Meet the Next Generation of Bristol Bay Flyfishing Guides
Story and photos by Meghan Barker
It’s 7 a.m. on opening day of fishing in Bristol Bay. A crew of sleepy, but eager teenagers shuffle into the dining room of Last Cast Lodge in Igiugig, Alaska. They load up plates with eggs and toast and fill their mugs with coffee. They’re excited for their first day of flyfishing in the waters they’ve called home since birth, waters their ancestors have called home for more than 10,000 years. For most, commercial and subsistence fishing are all they have ever practiced, but at the Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy, they’re trying something new.
Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy class of 2021.
Students arrived a few days before the opener for a week-long intensive course on how to be a flyfishing guide in Bristol Bay. Under the instruction of local lodge owners and well-seasoned fishing guides, they learn how to cast, tie their own flies and knots, read the water, and most importantly, how to catch-and-release fish safely. Then they get to try out their skills on opening day.
The Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy was started in 2008 by Luki Akelkok and Tim Troll to open the door for local youth to pursue sportfishing jobs in their own community. The Academy also enables graduates to share local culture and conservation challenges with visitors to the region in their future roles as Bristol Bay guides. Throughout the week of the Academy, students are trained not only in flyfishing skills, but also customer service, land management, fisheries biology, lodge business management and more.
After finishing breakfast, students are greeted by local lodge owner and Naknek resident Nanci Morris Lyon, who has run Bear Trail Lodge in Bristol Bay for over 20 years. Nanci has been the lead instructor at the Academy since its inception, and frequently hires students out of the Academy to guide at Bear Trail. Nanci gives students the rundown on what they can expect for the day. She uses massive sticky notes to assign boats and makes a checklist of the things that students need to remember for the day out on the Kvichak River. She triple-reminds them to bring their box of flies, as that’s what they will have to fish with all day, and to not forget their sack lunch and water bottles. Students are excused to pack up and asked to hustle down to the boat launch for their day of fishing to begin.
Within an hour, some of the students have hooked into their first fish of the day. Rainbow trout splash in the nets as students raise them to take a quick picture and release them back into the gin-clear river. Some softly announce, “Fish on,” while others are hooting and hollering. They feel the tug on their lines and know that their hard work is paying off.
Monica Christopher with her first catch on a fly rod at the Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy in Igiugig, 2021.
This goes on all day. Students practice tying on new flies and move their way down the river with instructors and guides from Last Cast Lodge. Most forego their lunch, unwilling to miss an opportunity to keep catching fish and knowing they can scarf their sandwich on the boat ride back to the lodge. As they walk up from the boat launch at the end of the day, they already have phones out, comparing fish sizes and pictures of their catches. They’re tired and dirty, but so proud of the new skills they’ve put into practice.
Guide Academy student Cameron Andrew with his beautiful rainbow on the Kvichak River.
When everyone reconvenes before dinner, Nanci talks them through a debrief, exactly as she does with her guides at Bear Trail. Students share what flies worked well for them, what they noticed about the fish they were catching, and other tips to help their classmates find even greater success the next day. Nanci transitions to their next task: getting ready for Client Day.
Each year, the Guide Academy culminates with the final assessment of Client Day, where students are expected to guide guest clients on a full day of fishing. From greeting their clients at the beginning of the day, to ensuring the client catches fish, to keeping them warm and well fed on the river, the Guide Academy students put all their learned skills together for a successful day on the water.
After Nanci outlines Client Day and dismisses the students for dinner and free time, most of them chose to go back out to the banks of the river to practice their casts, or retreat to the fly-tying corner to continue building their boxes. This is when we say they’re “hooked” not only on the excitement of catching fish, but in the potential that has been unlocked in learning how to cast a fly rod.
Lead instructor Nanci Morris Lyon prepares students for packing for a day of fishing at the Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy.
A few days later, with more time on the water under their wading belts, community members and guests arrived at the lodge for Client Day. Students are paired off, and over the course of the day they put all their skills to the test. All clients caught fish thanks to their guides, allowing all Academy students to pass their final exam. 2021 student Shelby Nukwak-King, of Manakotak said, “When my client caught a fish, I felt that happiness with her and I was so proud that she caught it, too.”
The Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy is bringing young people into a world of opportunity that exists in their backyard and empowering them with the skills and knowledge to gain employment in their home region. Since 2011, roughly 20 graduates have found employment in the Bristol Bay recreational fishery as guides, flyout pilots, lodge managers or for fisheries management agencies. One of these graduates-turned-guides is Triston Chaney from Dillingham, who now guides for Bear Trail Lodge. “Guide Academy has given me an opportunity to work in the guiding industry, something I’ll be forever thankful for. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
Academy student Damian Gust displays the flies he crafted for Client Day.
The 2022 Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy will be hosted at Bear Trail Lodge June 5-12. Follow “Bristol Bay Flyfishing & Guide Academy” on Facebook for live updates and pictures of the Academy and the emerging leaders in the Bristol Bay guiding community.
The Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy is a cooperative project of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, Trout Unlimited Alaska, and Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Critical support is also provided by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Orvis, Bass Pro Shops, University of Alaska Bristol Bay campus, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Fish and Wildlife Service through the Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Partnership, the Alaska Fly Fisher’s Association, and the many lodges in Bristol Bay that have hosted the program.
Meghan Barker is the Bristol Bay Organizer for Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program. She has served as a facilitator at the Bristol Bay Flyfishing and Guide Academy for the past two years. Learn more about the Guide Academy by following “Bristol Bay Flyfishing & Guide Academy” on Facebook.