By Meghan Barker
While I spend the majority of my work time in front of a “Save Bristol Bay” booth, or talking with supportive Trout Unlimited members and leaders about the proposed Pebble Mine, the first Monday in June brought a different start to my work week.
I loaded up my car with a tote of various education materials, stuffed my new waders in my bag, and headed to the float plane airport in Anchorage. On my way to facilitate the 11th Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy, my carry-on bag included a list of 15 students who I would be meeting at the Mission Lodge in Aleknagik, Alaska, just 20 miles north of Dillingham.
The Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy is a weeklong riverside course, which, through volunteer instructors, teaches fly-fishing, tying, customer service and guiding basics, river etiquette, leadership, conservation and fisheries management to the local youth of the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. This year, our academy class brought students from towns and villages as close as Dillingham to Naknek, and from New Stuyahok to Eagle River.
Students also came to the guide academy with varying levels of experience with sport fishing. Some had never picked up a fly rod, only ever knowing commercial or subsistence fishing. Others came with years of fly fishing experience and wanted to hone their skills and expand their knowledge of fly tying, customer service and lodge management.
As the other instructors and I set up for the week at Mission Lodge and we began with the first day of lessons, I quickly realized that while I was technically facilitating this week, I was basically a student in part of this intensive course. I, too, am fairly new to fly fishing, and while I talk a lot of the benefits of the fly fishing and tourism industry in Bristol Bay, I had yet to experience it firsthand.
As the week unfolded, I got to see the students go from novice to experienced knot tyers, become more confident in how to provide excellent customer service, and see them enthralled by various guest presenters who spoke about birds of Bristol Bay, research conducted in the region about salmon populations, and current guides sharing their tips of the trade. I, too, got an inside look at what it takes to work in the Bristol Bay fly fishing tourism industry. I now know that it is a lot of hard work, but with very high reward.
In the role of student, one of the biggest rewards came for me on one of our fishing days midway through the week. After flying out in a de Havilland Beaver over the deep turquoise waters Lake Aleknagik, we landed to fish on the Agulowok River. Bait balls of smolt running down the river made it easy to see where Arctic char were getting their fill. It only took a few minutes before we hooked our first char, and later in the day I even had the luck of reeling in a fish at the same time as Barbara, another student in the boat.
As a facilitator, the biggest reward came in seeing the skills that these students learn transforming to direct job opportunities. Both Triston and Caden had offers to guide with Bristol Bay lodges before the week had even finished. The passion that these young men have for fishing and their local knowledge paired perfectly with their ability to quickly learn regulations, customer service, and lodge teamwork. Many other students left with a strong desire to carry out the next steps of being a guide, or to work for a lodge near their respective homes.
The Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy works- it provides locals with the tools and skills needed to be successful in an industry that is a powerhouse in southwest Alaska. It provides young people options for employment that they probably would not be exposed to otherwise. It provides opportunities for the fly fishing community to rally around the next generation, and bring them in to a tradition that has existed in Bristol Bay for decades.
Participating in the academy this year was an incredible opportunity for which I am extremely grateful. Not only did I get to experience one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but I got to witness the hard work of Trout Unlimited and our partners as we came together for an impactful and productive program, whose reach will extend far past one week in June, or one lodge in Bristol Bay.
I look forward to following the students as they pursue different paths in the industry, and for sharing my own Bristol Bay fishing stories in the weeks to come. Check out pictures from the week on the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy Facebook page.
Meghan Barker is the Alaska organizer for Trout Unlimited based in Anchorage.