The Mayfly Project: Making Fly Fishing Reel Fun for Foster Children

A small insect called a mayfly has become the inspiration behind a non-profit organization that has 63 ongoing projects across the United States that educate foster children and bring fly-fishing excursions to them.

ARKANSAS— Motivated by the birth of his son, a Benton, Arkansas, man and his wife developed a unique idea for a program based on the life cycle of a mayfly that brings fly-fishing to foster children. Jess Westbrook and his wife Laura formed The Mayfly Project in 2015, one year after the birth of their son sparked the inspiration to help children in foster care in their surrounding neighborhoods in Arkansas.

Four months after its launch, Idaho native Kaitlin Barnhart caught wind of the project and was intrigued to tie in her own efforts and work alongside the Westbrooks to expand TMP beyond Arkansas. This was the birth of the national program, which hit the streets of the United States in 2016 after the three partnered up.

TMP’s name and a structure are modeled around the life cycle of a mayfly, a fly often used as bait in fly-fishing. The first stage is the egg stage which resembles the introduction to fly-fishing, the fly rod, and TMF project mentors.

Stage two is the nymph stage. The nymph stage is when insects undergo partial metamorphosis, and for TMP, it’s when the children learn casting, knot tying, catch and release, and it’s time to start catching fish.

Stage three is the emerging stage, when the mayfly makes its way to the top of the water. For TMP, it’s when the kids practice setting the hook, practice conservation and education, and can cast on their own. After the mayfly emerges, it emerges as a dun. The mayfly then flies to a bank-side vegetal area and transposes into a spinner. This happens within a few minutes up to a day. During a TMP dun stage, the kids learn to read the water, mend lines, and roll casting. Lastly is The Big Catch Stage, where the kids have their final fun day fishing in a special location and receive their fly rod and gear.

“I’ve been taking kids in foster care fly fishing for a long time,” said Barnhart. “I have a mental health background and was taking kids up here [Northern Idaho], but I didn’t actually have a non-profit set up. It was just something I loved to do and would do it on the side.”

Today, TMP has 62 active projects across the United States, and one in the United Kingdom. Projects reoccur yearly once they have begun. First, a lead mentor is sought out and assigned a project in their region. That lead mentor is then in charge of recruiting more mentors to participate in the project. Once that foundation is solidified, then TMP is tasked with reaching out to foster homes or group homes and finding children to participate.

“It’s been pretty easy to find mentors, honestly,” said Barnhart. “Fly-fishing people and the fly-fishing community, they are just so generous. People are excited to really, you know, share their sport.”

Each project is five sessions with a group of about ten mentors and ten children. The one-to-one ratio ensures that each child has their own mentor and doesn’t become overwhelmed in the large group setting. The smaller the group, the better quality of the lessons.

The children are taught the basics of fly-fishing, from tying knots to how to catch the fish. TMP only practices catch-and-release, and the children are introduced to conservation efforts such as protecting against invasive species and picking up trash. The project is limited to five sessions because foster children often move in and out of their homes. The projects are organized as something the children can start and finish; it gives them time to get to know their mentor and allows the opportunity to fish in different locations across their current residential region.

“Our LA project just started this last year, and it’s this really neat group of people too,” said Barnhart. “If anyone wants to mentor or support that project, that would be huge. Our first-year projects are always like, you know, looking for ways to fundraise and just get more kids out.

The LA project is the second project to hit California after the San Francisco project. The L.A. project is led by Jane Miller, a 27-year-old educator who also mentored for the Seattle project in 2018. It is a team of 12 mentors and 6-8 children from the foster care Olive Crest and the Department of Health and Welfare. This project is sponsored by RFO Holdings Ltd and the Fontamillas family.

“We have a uniform process for adding projects, but they’re all pretty much the same, just in different locations,” said Barnhart. “They [mentors] go through an application process, and then we decide who were going to choose for that year.”

For those interested in becoming a mentor, The Mayfly Project website has application forms for current, specific, and new projects. For more information about The Mayfly Project, or to donate, visit



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