Project Healing Waters and the Heartland Fly Fishing Festival Jan 20-21

Zionsville resident Chris Jackson, a 12-year veteran and active participant in Project Healing Waters, with a big steelhead he caught during a PHWFF outing. Photo: Joe Smith

Project Healing Waters logoThere are plenty of great charitable and public service outdoor-related organizations these days. The biggest problem isn’t finding a way to help people but choosing from among all the worthwhile causes that compete for your limited time and resources.

Fortunately, I found mine over scrambled eggs.

I recently met with Joe Smith, the Program Lead for the Indianapolis contingent of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), more commonly referred to as “Project Healing Waters.” Over breakfast at a Zionsville coffee shop I learned about the program and why it deserves our combined support.

Joe became the head honcho of the local Program in 2016. A retired advertising creative, the former Army National Guard veteran is a “Man of a Certain Age” who wouldn’t look out of place pitching a trout fly while standing hip-deep in the Au Sable or Beaverkill on a classic Field and Stream magazine cover. The gray-haired Smith, who sports a jaunty streamer fly stuck into his hat even at breakfast, has a twinkle in his eye while alternately describing Project Healing Waters and the joys of smallmouth bass between bites of toast.

Photo: Joe Smith

During our hour-long meal I learned that Project Healing Waters is an international organization devoted to helping military service members’ deal with physical and psychological trauma through fly fishing. Initially founded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005 to help wounded veterans returning from Iraq, the organization officially took shape in 2006 and was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2007.

Since that time, the group has expanded dramatically and now has 206 operational programs in all 40 states and Germany. Each local program is managed and staffed by volunteers and works with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal agencies to help with the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities.

To facilitate the programs, Project Healing Waters depends heavily on angling groups such as Federation of Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited and local fly fishing clubs. In central Indiana, the program is headquartered at the local VA hospital but you’re likely to find members standing in creeks anywhere across the state during fishing season.

Fly tying class at Roudebush VA Medical Center. Photo: Joe Smith

At its most basic, the program runs fly tying workshops and fishing trips for wounded warriors. Expert volunteers teach the veterans fly tying skills during workshops and hold fishing outings throughout the year both locally and across the country.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive as Indiana is located squarely in the middle of bass country, the Indianapolis program is nationally-known due to efforts of local members Son Tao and Joe Jackson. The pair just came in number one and two respectively at the 5th Annual PHWFF National Fly Tying Competition held at Lancaster, Pennsylvania on November 2017.

The real reason Joe and I met was to promote their huge new fundraising and awareness project: the Heartland Fly Fishing Festival. The festival will be held January 20-21 at the Boone County Fairground Witham Pavilion.

This ambitious project builds on a history of other less-successful fly fishing festivals held in prior years around Indianapolis. While previous shows suffered from great organization but poor attendance, the Heartland Fly Fishing Festival is going for broke with a great venue, 50-plus vendors and a full slate of nationally-known speakers. With the muscular backing of the PHWFF, it is hoped the festival will become the signature annual event for Hoosier fly anglers.

Described as a show “…for anyone interested in learning to fly fish, and the fly fisher who has developed a passion for the sport. From novice/beginner to professional, this show will have something for everyone interested in fly fishing.”

Specifically, the festival will have casting demonstrations, clinics, educational seminars by fly fishing personalities and an extensive roster of 50-plus vendor and club booths. There will be outfitters and guides from the Midwest and even Montana, while big-names Orvis, Tenkara, Scientific Angler, Temple Fork Outfitters and other manufacturers will have a presence.

The venue is 15 minutes north of Indianapolis and immediately off I-65 with plenty of free parking. Tickets are $12.00 daily or $15.00 for a two-day pass; under 18 are $6.00 and kids 10 and under are free. There is also free admission for all active duty and separated military veterans with ID.

Tickets can be purchased at the door or at the Orvis store in Carmel, Wildcat Creek Outfitters in Zionsville and Flymasters of Indianapolis. You can also visit to purchase online. For further information, you can check out the event website at

We hope that all area anglers, not just the fanatical fly-flippers, will support this new event and the ongoing and meaningful programs of Project Healing Waters.

For more information about PHWFF, you can visit

Brent Wheat
A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of


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