Backwater Memories with my Veteran Family written by Matthew Cade

written by Matthew Cade.


Fly fishing saves lives. These four words resonate with anyone who spends time on the water with a stick in hand chasing any species of fish. It is not necessarily the moment of the catch nor is it necessarily the fact that you are catching anything. It is simply those moments to be in that particular place on the water, in rhythm with your fly rod and line and your thoughts with Mother Nature.


The State Council and several participating state chapters recently raised $2,000 to fund a trip to send 10 Veterans to the Northwoods of Wisconsin to fish the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and stay at the Heartwood Conference Center in Trego.


Organized by Mike Burda and Mike Johnson (two representatives of Veterans on the Fly, a TU sponsored group) this trip would be an opportunity to fish alongside some of the best guides in Wisconsin from Hayward Fly Fishing Company.


Larry Mann and Wendy Williamson,owners of Hayward Fly Fishing Company had donated four boats for this trip with their own guides to navigate the waters for the participants of this trip.  Frederic, Wisconsin native and river rat Jeff Butler also generously donated his time and a fifth boat, the USS Driftwood.


With these generous donations, these individuals had recognized that fly fishing does save lives and quite often it is therapeutic to our nation’s veterans. These individuals were giving back to a community of veterans and giving them a small moment of reprieve and a once-ina-lifetime chance to experience something truly magical with this fishing excursion.



When invited by the Milwaukee Chapter of Veterans on the Fly, I found myself speechless. Here was an opportunity to leave the stresses of everyday life, a chance to let go and spend a few days on the backwaters of the Chippewa and Namekagon with others just like myself. It was an opportunity to spend a few days with lifetime friends floating on a winding river with nothing around us but heaven on earth.


Before I go further into this trip, I want to segue or pivot into how Veterans on the Fly has been a huge part of my own therapy. Because that is what this is truly about. This isn’t another fishing story of water droplets popping from a line as my rod was bent over by a smallie with a Murdich Slider at its lip tearing back under a fallen limb as I fought to bring it boat side. No, that would be an added bonus, and it did happen, a lot.


This was a trip where I may find the occasional fish getting in the way of my fly while I just simply relaxed for a moment and put things to the side. This trip was a moment in time where I would reflect and find peace with others seeking out the same thing.


After leaving the Coast Guard with my 12 years of enlistment, I have found that I still need to spend time around my brothers and sisters discovered through mutual sacrifices in our military service. We all have our little nuances, our own quirks that we work through, and for many of us it helps to find the camaraderie of being around those who have similar life experiences.


Anyone who has put on the uniform of any military branch and strapped up their boots for this nation have walked a different path in life than most. I can say that I am honored to have done so, but I may not always want to talk about what I have experienced while making the sacrifices that I have made to our country. There are plenty of stories to be shared with others when I feel the time is appropriate, but for the most part, it does not need to be said. It makes up who I am, and it has brought me to this juncture in life.


What Veterans on the Fly and other Veterans Service Partnerships offered through Trout Unlimited have created are experiences like the aforementioned opportunity above and it has been a lifeline for many like myself. Often, I have found myself with other veterans taking moments of escape with a fly vise or fly rod and reel and enjoying the sanctity of being in tune with myself harnessed through fly fishing.


Not necessarily forgetting my past, but just putting it to the side and focusing on the harmony of tying some buggy-looking fly or the roll of my loop in a cast.


Arriving in the Northwoods


After arriving in Trego, I was welcomed by Burda and Johnson with warm hugs and I was quickly introduced to the other veterans who I would be sharing the water with the next day.


The evening was spent enjoying fantastic food around the communal table at the cabin we were staying in. With all of us gathered around in the community room, an outsider would not be able to tell that this was the first time that many of us had met. Light conversation was intermingled with laughter and banter between us all.


Expectations of what the next day may bring had a few people outside practicing their casts on the lawn and swapping fishy stories of what previous summertime adventures had brought. Guys who did not have a lot of experience drifted over to those with a little salt to them and listened to any advice they could find. All the while everyone seemed at ease and were excited for the upcoming float.


Getting to bed too late after staying up to watch the ballgame, and getting up early to welcome my brothers with the smell of warm coffee, I found myself walking outside to catch the rising sun. I spent that moment knowing that I was going to spend the day being a River Rat chasing smallies on the fly, and just letting the float be a float. I was going to share the boat with my veteran brother from Milwaukee and we had Wendy as our guide. I knew that this day would be one that I would cherish forever.


For those few hours drifting with two other boats on the Namekagon, there was nothing else in the world. It was a moment that was locked into that 15 feet of drift boat and the river that was pushing us along. It was the silent cast into the rushes and along the banks, the sip of a fish under the surface taking a popper and the crushing strike of a bronzeback taking a Murdich Minnow. It was a time that was our moment to be in our own thoughts and focus solely on fishing.


For me, fly fishing has saved my life in more ways than I can explain in this article. I truly believe that it has saved my fellow veteran brothers’ and sisters’ lives as well. I have had heard that there may be future trips just like this one. I hope so. I pray that others can experience that moment locked into that 15 feet of drift boat while making that silent cast across the next ripple, focusing and escaping in a way that only fly fishing can offer.


Sadly we lose 22 Veterans a day to suicide. If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 2738255.


Todd “TJ” Ennis (U.S. Army) will be greatly missed by his Veteran Brothers. R.I.P. Todd, Until Valhalla.
December 17, 1985 – September 03, 2019.