A table cluttered with bright feathers, sparkling thread and barbed hooks sets the stage for welcome relief to the military veterans gathered around for their weekly fly-tying lesson.
Located at the Kalispell Vet Center, the fly-tying club provides a comfortable, safe setting for members to practice their craft, focus their thoughts and crack a few jokes at each other’s expense.
The resulting products look impressively similar to the insects they’re meant to replicate, or at least enough so to tempt a hungry fish.
The club began just over a year ago when club President Rick Flink of Kalispell jumped at the opportunity to share his “lifetime devotion” with his fellow veterans.
“It does have a calming effect. You can forget about everything else that’s going on,” Flink said. “It’s funny a little piece of steel with some thread and some feathers wrapped on it, how that can do that.”
Flink has been tying flies since the mid-1970s when he started watching his uncle tie.
“I sat and watched him do it a couple times, and then I just couldn’t keep my hands out of it,” Flink said.
Following a highly stressful career as an officer in the Army National Guard and then as a longtime railroad worker, Flink said he often found solace in his flies.
“What could ground me more than anything was just to slip off to my fly-tying desk and start tying thread to a hook and putting feathers on it just to see what I could come up with,” he said.
Retiring when he was 60 years old, Flink said he hated the boredom all that free time brought.
Though he volunteered with multiple nonprofits, Flink said he never found his calling until he got the opportunity to lead the group that began by serving disabled veterans and now welcomes others to the group as well.
His hobby had evolved through the years to the point where he was selling his flies in fly shops and could even build his own fly rod.
But, he said, he’d never taught before.
The first week he started teaching the veterans, he said, he began with the simplest fly he knew.
His voice echoed in the silent room that first week. The next week, he said, brought a little more interaction among the veterans there, but not much.
By the third meeting, however, the room filled with laughter and relentless ribbing between veterans, whom an outsider would have thought were old friends.
“I think they felt that I really cared about them and cared that they learned how to do this and do it right,” Flink said.
Now the vice president of the club, Bob Hile-Westrum of Bigfork attended the first meeting having never attempted to tie a fly before.
A U.S. Navy veteran and lifelong fishing fanatic, Hile-Westrum, 57, took to fly-tying like a fish to water, investing in his own supplies and equipment and setting up his own tying desk at home.
“That’s all I do is tie flies,” he said. When he’s not working beside his fellow veterans at club meetings, he’s watching YouTube tutorials online or configuring his own flies in his home workshop to enter in competitions.
His time in the service resulted in a condition common to combat veterans called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)
Tying flies, he found, had a unique therapeutic effect on him.
“With the PTSD, I use this to calm myself,” he said. “Dreams, nightmares, there’s stuff I’ll always deal with, but that’s where this really helps me out.”
Kalispell Vet Center Director Christina Ryan described the craft as recreational therapy, with the ability to help veterans increase their socialization and decrease isolation.
“When they’re doing something as intricate as fly-tying, they’re focused on that,” she said. “It’s distracting them from other things that might be distressing — intrusive thoughts, intrusive memories and any other symptoms they have.”
Additionally, she said, the club provides a safe environment for veterans to develop new interests and skills while rediscovering their ability to interact in social settings.
“Once they learn something like a new skill, that something is enjoyable, then they’re more willing to try something else,” Ryan said.
To help aid in that comfort and amiability at meetings, Flink said he aims to create an atmosphere of positivity for everyone involved.
“I don’t accept ‘I can’t,’ not in any way, shape or form because I know you can,” Flink said. “You just have to be patient and don’t judge what you’re doing.”
The motto for the club, he said, is “Pretty flies catch blue ribbons at the county fair. Ugly flies catch fish.”
Thanks to donations and fundraisers, the group provides its members with most of the equipment needed, including vices, hooks, bobbins and thread and an array of fur, feathers and other materials.
Each week, Flink leads the group in tying that session’s fly, either using an online video as a guide or demonstrating the techniques himself.
Some of the more experienced members of the group move around to help their friends with their flies, while others work alone at their own pace.
“I think that’s more of what I’d like to see is it building self-confidence and taking away some of those doubts,” Flink said.
Outside of the classroom, the group met a few times last summer at a local pond to practice using their flies on the water.
“To me, the goal is not necessarily to catch fish,” Flink said. “It’s more about being outside in the environment that I love, which is around the water. Then if you catch fish, that’s just the bonus as far as I’m concerned.”
Now in its second year, the group has begun expanding in purpose, size and involvement.
According to Flink, the group will soon move to a new facility outside of the Vet Center in order to better utilize evening hours that will allow more people to participate.
Recently named a chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, the fly-tying club soon will cater also to physically handicapped veterans.
The group has also opened membership to the public, offering access to lessons, equipment and outings for a membership fee.
Unsatisfied with last summer’s limitations to local lakes and ponds, Flink said he also hopes to organize more trips to rivers and streams in the area, as well as longer trips to Missoula and the Missouri River.
“If you’re interested in fly-tying at all, it’s best to get with another tyer, one that’s fairly good at it, or be involved in a class similar to the one we have here,” Flink said. “Doesn’t matter what your level of ability is, you’re tying with experienced tiers and they love to teach, love to help.”
Though not everyone has the patience required for fly-tying, Flink said most people who do get into it find themselves hooked for life.
For more information, visit www.vetcenter.va.gov.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.