Fly fishing brings military veterans to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

By Leslie Whaylen Clift

November 2019

On a calm, early Sunday morning in August, four boats headed out of Galveston Yacht Club’s marina. Onboard, eight U.S. military veterans prepared for the two and a half hour transit into the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing rods were stowed, bean bags stationed at the boats’ sterns for the passengers’ riding comfort, and rays from the sunrise beckoned all eastward. These anglers would soon be fishing in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Some of them would be fly fishing using fly rods they built themselves.

three anglers casting off a boat
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary hosted military veterans for a day of “Vet Into Your Sanctuary” fishing. Photo: Sepp Haukebo

Three months prior, Mike Purcell from Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. attended a Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting. Project Healing Waters uses fly fishing as one way to physically and emotionally rehabilitate disabled military service personnel and veterans. During the meeting, Purcell and advisory council members hatched an idea for a “Vet Into Your Sanctuary” event to correspond with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Get Into Your Sanctuary campaign. From sea to shining sea, throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System, sites would be hosting special activities during the weekend of August 2-4, in order to raise awareness about the value of these iconic destinations. Before the meeting’s end, advisory council members Scott Hickman and Buddy Guindon (both veterans themselves) volunteered their time as captains on their fishing boats.

Over the next two months, Sepp Haukebo of Environmental Defense Fund and the Sanctuary Advisory Council worked with Galveston Professional Boatman’s Association to secure two additional boats and captains. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary collaborated with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and local fishing charter captains and tackle shops to cover all aspects of the fishing trip – from overnight accommodations to the tackle used.

participants gathered together for a group photo
Veterans joined Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and Project Healing Waters for a day of “Vet Into Your Sanctuary.” Photo: James MacMillan/NOAA

Meanwhile, Project Healing Waters identified anglers from their Houston-area program to participate. The organization hosted several fly tying sessions and two rod-building competitions. Although most veterans built smaller, light-weight fly rods that are used for catching trout in cold, fresh waters, some veterans built larger rods designed for ocean use. These stronger rods would be the ones tested in the sanctuary’s waters.

Before daylight on August 4, the group gathered at the marina. A guide was assigned to each of the four fishing vessels to provide information throughout the day about Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Sanctuary System. Joining the veterans were John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; James MacMillan, research specialist at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary; and advisory council members Scott Hickman, Buddy Guindon, Jake Emmert, and Sepp Haukebo. Each vessel had a captain and a deckhand, two U.S. veterans, and one volunteer from Project Healing Waters. And off they went!

a fisherman casting
A veteran casts in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: James MacMillan/NOAA

Once at Stetson Bank, the rods and flies were quickly put to use. Two veterans had never caught a fish on a fly rod before, but this soon changed. Big fish began hitting their fly ties, including barracuda, gray snapper, red snapper, king mackerel, greater amberjack, and ling. One veteran remarked, “I’ve never had a fish on the reel before.” Another noted, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in the backing.” The end of the line on an angler’s reel is called the backing; when the line is extended all the way by a big, feisty fish, an angler is “in the backing.”

Activities such as fishing and boating are not only fun, but can also be an impactful experience. A day on the water with a fishing rod in hand can provide veterans and others with a personal connection to the ocean that can develop into life-long appreciation and continued stewardship of America’s underwater parks.

Anglers were also educated on barotrauma, a condition caused when fish are brought up from depth too quickly. Barotrauma can make it hard for fish to swim and can cause swelling of their organs. All members in the Galveston Professional Boatman's Association have signed a commitment to carry and use descending devices on their boats. Descending devices help return fish to the depth—and pressure—where they were caught. Fish not kept for consumption during the fishing trip were released using descending devices.

After a hot day in the sun, all boats returned safely to the marina’s dock in the early evening hours. Everyone was exhausted, but smiling.

three fishing boats
Participants enjoyed a beautiful day in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: James MacMillan/NOAA

Because of its remote location, visiting Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary can be logistically difficult and cost-prohibitive. This event afforded veterans the opportunity to visit the sanctuary, learn more about the National Marine Sanctuary System, and interact with commercial and recreational fishers. Fishing with sanctuary visitors and getting to know them and their interests was also a positive way for sanctuary staff to establish a good rapport with interested members of our community. A total of 22 participants enjoyed an educational and fun fishing day.

At the Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting on September 4, Project Healing Waters’ Mike Purcell and David Headley thanked everyone who was involved with the event. The pair also presented the sanctuary with a shadow-box plaque containing flies made by the veterans and used on the day of the Vet Into Your Sanctuary event. “Words really can’t express our gratitude for including our Project Healing Waters program in the Vet Into Your Sanctuary experience,” said Mike Purcell. “It was truly an amazing day that we will cherish and remember forever. May you always have fair winds and following seas.”

Leslie Whaylen Clift is the advisory council coordinator for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.