The United States Military Academy's Colonel Russ Forney

The United States Military Academy's Colonel Russ Forney

Militarily Precise hatch-matching from Thailand to the Beaverkill

  • By: Jim Reilly
Col. John (Russ) Forney has served in the Army's Medical Service Corps for over 20 years. During that time Col. Forney has traveled throughout the world and has most recently been assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point as a biology professor. In addition to being a dedicated educator, Col. Forney has mentored hundreds of cadets in the sport of fly-fishing through the West Point Fly Fishing Club. An accomplished fly tier, Col. Forney recently sold several of his fly patterns to the Orvis Company.

Tell us a bit about your background-where you grew up and how you came to teach biology at West Point.

I grew up in a military family; my dad was Air Force. Gosh, we moved 10 to 12 times when I was a kid. Then I went through ROTC and got commissioned in the Army in 1979, and just had some phenomenal opportunities. Coming to West Point five years ago was my fourteenth move since I was on active duty.

What sort of programs have you been involved with during your military career?

I have done just a little of everything. Started off in an armored cavalry unit in Fort Hood, Texas, a platoon leader, executive officer, a little bit of command time. Since I've gone active duty I've been stationed in Germany for a few years. I've spent some time in Southeast Asia, the Middle East a couple times, Africa. In fact, I think I've been to every continent except Antarctica. So I've really enjoyed the travel opportunities. Not necessarily in the garden spots, but pretty exciting nevertheless.

Have you ever done a combat tour of duty?

I was in Grenada in 1983, and I did seven months the first time we were in Iraq. My last combat tour was 10 years ago. Since then I have done a lot of strategic planning for current operations-Afghanistan, obviously Iraq, and Somalia before that.

Did you ever get a chance to fly-fish while stationed abroad?

I did fly-fish a few times in Thailand. In fact for my first travel rod, I saved for a year so I could buy a five-piece Winston. Of course in Thailand it was mostly river cats or carp, but what a hoot. Just a lot of fun-dredging up 15- or 20-pound carp on a five-weight rod-it was kind of nice. Many of the areas where we were were fairly remote, so some of the Thai villagers would come down and cheer you on, and once you got the carp up, they would grab it and that would be dinner.

Your educational background is as a scientist. Do you view yourself more as a scientist or as an Army officer?

I am first and foremost a soldier. Always have been. I have tremendous amount of respect for soldiers. They are the absolute backbone of the military. And the scientist supports the soldier and is always subordinate to it. I've had the opportunity to get education and some specific training and serve in specific assignments that took advantage of the science background, but always in support of the soldiers. Even my research has always been very focused on what we can do to take better care of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

What is it like at West Point?

It is a very rewarding tour. It brings together several things that I very much enjoy: teaching, the military, and I just really enjoy working with young adults. I have to tell you, I'm spoiled. The students up here, as you would imagine, are very disciplined. They come in, they're motivated, they're competitive, they do their homework. It's just an awesome experience from a teaching standpoint. It's not just a job, it's really a lot more than that. And, you know, it's kind of cool to come to work in a building that's 120 years old. It's a pretty fascinating place.

When did you begin to fly-fish and how did that come about?

I've been doing it for about 10 years. I actually had a friend of mine when I was in grad school who was a fly fisherman. He kind of turned me on to it, and what I've found is that I really enjoy going to the places that were regulated fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release and that sort of thing. So for me it was just an extension of a love of the outdoors.

In addition to being a professor, you are also involved with the cadet fly-fishing club. How is that program going?

We've just had phenomenal growth in the club. We actually have about 80 members on roll right now, of whom 30-35 are quite active. My contribution to the club over the years has really become more as a fly-tying instructor. In the off-season when the snow is flying and you just can't get out a lot, every other weekend up at my house we would host fly-tying clinics. We have five or six of those a year usually starting after the Christmas holiday and going up until April when the season starts. I guess over the five years we've had several hundred cadets come up to the house.

Some of the East's big-name rivers are nearby. What rivers does the club normally visit?

We're not an hour and a half from the Catskills, so the club gets over to the Esopus, the Delaware, the Beaverkill. It's just awesome, all that's just right there in our backyard. Then a couple times a year we'll go down to the state park on Long Island, Connetquot, and fish down there. So, a lot of opportunities.

Is fly-fishing common among Army officers?

Not nearly as common as golf. Here at the Academy I would suspect that five percent of the faculty and staff have fly-fished.

When we spoke earlier you mentioned that you were nearing retirement. When will that take place and what do you plan to do then?

My retirement is effective 1, September, this summer, '05. I've actually accepted a position in South Dakota with the Department of Health as facilities inspector. I'm excited about that. I'll do a little teaching. There's a community college that offers classes two nights a week. I really do enjoy teaching, so that all works out good.

But you do plan to do some fishing?

The house is about a mile from Sand Creek, a beautiful spring creek in northeastern Wyoming. I look forward to discovering every bend and hole in the river-and tying flies. I submitted a couple patterns to the Orvis Company this past year and they have picked them up for their 2006 catalog. I do some woven-body emergers down to about a size 24, some Tricos and Olives-that sort of thing, so they picked up a few of those. That was exciting for me. It was like a kid getting to try out with the pros.