THURMONT — — Christopher Gearhart does not know where he would be without fly fishing.
Growing up in this Frederick County town, Gearhart's father left the family when he was a small child. Donald Lewis, the town's mayor, took Gearhart and a few other kids to an annual event on the grounds of Camp Airy run by a group of men who taught boys like Gearhart how to fly fish.
"Honestly, my father left us and these gentlemen kept me out of trouble," Gearhart recalled Saturday. "They knew I liked to fish, and they kept me doing it."
Now 40 years old and an insurance executive who lives in nearby Waynesboro, Pa., Gearhart has stayed involved in the organization that taught him so much. The Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock, which began in Maryland in 1938 and has since started chapters in five other states, was founded with the intent of teaching fly fishing to boys and now also teaches girls in its New York, Michigan and Ohio chapters. The Maryland and Pennsylvania chapters run their annual events at all-boys camps.
The group's name is derived from the type of bird's feather that was once used to tie the fly. Last weekend, the organization sponsored 235 boys 8-years old and older and brought them to Camp Airy . A group of Wounded Warriors and their families were there Saturday as part of the Healing Waters Project run in conjunction with the Brotherhood's Virginia chapter.
"It's a natural thing, our guys have been working with the Wounded Warriors for a few years," said Bosley Wright, who has been part of the Brotherhood since his father brought him to the Camp Airy retreat nearly 60 years ago and is now its executive vice-president. "Bobby Abraham, who has been here since he was a little kid, heard about the Wounded Warriors and wanted to help out."
The first year it fell through, Wright said. Last year's inaugural event drew only six Wounded Warriors. However, Saturday's turnout — though kept down by other Memorial Day weekend activities — involved Wounded Warriors and was met with enthusiasm by those who came to learn how to fly fish in the two ponds that the Brotherhood built for Camp Airy during the 1960s.
"Some of these guys have never used a fly rod before, we're going to show them the basics of it," Wright said.
Jonathan Albrecht had never been fly fishing before going to a Wounded Warriors event last year. A Marine corporal who was badly injured during his second tour in Afghanistan when an IED exploded near him on Sept. 11, 2009, the Baltimore native said events such as the one Saturday would be become popular if there was more notice at Walter Reed and other local hospitals where military personnel are rehabilitating.
"And then it's remembering," Albrecht, who is dealing with memory issues, said with a laugh.
Albrecht said that he fished as a kid, but is starting to grasp the nuances of fly fishing.
Wright said that the goal is not only to teach the participants how to fly fish and turn them into master fly fishermen but also expose them to issues about conservation and the environment.
"We do it through fly fishing," said Wright, who lives in Owings Mills. "We go into regional water, [teach them about] entymology to the point of these kids making their own flies, making their own nets and they'll go to the streams and see what's out there and tie those flies and catch fish with it."
Wright said it takes between "six and eight" years for the kids to become master fly fishermen, at which point they are allowed to go to a pond Wright refers to as "sacred" that is at the original grounds of Camp David.
Wright admits that most of the boys who come through the program return for about four to five years before other sports take them away from fly fishing. Some return, even as adults, mindful of what they learned as a child.
Abraham, whose father brought him as a young child to the annual event at Camp Airy, said that it has become more difficult to get families interested.
"It has to be a motivation coming from somewhere," Abraham said. "It's got to come from a parent, a grandparent."
Gearhart has been taking local youths to the Brotherhood's annual event for 20 years and has served on its board of director for 10 years. For the past three years, Gearhart has been taking his own son, Jacob.
"The first boy I sponsored is now 28, many of my boys are in the Navy, they've taken some service and it's good to see how they've given back too," Gearhart said. "It's unlike anything else. It's pure. I tell the boys, 'Some might not have what you have. Help them out. These men helped me out. That's how it works out."
George Stamas, who has known Wright since they were growing up, brought his then 8-year-old son Jimmy to the Camp Airy event 18 years ago.
When the younger Stamas got around to writing his college essays, he wrote about the impact the Brotherhood and fly fishing had on his life. The older Stamas said the admissions counselor at Virginia Tech, where his son graduated in 2009, had never read such a unique essay.
"It will change you," said Stamas, who lives in Towson. "Some of these men, it's hard to explain how great they are to the children. Fly fishing is a very pure way to fish. When you teach somebody to do it, they learn for a lifetime. There's a camaraderie, there's almost a cult with fly fishermen. It's nature at its finest. The men who work here are all about the kids and teaching them the proper ways of life."