At the Bristol Bay River Academy, students learn to tie their own flies to target rainbows, dollies, grayling, coho and chinook. - Photo provided

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Bristol Bay River Academy teaches valuable guiding skills

June 26th, 2014 | By Dave Bendinger Print this article   Email this article  

Fishing is a common profession in Bristol Bay, but not all fishing is alike. Certainly, for many young folks, learning to crew and pick fish in the region's world famous commercial salmon fishery is an excellent entry into a lucrative industry.

But tucked away in some of the most spectacular spots in Bristol Bay is the other profitable fishing trade. High-end lodges, some also world famous, cater to sport fishing enthusiasts by the thousands, year after year.

Almost all of the fishermen who come in search of some of the finest spin cast and fly fishing on earth departs his or her lodge each morning in the company of a guide. For the last six years, the Bristol Bay River Academy has been training a dozen or so local students to become those fishing guides. Organizers believe the Academy promotes jobs, and can help transfer knowledge of Bristol Bay and salmon conservation to the area visitors.

Nelli Williams, the Deputy Alaska Program Director for Trout Unlimited, one of the Academy's major sponsors, has helped coordinate the week-long course for several years. She believes local young people are increasingly in demand at area sport fishing lodges.

"They can offer so much more than just advice on fishing," said Williams. "They can integrate some of the culture and lifestyle of rural Alaska into a day on the river, and can teach visitors what makes this place unique."

So far, seven of roughly 50 graduates have landed jobs as guides in Bristol Bay since the program began six years ago. Several of those seven have worked for several years, and one graduate of the first academy has built a successful career around it. Williams believes more success stories will come.

"I've been out fishing with a couple of the students when they're practicing to be a guide at the academy," said Williams. "What they can tell you about the area, from how their families use the resources throughout the year, to what plants you can and can't eat, it adds so much to the experience, and I think lodge owners are really looking to offer that kind of local knowledge to their clients."

Although the academies are run out of some of Bristol Bay's posh sport fishing lodges, the students have their hands full for the week. For many, it will be the first time they have ever fly-fished, which puts them at a disadvantage to their competition for area jobs. So frequent contributors like Nanci Morris Lyon, who owns and operates the Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, and Mac Minard, a veteran of sports fishing in Bristol Bay, get them spun up quickly. They learn not only how to cast, catch, and release fish, but how to teach others to do so as well. The students burn the midnight oil tying their own flies, based on patterns suitable to the season. They talk about fishing ethics and manners, and how to properly take care of the catch whether for keeps or release.

"But there's more to it than just that," said Williams. In that short week, the students get a crash course in hospitality and operating a small tourism business.

"They get a lot of face time with Nanci," said Williams. "She tells them about being on time, being prepared, tending to all the duties. It's all the little things that help you provide these folks, who travel a long way and spend a lot of money, to see Bristol Bay with the experience that they want."

The Academy has been run out of several of Bristol Bay's best lodges, so students can practice actual operations as a guide by flying out to fish area rivers. This year, the Academy will be hosted by the Red Quill Lodge on the shores of Lake Iliamna.

"We're really excited to get up into the Lake country this year," said Williams. "We're hoping to see more kids from that part of the region apply and take part. When we're there in August, it should be a great time to target the strong coho salmon run. That should give the students a chance to fly fish for one of Alaska's most sought after fish."

The course is offered free to any students in Bristol Bay or shareholders of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. The main sponsors include BBNC, Trout Unlimited, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, the Bureau of Land Management, and Orvis, who has supplied the students with a free fly fishing pole and fly tying gear to take home after graduation.

The deadline to apply is July 1, but some late applications may be accepted. Check the website for the details.


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