Catch & Recuperate: Veterans experience the healing powers of fishing

Veterans at a Butler County hospital experience the healing powers of fishing

PORTERSVILLE, Pa. -- Cloudy, no-sunburn skies, a light breeze, flat water and a fishing rod. At one Butler County hospital, they call that "therapy."

For some 30 years, VA Butler Healthcare, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has prescribed off-campus participatory recreation therapy for some soldiers, sailors and airmen recovering from traumatic injuries, drug or alcohol addiction, brain injuries, chronic diseases and other health care issues. Since 2011, the therapy has included fishing from pontoon boats on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park.

"Getting out in nature ... I mean, it's helpful to anybody," said Bill Kunst, a recreation therapist aboard one of two pontoon boats on Lake Arthur. "But we've found it's much more useful to the veterans to actually go out and do it rather than just stick to a classroom setting. It's been very beneficial over the years."

Recreation therapy is part of Phase 2 in a multi-phase rehabilitation program. Following hospital visits to remedy immediate physical concerns, Kunst said the veterans are encouraged to set up and implement a rehabilitation strategy. An initial 30-day hospital and classroom phase can include on-campus activities such as cookouts and bicycle riding. Phase 2 gets them out of their rooms and into the community in hospital-organized recreational outings including horseback riding, bowling, golfing and Kunst's favorite, fishing.

"We actually take what they've learned in the first phase and put it to good use," said Kunst, a lifelong outdoorsman. "We have a lot of younger Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that have had some brain trauma and so forth, and when you take them out and actually do the therapy instead of just talking about it, it's much more beneficial. With fishing they can actually get out and get on the water, interact with nature and each other. It's calming, it's participatory, it's interactive -- all the things these veterans need at this time."

Bank fishing was standard operating procedure until four years ago. Jim Burr of Portersville, then a professional musky angler with Muddy Creek Fishing Guides, motored his 21-foot pontoon boat up to the Bear Run launch, where veterans from VA Butler Healthcare were fishing from shore.

"One of them yelled, 'Hey, take us out!' " Burr said. "It wasn't a bad idea."

Moraine State Park officials contacted the hospital, and the state Fish and Boat Commission arranged to waive fishing license requirements for program participants. By the next summer Burr and his first mate, an 8-year-old mixed-breed mutt named Suzi, were donating their time to provide hospital-prescribed fishing therapy for veterans.

As a guide, Burr specialized in the elusive muskellunge. Now a park conservation volunteer, his mission is to put the veterans on active fish. Burr springs for the red worms and fathead minnows, and maneuvers the boat off weeds and shoreline structure where they're more likely to hook into bluegills, sunfish, bass and catfish.

Kunst said the pastoral element cannot be underestimated in rehabilitation. Suzi's tail-wagging disposition, the fresh air, rhythms of the water, sounds of nature and fish on the line help to relieve tension and anxiety.

A few weeks ago, during a rehabilitational fishing trip to Lake Arthur, former U.S. Navy sailor Steve Deemer of Apollo caught his first fish, a bluegill, and saw his first wild bald eagle.

"You could see the white head on the adult and the two black juveniles fly right over us," Deemer said. "It was incredible."

Feeling that bluegill on the line hooked him on fishing, and last week Deemer was back on Burr's boat rigging his bobber and worm and enthusiastically planning more fishing trips.

"I'm an alcoholic, but I'm finally thinking straight," he said, casting to the edge of a submerged road bed near a steep leafy shore. "I'm retired from the best job in the world, as far as I'm concerned, at Allegheny Ludlum. I was somebody, and when I retired all of a sudden I was nobody. ... I didn't know what to do. So I basically locked the doors and drank. I had garbage bags on the windows so nobody could see if I had the light on. Now I'm going back and I'm going to rip them off, and I'm going to go fishing."

Deemer said he was surprised by his reaction to sensing life at the end of his line.

"This fishing, it's the smartest thing I ever did in my life," he said. "My brother got me into this program. He has some fishing equipment, and I have some money and I'm going to get stuff. We're going to fish on the Kiski River. It's clean. It's clear -- you can look in and see the fish. I never felt like this before. I'm 55 and I'm starting to feel like I'm 20 again. Now I actually see a future."

If catching fish is rehabilitative, a lot of healing was done last week on Lake Arthur. Fifteen veterans aboard Burr's boat and another piloted by park ranger Ron Gilliard landed 60 fish in about four hours. Among them, Chad Gibson of Charleroi, who served in the Army in Iraq, brought in 12 bluegills and sunfish on red worms under a bobber. Bill Fogle, 73, of Valencia, an Army veteran who served in Germany, boated a 23-inch channel catfish that took a dough ball.

"It's wonderful," Fogle said. "We're all vets. Some have seen combat, some haven't, but we've all shared the same kind of experience. Out here the weather is magnificent, nice calm waters, good comradeship -- it doesn't get any better than this. If that's not good therapy I don't know what is."

First Published July 25, 2014 1:00 AM

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