Sportsmen’s groups offer healing to veterans on the water

By Ad Crable
Contributing Writer

Lancaster, Pa. — In Lancaster County, three central Pennsylvania sportsmen’s groups have offered healing to veterans through fly-fishing, paddling and fishing from kayaks.

Donald Hershey has yet to catch his first trout on a fly-rod.

Doesn’t matter. “It’s just being outdoors and around nature and getting away from life for awhile,” says the 71-year-old from Manheim, Lancaster County.

Hershey has more need than most to take a break from reality. He suffers from heart problems, prostate cancer, diabetes and other ailments he attributes to breathing in Agent Orange during a four-year stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Hershey and about 10 other veterans from Lancaster County are discovering the peace and challenge of the gentle sport of fly-fishing thanks to the Veterans Initiative by the Donegal Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

With a recent trip to the fabled Yellow Breeches over the weekend, the free program for vets is well into its second year. Donegal Trout Unlimited members provide casting instruction, rods and reels, insect identification, knot tying, their own hand-tied artificial flies and then guide the converts to waterways in the region to fish for trout, bass and panfish.

“It’s just something that feels good to me. It feels right,” said Bill Nolan, a third-generation veteran himself, who runs this year’s fly-fishing program.

“I think everyone should have some level of appreciation for what the veterans have sacrificed.”

Other local sportsmen’s groups obviously share that gratitude.

The Central Pennsylvania Chapter of Heroes on the Water introduces both active and inactive members of the military to kayaks and kayak fishing.

All equipment is provided.

“It brings veterans from all ages to gather and heal as we travel on the waters,” said Brian Cunningham, of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, chapter representative.

For more information, e-mail centralpa@heroesonthe or see their Facebook page at

In addition, there is the Susquehanna Valley Chapter of Team River Runner, in its second year of an outreach effort to teach disabled, able-bodied or troubled veterans how to paddle canoes and kayaks in flat water or whitewater.

The program currently has 135 paddlers made up of veterans and their families, disabled members of the community and non-vet volunteers.

There have been 76 paddling trips so far and veterans are so appreciative that they have organized Kids are OutaSight! kayaking clinics to teach blind and vision-impaired kids and their parents how to safely paddle, or lead them on a paddle.

The group is hoping to begin programming at the Lebanon, Va., Medical Center.

For more information, contact Bill Butler, chapter coordinator, at 717-951-8948, by email at bill.butler@team, or on Facebook at

Most of those vets who have taken Donegal Trout Unlimited up on its offer to learn fly-fishing are doing so with no previous experience, though many fished by other means growing up.

For years, Jim Brubaker, 71, of Manheim, Lancaster County, has had two Orvis fly-rods of his brother sitting around the house. After retiring as a machine operator, he finally gave in to his curiosity.

A six-year veteran of the National Guard, Brubaker has caught several panfish but is still looking for his first trout.

“I’m learning the technique of it all,” he says. “I think I’m going to like it once I get onto it.”

At 86, Ed Smith, of Lancaster, is the senior veteran in this year’s neophytes. “I love it,” he said. “It’s relaxing and you go out and have a lot of fun and fresh air.

“It’s a real good program,” said Smith, who served three years in the Army in Seoul during the Korean War.

By all accounts, Art Cassot has been hit the hardest by the fly-fishing bug.

A 33-year veteran of the Army, the 70-year-old Manheim Township, Lancaster County, resident may be seen practicing his cast in his back yard.

“I always thought it was kind of pretty,” he said of fly-fishing. “I like the idea of learning the insects. But there’s a lot more to it than I thought.

“I moved here from Huntingdon a year and a half ago and I had no idea where to go fish. I just like being out on the stream. Half the time I don’t catch anything but I just like being out there.”

That’s just the kind of appreciation of the passive pleasures of fly-fishing that program leader Nolan had hoped to instill.

Nolan, who leans on other volunteers in Donegal Trout Unlimited such as Clay Pankewicz and Mark Coons, has exposed the new fly-fishers to a variety of streams such as Lititz Run, Fishing Creek, the Conestoga River, Little Beaver Creek and  the Yellow Breeches. He says many local landowners have offered use of their ponds when they learn of the program.

This winter, Nolan wants to continue the program by getting some of the veterans interested in learning how to tie their own flies.

He’s already gotten back what he gives in the form of stories recounted by the vets. And he says they have embraced the mission of conservation by Donegal Trout Unlimited, picking up trash and discarded fishing line at every stream.

“We have a good time every time we go,” he says.

For more about the Veterans Initiative, contact Bill Nolan at or 717-875-7426.

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