Name of guide service/lodge: Blue Fly Guide Services & B&B
Number of years guiding: 21
Number of years guiding on the Naknek: 18
Species guided for: All 5 species of salmon, char, grayling and of course the reason I have made this my home, the rainbow trout.
How did you first get started fishing? I grew up around the water. I have always been drawn to it. I had a pretty rural upbringing and as a kid I spent hours outside mucking around the lake and creek near my house. My grandparents lived on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake and what seemed like almost every weekend we would visit them. Days were filled with scooping up blue crabs in those wire nets and dumping them in the living room so they could run around before my grandmother threw them in a pot, going fishing with my dad and grandfather, feeding a huge flock of mallards off the back porch. My grandfather was a pretty accomplished fly fisherman, huge Atlantic Salmon fisherman, and he even caught a tarpon on a fly in the 1940s, well before the fly-fishing trend kicked in. He had one wall of his garage dedicated to tying flies. As a pretty tiny kid and even as an adult this was fascinating stuff. I remember looking up and scanning the walls at the bright feathers, fur and flash he had going on in there. I was pretty awestruck. I’ve always been partial to blue so I would ask “Pop Pop, can you tie the blue fly?” It was actually a Blue Charm, I think, but hence the name of my business.
What or who inspired you to become a guide? The short answer would be my father and my grandfather because I would fish with them as a child. However, never in a million years would I have thought I would end up as a professional guide. I was a pretty studious kid, tracking myself toward medicine or wildlife biology and ended up double majoring in both because I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go. Then right after graduation at CU, the Colorado Division of Wildlife hired me on as the assistant statewide angler education coordinator. It was a pretty awesome job. I traveled around the state running educational fishing clinics, teaching kids and adults about fisheries and conservation. The program reached out to everyone but focused on those who couldn’t otherwise afford to get started in the sport. Participants would leave the clinic with an understanding of how to catch and properly release fish, sustainable use of the resource and, most importantly, be given all the gear and the confidence to go out and enjoy it on their own. It was pretty much my version of a dream job—until Blue Fly.
My boss was inspiring as well, encouraging me to take a summer off and explore Alaska, as he knew it was an itch I would keep trying to scratch. So I went to a trade show in Denver, handed out my résumé and picked the job that offered me the most money (not knowing anything about any of them), and as fate would have it, I ended up in King Salmon, fishing the Naknek River. I do remember looking back on it; lodges 18 years ago were pretty hesitant to hire female guides. I heard a lot of “We are open to the ‘idea’ of a female guide and are certain of your fly-fishing guide skills, but we’re not sure about how a woman would do driving a boat or living in a remote camp.” Kinda funny.
I shrugged it off and I never did return back to my job at the DOW, as every season Alaska claimed another piece of me until after three years I had saved up enough to buy my own boat and started my own business. Slowly but surely, the guide business grew and I saved up enough to buy my own home in King Salmon, which I turned into a bed-and-breakfast for fishing guests. The whole business is a creative process, constantly morphing into something better each year. At least I hope so!
So, the long version ends with coming full circle to recognize that my father and grandfather are the ones who introduced me to fishing and to the water and to almost everything that is important to me. I didn’t realize that then, but I do now. I’m pretty fortunate to have my dad here with me. His visits got longer and longer until I finally built him his own cabin and bought him his own boat and now he stays almost all summer. After guiding for ten years or so on the Togiak, I convinced him to come over to this side and help me with Blue Fly. I’m pretty fortunate to have him around and he is a huge part of Blue Fly’s success. As he will be the first to admit, our similarities make us butt heads at times and having your daughter as a “boss” is a challenge, but every day I get to spend with him on the water is a good one.
What was the hardest part to learn or get used to? The hardest part for me is seeing the pressure on this fishery increase year after year to the point where it is no longer sustainable-use. In the past, all the guides did a good job of managing the resource. However, as is the case over and over with man and nature, greed has entered the picture. There are little to no regulations on starting a business or getting a guide license. We are seeing lodges pump high numbers of people for a low cost, taking the money out of state and leaving the river to lick its wounds. Oftentimes, people are unguided or guided at a ridiculously disproportionate ratio, ensuring the guests do not get a quality experience on the river. Guests are not learning proper fishing and handling techniques to ensure fish swim away unharmed. Compared to other rivers in Alaska, the Naknek tops the charts with our phenomenal salmon run and as a result we have the most impressive rainbows, I would argue, to be found anywhere in the world. However, when you look at all those big trout we are landing, keep in mind those big fish are on average 12 years old. They are a reflection of the way the river was years ago, not today. In order to get a good sense of what the river is like today you need to look at the smaller fish, the ones 18- to 24 inches long. Those are the ones that reflect how we are treating the river today. Those fish are the ones that I’m seeing with more and more deformities. Those are the fish that suffer from drifting beads over and over through a run. They get mis-hooked and mishandled, losing eyes, mandibles, chunks from their gill plates or worse, they float away dead. So when these big 30-plus-inch fish near the end of their life cycle and die, what fish are the fish going to look like that replace them? Are they going to be the clean, unharmed fish that we are catching now? Not if we continue down this path of extreme pressure.
One day in the rapids around the main island, for example, I counted 56 fishermen. 56! That’s insane. That’s greed. It is an unnecessary exploitation of a resource. Seeing it tears your heart out. This is my home. I’ve built my house here, taught school here, buried my dog on this river and I only have 18 years of time on this water and hope to have many more. That pales in comparison to those who have lived here for generations. I can’t imagine how they feel when they go out to spend a weekend day on the river they grew up on and can’t find a spot. I lose a lot of sleep over this issue and recognize that as a business owner I am part of the problem. But I believe we can walk a fine line of sustainable-use. We can put our heads together and find solutions for the best fishing practices, limits to the amount of people on the river, highlight the importance of professional guiding, have lodge owners take it upon themselves to educate their guides who then, in turn, educate their guests. For those who don’t care, we are going to have to push for better regulations preventing people from exploiting the resource, making their money and then leaving the state. I’m optimistic that things can and will change and we can continue to have the Naknek be one of the best rivers in Alaska. This will only happen if professional guides, lodge owners and local community members get aggressive about taking their river back and determining what is the best way to manage it for the future of our river and our community.
What is your most epic moment(s) on the Naknek? A lot of them happen in the fall fishing for rainbows. One just happened last week. A guest and friend caught a 35-inch ’bow on his 35th birthday. That was pretty epic. The excitement of those moments never, ever grows old. I think I’ll be running downriver netting rainbows until I can no longer run. Every fish is so different and some of the over 30s range from 12- to 16 years old. For a fisherman to hook one of those fish is a remarkable honor. When people hold that fish and recognize that honor and make that connection with the river like he did, it feels pretty epic.
Personally, two moments come to mind. The first was hooking a 35 ¾- inch ’bow with two of my close friends. Sharing that moment was awesome; I will always remember how gigantic that fish looked as it swam away. Another moment was fishing with my dad at one of our favorite spots and landing three rainbows over 30 in three casts. Completely ridiculous.
Do you think there are any additional challenges or opportunities being a female guide? I have always struggled a bit with this question because the only perspective I know is one of a female guide so I’m not sure there would be more or fewer challenges if I wasn’t female. I was certainly very young and very headstrong starting out and admittedly still a bit stubborn. I know that if someone is dismissive towards me, I just power on through. For instance, when I was first looking for a job and several lodges were contemplating the “idea” of a woman guide but were not sure a woman would be able to run the boat well or live in a remote area. I was pretty shocked people thought like that, but it never really bothered me at the time. But now if a lodge were to not hire a women guide because they were afraid she couldn’t drive a boat or live in a remote camp that would seem absurd. So, I guess, a lot has changed. As far as opportunities, I think I get a lot more husband and wife teams as well as groups of women fishing with me because I’m a female. I love that. It’s a great compliment when a parent thanks you for being so inspiring to their daughter (or son), because you plant a seed and show them a possible career option that they previously had no exposure to. That’s pretty cool. But I honestly always tried to stay away from the category of “female guide” and wanted to be in the category of respected guide. There are horrible guides of both sexes and excellent guides of both sexes. The only way you are going to be a respected guide is if you work hard. In many cases you might have to work harder than others and you might not feel like you are getting a fair shake. But that’s life. Making excuses for yourself seems like a ridiculous waste of time. I do think that the fly-fishing industry has had a tremendous amount of growth in the last 20 years in response to more and more women on the water and that is fantastic. I’m particularly happy about the women’s clothing lines. I can now find a pair of waders that fits and abandon Men’s Small! Woohoo!! So there are a lot of opportunities for women that there were not before. I just hope that the industry continues to pick women who are skilled at their trade and not just attractive in waders. As this article suggests there are several respected female guides on this river!
Finish the sentence “If I knew then what I know now, I would…” Hahaha! This one is a pretty easy one…Guests ask me all the time what it is like to live out in remote Alaska year-round as a single woman, and I tell people all the time that had I known my course in life I would have swapped out some of my more grueling college course for some basics in plumbing, carpentry, electrical, auto mechanics, motor maintenance and the list goes on and on. I totally underestimated how much hard work running your own business means, not to mention how challenging it is to maintain a home and business in remote Alaska…Thank God for YouTube!!
What is your favorite part of being a guide? My office! Starting my day running up the river in my boat, with a cup of coffee in hand while trying to figure out what the river is going to provide today… But seriously, guiding connects the dots for the most important things in my life, loving people, loving teaching and loving the outdoors and this river.
What is your specialty for guiding? What do you excel most at? My definition of a guide is a teacher, so that is a pretty natural progression for me as most of my background is in education. In fact, through my success with Blue Fly I was able to afford to get my Master’s degree so I could teach school here in Naknek. When guiding my goal is to teach guests a set of skills that helps them best experience the river. I want them to be comfortable and confident fishing big water. I want them to succeed at catching big fish in this water because I know that if they have those moments they will connect with the river and want to protect it. For example, swinging flies for fall ’bows is my passion, my niche—it is what made me drop everything and make this place my year-round home. I have a contagiousenthusiasm for it. Guests tap into that. They want to learn. Whether it is a one-handed or two-handed rod, teaching them how to cast and swing up a gorgeous fish that oftentimes is older than their children is so, so special.
Who is one of your most memorable guests and why? Back about 15 years ago when I first started my own business, I king-fished with three women from Oregon—best friends, two ladies in their early seventies and one in her fifties, Betty, Bee and Chris. They were not only three of the kindest souls you’d ever meet, but I was pretty shocked to find that as soon as they stepped foot in my boat they transformed into the most hardcore, competitive fishermen I’d honestly EVER met. It was fish on, game on. To ensure fairness they rotated seats, rotated plugs and Betty in her later years even had a physical therapist focus on upper body strength for her hook-set. When they had fish on the whole river knew it, contagious excitement and TONS of shrieking. Early on I was a little self conscious of the screaming and tried to mellow them out by suggesting they do a shot of Bailey’s after every fish they caught. It didn’t work but it did become a tradition for the next 15 years they fished with me. For each fish, it was a special moment. The handsome males were named Robert Redford and the gorgeous females were Greta Garbo. Each vacuum-sealed bag was labeled appropriately so that when they shared the salmon with friends or family they could recall the story, “Remember when I almost lost Clint Eastwood at the net?” And on and on. Over the years my boat was a support vessel for all of our lives’ dramas—good and bad. What happened in the boat stayed in the boat and one year they hesitantly asked if it would be okay to drop “F-bombs like the younger generations.” They were quiet for a bit and then Sweet Bee let one rip at the first sight of her 52-pound king as it leapt up, tarpon-style, next to the boat. “It’s a mother—-er!!!!” But as soon as they climbed out of the boat it was back to sweet therapy voices of a group we affectionately referred to as the Old Ladies. Over the years they became family, incredibly supportive and excited about all the incremental changes at Blue Fly like buying a new boat or remodeling the B&B. All accomplished and respected in their own careers, for them seeing a young woman start up her own business from scratch was a special thing and if I ever doubted it, they were there to remind me. Fishing with me well into their 80s their zest for life was amazing…mooning the floatplane pilot with their 80-year-old derrieres and dancing at the Fishtival Festival with a handsome young fisherman even though they felt like they creaked like “a rusty beer sign.” I’ve been lucky enough to fish with their children and their grandchildren. We’ve spread ashes of friends and this next summer we are sadly going to spread some of Bee and Betty’s ashes, with their families, over their favorite king hole. Had I not been drawn to the river, to fish and to guiding, I would not have met these kindred souls and for that I am so incredibly grateful.
Where do you see your career headed within the next 5 years? In five years I still like to be doing what I’m doing now—guiding on a river that I love, sharing it with others and educating them on the best way to manage it for the future. I hope in 5 years we will have solved the problems threatening this fishery and I hope to see more locals out enjoying themselves on a Sunday afternoon on the river because we have all come together to protect it. The Naknek has given a lot to me over the years; it has helped me pay for my home, my education, my business. It has introduced me to wonderful people as I have fallen in and out of love on the river and with the river. I hope over the next five years I can give back to the river.
Please list your accolades and accomplishments and affiliations.
-Bachelor’s degree – Pre-med
-Bachelor’s degree – Environmental Science / Wildlife Biology
-Master’s Degree – Secondary Science Education
– Former Assistant Statewide Coordinator for Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Angler Education Program
– Former Assistant Coordinator for Environmental Learning for Kids—a Denver-based nonprofit
– Former fly-fishing guide in Colorado, Oregon and a steelhead-chasing fool
– Guide in Alaska since 1998
– Middle school science teacher at Bristol Bay Borough School District here in Naknek
– Owner and guide at Blue Fly since 2001
– Over the years I have done presentations for numerous fly-fishing clubs and have articles written about Blue Fly, had Outdoor Channel shows featuring Blue Fly and two new upcoming shows this winter on Jon Baker’s Guide 4 Adventure, all with an emphasis on conservation.
Please tell me anything else I really should know about you and your business before writing about you. I am trying to get to know you as a guide and a business for this article so the more you elaborate the better I can understand your perspective. I welcome a phone call interview if that suits your style and schedule better.
My primarily goal is on conservation and stewardship. Thanks you for considering my thoughts about guiding on the Naknek, which as you know, it is a very special place.