SHERIDAN, Wyo. — For longtime guide and fly-tier Gordon Rose, the sport of fly fishing has been a both a career and a lifelong passion.
For military veterans like Nathan Hansen, the opportunity to tie flies and catch fish in the Bighorn Mountains is a form of therapy that helps take their minds off their wartime experiences.
In a conference room at Sheridan VA Medical Center on Monday night, nine veterans quietly listened as Rose patiently explained the steps involved in tying an elk hair caddis fly.
Using an overhead screen, Rose described how to create simulated wings from elk hair and to use fluffs of cotton to build the body of the insect, which is a popular meal for trout living in Wyoming waters.
Many in the room had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and none had any fly fishing experience. They carefully watched Rose as he explained the detailed technique involved in fly tying.
Each veteran was equipped with his own materials donated by Rose and a vise. Several matched Rose step by step as he delivered instructions on technique.
Others waited until the demonstration was finished, getting individualized assistance from Rose and other volunteers from the Little Bighorn Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The veterans are participating in a program Rose launched earlier this month called Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, a local offshoot of a national nonprofit program called Project Healing Waters dedicated to helping disabled military veterans through fly-fishing.
Rose's program is the first of its kind in Wyoming and serves as a form of recreation therapy for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's about helping veterans live a fulfilling and contented life outside of combat," Rose said. "It's really neat working with these guys and seeing what they're dealing with."
A lifelong fly-fishing enthusiast and Sheridan resident who sells custom-tied trout flies through his business, Quill Gordon Fly Fishers, Rose learned about Project Healing Waters from a national news story. Realizing Sheridan would be an ideal location to launch a local program chapter, he contacted recreational therapists at the VA and coordinators with the national office of the Healing Waters program.
Spending his own money on supplies and materials, Rose launched the program three weeks ago and is pleased by the early results.
"I didn't know if any of them would be back for the second class," Rose admitted. "But they were all back, plus a couple more, and they made dramatic improvement on their second fly. I think it's such a terrific diversion that they dive right into it."
Project Healing Waters includes three parts: fly-tying classes, fly-casting classes, and fly-fishing outings in the Bighorn Mountains this summer.
"The wonderful thing about fly-fishing is it can become such a passion, and it allows someone to involve themselves in nature without worrying about screwing up," Rose said.
Hansen, a Navy veteran, served on active duty from 2004 to 2006 and was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. When he returned to the United States, he says he missed the adrenaline rush of combat and struggled to find ways to replace that feeling.
"I was riding my motorcycle too fast and drinking too much," Hansen said. "Nothing compares to what it's like over there."
Hansen added that he's learning to use activities at the VA like fly-tying and playing piano to help manage his emotions. He said he was surprised how quickly he took to tying flies.
"I usually don't have patience for these kinds of things," Hansen said.
In the third fly-tying session, participants were comfortable enough to exchange jokes with Rose, who murmured quietly during his demonstration several times.
"Do you always talk to your flies like that?" one man asked.
"You have no idea," Rose replied, as laughter filled the room.
Rose grew up in Colorado and began tying flies at age 10. He has guided on the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park and owned his own guiding business on the Bighorn river for 13 Syears before moving to Sheridan in 1999.
Information from: The Sheridan Press, http://www.thesheridanpress.com/