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Army veteran Kyle Chanitz spent two and a half years deployed in Afghanistan, where he saw intense fighting and suffered concussions that led to seizures. When he returned to the U.S., he started taking college classes, but then dropped out to follow the jam band Phish around the country.
He spent 18 months on the road, got into drugs and spiraled out of control.
I had eight accidental heroin overdoses in a year,” Chanitz said. “And the whole time it was like, man, I don’t want to be doing this.”
Then one day, Chanitz was driving through Richmond, Virginia, on his way to the beach when he said he saw a sign for a Veterans Affairs hospital. He was in the midst of a methamphetamine binge and felt suicidal. Chanitz pulled over at a Walmart and convinced his meth-maker, who was riding with him, to get out of the car. Then he drove off to check himself into the hospital.
The VA moved him to a facility in Salem, Virginia, which sits at the eastern gateway to central Appalachia. After rehab, Chanitz tried to settle into life in the Roanoke Valley. He spent a lot of time in programs for disabled vets. He was learning how to garden when someone told him about Project Healing Waters, a fly-fishing program for disabled vets.
“We take vets that have never fished, and we walk them into the middle of the river, and it just washes over them,” said Bob Crawshaw, a Navy veteran who works with Project Healing Waters. “They just relax. They just go … whoooooooo.”
The program is designed to tap into the veterans’ situational awareness—the training that soldiers need to stay alive in a combat situation, but which can become intolerable when they return home to civilian life. In Afghanistan, Chanitz was usually the first guy through the door when his unit was searching for enemy combatants. He was trained to immediately process his surroundings and detect potential threats — a stray wire, a person holding a gun or knife.
But you can’t just turn that off after leaving the military. Even today, seven years after he got out of the Army, Chanitz said his eyes still dart around, followed by his arms and upper torso. It’s the muscle memory of maneuvering with a bullet-proof vest and rifle.
Crawshaw said that fly fishing takes those instincts and applies them to a serene, peaceful environment.
On the banks of Wolf Creek, in Bland County, Virginia, Chanitz watched for insects in the air and on the water, then used that information to choose a lure that mimics what’s he’s saw.
“So you see that right there on top of the water?” Chanitz said as he waded through Wolf Creek. “That’s a crane fly. I have a lot of crane fly imitations.”
Chanitz enjoyed fly-fishing and fly-tying so much that he got obsessed. He quickly got bored in the classes at the VA. He started watching Youtube videos to learn new fly-making techniques. He bought tons of gear and went fishing every week.
Fishing also provided Chanitz an outlet to connect with other veterans. Some of them took him under their wing and became mentors. That’s how he met his future wife, Jessica.
“My dad kind of took him under his wing, which my dad does,” Jessica Chanitz said. “He’s that kind of person. But there was always something special about Kyle.”
Kyle and Jessica Chanitz married and bought a house in Roanoke. Fly-fishing and fly-tying have been part of their relationship since the beginning.
“I think at this point I know more about fly fishing and fly tying than a lot of people,” Jessica Chanitz said. “I’ve slowly gotten used to the names of the material. He can tell me about a fly and the material he’s using or the hooks he’s using, and I can visualize pretty well what he’s talking about.”
Chanitz blends old-school and new-school techniques to make flies that are utterly his. For example, he’ll use a modern, neon-colored synthetic thread but mix it with natural feathers, all tied in a traditional way. He’s also developed a special blend of glues to secure his eyes on lures, which gives them extra action in the water and makes them more attractive to fish.
His fly-tying workshop takes up a sizable room on the second floor in the Chanitz house. Both Kyle and Jessica Chanitz spend a lot of time here—he tying fishing flies and her making jewelry, including with Kyle’s old flies.
“I get kind of my own little bit of my own little creativity,” Jessica said. “I don’t have his creativity, but I take something that’s very much a sport into something that has some beauty to it.”
Kyle and Jessica Chanitz sell their creations online mostly through social media, but it’s not their main source of income.
Kyle has benefitted from his interest in fishing and tying flies, but he’s also paid it forward by working with other vets, like Moir Edwards, another military veteran who also loves fishing. Edwards served 20 years in the Air Force as a mechanic. He learned to tie flies by reading books, but then he found Project Healing Waters, where he met Chanitz.
“Kyle has given me some flies that he tied,” Edwards said. “I try to imitate them. He’ll come in sometimes and he’ll just say, ‘Here’s a fly.’ You take it.”
This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia about the ways people interact with rivers.
This story is part of our Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.