Nature Heals, Fly Fishing Helps: Warriors & Quiet Waters

Nature Heals, Fly Fishing Helps: Warriors & Quiet Waters

By Hannah Truby
I first learned of Warriors & Quiet Waters (WQW) last month, when Mike sent me to Montana for TREAD Agency’s annual River Summit. A gathering of brands, journalists, content creators, and the outdoor industry’s most influential voices, the Summit is three days of networking, education, and testing sponsored gear “in-the-field”. The field, in this case, being Ennis, a scenic spot about an hour outside of Bozeman. Situated in the Madison River Valley, it’s a place many refer to as "a cowboy town with a fishing problem".

The Summit’s main event was the all-day fly-fishing excursion, and besides the water conservation components, (YETI ambassador and fly fishing legend Hilary Hutcheson treated us to some incredible insight on sustainable fishing) it turned out to be my favorite part of the trip.

The media were split up and placed onto a dozen or so flat-bottomed jons. My particular boat came with an impossibly upbeat 20-something-year-old as its guide (Spence, whose encouragement I will remember forever) and Jesse, a WQW representative. 

It was my first time fishing - fly or otherwise. I was about to spend eight hours on a tiny boat with two strange men, and I was totally out of my element. 

I ended up winning ‘Rookie of the River’, catching 11 Browns, Cutthroats, and Whitefish (you could call it beginner’s luck, I call it The Spence Effect). That, plus the on-water conversations made the day one I would really cherish.

Two people fishing from a boat on a river, surrounded by lush greenery.
Group of five people on a boat, with one holding a fish
Photos courtesy of TREAD Agency
A group of people surrounding a man, standing in front of a fishing boat, with a wood cabin and mountain scenery behind him
Upclose image of lanterns with fishing emblems on them

Photos courtesy of Hannah Truby

As we bobbed and trolled our way down the Madison, Jesse explained to me that WQW, a volunteer-run nonprofit, seeks to help post-9/11 combat veterans in their transition from service back to civilian life through outdoor experiences in and around the Bozeman area. 

"It's incredible", he'd said. "The way they utilize nature's natural healing - somethin' to do with the brain's beta waves." While he himself had never served, Jesse’s passion for the organization was incontestable

I reached out to Jesse after the Summit, wanting to know more. Because he himself had never served, Jesse put me in touch with someone who had.

Nathan Ellis is a veteran and WQW alum, who served with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Army. 

“I grew up in Ohio, but I always had this real affinity towards the West,” Ellis told me on our call. “I’d never fly fished, but I had this image of it, and the West. One of my buddies was really involved with WQW, and I’d always see his photos online. One day he says, ‘you gotta come check this out. So I did.”

Ellis has a decade of military involvement under his belt. After serving four years of active duty in the Third Ranger Battalion, Ellis spent the following six working overseas for the military on the government side. Like many vets, Ellis struggled as he transitioned from military life to civilian. 

“Most of us - if not all - face tough challenges trying to get back into what you'd call a ‘normal life’,” Ellis said. “It's a phrase I used to throw around a lot, because we all sort of have this picture in our heads of normal life before we leave, but coming back…there is no ‘normal’.”

Active military personnel have a clear mission and sense of purpose, with their lives structured to achieve those goals, with the necessary tools to do so. As they make the transition from active member to veteran however, they’re left without the structure, and their new mission is unclear. 

“One of the great things about the military - it’s a one-stop shop for everything you need,” Ellis explained. “It can come as a huge shock, not having that anymore. You're left without the support system, the camaraderie, and everything that you had before. It can be really isolating, not knowing where to go, what you want.”

Helping veterans in finding that new sense of purpose is WQW's mission statement; with programs designed to foster community and guidance for veterans, WQW's various outdoor excursions offer nature-based therapy, and provide vets with the necessary tools in their pursuit of purpose post-service.

For Ellis, it was during his very first WQW fishing excursion that he found it, the thing he didn’t even know he was looking for.

“I’m sitting on the bank of a creek, just me and my guide. I was looking at the mountains, and there was just this feeling of intense appreciation for everything that was around me,” he recounted. “In that moment, I realized there was no place I’d rather be, other than right where I was.”

Much of Ellis’ childhood was spent hunting and fishing, which granted him a deep affinity for the outdoors. But the desire to participate in the activities that once brought him joy was lost upon leaving the military. 

“Suddenly, I got that feeling back - that I had when I was growing up,” Ellis continued. “And, right at that moment, I watched an osprey dive into the water and catch a fish. It was just this really epic moment, frozen in my memory, that changed everything for me. Something had shifted.”

WQW’s “outdoor immersion experiences” such as fishing, hiking, and hunting, allows for nature to serve as both the backdrop and the treatment.

Situated beside iconic rivers like the Gallatin and Madison, fishing seems like an appropriate activity for WQW participants - but the ideal setting isn’t the only reason.
Quotation from the Warriors & Quiet Waters webpage

On day one of TREAD’s River Summit, WQW CEO Brian Gilman explained how fly fishing in particular demonstrates the science-backed, healing powers of nature. Cortisol, the body's stress hormone, tends to decrease when individuals are in natural environments. Fly fishing takes this a step further: casting’s repetitive, rhythmic motion, as well as the river’s tranquil sounds provide an abundance of opportunities for patron’s to practice mindfulness. In addition, moving water releases negative ions, which have the ability to reduce stress, boost mood, and regulate sleep.

“It’s not just a fishing excursion”, Ellis said. “It's everything, it’s whatever you need. And it isn’t necessarily something that's tailored specifically to you or to me, but when I went there, I was able to find exactly what I was looking for. And it was just by getting the space to do it."​

In addition to providing recreation opportunities, WQW is equipped with a team of professionals such as coaches, therapists, and dietitians, who provide concrete tools that vets can implement and maintain. To ensure they are equipped in continuing their new path, participants take home all gear, clothing, and equipment used during the excursions.

Ellis’ encourages veterans to seek out organizations like WQW, despite their likely hesitation.

“Don't be afraid to be a part of them,” he said. “It's extremely important, coming out of service, to continue with a community that is going to move you in a healthy direction. I now say that I have my family - my wife and my two kids - and my second family, which are my friends from WQW. They're just a collection of some of the best humans that you can put together in an organization.

Warriors & Quiet Waters' programs are at no cost to the participant including paid-for air travel to Montana, comfortable lodging and home-cooked meals, professional instruction, and gear for trip’s activities. To learn more about WQW and their programs for you or a loved one, visit WarriorsandQuietWaters/participate 
Log cabin with a painting of a trout on the front door, and fishing rods lined up against the porch
Worms-eye view of a man in a tan jacket with sunglasses and a scruffy beard
Warriors & Quiet Waters CEO Brian Gilman
Photos courtesy of Hannah Truby
A collage of three photos from Warriors & Quiet Waters programs
A collage of three photos from Warriors & Quiet Waters programs
Photos courtesy of Warriors & Quiet Waters