Building a fly fishing rod is an art as well as an exercise in patience and precision. It is a skill often relegated to the most serious of fly fishermen. It is labor intensive and exacting work — not the type of task Victoria Kaupp, 15, would have normally tackled.
When she was 14 years old, Kaupp was shy, easily frustrated and quick to quit anything that didn’t come naturally. Her grades weren’t great, and she was getting into trouble. Then her brother showed her a fly rod he’d built at Joey’s Foundation in Sheridan. The nonprofit, launched in 2007, teaches kids patience and hard work through rod building classes and fishing camps. Kaupp decided to give it a try.
She found that Joey Puettman, the organization’s founder, has an enthusiasm for rod building and fishing that rubs off on others. She enjoyed the program so much she overcame her extreme shyness and now helps mentor at Joey’s Foundation.
“I never thought I’d do something like this,” she said. “(My family) never thought I’d get out of the house and do something productive.”
This type of shift in attitude isn’t unusual, Puettman said. Puettman is a former fishing guide, and works as a program coordinator at Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center, where he works with at-risk youth. Many years ago, he took a group of kids he worked with at the hospital on a fishing trip as a form of recreational rehabilitation. He hoped fishing would help instill values such as patience and responsibility. He entrusted kids with his personal and expensive fly rods.
“It’s gentle,” he said of fly fishing. “You don’t have to be an athlete. You can just fish to fish. And everyone gets lucky once in a while.”
The kids were proud of their catches and eager to learn more.
In 2006 Puettman put on a fishing camp and its success led to him to start Joey’s Foundation. He offers fishing camps in the summer and throughout the year he teaches kids how to tie flies and build fly rods.
His first attempt at building a fly rod was a matter of necessity. As a child, he accidentally broke his dad’s fly rod. He tried to fix it, but it would be a long time before he mastered the skill. He took pointers from fishing buddies, and continued to hone his art. “It’s a very traditional part of this gentleman’s sport,” he said.
Puettman became interested in teaching the skill to kids, so attended a technical school in Washington to help master the craft. Then he started offering rod building classes for kids.
Younger kids begin by learning to build a spin rod. The older students build fly rods. It takes eight to 12 weeks, and the kids keep their rods when they are finished.
It is meticulous work and requires care and patience. It’s also a quiet and — usually — calm activity, which can be a contrast to school and home for some of the kids.
“This is not about fishing,” Puettman said. It is about giving kids a safe place to spend time and grow, and providing them a chance to learn first-hand that hard work can pay off.
Participating in Joey’s Foundation forced Kaupp out of her shell, she said, and perhaps most importantly it made her a role model for younger kids. A few years ago she wouldn’t have dreamed kids would look up to her. Now that they do look up to her, Kaupp said she’s more conscious of her behavior. Being a role model is a big responsibility.
It took a while for Kaupp to get here. When kids in the program get frustrated, the older mentors tell them to get up and take a walk away from their station. Kaupp took a few walks in her time at the program. She once threw her rod while fishing, frustrated at trying to master fly casting. Volunteer Jerry Longland intervened, helping her learn the timing of the casting. She tries to channel him when she’s helping younger students.
The foundation’s programs are open to anyone 5 to 18 years old. Some are referred by teachers or mental health facilities. And some, like Kaupp, wander in. Joey’s Foundation is one of her few extra-curricular activities.
“But she’s a part of something here,” Puettman said. “Everyone has something to offer, it’s just figuring out what.”