The introduction wasted few words.
“This is Joe Humphreys,” Jim Lanning told the group of fly fishing anglers gathered near Spring Creek. “To me, he’s an 87-year-old Navy vet who has a few skills.”
That was one way of putting it. Humphreys is a living legend in the fishing world, a Zen master of casting. He has books and films to his credit and is the subject of a documentary in the making.
But Lanning, as the director of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Partnership program and a veteran himself, was making a point. Among the men and women clad in fishing gear and clutching rods on a raw April Sunday, military service was the common denominator. Regardless of anything else, they shared a bond.
Humphreys had traveled from his Oak Hall home to the VSP outing for nothing more than the opportunity to help his fellow veterans with casting tips.
“I’m a Navy vet. I fought for the North,” he said to chuckles before showing again he can deliver lines as well on land as in streams. “Lord, thank you for giving us this day together. But Lord, you could have made it warmer.”
And so began another VSP afternoon of fishing and friendship.
SSCTU’s yearlong program, one of about 140 VSP programs offered by Trout Unlimited chapters nationwide, meets the second and fourth Sundays of each month. During the fishing season, sessions take place from 1 p.m. to dusk at Fisherman’s Paradise in Benner Township.
The program serves veterans, active duty military personnel, Reserve and National Guard members and their families. Fishing, of course, is the main idea. Chapter members act as mentors, teaching fly fishing basics to novices or improving the skills of enthusiasts. The chapter provides fishing gear, supplies, a fishing license if needed, fly-tying lessons and a one-year Trout Unlimited membership — not to mention plenty of coffee, hot dogs and other food for energy to keep casting.
A few years after its inception, the program has grown to more than 200 participants and supporters — a literal model of success. For its spring 2016 magazine issue, the national Trout Unlimited organization asked Lanning to write about his program for other chapters to emulate.
“We provide a great place to meet and enjoy the benefits of the outdoors, and as our veterans enjoy the healing aspects of our sport, they also learn about TU’s watershed conservation projects,” Lanning wrote.
But as well as hooks, the program offers “hook-ups” — in veterans’ parlance, advice and assistance from mentors, particularly for veterans transitioning back to civilian life.
“It’s really an outreach between them and the vets,” SCCTU President Bob Vierck said.
Spring Creek’s banks become safe ground, a place for questions and conversations over the gentle babble of the flowing water.
“As a mentor you have to build understanding, communication and trust with them, so you can be helpful when asked (or when things go sideways),” Lanning wrote in his magazine article. “Young vets are looking for the school connection, the job connection, and maybe a little career counseling.”
Because they’re from diverse backgrounds and often longtime residents, mentors know where to turn for resources. When one veteran set his sights on attending the Pennsylvania State Police Academy, the VSP program brought in a couple of former troopers to talk about the entrance tests. Sometimes, mentors themselves open the doors to new experiences — as was the case when one introduced a veteran to pheasant hunting.
Bob Whitlinger, a Marine veteran, was an avid bass fisherman when he heard about the VSP program and decided to check it out. Not only has he since learned the finer points of fly-tying and casting into tight spots, he also has come to appreciate the camaraderie.
“You come here and talk a lot of BS — it’s good stuff,” he said. “You can always find a friend.”
April Gunsallus, a former naval aviation lieutenant and now a Penn State graduate assistant and doctoral candidate, also enjoys the social side to the gatherings in addition to the chances to fish and support the chapter’s conservation efforts.
“I really like this program,” she said. “Everybody who’s a part of it is very sincere.”
She likes that it has many facets — fishing, enjoying the outdoors, networking, counseling, even having family time for veterans bringing their spouses and children.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all. That’s the value,” she said. “It’s flexible.”
Jim Hibbert, a Marine and Army veteran who grew up in State College, has been coming to fish for two years. He has seen a lot of caring — spouses befriending and supporting each other, the chapter’s annually inviting veterans organization representatives to discuss available resources and services.
And he has seen his fishing, after a 20-year hiatus, improve considerably. But if nothing bites, well, he still has had a good afternoon.
“It’s a chance to get to meet and talk to a bunch of vets in the area,” he said while manning a grill for hungry anglers. “You can come out here and learn a lot of skills from the streamside mentors.”
Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
What: Trout fishing with the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited Veterans Service Partnership program; open to veterans, active-duty military personnel, Reserve and National Guard members; families welcome
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. to dusk
Where: Fisherman’s Paradise, Benner Township (Take Paradise Road off Benner Turnpike, turn left on Spring Creek Road.)
Information: JLanningVSP@springcreektu.org, 951-231-8000 (text or call)