Ed Nicholson

Ed Nicholson , Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing
Founder and President
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing
Purpose Prize Fellow 2012

At 62, upon leaving the defense contractor he joined after a distinguished 30-year career as a U.S Navy captain, Ed Nicholson found himself recovering from prostate surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

It was 2004, and the hospital was full of young people who had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’d be walking through the halls feeling sorry for myself, and I’d see these 19-year-old guys missing arms and legs, and holding their little babies,” says Nicholson.

Conversations with Walter Reed medical staff helped the avid fisherman realize that fly fishing – a sport that encompasses both the painstaking craft of tying a tiny, decorated hook, or “fly,” by hand and the physical activity of casting lines into rushing river waters – could serve as a vehicle for rehabilitation.

That flash of inspiration prompted Nicholson to establish Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nonprofit that offers regular fly-tying lessons and river excursions to wounded veterans. In eight years, the organization has expanded from a handful of participants at Walter Reed to more than 3,000 participants at 142 Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense facilities in 46 states, and has inspired spinoff programs in Canada and Australia.

Project Healing Waters has attracted mainly male veterans, but a handful of women have learned to fish, too.

“It isn’t just about taking people fishing,” says Nicholson. “It’s healing to stand in the water and cast a fly rod, but the real therapy is in building relationships with people who care.”