Posted: November 10, 2016 at 4:09 pm

By Ryan Herdman and Cara Devenney

Twice a month, Aaron Barkhurst drives to a local outdoor shop. There, he meets with a handful of men who can be found sitting at a long wooden picnic table in the back of the store. One man wears a hat stating that he’s a Vietnam veteran, while another wears a shirt that distinguishes himself as not only a veteran, but a grandfather as well.  They haven’t gathered here to swap war stories; instead, they are focused on using the supplies scattered around the table, such as feathers and thread, to tie their own fly.

This is Morgantown’s meeting of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, and Barkhurst serves as their program lead.

Project Healing Waters was founded in 2005 by Ed Nicholson.

“It was at the Walter Reed (Veterans Adminstration) center, VA hospital there, and [he] was an avid fly fisherman. He was noticing that these disabled veterans were really struggling to deal with being back home and dealing with any disabilities they may have,” said Barkhust.

Nicholson invited some of the men to go fishing, and he soon discovered that fly fishing provided a therapeutic effect. From there, Nicholson turned Project Healing Waters into a national program that serves about 7,500 disabled veterans.

The mission of the program is to provide fly tying, fly casting, rod building and basic fly fishing classes to injured active and non-active military members and disabled veterans. The program also sends the participants on fishing trips, where everything is provided free of charge. Donations make up the majority of Project Healing Waters’ budget, but they also receive some grants.

“It’s neat in that whatever money we do raise goes 100 percent back to each program. . . my responsibilities are to pretty much figure out donations, budgets, and itineraries for what we’re going to be doing for tie classes, which typically is what we do at our meetings,” said Barkhurst. “We also build fly rods every year, so we have to make sure we have all of the materials for that and work with our regional coordinator to make sure we have everything to us in the time we need to get us started.”

Although Barkhurst leads a program for veterans, he is not one himself.

“These guys were all Vietnam vets, and some of them have pulled me aside and given me pretty descriptive accounts of what they did in Vietnam, and I have no way of relating to them. I pretty much just know how to fish and tie flies,” said Barkhurst. “[It] can be difficult to not be able to relate to them in that way, but they are all super gracious and pretty much poke my side when I am completely off base.”

Barkhurst watched a video online about Project Healing Waters a couple years ago on Orvis, a large fly fishing retailer, and he became interested in the program. He checked to see if there was one locally, and fortunately it was just getting started. Upon contacting the regional coordinator, he was told to give someone else a call to learn how he can become involved, but he never got around to it.

One year later, Barkhurst decided to give it another try. He called and went to the meeting. The program lead at the time wasn’t sure how much longer he would be around, so he asked Barkhurst if he could take over.

“I said sure not really knowing what that meant, but that was fine because I love fly fishing, I love sharing fly fishing and these guys certainly deserve our time. So that was my opportunity to serve them after all the time they spent serving us,” said Barkhurst.

Barkhurst grew up playing sports outside of Cleveland, but never did anything outdoors until he came to Morgantown for school. His roommate was a hunter and fly fisherman.

“I didn’t really know him. It just worked out that we ended up in the same house together, so he started taking me out, and we were going backpacking and fishing, and [I] just started with spinning reels,” said Barkhurst.

It wasn’t until he received an internship with the forest service that he became interested in fly fishing.

“I lived right on a catch-and-release trout stream at Richwood, West Virginia, and a couple guys there fly fished, and I thought, well shoot, I’ll try it,” said Barkhurst. “And I remember, I vividly remember that first trout I ever caught on a fly rod and that was it. I went home and I ordered a rod and a reel and I never really went back to spinning fishing.”

Barkhurst left fly fishing for a while because of all the other outdoor activities he participated in, but when his wife told him to pick just one, he chose fly fishing.

The Messinger Frog

One thing that sets Morgantown’s program of Project Healing Waters apart from the rest is the involvement of Joe Messinger, a world-renowned fly tyer.
“I think I drive Joe crazy a little bit sometimes because he is real old school, and I am more new school. Those clash a little bit, but there is so much to learn from Joe,” said Barkhurst. “All I can say is I know other guys in the state who are jealous that he is part of our group.”

Tying flies has been a part of Messinger’s life ever since he can remember. It takes him about three hours to complete the famous bucktail frog fly. He mentions it is not an easy task, and you have to be particularly interested in doing it. Not only has it become a hobby for Messinger, but it has also become a passion.

“I can’t remember never being interested in tying flies probably because my dad did it. I think over all of these years you do a lot of different things and try a lot of different things, and as I grow older, fly fishing and fly tying remained… it’s been a life long entertainment for me,” said Messinger.

When Messinger was a kid, he set up a table next to his father’s work area. People would come and purchase his father’s flies, and he would tell the customers that if they wanted to buy his father’s, they have to buy his for a nickel as well.

Messinger’s father, Joe Messinger Sr., was the inventor of the Messinger Frog, and was well known for his

Instructions on how to tie the Messinger Frog. Courtesy of Joe Messinger, Jr.

Instructions on how to tie the Messinger Frog. Courtesy of Joe Messinger, Jr.

flies. Messinger, Sr. grew up in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia in a town called West Virginia Junction along the North Branch Potomac River. Messinger says that his father was ahead of his time with the patterns that he created for his flies.

“The flies he created were because he was interested in fishing and his creativity is what brought him about, and he was obviously pretty good at it because a hundred years later they are still being made and still well thought of,” said Messinger.

Messinger recalls on a favorite memory that he had with his father when he was younger that he likes to reminisce on.

While Messinger was in college, a girl in his biology class appeared to be interested in fishing, so he took her one day. Messinger showed her one of the frogs his father had tied.

“Of course, I lied and told her I tied it, and she thought it was pretty,” said Messinger.

Messinger’s father sometimes made the flies and tied them to a pin for women to wear as a brooch. He told the girl that he would do that for her when he returned home.

“I was at least honest enough to attempt it… it looked like something the cat coughed up,” said Messinger.

His father then tied one to a pin for him to give to the girl at school. When he presented it to her, he lied again and said that he was the one that tied it. After the semester ended, he never saw her again.

“I am always grateful to her because she had me spend that time with my dad. That was early May, and my father died that September. If I did not spend that time with him, the things he did probably would have been lost,” said Messinger.

To this day Messinger is still tying flies, whether it is for himself, for his friends and family members, for those who inquire about them, youth groups, or helping the Veterans at Project Healing Waters during their meets.

“It [Project Healing Waters] first started here a year ago, and it started out with fly tying. We have moved to fly casting and instruction, and we take them [veterans] on fishing trips, float trips, and wade fishing trips. I have been involved with it for about a year now,” said Messinger.

Messinger explains that most of the veterans have not fished before, but thinks the program is great because it gives the veterans something else to do. He says no one can understand the trauma these veterans have faced unless you have been in a combat situation. Project Healing Waters is a distraction where they can spend time with each other and learn about fly fishing.

“It is always good to do something with your hands because it is kind of like playing banjo; they say you never feel bad when you are playing banjo because you are too busy all of the time . . . it is kind of the same thing with tying flies and fly casting,” Messinger said.

There are a handful of books and articles that were published that mentions Messinger and his father. Messinger has a son who knows how to tie the signature “Messinger Frog,” and hopes that along with him, many will carry on the legacy of his father by reading these books and learning to tie the fly.