When Kaitlin Barnhart fishes, she often uses a 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod with a weight forward line, a light tippet and a caddis fly imitation that she lays delicately in the moving water at the end of a run.
She’s been doing this for 15 years.
Barnhart, 37, is still after fish these days, often chasing North Idaho’s cutthroat trout, but more often, she stands calf deep in a river for another reason.
The Athol resident is one of the founders of the Mayfly Project, a youth mentoring program that teaches fly fishing and conservation to foster children across the nation.
As a child, Barnhart often fished in Lake Pend Oreille with her grandparents, she worked on bull trout stream surveys for the Forest Service during college and earned a psychology degree from Pacific Lutheran University. While working at a resort in Bristol Bay, Alaska, after graduation someone put a fly rod in her hand and showed her how to throw line tipped with dry flies and streamers to big rainbow trout, grayling and salmon.
The experience was a life changer.
“It was so quiet and peaceful out there casting,” she said. “I was totally hooked.”
Her journey to become an accomplished fly angler continued as she returned home to North Idaho. While working at residential youth facilities in Idaho and northwestern Montana she noticed the calming effect nature, and especially the moving water of streams and rivers, had on youngsters.
“For many of them it’s new,” she said. “They have never experienced it before.”
The children often come from places like Kinderhaven, or Children’s Village to a stream or river wearing a mask of discontent, their worries like a cloud shadowing their personalities.
“But as soon as they step in the water that changes,” she said.
They learn to tie a knot, cast a fly, steady themselves on slick river rocks, and for the time being their worldview opens up.
“It’s pretty special to see that,” Barnhart said. “They start acting their age, if you will.”
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Barnhart was already teaching kids to fish as therapy and a stress reliever when she learned another person was doing the same thing. She contacted Jess Westbrook, whose Arkansas-based project showed youngsters how to use fly fishing as a coping mechanism.
In the three years since the two joined forces, the Mayfly Project has grown from three regional projects to 37 projects in 24 states.
“We basically built this out,” she said. “It’s the perfect tool to get kids out and get them decompressed.”
The project receives donations from Cortland — the New York fly fishing company provides rods and equipment — and Holly Flies, a Pennsylvania company that donated 5,000 flies to the group this year. Local businesses also donate to the North Idaho project.
It taps area residents as mentors by having interested people — often fly anglers with a variety of experience levels — apply on the Mayfly Project website, www.themayflyproject.com. Mentors go through a phone interview, reference checks, and a background check and learn about the project’s safety and confidentiality policies.
In the summer the group hits local rivers and lakes every few weeks as they teach children 10 years old and up about fly fishing.
But, it’s not just that.
Participants get to throw rocks too.
They can get wet, breathe deep, laugh or just hang out.
“It’s a place where no one is going to bombard them with a million questions,” Barnhart said. “They get to be kids on the river … they put away their defense mode. We just want them to have a break.”
The memories made on the river sustain them, Barnhart said.
They become safe or happy places youngsters can retreat to.
“It’s a positive memory in a world of difficult memories.”