It’s therapeutic and reduces the symptoms of PTSD and depression
By Patrick M. Scanlon
Bobbie is small, whippet-thin, and given to quick, bird-like movements. She speaks in explosive bursts but at low volume, each statement followed by a nervous laugh. A middle-aged Army veteran from Rochester, New York, she battles severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “There was a time when I felt like sitting in a rocking chair and just dying,” she says. “I spent five years in my house once, wouldn’t come out at all. Just terrified.”
Several years ago, a counselor referred Bobbie to Outdoor Adventures for Sacrifice in Service (OASIS). It’s a nonprofit that assists veterans in reconnecting and resuming productive lives in society through participation in outdoor recreational activities that promote independence, and social and emotional well-being. Besides fly fishing, OASIS teaches skiing, archery, sailing, rowing, golf, horsemanship, and ice skating. The organization provides free services to veterans from an area comprising six counties in the New York Finger Lakes region.
Bobbie says after her first experience with fly fishing, “I found it like wading in the water. I like catching the fish and tying the flies. It depressurizes me. Sometimes I’m not even fly fishing. I’m sitting on the bank enjoying nature. It calms my mind.”
She usually says her mind runs in a hundred different directions at once. But when she’s fly fishing, she’s calm. Bobbie says the quietness of the woods makes her feel free. “I’m usually a loner,” she concedes. “But I’m getting better, a lot better. It just kinda brings me out of myself.”
Over the past decade, fly fishing has become the centerpiece of several therapeutic programs for veterans and active military personnel with PTSD. These include, in addition to OASIS, national organizations like Rivers of Recovery and Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., which offer fly fishing outings, instruction in fly tying, and emotional support. Recent research into the benefits of therapeutic fly fishing has found it reduces the symptoms of PTSD and depression, relieves anxiety, and improves sleep quality. One study, published in Military Medicine in 2013, evaluated the effectiveness of two-day/three-night fly-fishing retreats for veterans with PTSD in alleviating their symptoms. Researchers found that a weekend of fly fishing made veterans feel better and sleep better and that those benefits lasted.
Other research studies with veterans report fly-fishing activities to provide a way for them to deal with the symptoms of their disabilities through distraction, focus, relaxation, and overcoming challenges and fears. They said they gained confidence, enjoyed a chance to feel healthy, and benefited from the beautiful and peaceful outdoor environment. Fly fishing programs allow veterans to learn new skills—or adapt old ones to changed physical abilities—and practice them in a natural setting. Also, and just as important, the participants find solace in the camaraderie with others facing similar challenges.
The OASIS program has two phases. In the first, veterans learn to fly fish, typically over several months, including introductory classes. The objective is for the veteran to achieve independence in the sport. Cohorts are kept small, four or five veterans at a time, in part to make it easier to monitor each participant.
Once veterans “graduate,” they move on to the advocacy phase. OASIS works with the vet and with support organizations and individuals to help that veteran sustain independence in the new activity. The organization continually measures its performance as well as that of the participants by collecting survey data. OASIS wants to see veterans achieve independence, in a sport as well as in their lives.
Tom Tartaglia, vice president of the OASIS board of directors and a former Marine, says OASIS volunteers watch for clues that someone might be at risk to drop out. They also learn about PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and sexual assault trauma so they can recognize and react to the anxiety and anger that can result from these conditions. Regardless of these challenges, Tartaglia says most veterans stick with it because the rewards become evident to them quickly.
“One, they can learn to have fun again,” says Tartaglia. “Second, they get back home, and you’re going to school or in a job. It’s not that brotherhood or that sisterhood that you had for that amount of time. We want them to learn appropriate transition tools so they can become a part of a community again that may not involve alcohol or may not involve drugs or some of the other habits they’ve learned.”
OASIS fly fishing classes are run by Lindsay and Dave Agness, who, in 2013, agreed to become program coordinators for the “Fly Rod Warriors.” Lindsay is a well-known fly fishing guide and instructor in the Rochester area. Her husband, Dave, is also an avid fly fisher. He had been working with Project Healing Waters since 2005, so he had experience with veterans.
Each year the Agnesses take on up to five vets for the class. They start in March with three indoor courses to teach the basics: tackle, appropriate dress, safety, stream etiquette, knots, fly tying, casting, and fly presentation. Next, depending on the timing of the winter thaw, the class moves outside for fishing on at least four different area streams throughout the spring. Veterans get help from professional guides.
One of their favorite students is Don, a married father of four who suffers from “really severe” PTSD, the result of multiple combat tours in Iraq. He says he gets frustrated quickly and loses his temper. “When I got out of the military, I felt like I lost a part of my family, a part of me,” he says. “I felt very alone. I didn’t have a purpose anymore.”
A social worker assigned to Don at a local VA medical center sent him to OASIS. He tried his hand at archery and sailing before taking up fly fishing. He took to it instantly.
“It gets me out,” says Don. “It keeps me mentally occupied. I don’t drift off to, you know, over there.”
He pauses for a moment before summing up: “I find peace.”