Getting Back to the Source

In 2007, after two years of mentoring youth via fly fishing in what he calls pilot runs, Joey Puettman was convinced he was onto something and founded Joey’s Fly Fishing Foundation.

Puettman had been a program director at Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center, where development of social recreation activities led to his exploration of fishing as a vehicle for mentorship.

“I’ll never forget,” Puettman said, “seeing that these kids were happy, open and they were processing. It was like, ‘I’m just taking them fishing.’”

Puettman is passionate about fishing. 

“I was a fly fishing guide in my early 20s. I’ve been very fortunate,” he explained. “I’ve been able to fish the world. You name it, I’ve been there. It’s been pretty cool. I take one big trip a year because I have to reset.”

Yet, according to Puettman, the foundation is not based exclusively on fishing. It’s about mentorship.

“If I never caught another fish in my life, I would be okay with that,” he said.

Puettman argued that, no matter how adept someone is at a particular skill, if they can’t break it down and show somebody, then it’s kind of useless. Its value is increased when the skill is shared.

“We’re all very passionate about our fly fishing, but that’s not what it’s about,” he stated. “It’s not about self-serving. It’s about mentoring and giving back, and that’s what we try to do with these kids.”

Puettman noted that whatever issues he’s dealing with throughout the day, it all melts away while fishing, and he wants to give that to other people.

Not only do kids learn about patience, respect and other virtues from the foundation’s mentors, but they also learn about the “leave no trace” principle.

“Every time we get a kid into fly fishing, we’re creating a conservationist,” Puettman said. 

Before students even get to go fly fishing, they have to give a certain number of hours of community service to the foundation.  Fishing with Joey means cleaning the streams, testing water quality, and learning about fish habitat, anatomy and biology.

“The kids are learning respect for that creature and the river systems,” Puettman said.

The foundation partners with Steady Stream Hydrology, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the DEQ and other conservation groups.

“They come in with their employees and they teach and model for these kids,” he said. “It allows me to introduce these kids to other cool and exciting careers dealing with fishing and science, biology, mathematics. It’s all applied through this little thing called fly fishing.”

The foundation runs a baker’s dozen of four-day fly fishing camps for the kids in the community.  They also have numerous after-school programs through the Sheridan County school districts.

The beauty of Joey’s is that it emphasizes quality over quantity. The foundation only works with about 120 kids each summer. About 80 of those kids, some of whom have never been fishing before, will build their own custom fly fishing rod.

Puettman said the physical task is much more than simply building a custom rod.

“In my opinion, it’s a lost art. It really is. And it is an art,” he explained. “And there are so many skills that go along with it. There’s so much attention to detail… It’s a whole mindset. It’s a whole program built around this. They are uniquely designing this—from their thread wraps, picking out their handles, their guides, their real seats, and then the biggest thing is the math that’s incorporated with it.”

  The foundation tries to incorporate as many hands-on skills as possible.

“They’re learning so many skills that are associated with this and they don’t even know that they’re doing it,” he said. 

After committing many hours to the program, attending a camp, and building their own rods, students have a chance to attempt the Wyoming Cutt Slam, a challenge created and sponsored by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The point of the Cutt Slam is to catch all four of Wyoming’s cutthroat trout subspecies.

The foundation has created a program called Focused Family Fishing that takes students on the Cutt Slam challenge, getting them to fish some of the most incredible waters around the state. Parents are encouraged to come along for the four-day whirlwind trip across Wyoming.

“It’s really cool,” Puettman said, “It’s geared around support, too. All the kids are supporting each other. Our volunteers, our staff. It’s an emotional trip.

“There will be times when you’re fighting a 20-inch brown and it’s just… it’s not the right fish,” Puettman explained. “You can only experience it when you’re with us. You tell them, ‘you just caught a 20-inch brown,’ and they’re all disappointed because they’re looking for their Colorado cutthroat.”

  After students go on their Cutt Slam adventure, they are celebrated at the Fall Fly, which brings together 12 former students and fishing guides from all over the region to fish with them. Longtime corporate partners sponsor one student each for a day of fishing at a private ranch. The biggest fish wins. The event culminates with the presentation of the Cutt Slam certificates for those who earned them.

The beauty of Joey’s is that it emphasizes quality over quantity

“My first group of kids are in their 20s now.  I want to do a reunion. It would be great to get that first group of kids to come and mentor my kids now,” Puettman said.  “It’s not about the Cutt Slam. It’s not about camping. It’s about getting back to the source. These kids aren’t kids anymore. They’re married, or they’re in the Marines, they’re living life, you know. And a lot of them are still a part of our organization because it did something for them. And they’re my friends.”

The foundation has been working on acquiring land for a facility of their own for close to eight months, but it’s been on Puetmann’s radar for 12 years.  For the last decade, the foundation has occupied a building on Main Street, but they’re looking to scale up to be able to work with more students from around the region and the state.

“What we’re doing isn’t about me, and I mean that,” Puettman emphasized. “It’s about our wonderful staff and our board of directors. They are really passionate. We’re working with these youth and turning them into mentors.And it’s really neat seeing these generational gaps being broken down.”

By: Kevin M. Knapp

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