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Fly tying has therapeutic qualities

When I hear people saying that life is tough, there is always someone worse off. Even though something may be tough to do, it is amazing what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. A recent article and my experiences with people with handicaps tell me that there are really no limits on what an individual can do.

While going through my latest edition of Fly Fisher Magazine, a publication that members of the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) receive, I came across a story that I found very interesting because of my own personal experience. The story was titled “Healing Waters.”

The story is about fly tying as therapy for military service personnel with upper arm and hand injuries. Fly tying for therapy began in the World War II era. William Black, a noted fly tier during this period, taught fly tying to several hundred wounded marines and sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital during the war.



While Black began teaching fly tying as recreation for the servicemen, it was soon shown that the procedures used in tying flies aided these men in gaining 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.

FFF member Ed Nicholson and others in the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited began Project Healing Waters to teach fly casting and fishing to the war-wounded patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). He tried to emulate Bill Blades, who taught fly tying during WWII, in coming up with the WRAMC program.



The first class involved five students. Four had prosthetics on their left arms and one had a badly damaged and partially paralyzed right arm and hand (he was left-handed before he was wounded). An occupational therapy technician was to work with the students between classes. 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.

It became very clear that the instruction would involve a great deal of individual attention because, despite similar disabilities, each student had his own difficulties in performing the procedures needed to tie the flies. Many of the tools needed to be modified or replaced with other types to make it possible for the student to tie flies.

A Woolly Bugger is one of the easiest flies to tie and is typically the first one most beginning students learn on. The first session with these tiers lasted nearly three hours, but all were able to tie a reasonable Woolly Bugger by sessions’ end. They then had to tie a dozen more to present at the next class. By the end of the class the students were able to tie an assortment of flies.

Two of the three students recently began helping with the next class. The third student retired from the military and began college. All three are continuing to be involved with fly fishing and fly tying. In fact, the two assisting with the new class recently tied at the Sixth Annual Tyathon of the Creekside Anglers of Martinsburg, W. Va, the only FFF club in the state.

The reason this article was of special interest is because of my own personal experience rehabilitating a damaged right hand (I am right-handed) sustained from an automobile accident in 1992. I was a fairly accomplished fly tier at the time, and the accident left me thinking that I would never be able to tie flies or fly fish again.

Fortunately, with aggressive physical therapy (we have great physical therapists up here) and many hours of frustration, sweat and tears ” quite of bit of cursing as well ” at the tying bench, I was able to fashion some reasonable flies. Believe me, there were times when I was ready to quit.

In 1995 I made my first appearance at a tying show since the accident, A Festival of Fly Fishing, the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers fundraiser here in Kings Beach at the North Tahoe Conference Center. I was very nervous even though I had tied at many shows prior to the accident.

Today I can tie reasonable flies and fish well because I have adapted to my injuries. The flies I tie will probably never be as good as before my accident. Same goes for my casting. But I am out there doing it now, and I credit the fly tying therapy as a major reason why I can.


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