“We get food by going subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping. Most everybody in my village lives off the land.”
-Paul Romie of Ekwok, Alaska
By Margaret Southern
He’d brought granola bars.
After two hours of fly-fishing in a cold, steady drizzle, Tom Hoseth produced from his backpack what his “client” and other guests really needed. Snacks and water had been on his guide pack checklist for good reason.
It was the last day of the Bristol Bay River Academy in western Alaska and all 11 students were practicing their newfound fly-fishing guide skills with mock clients – volunteer friends and family from the community.
It had been a busy week. On Monday, many students were tying flies, leaders and tippets for the first time. By Saturday, they were all taking their mock clients out on the river for a real fly-fishing experience. In between, there was CPR training, marine safety education, casting practice and creating that all-important guide pack checklist.
The Bristol Bay River Academy (formerly Bristol Bay Fly-Fishing and Guide Academy) was a concept dreamt up by the Conservancy’s Southwest Alaska Program Director Tim Troll and Yu’pik elder Luki Akelkok, traditional chief of the village of Ekwok. The rivers of Bristol Bay Alaska are a premier destination for fly-fishers all around the world who come for the rainbow trout, king salmon, Arctic grayling and other species. But the guiding jobs in this multi-million-dollar industry usually go to seasonal hires from lower 48, rather than locals who know the waters intimately but may have little experience with fly-fishing.
The academy was created to arm local, mostly Yu’pik, young adults between the ages of 13 and 22 with the skills and experience to compete for these lucrative positions.
“If you go to another country and you get a guide who is not from that country, they can’t tell you about the culture there,” said Russell Nelson, a six-year member of the Board of Directors of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. “The culture has been here for thousands of years, and these kids can tell a client the meaning of a mountain or lake and tell you its local name.”
The academy also has a goal of promoting environmental awareness in the students and the clients they will eventually guide. Most of the students participating in the academy live in Bristol Bay, many in small villages of just a few hundred people. Commercial fishing, hunting, and living off the land are a way of life. Fly-fishing guides with this deep investment in and knowledge of the environment have a greater chance of engaging with clients about the conservation issues of the region.
“If fly-fishing is your religion, then you need to tithe at the door of nature,” Troll said of the fly-fishing industry in the region.
The academy sponsors also include Trout Unlimited, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the Bureau of Land Management and other groups. This year’s academy was held at the Alaska Sportsman Bear Trail Lodge on the Naknek River. Owner Nanci Morris Lyon donated the use of the lodge to the academy for the week.
Tom is one of several students who foresee a future as a fly-fishing guide in Bristol Bay. “There is a lot I’ve learned about what it takes to be a guide,” Tom said. “Catching fish is kind of the last thing on the list.”
So, how did Tom fair with fly-fishing with his mock client?
His client Pete Andrew didn’t catch anything, but he didn’t seem to mind. Earlier that day Andrew, who has watched Tom grow up in the small town of Dillingham, described his goal for the day’s outing this way: “My ultimate goal is for Tom to feel like he can do this with anyone.”
Margaret Southern is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy.