When he returned from a four-year stint in the Navy, Shumaker found he needed an outlet. For him, that outlet was fly fishing.
“Everybody who comes out of service — it doesn’t matter what capacity, whether you’re a combat vet, a peace time vet, whether you deployed or not — any veteran who served is going to have some issues rejoining society,” he said.
Shumaker experienced some of those issues, and Flyin’ Heroes helped bring his life back into focus.
Flyin’ Heroes is a program that utilizes the sport of fly fishing to promote therapeutic growth and rehabilitation of military veterans.
Shumaker serves as a guide, along with Flyin’ Heroes founder Eric Wentzloff and fellow angler Nathan VanKampen. They provide all of the equipment, row the drift boats down the river, prepare stream-side meals and do everything in their power to make the experience a positive one for the vets.
Wentzloff, a teacher and part-time firefighter, founded Flyin’ Heroes in honor of his father, who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Shumaker got his first taste of Flyin’ Heroes five years ago, when the service was in its infancy.
“I was the first participant with Flyin’ Heroes,” said Shumaker, who is now vice president of the organization. “What I really got hooked on was the fact that I was out there and I almost melted into nature. I was determined after that point I was going to take all the stresses I had in my life and focus them on a trout — take all that anger I had and put that toward catching a trout. And when I caught that trout, I put it toward catching a bigger trout.
“Now I want to teach other people how to take their anger and put it toward tying on 18 flies throughout the day and catching trout,” he added.
Catching trout on trips is a bonus, but it’s not the focus. Instead, Wentzloff, Shumaker and VanKampen use Flyin’ Heroes as a way to say thank you to military veterans.
The vets don’t need to be polished fly fishermen. They don’t need to have hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of gear.
“We have all the boats, all the gear, everything, “ Shumaker said. “They just show up with the shirt on their back, and they get a 4- to-8-hour trip down the Pere Marquette, the Muskegon or the White River. We do gourmet lunches on the banks of the river. We try to focus on a positive day out learning a new sport, using the outdoors to promote therapy and rehabilitation, and also to say thanks for setting aside a portion of your life to serve our nation.”
In five years, Flyin’ Heroes has taken 103 veterans out fishing.
They tend to forge relationships during the trip, and many veterans come back for repeat adventures.
“At any point, a former participant can call us and say, ‘Hey, I’m dealing with some stuff right now, and I could really use a float,’ and we do everything we can to make it happen,” Shumaker said.
Flyin’ Heroes wouldn’t be possible without the support of various companies and individuals. If you would like to support the organization, or for more information, visit www.flyinheroes.org.