COMPARED TO THE INITIAL REPORT, our weather wasn’t looking so bad. Wind was steady at eight or nine knots out of the northwest, pushing temps down to the mid-forties. The water had cooled significantly over the last week, and reports of trout and reds still being around were spotty and unsubstantiated. Our odds weren’t good. Still, life had placed us here, with a boat, some fly rods, and a little extra time. Who cares about odds anyway?
Before leaving the warm confines of the car, Jessica Callihan charged her nuerostimulator one more time, hoping it would get her through the fishing as pain-free as possible. (Nuerostimulators are implanted devices that send electrical signals to treat chronic back and leg pain.)
Callihan grew up on a small dairy farm in Michigan, about 40 miles south of Kalamazoo. To be here, 600 miles away, heading out to fish Lynnhaven Inlet at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, was not the life she envisioned as a child growing up in the Midwest. It may not be what others expected either, but Callihan has never lived her life by the expectations set by anyone else. If she had, she wouldn’t have given up a full academic scholarship at Western Michigan to join the Navy midway through her sophomore year, she wouldn’t have learned how to flyfish, wouldn’t be making a living through her art.
“I didn’t tell my mom I was joining the Navy until six weeks before boot camp,” Callihan says. “She wasn’t very happy.” After boot camp, Callihan was stationed in Jacksonville, FL, working as an Aviation Electrician, E3. No one in her family had ever joined the military. It was the events of 9/11 that had inspired her. “It really stuck in my mind,” she says, as we stood on the dock waiting for local angler and mutual friend, Art Webb, to back his skiff toward the water. “I wanted to serve in some small way.”
Callihan fell approximately 10 feet while working on the base in Jacksonville in 2008. The fall caused permanent nerve damage in her right leg. After 11 surgeries and five years spent in and out of a wheelchair, she was in a bad place, and not just physically. “I was always a goal-oriented person,” she says. “My goal became getting up in the morning and not wanting to commit suicide.”
Eventually, Callihan had to make a decision between having her right leg amputated or getting a neurostimulator. Fortunately she passed the psych test and had the stimulator implanted in 2012. She still lives in pain, but manages it enough to get outside, to take up flyfishing, to go back to school for art and learn to paint, to start over.
“Being trapped at home was like being in prison,” says Callihan, who learned to flyfish at a Project Healing Waters event on Virginia’s Mossy Creek. “I’d been craving to get outside, which finally gave me a glimmer of the healing process.”
Callihan took that glimmer and made it a beam. She now spends as much time giving back to flyfishing as she does getting on the water. She travels the country as an ambassador for two different non-profits: Project Healing Waters, which uses flyfishing to aid in the emotional and physical rehabilitation of military vets and active-duty personnel; and Able Women, a non-profit formed three years ago to promote flyfishing among women, specifically the emotional and spiritual benefits of the sport. “There are so many aspects of flyfishing that give me what I want—it boggles my mind,” Callihan says. “If I can share that with other people, even just one person, then I’ve done my job.”
A recent trip to the veterans’ hospital inspired a new series of paintings. As Callihan sat waiting for her appointment, she began looking around the room, realizing all the patients there were held together by their metal parts—screws and pins. She began sketching a mayfly, one with timepieces for wings, bike and car parts for the body; her mechanical bug series was starting to take shape. Since then she has completed a mechanical salmonfly, and is working on a golden stone. She plans to expand her mechanical series into crustaceans, then fish.
Unlike Callihan’s life, our day of fishing went as expected. We had fun. Told some stories. Got to know each other a bit. No one’s spirits were dampened by the weather or lack of fish. “This is a journey I never expected,” Callihan says. And it’s one that might just be beginning.