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The Life-Affirming Impact of Fly-Fishing

Mar 19, 2018 10:06PM ● Published by Erica Shames

Gallery: Fly-Fishing [18 Images] Click any image to expand.

A 2016 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study yielded this sobering statistic: veterans are 22 percent more likely to commit suicide than nonveterans. Support programs secure shelter and healthcare. Just as important is the need to engender positive feelings about the value of life. Being outdoors, it turns out, can do that.  
 
Bruce Fisher was in Hoboken, NJ, on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched with horror from across the Hudson River as the twin towers fell to the ground. Many people he knew perished that day. 
 
“It took a while to process it all,” he says. “And out of the process came the idea to start an organization to help people returning home from the war that ensued fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. It seemed like fishing—and getting outside—could help.”
 

First steps

A passionate fly-fisher, Fisher moved from King of Prussia to a house on Penn’s Creek. In 2007, he opened Penn’s Creek Angler tackle shop, and started Total Outdoors, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to supporting military families and veterans by providing angling and outdoor programs. Total Outdoors activities, Fisher says, strengthen military families and veterans through their shared experiences.
 
“We provide families the opportunity to learn the art of angling and experience our outdoor programs, with an emphasis on environmental stewardship, life-skills and resource conservation,” explains Fisher. “We firmly believe that America can never thank these brave service members and their families enough for all they do to secure our freedom and way of life.”
 
Total Outdoors offers veterans and their families a range of activities and experiences. One and two-day family camps include lessons in fly tying and fly fishing. Fisher recruits volunteers for the program from his neighbors and fly fishing customers, many of whom are veterans. “I get hundreds of people who just want to come out and help,” says Fisher.
 

A day in nature

Fisher has partnered with Wesley Forest Church Camp to offer Total Outdoors campers access to a 400-acre facility with miles of hiking trails, a lake, outbuildings and cabins. Families bring only an overnight bag; everything else is provided. 
 
In addition to fishing and hiking, Total Outdoors campers embrace all nature has to offer including a nearby “secret” swimming hole and catching and eating boiled crayfish which, Fisher insists, taste just like lobster. As one of the nation’s top 10 fly-fishing destinations, Penn’s Creek is a veritable paradise.
 
“In society today, everyone seems to have issues,” says Fisher. “It’s not an easy world. Ideally, we should bring everyone out here. When you take anyone out on a trout stream, they smile and it makes them feel really good. And then you have the fly-tying aspect; it’s very repetitive to fly ties. That seems to help with PTSD.”
 

Expanding the web

Beyond serving individual families, Total Outdoors has partnered with Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Partnership, a nationwide network of 150,000 members initiated in 2011, to bring to veterans the healing power of water.  Fisher holds day-long VSP fishing programs on Penn’s Creek in May and October, prime fly fishing seasons. Highlights of the day also include a pig roast and the shared conviviality of a campfire.
 
Three years ago, Desert Storm combat veteran Marty Russell, former commander of the New Berlin American Legion, learned of Total Outdoors when the group was seeking a veterans organization to give back to at the end of the year. Terry Miller, the organization’s vice-commander, found out about Total Outdoors; they made a generous donation that year and every year after.
 
“A year and a half ago, I met Bruce and he took me under his wing," said Russell. "I went to a Total Outdoors event, and fell in love with the people who are involved. They are wonderful people giving back to veterans and the community.
 
“I’ve always been a big fisherman,” adds Russell. “I got away from fly fishing when I lost my grandfather. I wanted to get back into it. These guys made sure I had what I needed, gave me personal guidance, and seeing all the other veterans who come to the events, dealing with PTSD. I also deal with that. Being on the stream fly fishing—it just takes you away from everything else and it has a calming effect. Having these people who are willing to donate their time to help us out—it’s an amazing feeling.”     
 
The need for Total Outdoors’ programs increases with deployments. Many veterans of the PA National Guard, based in Muncy, have been deployed as many as six times, according to Fisher. Traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder are common.
 
“Everyone is impacted, once you go over [to serve] that many times,” observes Fisher. “Even if you’re just behind a desk operating a computer—you call in strikes and people lose their lives.”
 
Gold star family at Penn's Cave


Donations are critical

All of the programs provided by Total Outdoors are free to veterans and their families, who come from as far away as North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., often accessing free military flights, and from contiguous states Ohio, New York and Maryland. Costs for Total Outdoors programs are borne by individual and corporate donations.  
 
Fisher says more money comes out of his pocket than he would care to admit. He is not compensated for his time, and fly fishing equipment for participants comes right off his store shelves. But, he insists, it’s not about the money; it’s about helping people.
 
Total Outdoors’ annual budget is $5,000 to $6,000; donors include Pik Rite, ConAgra, K&S Music, Albright Footcare Center, Lewisburg Sunrise Rotary and an anonymous Philadelphia-based Internet capital group that funds programs for Gold Star families—families who have lost a loved one in military service.
 
“We bring in the remaining [Gold Star] family and do whatever they want—it doesn’t have to be fishing,” said Fisher. “We often go to Knoebels [Amusement Resort], T&D Cats of the World, Reptiland or Penn’s Cave for the day. We also do a lot of hiking. They are a special group and deserve special care. Or they can come up here [to Penn’s Creek] for a week.”
 

Into the future

Fisher’s ultimate goal is to open a 24-hour veterans’ center on Penn’s Creek. He envisions it as a refuge for veterans and their families—a place where they can feel comfortable and engage in activities they enjoy, any time of day, including fishing, hiking, reading, horseback riding, yoga or just relaxing. He needs funds to purchase property and build the center. And he needs $9,000 in equipment. He imagines a future in which he’ll have matching equipment, including boots, waders and rods, each carrying a sponsoring company’s logo.
 
Fisher is a one-man-band, and seeks more volunteers, particularly a grant writer, social media specialist, bookkeeper or financial consultant, and a lawyer.  He spreads information about the organization on social media, and at speaking engagements for regional service groups, and at day-long education and participatory events he holds in August and October. Lewisburg resident Nada Gray learned about Total Outdoors at a Lewisburg Sunrise Rotary meeting.

“I thought it was a very generous outreach Bruce is doing, especially since he’s not a philanthropist, as we tend to think of them,” Gray said. “He has this concern and interest, in fishing and helping people, and he thought this was a way he could make a difference. I am very impressed with him.”
 
Fisher is optimistic about the organization’s prospects, and how it can continue to help this very vital, and growing, segment of the population.
 
“The biggest thing to get across to veterans and their families is Total Outdoors is a safe place,” Fisher emphasizes. “Bring your family to have a nice time and meet new people. We really do good work—not just for the local community, but for people outside of PA. If they can get to Harrisburg, we can get them here [to Penn’s Creek].”
 

If You Go

Veterans and military families who want to attend a Total Outdoors program, companies that want to help sponsor Total Outdoors programs and anyone who wants to volunteer, can contact Fisher at info@totaloutdoors.org.    

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