Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. ~Henry David Thoreau
Rio Grande River
August 26 – September 2, 2009
For the last several months I have been working in conjunction with the non-profit organization, Project Healing Waters. We coordinated a few days fishing in Colorful Colorado for a handful of our military servicemen and women. With the tremendous financial support of a few dozen generous customers, we were able to finance one of the most memorable, philosophical, and educational experiences of my life.
Ron Foster, Dave McKenzie, and I departed Dallas at 6:00AM on Thursday morning upward and onward down the highway to our destination— Creede, Co, exactly 725 miles from the shop. For those of you who don’t know him, Ron Foster is an employee at the store and an Army veteran who served 18 sensational months in Vietnam in 1969-1970. Ron’s perspective on life, work, family, and war completely captivated me on the drive up. He set the stage for a better understanding of the purpose of our adventure. Although Ron is very modest and never gives himself enough credit, he is as solid a guy you will ever meet. I’ll never forget the 24 hours of substantive, humorous, and enlightening conversation we had going to and from.
Dave McKenzie was the first person to respond to our fund raising campaign for the Wounded Warriors Event. He called us within seconds of our website posting and initial email volunteering to help with the weekend. Dave never lost his enthusiasm or dedication leading up to our departure, and was a tremendous support the entire trip.
We arrived Creede in time for dinner with Mike Geary and his girlfriend, Laura, Sam Leake (my father), and Diane Giauque (manager of Wason Ranch). We ate at the historic and incredibly tasty Creede Hotel restaurant. Mike Geary owns and operates Lewis and Clark Expeditions based out of Helena, Montana. He has run guide trips on the Smith, Missouri, and Blackfoot Rivers for decades, and has a wonderful program with a very reliable repeat clientele. Whether volunteering for Project Healing Waters or the Red Cross (from New Orleans to Afghanistan), Mike is one of the most enthusiastic and infectiously happy people you will ever meet. He is always in good spirits, completely selfless, an incredible conversationalist, and has a fantastic sense of humor. I always look forward to sharing time with my friend. Mike has been taking veterans down the Smith River for years, and was the first to seek our commitment to a similar project in Colorado two years ago.
The Rio Grande was flowing curiously low for August. With an average historical flow of around 600cfs this time of year, the 185cfs being released from the Rio Grande Reservoir made for some interesting yet surprisingly beneficial conditions. Ron, Dave, and I fishing the river the morning before the arrival of the soldiers and were relieved to find easily readable pocket water and slow pools congested with browns and rainbows looking up for grasshoppers and small mayflies.
Our eight soldiers arrived in a stereotypical army green van with government exempt plates. Their commanding officers for the weekend were Gary Spuhler and Gordy Rothoff of Project Healing Waters. Gary and Gordy are the type of guys who are passionate about everything fly fishing and spend an enormous of their time dedicated to educating, instructing, guiding, and hosting soldiers on the water. Based out of Fort Carson, Colorado, Project Healing Waters is a phenomenal philanthropic organization run by some of the kindest folks around. Gary and Gordy personify are true gentlemen, and it was a pleasure getting to know them.
Our soldiers were a mixed bag of 7 men and 1 female all ranging in age from early twenties to mid forties. Their injuries ranged from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to traumatic brain injury. None of our vets suffered missing limbs, and were for the most part ambulatory. All served multiple tours in Iraq, and came from similar upbringings in small towns from Maryland to Wyoming, to Texas.
Every time I meet a soldier who has witnessed the horrors of combat I am always left pondering the same conflicting vibe — youthful immaturity combined with tremendous experience not known or understood by civilians. I cannot help but reflect on what I was doing (or not doing) when I was in my early twenties. Whatever it was, it partially involved chasing fish, birds, or girls; a far cry from policing a Middle Eastern country and seeking out an insurgency.
After all the introductions were made, we gave a few casting and knot tying lessons, and laid out the game plan for the next three days fly fishing in the San Juan Mountains of Mineral County.
Originally founded by Major M.V.B. Wason following the Civil War, Wason Ranch was eventually purchased by a group of Dallas men in 1963, and boasts of four miles of beautiful, and recently restored, Rio Grande River starting two clicks south of the old mining town of Creede. First settled in the early 1800’s Creede is approximately 20 miles up the Rio Grande Valley on highway 149 from Southfork, Colorado. During the Silver boom, Creede had a bustling and largely lawless population of 10,000 miners, gamblers, farmers, and ranchers. Its charming main street has not changed much since the days of Kit Carson. There are less than 400 full time residents these days in Creede. Whether because of its geographic limitations or because of a very tight knit community, Creede has been spared by the developers from California and Texas who have preyed on most mining towns in Colorado such as Aspen, Telluride, or Crested Butte. It still retains its old school and extremely laid back charm.
The first morning we meet the crew at the 100+ year old ranch house for a hearty breakfast followed by wadering up and heading down to the upper one mile stretch of the property. Whether nymphing the deeper pools or casting dries in some side channel softer water, everyone in the group caught fish before an afternoon shower drove us back to the house for lunch.
From the guiding perspective, there were certainly some challenges. Most of the group had very limited fly fishing experience, and a couple of the guys had never picked up a fly rod before. You would guess this inexperience combined with the nature of their injuries would be very conducive to catching many fish. However, the odd thing was, there was really no pressure to catch fish. They were all just pumped to be alive and relaxing in the outdoors. Invariably, like most things in life and fishing — good karma happens to the patient and focused. With very little frustration involved on behalf of the guides and anglers, everyone caught plenty of gorgeous trout.
What the soldiers lacked in physical ability or experience was made up for in complete and total dedication to the task at hand, as well as the ability to listen to instruction. Instantly, I recognized these guys had spent their entire adult life taking orders. Furthermore, quitting or failure were definitely not options…
DL: “Okay buddy, I want you to put this cast 5 feet further upstream and give it a good left mend.”
Soldier: “Yes Sir. I’ll get it right this time, sir”.
DL: “No please, don’t call me sir. Call me David, or Dave, or D.L”
Soldier: “Yes Sir.”
DL: “It looks like there is rain coming. Do you want to head back to the truck and warm up?”
Soldier: “No sir. As long as I am away from the base or the hospital I am happy.”
I spent at least half of the trip fishing with Specialist Michael Francisco. Mike or “Cisco” logged two tours in Iraq as a truck driver carrying fuel, heavy guns, and other equipment along the front lines. I sensed right away that he had seen some serious action, and he had no reservations about sharing his tales of battle. His active duty army career was concluded when a mortar struck Mike’s vehicle, shattering dozens of bones in his body including his hips and back, and suffered a serious traumatic brain injury. Learning to walk again with a cane, Mike showed ZERO reservations about tying his own knots, climbing over the biggest rocks, walking a bit further, and wading a bit deeper to get to the fish. He took instruction perfectly and never for a second lost a glimmer of enthusiasm for the task at hand. Mike fished to, hooked, and landed four solid trout on dry flies our first morning out.
Evenings were very slow paced with huge meals and lots of war stories from both the river and the battlefield. (How the military establishment comes up with so many acronyms for weapons, policy, ranking, protocol, vehicles, missions, targets, etc I will never know.) As much as I tried to contribute to the conversation, it was clear to me that this “band of brothers” and I had so little in common… They have spent their entire adult lives dedicated to the military institution, and a huge part of their healing process revolves around sharing their wartime experiences. Predictably, Ron contributed a lot of conversation with light hearted chatter and comparatives from his time in the service.
One day we drove up high into the mountains to a cabin sitting in the middle of Lost Lakes… a part of the 4UR Ranch, a stunning setting and home to zillions of eager and uneducated native brook and cutthroat trout. Lead by Kevin Liggett, the owner of Rio Grande Angler in Creede, we 4X4ed our way up a jeep trail to the lakes and made a day filling the boat full of frying pan friendly brookies and cutts. Thank you to Kevin, Allan, and Andrew for providing their gratis guiding services.
The third day was much more slow paced with several hours of fishing on the lower part of the ranch. I guided Army Vet, Jimmy, and we spent most of our day casting tiny dries on 6X or 7X tippet to sophisticated fish… real spot and stalk New Zealand type stuff. We educated over a dozen rainbows and a few browns including a couple of specimens in the 20+ inch range. Following a feast at the local restaurant, Kips, we returned for a campfire and roasting marsh mellows as the sun set over the San Juans.
Having been completely spoiled by a career of travel to exotic fisheries, it was incredibly refreshing to witness such immense pleasure, excitement, and victory in catching an “average” 16-17 inch trout. It is easy to forget those small victories are what got us industry folks into the game in the first place. The happiness I witnessed from simply being in a beautiful place, breathing fresh air, and enjoying good camaraderie really reminded me of the forgotten importance of “just getting away”. Although cliché, I have also never felt such so grateful for having health, happiness, and family. For that I thank our soldiers who joined is in Colorado last week. Although I am confident we were able to provide three days of distraction from their personal struggles, I was the one who learned the most from the experience.
Thank you to all of our customers who have passed along their praise and support for our participation in this event. A special thank you goes out to the dozens of generous customers who donated over $6000 to Project Healing Waters to make this trip possible. Please know that our soldiers were very grateful for the collective effort and contribution made by everyone involved.
Thank you to Mike, Rob, Gary, Gordy, Diane, Carl, Laura, Sambo, Kevin, Andrew, Allan, Ron, Dave, and the owners of Wason Ranch for hosting us. We are looking forward to doing this again next year!