February 27th, 2006

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

"It Isn't That You Can't Do It;
It's That We Haven't Figured Out a Way That You Can Do It."
Teaching Fly Tying as Therapy
By John Colburn, (Phly Tyer), The Soldiers' Home,Washington, DC

Fly tying as therapy for military service personnel with upper arm and hand injuries involving paralysis of the arm and hand or artificial arms and hands is not a new procedure. William Black, a noted fly tyer in the World War II era, taught fly tying to several hundred wounded marines and sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital during that war. While Mr. Black started teaching fly tying as recreation for the servicemen, it was soon shown that the procedures used in tying fishing flies aided these men to gain more use of the fine motor skills in their injured arms and hands and with the relatively crude artificial arms and hands of that era.

When Captain Ed Nicholson (USN, retired) of the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited (NCC-TU) and a member of the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) and others in NCC-TU began Project Healing Waters to teach fly casting and fishing to the war wounded patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), I remembered Bill Blades teaching fly tying in WWII and decided that I would try to emulate him at WRAMC as a part of Project Healing Waters.

After examining a number of books, videos, and DVDs on fly tying, I decided to use Basic Fly Tying, edited by Jon Rounds and published by Stackpole Books, because of its clear and well illustrated instructions and because there was a two disk DVD set based on the book that could be used to give the patients excellent demonstrations of the use of the fly tying tools and the procedures used in tying the flies. Marvin Nolte, an FFF Buz Buszek Award recipient, is a much better fly tyer than I, and by using the DVDs, the patients could get a much clearer idea of the procedures than they could by trying to watch me.

I wrote up a class syllabus based on the book and DVDs and my prior experience in teaching fly tying classes. Initially the syllabus called for nine two hour class sessions: an introduction to the class and familiarization with the tools and materials; eight sessions teaching the tying of the nine flies in the book (one session covered tying two versions of a single fly); and a "graduation" session where the students would learn to tie a soft hackle fly and then tie one of the flies learned in the course as a final exam. The time allotted was actually much more than that allotted for similar classes I had taught in the past.

In the first session there were five students, four with prosthetics on their left arms, one with a badly damaged and partially paralyzed right arm and hand (he was left-handed before he was wounded), and an occupational therapy technician who was to work with the students between classes. I had set a limit of six students for the class. By the fourth week two of the patients with prosthetics and the OT technician were transferred from WRAMC, and the class continued with the three remaining men.

By the second session it was apparent that the instruction would involve a great deal of individual attention because, despite similar disabilities, each student had his own difficulties in performing the skills needed to tie the flies and many of the tools needed to be modified or replaced with other types to make it possible for the students to tie flies. For example, two different bobbins, five different hackle pliers, and six different vises were used during the classes, and the students used the tools they found best suited their particular needs.

At the second class session the students were to tie a Woolly Bugger, one of the easiest flies that normally takes less than an hour to learn. Because of their individual difficulties, the class lasted nearly three hours. All were able to tie a reasonable Woolly Bugger and were required to tie a dozen more to be presented at the next class.

At the third session all the students produced their Woolly Buggers, including one student whose prosthetic was in the shop all week, but he tied his dozen with one hand and his teeth. Any of the Woolly Buggers were fishable and likely to be taken by fish.

By the end of the fifth session it was apparent that handling of the elk hair for an Elk Hair Caddis fly would be beyond the capability of the students with prosthetics, so I changed to have them tie a Mickey Finn hair wing streamer. It still involved tying in a hair wing but less difficult than an elk hair wing.

I decided to depart from the flies in the book and have the students tie other flies that involved many of the same procedures but simpler to tie. Besides the Mickey Finn, the students tied Cone Head Shad Darts, a variety of foam flies, and several flies of their own design in addition to the Woolly Bugger, Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear, and Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph that were part of the lessons in the Basic Fly Tying book.

I also changed the time allotted to each fly from one two hour session to two sessions of two hours each. At times some of the students had to miss a class because of hospital appointments and trips away from WRAMC, and the additional time gave them a chance to catch up to the others and also gave me more time to work with the individual problems.

The students have gone to several fishing club meetings and fly fishing shows to tie flies, not as freaks to be stared at, but as fellow fly tyers and fishermen. They talk with the people about Project Healing Waters, fishing trips they've had and are planning, and how learning to tie flies has helped in learning to use their prosthetics and damaged arms and hands for other tasks.

This first class is now finished with formal fly tying instruction because they have become quite proficient in many of the techniques involved in fly tying and have developed some of the fine motor skills that are needed in daily life. One of the students has been retired from the service and is attending a local college. The remaining two students want to help with the new class that will start in late March.

I want to give my thanks to Colonel Bill Howard, Chief of the Occupation Therapy Department at WRAMC, for believing in the therapeutic value of fly tying and allowing me to teach fly tying to his patients; Ed Nicholson, George Gaines, and the others from NCC-TU for getting Project Healing Waters under way and giving me the incentive to teach fly tying to the "wounded warriors"; to R. P. Van Gytenbeek, CEO and President of FFF, and the Executive Committee of the FFF's Mid-Atlantic Council for their encouragement and support of Project Healing Waters; to Sandy Burk for finding time in her busy life to help out on a couple of classes; and to the members of FFF clubs and TU chapters who gave support and donated equipment to Project Healing Waters and the fly tying program.

I also want to give my heart-felt thanks to some very special people who, without their efforts, the fly tying program would never got started:

A very dear friend that I have never met in person, but has prodded and inspired me with telephone conversations, e-mails, and her weekly column, "LadyFisher" Deanna Birkholm, publisher of the best fly fishing web site on the Internet, FlyAnglersOnLine.com. When she heard about my idea to teach fly tying to the wounded warriors, she contacted some of the FAOL supporters and got them to contribute most of the materials and some of the tools for the course. She also contributed several dozen Atlantic salmon and steelhead flies that were entered in the FAOL contest in 2005. These flies will be mounted in fly plates and sent to FFF to be auctioned at the Conclave and the proceeds will be reserved for Project Healing Waters.

Anne and Newell Steele, owners of The Angler's Lie in Arlington, VA, (the best fly shop I've seen east of the Mississippi and better than most west of it) who contacted many of their suppliers and got donations of most of the fly tying tools for the classes and gave substantial discounts on the tools and materials I had to buy. They also gave me a lot of encouragement and support when I most needed it.

There are a great many others who gave equipment, money, support and encouragement who have my thanks, and if I don't thank you in person, you will get stars in your crowns.

Finally, I want to thank the young men who stuck it out and tied damned good flies: Eivind Forseth (1st Lieutenant, Infantry, US Army, shown above), where were you when I could have used a good platoon leader? Sean Locker (Sergeant, US Marne Corps, shown in photo below), keep tying those wild Woolly Buggers and your other designs. Jose Ramos (ex-Hospital Corpsman, US Navy), don't let those college courses keep you from fly tying-it helps you keep your sanity. You're great guys, and I enjoyed tyin' and lyin' with you.

I feel that while I haven't taught them to tie more flies, I have helped them develop the skills they can use to tie many different flies with help from books, videos, and other fly tyers. I am confident that they can and will make fly tying and fly fishing a part of their lives, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to teach these young men something that will enrich their lives. ~ John Colburn,


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