Catch & Release In Brattleboro, fly fishing offers tranquility to souls troubled by war and strife


Photographed by KURT BUDLIGER

Vermont Life, Summer 2016

“There is certainly something in angling ... that tends to produce a gentleness of spirit, and a pure serenity of mind.” — Washington Irving

Just west of Wilmington, a few yards up from where the Deerfield River loses its identity and becomes the Harriman Reservoir, there’s a rock in the middle of the river. It’s about the size of a large coffee table, and in the low water of late summer, it splits the Deerfield into two equally sized braids. When Mother Nature allows, there will be a rainbow trout feeding behind that rock, sticking its nose up into the river’s surface, sipping on the various forms of insect life that tumble and drift down the Deerfield.

On any given day between mid-spring and late summer, there’s likely to be a fly fisherman standing just upstream from that rock. Clad in tan waders, eyes hidden behind polarized sunglasses, the angler will make graceful casts of a tiny fly — a combination of feathers, fur, thread and hook. A well-placed cast puts the angler’s ersatz fly squarely into the parade of live insects cartwheeling in the surface film around the rock. If the trout misidentifies the angler’s well-presented fly as a real insect, it’ll rise up and inhale it. And if the angler senses that moment of connection, he’ll set the hook into the fish’s jaw.

For millions of anglers, that moment when the fish takes the hook and the line goes taut is the raison d’être for fishing. It’s the consummation of preparation and execution. For one group of anglers who ply the Deerfield’s waters each summer, however, there’s much more to it than that. Success isn’t defined by a perfectly placed cast that tricks the hungry trout. It isn’t just feeling that rainbow trout on the end of the line as it shakes its head and turns sideways into the current. It’s not just bringing that fish to the net. It is defined by being there.

Lou Sarkas is one of those who is there more for the moment than for the fish. He began fly fishing the Deerfield as part of his therapy at Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health facility in southern Vermont that treats depression, addiction, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Specifically, Sarkas is a patient in the Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program — an offering that focuses on military, law enforcement, fire and emergency personnel. Three years ago, the Retreat began offering fly fishing excursions as part of its therapy for the Uniformed Service Program; and for Sarkas, who speaks candidly about both his substance abuse issues and battle with depression and post-traumatic stress, it has helped transform his life.

The Brattleboro Retreat, and the 150 or so patients like Sarkas who have taken part in the Uniformed Service Program in the last three years, keenly understand the healing powers of fly fishing. It’s both serene and exhilarating, a pursuit that demands attention to the tiniest details while requiring an awareness of the larger forces of nature unfolding. Physically, an angler’s feet must be secure and balanced while the upper body rocks to the gentle rhythm of the cast.

“This recharges me,” said Sarkas, a burly, bearded Cape Cod firefighter, who has become one of the program’s biggest boosters. “I really don’t care if I catch fish or not. It’s that I get to be outside, hearing that sound of the river rushing past, thinking only about where I’m going to cast next. Yeah, I’ve learned how to fish since I took part in this program, but what I’ve really learned about is myself.”

Founded in 1834 with a $10,000 bequest from the will of Anna Hunt Marsh, the Brattleboro Retreat was Vermont’s first mental health hospital. Historically, the Retreat has eschewed some of psychiatry’s more invasive and controversial practices (like electroshock therapy) for what’s known as “moral treatment” — humane therapy that emphasizes compassion and physical activity. According to the facility’s website, the Retreat pioneered a list of mental hospital firsts, including a hospital gymnasium, camping programs, swimming pools, a bowling alley and a self-sufficient dairy farm. With that as a backdrop, it’s easy to see why the Retreat’s brass embraced fly fishing when Ryan Heck, a newly hired staff member, suggested it as a treatment option early in 2013.

“There is a bunch of research and lots of articles written about fishing and its value as a mindfulness activity,” said Heck, who grew up fishing in upstate New York. “I thought it made a lot of sense for us.” By the summer of 2013, patients in the Uniformed Service Program were heading out to experience fishing southern Vermont waters.

“Before we came across fly fishing, we were doing other mindful, guided physical activities like yoga or tai chi that really challenges people to focus and be present in the moment and engaged,” said Susan Balaban, a clinical psychologist and clinical manager of the Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program. “But fly fishing was something that brought it to a different level.”

Fly fishing has deep roots as a contemplative activity, spawning a library full of literature dedicated to it. From Izaak Walton in the mid-1600s to Washington Irving in the 19th century to the oft-quoted Norman Maclean (“A River Runs Through It”) and modern-day authors like Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times (“Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis”), hundreds of thousands of words have been dedicated to the spiritual, restorative capacities of fly fishing.

The Retreat is not the first organization to tap into this. Take Casting for Recovery, for instance. The program, designed to provide both physical and emotional therapy to breast cancer survivors, was established in 1996 in Manchester, Vermont, just 65 miles west of Brattleboro. Since its inception, Casting for Recovery has conducted more than 550 retreats and served more than 7,500 women across the country. Or look at Montana-based Warriors and Quiet Waters, a nonprofit organization that uses fly fishing as an avenue back into society for traumatically injured combat veterans. The same goes for Project Healing Waters, which began serving wounded military service members in 2005 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

But the Brattleboro Retreat says it has taken the concept further. “We are the only program that synthesizes fly fishing into a wider treatment program,” said Balaban. A typical participant in the rigorous and intense Uniformed Service Program will be at the Retreat from two to four weeks and will take part in a range of therapy sessions and recovery exercises. The Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program was established in 2009, and in 2012, it began an outpatient branch that dealt specifically with PTSD — a debilitating condition that manifests itself in military personnel at about twice the rate seen in the general population.

The vast majority of patients in the Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program are men and more than half come from a military background. They are drawn to the Retreat from all over the United States. (A number of officers from one municipal police department in Montana, for instance, have matriculated through the program.) For generations, said Heck, there was an unwritten code of machismo among soldiers, police, fire and rescue personnel that forbade them from discussing the grisly and horrific experiences they went through while on the job. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association recognized PTSD, and that came from research conducted in part with Vietnam War veterans. Even today, said Balaban, PTSD can be difficult to recognize.

“It is often intertwined with other diagnoses,” said Balaban. “There is often substance abuse or chronic pain or depression, and that requires some extra time for our patients to uncloud. What fly fishing does is compliment some of the other therapies we provide.”

Gulf War veteran Paul Harding, a 45-year-old Marine from Massachusetts, checked into the retreat in 2015 and early 2016. He said the time spent fishing was about as far as he could get from his experience driving trucks filled with ammunition through the Middle Eastern night as part of Operation Desert Storm.

“It was chaos back then,” Harding said. “While fishing, about the only chaotic thing that can happen is catching a fish.”

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