The Volunteers of America Northern Rockies in Wyoming and Montana has helped many veterans find employment, housing and to receive the rehabilitation they need.
VOANR administers the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program and the Supportive Service for Veterans Families programs to assist vets who are homeless or facing possible eviction. VOANR also has Freedom Hall and Independence Hall in Sheridan, Wyo., and Billings that provides transitional housing for up to 32 veterans.
I know they do a heck of a lot more, but there is one program in Sheridan that I am quite familiar with, FISH. FISH stands for Fishing Inspires Self Health. The program is quite simple: Give the service men and women a chance to go fishing. The program serves as an accessory therapy for those who participate.
FISH has been around since 2011 and has helped at least 64 veterans. It seems that each and every participant in the program has had a good time and either learned how to fish or improved their fishing skills and built new friendships and a strong camaraderie.
Each year the VOANR asks for veterans to sign up for FISH. Those who do are given their own fishing tackle: spinning rods, reels, lures, tackle boxes and various fishing accessories. A generous grant from the Marna M. Kuehne Foundation of Sheridan has funded the program. For the duration of the fishing season the people in FISH get to go fishing at nearby waters. The vets receive instruction on casting techniques, which lures work best for the waters they will be fishing and how to read waters.
Each year the participants are able to fish such local waters as Mavrakis Pond, Healy Reservoir, Kleenburn Park, Connor Battlefield, Lake DeSmet and Tongue River Reservoir.
Healy Reservoir offers the vets largemouth bass, yellow perch and a chance at a tiger muskie. Mavrakis Pond offers bass, rainbow trout and golden trout.
It doesn't seem to matter where the vets are fishing, they have a good time and are soon teasing and jesting with one another. It doesn't take long for the cares of the day to be forgotten as they vie to catch the first fish, the biggest fish or the most fish. Even those who don't connect still share in the laughter and enjoyment of having a few hours together at a fishing spot.
Perhaps the biggest adventure for the vets is the fall guided fishing trips on the Bighorn River. Several of the Fort Smith guides (who are also veterans) take a cut in pay to guide the vets and fit right in with the good-natured banter. The guides bust their hind ends to make sure the vets catch fish. It is just a small way to say thanks for the veterans' service to our country.
A recent trip with the FISH crew occurred last Wednesday. We journeyed to Connor Battlefield to fish the Tongue River, which recently lost its ice cover. The water was very clear and cold. I bet that the trout would be hitting spinners, and I encouraged the guys to try the lures they had in their tackle boxes.
One fellow, Gus, hadn't fished since he was 9 years old and needed a little instruction on how to cast a spinning outfit. A quick demo and Gus was casting like a champ.
I showed Gus how to work the spinner so that it swung in the current and stayed well below the surface. A few minutes later Gus excitedly said, “A fish swiped at my lure but he didn't take it.”
I instructed Gus to try again. About five casts later, Gus shouted, “I've got one!” About a minute later he was able to drag an 18 ¾-inch brown up the bank. Gus glowed with pride about his catch.
Another angler, John, had trouble with the line wrapping behind the spool of his reel. After 15 minutes or so we finally got the line untangled and John was back in business. In five minutes he landed a 13-inch brown trout and was all smiles. John went on to catch four trout and a sucker during the outing and claimed the master angler award.
The guys kept a half-dozen trout and fried them up that night so that the good times lasted into the evening.
One memory that keeps popping up involves a vet in 2012 who had just landed a 10-pound carp after a long, hard fight. As he released it, he turned to me and proclaimed, “This is the happiest I've been in ages.”
I'm sure that the FISH program has prompted many such reactions over the years, and I hope that many more will occur in the years to come. I look forward to being a part of such a worthwhile and enjoyable program.