Book Reviews

Fly Fishing For More Than Fish

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Book Review: Healing Waters: Veterans’ Stories of Recovery in Their Own Words, written by Beau Beasley for No Nonsense Fly Fishing Guide Books (2024)

Whether he actually said it or not, the other night I couldn’t help but think of the words attributed to the British lion, Winston Churchill, who reportedly once quipped: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

The reason it came to mind was that I was digging into Beau Beasley’s newest book: Healing Waters: Veterans’ Stories of Recovery in their Own Words. The “healing” of these vets comes— strangely enough—through fly fishing.

Beau Beasley is well-known as the Director of the Virginia Fly Fishing & Wine Festival and his books Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic. The retired Fairfax County Virginia firefighter is much less known for his work with the veterans’ program: Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF).

But he has been involved—deeply involved—with the program for years as a volunteer, and rightly felt compelled to tell its story.

Nearly ten-years in the writing, Healing Waters, is a stirring collection of inspiring tales of veterans (some going back as far as the Korean War but largely from the Afghan and Iraq Wars), whose recuperation from physical and/or mental injuries was aided by fly fishing.

Of course, convalescence from mental (e.g., post-traumatic stress) and/or physical (e.g., loss of a limb) trauma isn’t exactly what you think of when you slip on your fishing waders and put your “confidence” fly on the end of your tippet with a clinch knot.

But having attended some PHWFF events over the years as a guide or even as a guest speaker at the Beaver Creek Invitational, I’ve seen up close and personal that of which Beau so eloquently writes about in his book.

Fly fishing has helped veterans get better from the physical and emotional challenges brought on by the rigors of military service, including hellacious combat duty. Anecdotally, the work of PHWFF has prevented suicides, saved marriages and families and helped vets find meaning to their lives again.

As anglers, we know that fly fishing—with its rhythmic false casting—can be therapeutic; what’s more calming, serene and soothing to the soul than the sweet sounds of a babbling brook in the countryside?

We know from our time on the water that when you’re intensely watching your dry fly drift along on the surface in the current, you can hardly think of anything else—but the awesome anticipation of gently lifting the rod when a trout comes to the surface and sips in your fly.

While I’m no meditation expert, it seems to me there is a sense of “mindfulness” in fly fishing. You can’t really be thinking about anything else—good or bad—if you want to successfully fool that fish with your fly.

For some vets, putting aside pain or trauma even for just a while as a result of hitting the water with a fly rod or tying a fly at a vise in the company of brothers- and sisters-in-arms is exactly what they need to start, or continue, their journey of reintegrating back into society or healing the scars—visible and invisible to others.

The 32 personal stories in this book of vets and their recovery are nothing less than riveting. It’s worth noting there are no composite characters in this book. Instead, Beau relayed the unfiltered stories of these vets from all branches of service, from their perspective and in their own words.

For instance, I read—and re-read—the chapter on a serviceman who clinically dies thrice in a short period of time after a horrific battlefield injury; his encounters with “heaven” each time he passes are spellbinding.

Fortunately, for this soldier and his loved ones, these were just drive-bys of the Pearly Gates.

Beau doesn’t overlook military families, either. Military service can be tough on the loved ones who stand and wait, too. I spent a lot of time on my knees in prayer when my army officer son was deployed to Iraq; I also remember the phone call after he got banged up in Kuwait and was being med-evac’d to Germany.

And I’ll never forget his grit when my son told me that he wouldn’t take the military medical retirement offered him—and would continue to serve. He, of course, is just one deeply personal example of the selfless service of our men and women in uniform.

And Beau doesn’t forget the volunteers who compassionately give so much of their time to helping America’s bravest recover. I know some of the people portrayed in this book, and I’ve witnessed personally how much they—and others—give to PHWFF vets.

Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, once said: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” In this case, it’s about helping and healing through fly fishing those who have gone in harm’s way for us.

Those, who on the day they signed up, wrote a blank check to Uncle Sam for an amount up to and including their life—as one old shipmate reminds me every Memorial Day in a text message thanking me for my service.

It’s wonderful that so many Americans have stood up to say “thank you” to our veterans, in this case by teaching them how to tie a fly or taking the obligatory “grip and grin” photo after landing a “byoooot” of a rainbow trout.

Churchill was onto something when he said that a life isn’t what you get, it’s what you give. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing puts the words of that ideal into action—and Beau Beasley puts that ideal into words.

This book is definitely worth a read. And while the wars have subsided for the moment, the vets of this country and PHWFF are still worthy and in need of your support. A portion of the proceeds from each book sale goes to benefit PHWFF, supporting their program and outreach efforts toward vets. You can order the book online, or receive an autographed copy by going to the author’s website.

With Memorial Day approaching, it’s important to remember that besides the iconic holiday being the unofficial beginning of summer, that this great country is the home of the free because of the brave like the vets portrayed in this book.

Dr. Peter Brookes is a retired naval officer, the father of an Army National Guard officer and a fly fisher. He’s also an award-winning outdoor writer.

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