MOSCOW, Idaho — Paul Agidius tells Nathan Deahn that there is no right or wrong way to do what he is doing.
Deahn, with his face fixed in concentration, is wrapping fine thread around a small hook, forming the body of what will become a soft-hackle fly. The delicate movements required for the intricate work are still foreign to him, and he seems unsure of his progress. Agidius says confidence will come with repetition.
"Remember to look back after you have tied a couple of dozen and you'll be amazed at the difference," he says.
Agidius is a veteran fly tyer and Deahn is a military veteran learning to tie flies. Both are participants in a program sponsored by the Moscow Elks Lodge and led by members of the Clearwater Flycasters. Other veterans, about 15 in all, are in similar states of concentration as they wrap thread, stack hair, twist dubbing and whip-finish their creations. Members of the Elks Lodge and the fly-fishing group are giving pointers.
The mood is light and friendly. If any of the veterans, all students at the University of Idaho, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it's not apparent. But many of them have seen combat and all of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The program was created from a $10,000 grant from the National Elks Foundation secured by members of Moscow Elks Lodge No. 249. Lodge members solicited the help from the fly-fishing group, and together they are in the midst of teaching their second group of veterans from the UI and Washington State University.
There are no tears, no group hugs, no sharing of harrowing experiences. It's just old fly anglers teaching young men and women to tie flies, to cast fly rods and to fly fish for trout.
But there is a back-door therapeutic intent. By teaching these veterans a pastime that has enriched the instructors' lives, they hope it not only sparks a similar passion in the veterans, but also gives them a vehicle to salve the psychological wounds of war.
"It was not designed to be a therapeutic session in the sense of a typical therapy group. It was designed for people to develop some skills that helps them focus and as a result of that it takes a lot of stress and anxiety out of things related to PTSD," says Steve Meier, an associate professor of psychology and communications at the UI.
Meier, also a member of the Elks Lodge, helped create the program and participated in a spring session, but his busy schedule has kept him from joining the fall session.
"When you are doing fly fishing or fly tying, you put your mind totally into that moment. You are not thinking about anything else, you are thinking about winding this little string around this hook. When you do that there are no other thoughts out there, and it kind of gives your mind an opportunity to rest."
That is what so many people find so appealing about fly fishing and everything that surrounds it. It's not just a distraction, it's a distraction that requires concentration and devotion to detail. For many anglers, standing waist-deep in a rushing stream and watching a fly drift through a promising trout run, or sitting at a vise and creating the miniature works of art that help them hook fish, is a way to shut out the humdrum stresses of life. Meier says to combat veterans, many of whom have more intense sources of stress than most anglers, finding a vehicle to quiet the brain is golden.
"Their mind is just going rapid fire, one thing after another. They don't relax. Their brains don't relax," he says. "This helps them to relax."
But that is not to say these men and women are in need of therapy or are suffering from PTSD. Instructor Marc Ratzlaff says it is rarely spoken of. It came up once, by a veteran who took the class last spring. The student, as Ratzlaff recalled, mentioned he was pleasantly surprised at the subject's absence, saying in essence it's not often PTSD isn't brought up when more than a few veterans gather.
The class began with fly-casting lessons. Each student was given a fly rod and reel and a fly-tying kit. In September, they spent a weekend fishing on the St. Joe River. Now they will spend Thursday evenings through the rest of the fall semester learning to tie their own flies.
"It's kind of neat," says George Paris, a member of the Elks Lodge. "When they are all done they get to keep their kits and their rods and reels, and they can keep coming back to future classes."
Paris and fellow Elk Jess Caudillo say they hope to win more grants in the future and keep the program going. Members of the Clearwater Flycasters are equally enthusiastic.
"This has just been so rewarding," says Cliff Swanson of Troy. "I think we are getting as much or more out of it as the vets are."
Although its intent is to be soothing, Jeff Horgan says it will take more practice before he achieves any Zen-like level of being while sitting behind a vise.
"I don't like it right now," he says with a smile while trying to master an elk hair caddis, a fly that requires equally unfamiliar skills of dubbing and stacking hair. "Once you do it enough, I think it will be more relaxing."
Horgan served one tour in Afghanistan, where he worked in explosive ordnance disposal.
"It was a blast," he says dryly.
Although tying flies and defusing bombs is nothing alike, Horgan finds a similarity. He says to master either, you have to watch and learn from people who know what they are doing.
"You really have to pay attention."
Deahn says fly tying and fly fishing will keep him busy.
"They are teaching us a hobby that is going to keep me out of trouble," he says. "It's something I can do with my children."
He served two tours in Iraq, one in Ramadi and one in Baghdad.
Matt Roth served one tour with the Air Force in Afghanistan. Originally from Alabama, he sees the class as a good gateway into the outdoors.
"It just seems like a very north Idaho thing to do," he says.