RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Tom Blackwell had never been fly fishing before. But here he was, knee-deep in the Tuckasegee River near the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, flicking an “Olive Wooly Bugger” gently across the crystal-clear river trying to entice a trout.
His efforts were rewarded as his fly pole bent with the weight of a feisty trout that flailed in and out of the rippling river before Blackwell netted his catch.
Blackwell wasn’t the only person on the river flicking the fly rod through the air and watching the green line whip around him toward the water on this perfect spring day.
Dale Connally, an accomplished fly fisherman and fellow participant at the Fly Fishing Adventures retreat sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources, stood nearby and gave Blackwell hearty encouragement.
“Atta boy,” yelled Connally, who may have been just as happy as Blackwell as they unhooked the fish, held it up for display and then let it go back into the gently flowing river.
This scene was repeated for a couple of days on four different waterways near LifeWay’s Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina, which hosted its first Fly Fishing Adventures retreat the week before Memorial Day. The event drew fishermen from North Carolina, Tennessee and Missouri who wanted to catch “the big ones” as well as inspiration from Bible studies led by Jason Cruise, founder of Outdoor Ministry Network based in Franklin, Tenn.
“This is a conference for the heart and the soul,” said Cruise, a former pastor who started Outdoor Ministry Network five years ago. “At OMN, our No. 1 gig is teaching pastors and regular Joes in church how to use hunting and fishing as regular ministry methods,” Cruise said.
Cruise helped LifeWay organize an inaugural Fly Fishing Adventures retreat two years ago at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico.
“I thought it would be so neat if we could host conferences that are unique to men, that speak a men’s language and yet energizes his heart at the same time,” Cruise said. “And the cool thing is that he gets the endorsement from his wife. She knows it’s not just another fishing trip or another elk hunt. When we do these adventure trips of all kinds, women really seem to endorse them for their husbands because they to know they’re going for the heart as well.”
Cruise aims for men to stop fighting their love of the outdoors and use it for Kingdom purposes.
“A lot of churches don’t understand men will serve the Lord if they can find a marriage between their passion and their faith. If you give them permission to do that, boy, you are on it,” Cruise said.
“So many men feel guilty because they like to hunt and fish.” Cruise felt that way until “the day I turned hunting and fishing into a way to use my faith; the guilt left me because I knew I could use it for ministry purposes.”
At Ridgecrest and the fishing events at Glorieta, Cruise leans heavily on the combined 60 years of experience Dale Connally and his brother Boyd have in sharing their love of the sport and of Christ.
“The cool thing about this for me is that it takes me out of my normal ministry area,” said Boyd Connally, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Hewitt, Texas. “This gives me an opportunity in one of my other passions. I love the outdoors, so this is a plus for me.” His brother Dale is associate professor and director of the recreation and leisure services program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a veteran participant of LifeWay’s Rec Labs.
Cruise, in his Bible studies at the retreats, focuses on topics that men -– including himself -– struggle with, such as time management and time out with God.
In a session on “Your Story: The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Cruise told the group their personal testimony matters.
“It’s kind of like running that fly through that strike zone,” he said, referencing fly fishing. “You present … present … present,” he paused dramatically. “And finally something a little different happens, and you don’t really know why. You present and –- boom! [A fish] is there.
“That’s how people are. They go through. They go through. They go through. And, then something happens. Their heart gets in a place…. [I]t doesn’t have to be a tragedy but something happens and then they begin to listen. At that point, your story matters.”
Ridgecrest is ideal for a fly fishing retreat, Cruise said.
“I was freaked out by the size of the fish,” Dale Connally said. “I was surprised at the size of the fish up here,” Cruise said. “I’ve fished mountain streams all my life but, man, there were some big fish up here.”
He added, “The Ridgecrest event started out like the Glorieta event in that it was smaller until people got word of it. The facilities in Ridgecrest are as incredible as they are in Glorieta. At Ridgecrest, you have five to 10 rivers. This particular event you have more waters to choose from in the immediate area. I think it will do well [for fly fishing retreats] with what it has to offer.”
Blackwell said there are a couple of things he will take away from the retreat.
“I’ll remember the intense adrenaline rush of catching that first fish,” Blackwell said. “The training I received from experienced fly fishermen was excellent. The Bible studies really gave me a lot of things to think about as I go home. I would do this again.”
For information on future LifeWay Fly Fishing Adventures, contact Ron Pratt at [email protected].