Thursday, March 10, 2016

10th Annual PHWFF 2-Fly Tournament - Alumni Weekend

I was driving down the winding turns of the Blue Ridge Turnpike with the wipers on full speed as the last few bars that would connect me to society dwindled to "No Service". Good tunes were playing and something just felt right, it felt just like it did three years ago...the first time I made the trek to Rose River Farm and a weekend that would eventually hold a place on my calendar circled multiple times with a big red sharpie.

This weekend, as those of you who have read TLTFF for some time know, holds a very special place in my heart. That connection was grown from many factors, from seeing familiar friendly faces to landscapes, fishing to making new memories...but one of those factors is the true foundation of that growth, the seed that started it all, an organization and what it exemplifies.

I knew little about Project Healing Waters until about 4 years ago when I befriended a certain guy with the last name associated with a Disney character. Rob Snowhite had been posting about PHWFF here and there, talking about upcoming events and I would even see him at shows in their booth. Already being involved in the Non-Profit realm through CCA myself, I knew they had a mission, had a focus, and wanted change. Little did I know that change was in the form of attitudes, directly impacting lives and more time than not, saving them.

Fast-forward a bit to the Spring of 2014, where I find myself relying on my GPS to get me to this unknown place in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains as I wind down a wet road. I was trying to get in touch with the only two people I knew that were going to be at the 8th Annual PHWFF 2-Fly Tournament, but all my phone said was "No Service". Snowhite wouldn't have picked up either way since he was in the thralls of guiding the Potomac's shad run with a few clients and I had no idea if Dan Morgan (PHWFF's Director of Communications) even had my number. Eventually, after a few reroutes and turns through farm and cow country, I saw water, the river...followed by a sign. I had made it.

This year, I had no need for a GPS and the only phone call I needed to make was to my wife to let her know I was about to drop into the modern twilight zone and was almost there (within a few miles of RRF). The sight of the RRF lane is enough to get your adrenaline pumping, even through a rainy windshield on a low light day. The classic Mongolian Yurt cabins off to the right, the sight of American flags along the fence, the crossing of the bridge, and finally, the familiar faces.

As the WiFi symbol popped into the corner of my phone I knew it was close enough to the tent to send a "I'm here safe" text to my wife. I drove up over the hill after checking in to find everyone settling down for lunch courtesy of the local American Legion. Those Legion boys and girls know how to cook up some brats and dogs, let me tell you. Lunch is always the half-way point of the Bluegill Tournament, a halftime if you will.

The Bluegill Tournament is a fun "pre-tournament" event held at the farm pond on the other side of the RRF main property. The farm pond is stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass and rainbow trout. The tournament is open to PHWFF participants and any angler competing in Sunday's tourney. Hosted by Cory Routh and his wonderful wife Kelly of Ruthless Outdoor Adventures (give them a look, if you're ever in need of a guide in the VA area, look no further). Cory is not only a phenomenal angler, but has outstanding art skills and put them to good use for this year's Bluegill Tournament trophy.

As the Bluegill Tournament came to an end, there were three category winners with 2nd place finishes behind them. Along with the six podium finishers, there is one person who also needs to be recognized, Mark Eustis. Mark is a huge supporter of PHWFF and avid follower of TLTFF. Mark was a guide during the first 2-Fly Tournament 10 years ago and was fishing this year as a supporter. Mark caught the biggest Bluegill of the day (which happened to be a VA state citation) but backed out of the tourney so someone else could take the win. Kudos to you Mark, you're a good man.

CPT (ret.) Alvin Shell (Army) took the win in the Bluegill division and 2nd in the largest other fish division with a 12.5" largemouth seconds before the final buzzer (beaten by a 15" Rainbow), setting him up for what was due to be an absolutely amazing weekend.

As everything wound down and people headed over the hill to catch rides to their hotel, I was able to catch up with some of my favorite's, the TFO crew over an ice cold beer. The rain continued to fall off and on as we decided it was time to think about getting ready for the night's festivities and arrival of the keynote speaker, Tom Brokaw.

Both Rob Snowhite and Rich Farino pulled up just in time for me to grab my car and park it down by the tent near his to change and freshen up for the banquet. I grabbed a beer from my YETI, a Striped Bass Pale Ale by Devil's Backbone (had to give a shoutout for my goto brew), and made my rounds, giving hugs and checking in with everyone as the crowd began to gather in anticipation of the vets arrival, escorted by Culpepper's Patriot Guard Riders. Every year, rain or shine, their arrival tends to get everyone pumped for the night and Sunday ahead. The roaring of the bike engines and the procession that follows is always sensory overload piled on top of sheer excitement.

As the vets made their way into the crowd, finding their guides for Sunday as well as greeting familiar faces. A low murmur started to form as two easily recognizable faces stepped out of a truck right behind Rob and I...Lefty and Brokaw. After being greeted by the PHWFF family, Tom stepped over to Rob, shook his hand, and proceeded to ask "where can I get one of those", pointing to Rob's newly opened Shiner Bock. With a chuckle, Rob handed his off to Tom while saying "right here, its all yours, just opened it.". Tom took a big swig and put it right into his coat pocket, it was awesome. After a brief chat with Rob, mentioning that "podcasts and selfies are the bain of" his existence, he turned to me, obviously seeing I was star struck and shook my hand. Then it happened, he looked down at my name tag and realized I wasn't who he thought I was. Nonetheless, he played it off well be striking up a conversation with me regarding Bucs and Bones, Belize, Bonefish, and his favorite beer. After a few minutes, we were all moved into the tent as rain began to fall and the silent auction fired up.

Side note, Tom is smaller and slightly more weathered than I thought he would be, but I took that as the man has lived a rad life and has seen as well as done a lot of really rad things. Tom is easily the nicest celebrity I've ever met (yes, I can compare him to quite a few).

As I meandered my way through the tent, scoping out some of the most amazing silent auction talent I've ever seen, I found myself in front of my good friend Andrew Holt of Edrington. Holt was kind enough to come down and taste his full range of high end scotches from Macallan to Highland Park. Those scotches, paired with the absolutely amazing (happy) oysters from Sapidus Farms, made for one heck of an appetizer hour.

The mic fired up and the familiar voice of Douglas Dear asked us to begin to settle down. Douglas Dear, owner of RRF and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of PHWFF greeted us to the tenth installment of PHWFF's largest fundraising event before introducing a true American hero and someone who has benefitted greatly from PHWFF's work, SSG (ret.) Robert Bartlett (Army). Robert gave the invocation, speaking as a true man of God.

As everyone grabbed dinner, a low roar filled the tent as over 300 supporters of the event shared fishing stories, caught up on recent events in their lives and chowed down on the delicious food courtesy of Gentry's Catering Service. The rain continued to fall, harder and harder, actually helping to set the mood with a low, ambient sound, enough to soothe the soul as only the grace of the Blue Ridge Mountains paired with an amazing night can.

With full bellies, good wine, and happy spirits, the mood was fully set for the evenings program to begin with PHWFF CEO Ellen Killough's welcome and remarks. Ellen has a huge heart, she is a big advocate for our nations vets as well as women in fly fishing. Off the cuff she wanted to make sure two of the Able Women in the room were recognized, Jessica Callahan (Navy) and CPT (ret.) Kim Smith (USMC)...both of which have also benefitted from PHWFF's programs. Take a minute and check out what Able Women is doing, really really good stuff for the sport from both a diversity and overall well being standpoint.


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