Fly Fishing Might Change Your Life
Wading into rivers helped a Navy vet cope with PTSD. Now he hopes others might experience the calming power of Oregon’s wild places.
You won’t find a river running through the unassuming but inviting Soul River Runs Deep store, tucked up in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood. Even so, you might feel a steady current — a flow of energy — that moves naturally through this urban outpost of lifestyle and fly-fishing gear.
Inside you’ll see rods and lines hanging from the walls and ceilings. They’re literal and symbolic: representing both the sporting obsession and the personal mission of Chad Brown, owner and creative director. With both his lifestyle brand and nonprofit, Brown has been casting lines to those in need for some time now.
But as surprising as it seems, Brown tells me he didn’t come to Oregon for the outdoors. Instead, he relocated from New York City in 2006 for a senior art director position at a Portland ad agency. Accustomed to the constant pressures of the metropolis he left behind, Brown quickly realized that the subdued pace of his new surroundings presented him both challenges and opportunities.
“There’s this relaxed feeling here,” he explains. “Being in the city, you’re on 24 hours. So it was almost like I was functioning and I was OK — until I came to Oregon. There’s so much space and room to breathe here that it thrust me into a place where I had to deal with myself.”
A Navy veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, in Desert Shield and at Guantanamo Bay, Brown faced an ongoing struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I lived and walked in the shadows,” he says. “I didn’t feel comfortable to step outside and into the light.”
Brown had already been seeking professional help and taking medications for his condition. But it was a newfound hobby — fly-fishing — that seemed to offer a different kind of therapy. The ever-changing but constant flow of water slowly eased him into a deep, relaxed state of meditation.
“I felt like I was getting clean again,” Brown says of being in Oregon’s rivers. “I felt like I was being grounded.”
But it wasn’t a quick fix. Nature helped Brown realize that healing is an ongoing process. Shortly after discovering the peace and calm of fishing rivers like the Deschutes, the Metolius and the Umpqua, Brown had a close-call encounter on a midwinter fishing trip.
“I was waist deep, I made the wrong step and the current took me down the river,” he recalls. “Everything has a reason and a purpose, and looking back at it, I had to fight hard to move over to the banks to help myself out. There was no one there. It was the same situation as me being in the shadows. I had to fight hard to come back into the light.”
Brown didn’t want those who faced similar challenges to feel alone. Thinking he might be a catalyst for change in other people’s lives, he founded a nonprofit, Soul River Runs Wild, which recruits veterans who serve as mentors for underserved youth. Together they take fishing trips and nature excursions in Oregon’s great outdoors. Brown hopes everyone involved might experience the same calming, centering effect that’s had such a meaningful impact on his own life.
For each trip he leads, Brown also tries to incorporate the long-standing traditions of the friends he’s made with the Quinault Indian Nation. Brown believes this helps inform the healing process of fellow veterans.
“When a Native American warrior goes off to fight, he comes back to the community to heal. The warriors don’t fight the battles by themselves. The community comes together to support and heal them,” Brown says, explaining his understanding of Native American rituals. “But in our society, we have warriors — our vets — who come back with no community.”
In addition to providing a sense of community to veterans, Brown’s nonprofit has also helped provided mentorship and an expanded sense of opportunity for many youth of color, who may not otherwise get out of the city to explore Oregon’s boundless nature.
“For me fly-fishing is just a vehicle that gives me the opportunity to create bridges and to share what is out there for folks who don’t know,” Brown says. “Yeah, we’ve got the rods, but we’re learning so many things about the outdoors. What happens is the youth start to grow. It’s about giving them a natural space to become leaders, to develop their own voices and to become advocates for protecting what’s most important: our environment.”
Sharing the bounty of the state’s natural resources with as many people as he can has also led Brown to extend the experience of the outdoors in the form of Soul River Escape, a four-hour fishing trip he leads on a private lake — complete with fly-fishing instruction as well as Oregon-grown food and wine.
For him, it’s just another way to invite people into the magic and majesty waiting for them outside of city limits.
“I found my soul here,” he says of Oregon’s outdoor spaces, “and I think others can too.”
Four Favorite Rivers
More than 100,000 miles of streams and rivers flow through Oregon, and Brown has logged time on a good number of them in the decade he’s lived here. There are a few that have a particular pull on his heart. Here are four of Brown’s favorite places to cast a line and why he loves each in his own words. If you plan to cast a line too, check out the fishing resources from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and be sure to purchase a license (which you can get online or from a license agent).
Umpqua River in Southern Oregon
“I have personal reasons for loving the Umpqua — it’s where I fished with my first fly-fishing rod. It’s a beautiful Wild and Scenic River. There’s this rich, emerald-green water. It’s smooth and the trees look like pencils.”
Deschutes River in Central Oregon
“The Deschutes is where you can witness Oregon’s high desert. It’s dry and canyon-like, but it’s gorgeous. There are certain places where the rocks look like cathedrals. It’s really a blue-ribbon river.”
Metolius River in Central Oregon
“A tributary of the Deschutes, the Metolius is unique and intimate. It reminds me of the photos of rivers you see in the vintage fly-fishing books — like the books you find in Powell’s covered in dust. It’s a classic gentleman’s river.”
Clackamas River in Greater Portland
“I fish at the Clackamas a lot when I’m pressed for time or can’t travel far from Portland. I usually go to Milo McIver State Park, as it has great access to the river. Even though it’s so close to the city, you feel like you’re out in the wild.”