Early morning is when the fish bite. At 5 a.m on a recent Sunday, in darkness, six military veterans stood around a couple of pickup trucks smoking cigarettes. One had a Purple Heart license plate and a wheelchair in the bed. The others were inked, and when they joked with each other, nothing was off limits; "yo-momma" slams zinged back and forth.
The veterans headed to the South Fork of the Boise River to go fly fishing. When the trucks crossed the Anderson Ranch Dam and dropped into a gorge of dirt road, the wheelchair bounced every time they hit a pothole. This wasn't a guided trip with some nonprofit devoted to fly fishing; these were the friends of Jake Thacker.
Thacker met these guys through the Idaho Veterans Network and on that day, he was having them trade their structured Thursday night support group for a day on the river. Most of them had never even held a fly rod.
Eric Keren has a little experience fly fishing and tried to teach one of the guys how to cast.
"Come back to about your ear, pause, let it unfold, then let go with your trigger finger," he said. The guy's line whipped back and fell barely a foot away.
"Let's do it together a couple times," Keren said, placing his hand over his student's, so they held onto the rod together, casting over and over. "Don't fight me," Keren said. "Let's try again. That one. Did you feel the difference?"
They stood before an iconic Idaho landscape: golden hills, morning sun glinting off the river, birds and birch trees, the smell of bug spray. They tested the height of their waders in the water, and their casts looked nothing like the magazine-cover fly fisherman's.
"I had forgotten how much it was therapeutic, really, just being out on a river, a creek or something, catchin' fish," Thacker said.
Fly fishing helped Thacker return his life to normal after he came back from the invasion of Iraq. He said war is the hardest thing he's ever done. He called it life changing; "not fun."
"I was depressed, I was isolating, I had substance abuse problems, but getting out, it took my mind off all that," Thacker said. "And I felt good, you know, because I actually went outside and did something, instead of just sitting in my room depressed."
His friends have seen the change in him since he picked up his rod again. George Nickel is the vice president of the Idaho Veterans Network, and he remembers the first time he met Thacker.
"He was a basket case," Nickel said. "He was handling a lot of his problems on his own and just internalizing a lot of stuff, coping with problems in self-destructive manners. When I first met Jake, I didn't think he had a sense of humor. There was no humor involved in it. It was all business, all seriousness, and now, there's actually good times."
Nickel waded out into the river alone. His thick fingers covered with silver rings, he cast his fly rod calmly, repetitively.
It was a stark difference from his rock bottom in 2009, when Nickel put on his combat vest, grabbed his rifle and his handgun, and started shooting down the hall of his apartment complex. He ended up in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department.
"It's two different universes, I mean, where I was then to where I am now. ... Sunday, this time of day, I would be knee deep in a 24-pack. I couldn't imagine standing out here learning how to fly fish because I couldn't envision any type of future at all."
Nickel now owns a fly rod.
Thacker, who goes fishing three times a week, has a goal to get other vets, like James Donaldson, out there, too.
With the help of his friends, Donaldson navigated his wheelchair to the bank, grunting as he wheeled over large river rocks. Thacker handed him a pole.
"The last time I fished," Donaldson said, "I was still in high school."
Donaldson's legs end at his knees. He lost them during his tour in Iraq a few years ago.
"It was the morning of July 14," Donaldson said. His unit had just finished a patrol with the Iraqi police. Donaldson was driving between two other Humvees when he got hit by a IED.
"I didn't feel anything. I tried to stop the Humvee, but I couldn't hit the brakes," Donaldson said. "I guess my left leg was gone-gone." Donaldson's right leg was still there, but it was stuck on the gas pedal, so the vehicle didn't stop until it ran into something. Donaldson doesn't even remember what that something was.
"I had a hard time adapting," he said. "I didn't leave my apartment or do anything from '07 until the beginning of '09. I was tired, I was depressed, down."
Since then, Donaldson has learned to play basketball from his chair. He has gone bowling and shooting, ridden four-wheelers and played ping-pong. And now, he has gone fly fishing.
"It's still an everyday thing for me," Donaldson said. "It's still hard to accept the fact that I don't have my legs, but yeah, I would have never met these guys; honestly, I don't think I ever would have."
Thacker has been trying to get Donaldson to come to the river for a while now. When he finally did come out, Thacker said he just wanted Donaldson to have a good time and enjoy himself, even if he didn't catch a fish.
"I want to get him hooked," Thacker said. "It's good for him. He says he needs to get out, and I agree."
Thacker is working on getting a degree in business now, and plans to open his own guide service once he has it. For him, this isn't a hobby; it's something he wants to do with his life. And Thacker has already started reaching out to businesses, trying to get fly fishing gear and trips donated to the Idaho Veterans Network. He's always looking for more vets to take out on the water and get them hooked, too.
On that Sunday, the vets didn't catch a single fish. But that didn't matter to them. That's not what this was about. It was about relaxation. It was about opening up. It was about recovery.