I've been working with the amazing team at Spalding since 2012 and have had such fun interactions with everyone. I must say I've shared more than a few moments with our entomologist Jessica that are laugh out loud funny, oh my, inspiring from an educational standpoint, and wow I'm just in awe of what she does, thus I start this blog post with a quote from Jess directly about tying flies and their volunteering with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. This is a program that both she and her husband Ben are passionate about.

"Tying can help (someone) sit down and focus, improve hand-eye coordination, and results in something completely their own.  Watching these folks create variants on old flies and sometimes something completely new is just amazing.  Even better (is) watching them catch some of their first fish on flies they tied completely by themselves!  I’ve loved watching Ben learn over the years and several times, in the beginning, had to go grab his vise out of the trash where it was flung when he would get frustrated.  I hear many similar stories when we’re at events like this.  It seems it always starts with at least a little frustration and is then followed by a strong desire to make something amazing. ❤"

It seems to me like Jessica, Ben, and the folks they volunteer with at Project Healing Waters collectively make something amazing for themselves and many others!

The Backstory - Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing(PHWFF) is a not for profit organization that works with veterans coming out of VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals and clinics all over the country. Vets in the program are set up with all the tools they need to tie flies and they even have a special vise made for those only able to use one arm.  Amy Milne is the regional coordinator for PHWFF Heartland and Brad Tutt is currently heading the St. Louis program of PHWFF. You can reach out to them through the PHWFF website at projecthealingwaters.org.

A little over a year ago, Ben started up a Facebook Group called Stupid Simple Fly Tying.  He had noticed in other fly tying groups he was a member of that new tiers were getting bashed a lot, rather than encouraged and given pointers on getting better.  Ben is very passionate about fly fishing and fly tying and wanted to see a more positive page.  His brother Brad was doing some work with the St. Louis program of PHWFF and recommended Ben’s group to some members of their group as well because it was a safe place to post flies and get positive feedback.  His group now has over 14,000 members with many being part of PHWFF as well.  
 
All of these pictures are from PHWFF Veterans Free Fishing Day at Montauk State Park near Salem Missouri where Jess & Ben volunteered. PHWFF host Veterans Free Fishing Days in other locations as well, so check out their website as there are chapters of PHWFF all over the country.  Ben and a few other fly-tying volunteers had tables set up for folks to come around and learn about tying different flies and different techniques.  It’s unstructured time so that people can move around freely.  They were even able to get a few track wheelchairs to permit some of those who cannot walk to be right out in the stream fishing. As an entomologist, Jessica is a bug expert but knows very little about fly fishing or fly tying. She joked with me recently when she does go out fishing, she quickly gets distracted watching the flies and other bugs in her sphere. Nonetheless, Ben has taken Jessica out fishing and walked her through tying a few flies as well. Generally, Ben will tie something, ask Jess what it is, and if she gets it, he knows he’s done a good job!  

Jessica’s role volunteering at this PHWFF event was talking about aquatic entomology and the biology of streams.  She went over life cycles, how to figure out what is hatching (at which point Ben could then tell them how to ‘match the hatch’).  She went out and collected in many different parts of the stream and separated out different aquatic arthropods so that attendees could get a close look at what the trout were eating.  She also took her dissection scope and a neat little attachment for it that allows you to use your phone over the viewfinder of the scope so that you can take pictures.  This made it easier to point out and zoom in on important aspects of critters when people had questions. 
 
 The first picture is the volunteer group on the first day of the event after set up.  Many of the volunteers are also veterans.

The second picture is Jessica setting up her displays.  She had the 3 plastic boxes with rocks, floating plant material, and rotting leaves all from different areas in the stream.  You can also see the smaller containers where she separated out specific groups of insects and other aquatic arthropods (she had larvae of caddis, midges, and mosquitoes, nymphs of mayflies, stoneflies, and damselflies, along with a crayfish and scuds). Ben has his tying station set up at the other end of the table where he focused on beginner flies.  

Ben and Wally are discussing the finer points of some of his flies.

Wally even got to use one of the really cool track chairs to head right into parts of the river to fish. 

Joe Jackson is tying a red, white, and blue ‘rocket’ for the adorable little boy sitting across from him.  He is one amazing guy with deer hair! Joe and his wife are both fly fishers and Ben and Jessica made great friends that day.  They all still keep in touch and look forward to meeting up again at the next Montauk fishing day, and maybe a few times in between too.  Joe also makes pheasants, kingfishers, woodpeckers, turtles, and recently even a baby raccoon AND he’s been tying less than 5 years. What he has been able to accomplish in his short time as a tier is phenomenal.  His wife Megan is an amazing woman as well and quite adventurous when it comes to sitting down at a vise! Thank you Joe for your service!

 The picture below is of Amy Milne and Jessica at her bug station.  They joked around about getting a photo op picture, so Amy was playing up the looking at bugs and she had Jessica rolling with laughter. When Jessica smiles, she lights up the entire room and when she laughs it simply explodes. She's not only a brilliant entomologist but an amazing and amazingly fun/funny human to spend time with.

Jessica left some of the critters in each material type so that people could move stuff around and see what they look like in their natural environment.  Ultimately, the crayfish in front was put back in the tub, as he kept making bids for freedom from the petri dish.  He was released back into the river after it was all over.

Another amazing fly tier is Dennis Puryear (pictured above). He's an expert as you can see from his work!  Jess and Ben made quite a few new friends by getting involved in PHW, and certainly enjoyed sitting in deck chairs shooting the breeze with Denny and his wife Patricia.

Learn more about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing on their website at projecthealingwaters.org, Like their Facebook Page, follow their Instagram account, or subscribe to their YouTube Channel.

Also if you're interested in tying flies, check out Ben's Facebook Group Stupid Simple Fly Tying too!