Stories Tenkara

Finding My Tenkara with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing

Article by Steve Davis

“Are you a veteran?”

The question came from above as I was walking into my hotel room in Estes Park, Colorado in preparation for the 2015 Tenkara Summit. I looked up to see a man in his mid-60s standing on the balcony waiting for my reply. I responded, “No sir; why do you ask?”

“Your Project Healing Waters Hat. I saw it and thought maybe you were a veteran.”

Steve Davis - Tenkara Project Healing Waters - Hat

Reaching up and touching the hat unconsciously, I had almost forgotten which hat I was wearing. “I am a volunteer tenkara instructor at my local Healing Waters Chapter in Madison, WI. Since I didn’t serve I wanted to give back to our vets for all they have done for us.”

He took a moment before saying, “I learned to fly fish from the local Healing Waters chapter back in Mississippi. They saved my life. I want to thank you for being a volunteer, you guys are heroes.”

His words hit me like a freight train. “You guys are heroes…” I had never been called a hero and felt tears begin to well up. I chose not to serve my country and here was a veteran of the Vietnam conflict calling me a hero.

He continued, “I wouldn’t be standing here right now had I not taken a chance and gotten involved with my local chapter. I have suffered with PTSD since I returned from Vietnam and was at the end of my rope. Several years ago, Project Healing Waters changed that.”

Earlier that year, before heading to the local TU ‘Icebreaker’ (that inspires people to break out the rods after a long cold winter, to practice casts and tying techniques) I came across an article about tenkara. I have always been fascinated about Japan and their culture so to learn that the Japanese had their own ‘style’ of fly-fishing got me super excited to check it out.

One of the fly shops there had a few tenkara rods on display. After 20 minutes of speaking with them, I had my first tenkara rod and line set and was anxious for the snow to melt so I could get out on the streams. During that cold, lingering month, I became obsessed with tenkara. I read books and blogs and watched countless videos to help guide me once in the field. The cast would be different; there were no mending lines, and no line management. Line management is one of my weak areas when it comes to fly-fishing and it has cost me many fish.

Steve Davis - Tenkara Project Healing Waters

In the course of my research and web based tenkara training, I came across Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. I was instantly attracted to their mission and message. “Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. ™ is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”

I saw images of vets learning to fly fish and instantly thought that tenkara would be perfect for veterans who might have trouble dealing with a fly rod, reel and line. Contacting the PHWFF national headquarters, I explained I was new to tenkara and wanted to volunteer to share my newfound passion with the people who deserve it most, our Veterans. Within about 30 minutes I had an email response connecting me with the local director of the Madison, WI chapter and after a quick email to him, I was on my way to becoming a volunteer. I learned that another member of the Madison chapter was fishing tenkara and I knew I had made the right choice by reaching out.

A week later, I was at my first class. There were a dozen or so veterans and as many volunteers. We converged on a local pond that had wheelchair access, fed by Black Earth Creek, one of the better-known trout streams in the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin. It was a great mix of folks all there with one passion in mind, fly-fishing.

In the short year that has passed, I have met many veterans who are using both western and tenkara fly-fishing as a means to cope with the psychological stress and physical trauma resulting from their time in the service. Hearing their stories and having knowledge and skills that I can share to help them heal has changed who I am as a person and my outlook on life.

They say that everyone who practices tenkara will ‘find their tenkara.’ Although I still have a lot to learn about tenkara and have yet to perfect my technique, my decision to share it with our Veterans has been one of the most rewarding choices in my life. 

I have found MY tenkara.

Steve Davis - Tenkara Project Healing Waters - Logo
For more information on Project Healing Water Fly Fishing and how you can help, visit or contact your local Trout Unlimited Chapter for more information.

Steve Davis is an IT guy by trade and lifelong fishing enthusiast by choice. He learned to fly fish with his father in the mountain streams of Western Pennsylvania, and began fishing tenkara in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. He now spends most of his fishing time on the streams in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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