the franchise structure it is highly unlikely the program could have grown anything like as fast as it has” noted Ed Felker, a PHW Supporter and original Board of Trustees member. Felker, a graphic artist who is also created the powerful PHW logo, is constantly amazed at the number of programs and participants that are now part of the PHW family. 

   “Last year we logged over 40,000 hours of volunteer time associated with Project Healing Waters with over 500 volunteers helping 750 injured service members and Veterans throughout the country.” 

   Typical programs meet weekly or bi-weekly teaching casting skills and fly tying. “From the beginning we have been about regularly scheduled instruction— we are not a onetime glory trip organization” notes Felker.  And it is this constant instruction and event programs that have made PHW a favorite within the VA and Military Hospital System.  PHW is there week in and week out. 

In Virginia there are active programs at the Ft. Belvoir Warrior Transition Unit in Northern, Virginia; Ft. McGuire in Richmond; and at Ft. Eustice in the Tidewater Area and the VA Hospital in Roanoke.

    For more information on any of these programs or to start a program in your area please contact the Virginia’s (Virginia and West Virginia) Regional Coordinator Phil Johnson through the Project Healing Waters website

Creative Fundraising  

   PHW has not received government funding for any of its work and has relied on private individuals, corporate donors and a few family foundations to provide the funding for its entire operating budget. The bulk of this funding is raised from three events; The Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament, The Mossy Creek Invitational Tournament and S&K’s Sales “cause” promotion within the Military Commissary system.  All three events have all been very successful.

    The fishing tournament concept in itself is not unique but what is unique is that PHW has managed to make these events not only big fundraisers but to make them big fun for the troops. One soldier who had returned from Iraq severely injured only a few months before the 2-Fly Tournament told more than one of the tournament organizers that it was the second best day of his life—just behind the day he married his wife.

   PHW has also created the kind of media buzz that leads to even more opportunities for the organization. For example last years 2-Fly was an award winning episode of the Fly Rod Chronicles with Curtis Flemming television program and was a featured story in Readers Digest.  Of course, this media coverage helps PHW raise funds but it also raises awareness with injured Veterans around the country and with fishing clubs that want to start programs in their local area. 

    In addition to the three major events PHW has entered into custom equipment arrangements with Temple Fork Outfitters and Abel Reels that generate royalty revenue for PHW while spreading the word with Healing Waters branded fly fishing equipment.


Spot Light on the 2010 2-Fly

   The Annual PHW 2-Fly Tournament has been held the past 4 years at Rose River Farm in Syria, Virginia.  Every year 30, two-person teams compete to catch the most trout possible with only two flys. The 2-Fly is a competition in name but in reality is much more than a fishing contest.  The tournament is structured like a charity golf event with corporate sponsors, an auction and plenty of side events.  Side events that include fly fishing legends such as Lefty Kreh and Joe Humphreys teaching fly casting and water reading techniques.  PHW brings in injured active duty military and veterans from Walter Reed Hospital and VA Hospitals around the country to fish and relax in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

    The event has become a favorite with program participants who enjoy the camaraderie and the excellent fly fishing. It has also become a favorite with the 20 two man teams who support PHW by fishing and fundraising.  The two man teams this year included participants from Maine to Montana and even included two teams from The West Point Military Academy. This years event raised the most every for PHW— more than $110,000.

   This year the 2-Fly will take place on May 1 and it is expected to raise even more money than last year and again include many notables from the fly fishing world as well as a few other special guests.  The real stars again this year will of course be the PHW participating soldiers and Veterans. 


The Future

   Where does the future hold for Project Healing Waters? The goal for 2011 is to add 20 more programs, which would increase the number of Armed Service Member and Veteran participants to over 1,000. Yet even if this dramatic growth comes to pass, the goal of the program remains not to help the greatest number of “troops” but instead to have a meaningful, life-long impact, on everyone who participates in the PHW program.


About The Author

   Douglas Dear, an avid fly fisherman, bird hunter and award winning outdoor writer, is the owner of Rose River Farm (, a popular trophy trout fly fishing destination located on the Rose River in Madison County, Virginia.  He also serves as Chairman of the Board of Project Healing Water.