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Guiding their futures: area youth find career options in lucrative sport fishing industry

Zoey Laird / KDLG

Reuben Hastings, Kvichak Aspelund, and Riley Lyon are three of more than a dozen graduates of the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing & Guide Academy working in the industry this summer. While it is much different than commercial fishing, taking clients to Bristol Bay's world famous trout streams and king salmon rivers is good work, pays well, and can open a world of possibilities right in local kids' backyard.

“We’re going to paradise,” Reuben Hastings says. He motors through the Naknek River to a wide clearing; an expanse of water dubbed “paradise” for its mirror-like reflection of the sky, surrounded by green. He points out the significance of a painted boulder on the shore (an FAA marker), and identifies the make and destination of planes flying above, intermittently waving at fellow guides and friendly folk boating by.

Hastings is in his domain, and his reputation as “fishy” makes waiting for a bite a simple matter of time. Sure enough, after trolling for a bit, he shouts, “Fish on!” and a 30 inch king salmon is reeled aboard. It's a catch big enough to satisfy the morning’s expectation and return to Bear Trail Lodge.

Hastings has worked as a guide for six years, leading guests on water or land who hunt for a piece of paradise (and a picture) to send back home. He finds game across a diverse area of Bristol Bay, and combines native knowledge with a charming persona. By all accounts, he is an expert in his field, and he credits his training at the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. “It helped me become the guide I am today.”

Credit Zoey Laird / KDLG
Hastings with a Naknek River king salmon.

Taking a steam bath in Ekwok almost ten years ago, Tim Troll and Luki Akelkok “cooked up” the first guide academy session. As members of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust board, they noticed a lack of local employment in the lodge and tourism industry. From Troll’s perspective, people who are not living and working in Bristol Bay often care less about conserving its renewable resources. Jobs tied to the region can change that. “It creates a continuing attachment to the area,” he says. “We want to create every opportunity we can for people who were born and raised here to stay here and live here.”

Approaching its ten year anniversary, the annual academy’s goal is to train youth in the various aspects of the industry, from fly fishing and running rivers to hospitality and serving high end clients. Employed youth “establish a relationship between the lodge industry and local people,” Troll says. Since the first session, twelve academy graduates are employed at lodges around Bristol Bay, and in Troll’s estimation, “they have so much more to offer, because they grew up here.”

Hastings is from New Stuyahok, and he found the guide academy flyer in the village post office. He was 22, held U.S. Coast Guard credentials, and knew he wanted to become a guide. When he read that participants would receive a free rod and reel, he “was gone.” During the inaugural academy session in 2008, Hastings realized, “It was way, way more than just a free rod.” Academy fly fishing instructor Nanci Lyon proved a “wealth of information” about the job, from casting to tying flies, and a future boss.

Lyon owns the Bear Trail Lodge near King Salmon, and at the academy she was able to address the huge disparity between the talent of “kids in the area versus the guides that I was hiring.”  Lyon didn’t expect to find those she calls her “best guides” from the pool of academy graduates, but she currently has three on staff. “They are incredible out there in the field,” she says. “People request them time after time.”

Many Bristol Bay youth are immersed in commercial fishing from an early age, usually with family or friends. Few grow up with good ties to lucrative sport fishing, but the academy is helping connect young people like Kvichak Aspelund, a 21-year-old from Naknek. He quit commercial fishing when he graduated from high school. Now he works at Bear Trail Lodge, which has given him a “whole new vision for the summers.” Aspelund gained exposure to guiding through the academy, which he attended consecutively in 2012 and 2013. At the academy, he saw that “there’s this incredible industry that so many of the kids don’t even know about,” even though they are from the area “and know the river better than anyone else.”

Credit Zoey Laird / KDLG
Kvichak Aspelund, 20, from Naknek eased out of commercial fishing after he attended the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guiding Academy once, then twice. Now he's working at the Bear Trail Lodge, guiding clients from around the world on rivers he grew up on.

The academy became Aspelund’s transition into the sport fish industry, and he in turn became a connecting bridge for others. He fishes with curious people from the area to “get the community in support of the guiding scene.” With outreach on the water, he wants to promote broader career options for local youth.

Aspelund believes negative relations between residents and the lodges are unnecessary, and the Bear Trail is one example of progress towards connecting the two. “Nanci is so welcoming to everyone, which I think is huge. It allows the community to see what’s going on and be a part of it and experience it all,” he says.  

Riley, Lyon’s 18 year old daughter, vouches for the standout openness of her mother’s business. “My mom keeps the lodge very involved with the community,” she says, remembering regular dinners and parties at the Bear Trail where locals are welcomed. Next summer, the lodge will host academy participants for its 10th anniversary session.

During the final exam at the guide academy, known as “client day”, the same philosophy of openness is demonstrated. Students must teach volunteer clients how to fly fish using flies and leaders the students prepared. Clients are sourced from the community, many of whom are elders, so they see what the lodges are doing and what their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren love about fly fishing. “They have softened and realized maybe it doesn’t have to be a battle, maybe it can be a joint effort,” Lyon says. When she sees people at the beach with rods in their hands, she sees evidence that fly fishing is more accepted in the community, and that’s good news for local employment in the lodge industry.

Credit Zoey Laird / KDLG
Nanci Morris-Lyon and her daughter Riley at the Bear Trail Lodge, where young local guides are getting a chance to break into the lucrative Bristol Bay sport fishing industry.

The younger Lyon attended two academy sessions and looks forward to lodge employment; a life of fly fishing and guiding. “I want that to be the way I travel the world,” she says. This summer, she guided Bear Trail fly-out fishing trips and tried work on a commercial fishing vessel. Riley understands the critical importance of salmon for both commercial and sports fishing industries, that despite critical differences in method and numbers of fish harvested, “salmon provide jobs for millions of people,” offering a bit of hyperbole, nonetheless feasible for the large scale employment salmon creates in Bristol Bay every summer.

Tim Troll taught Riley and her academy peers the importance of “understanding salmon is a resource, but it’s only going to be there forever if we allow it to be,” with careful openings and closings to ensure the salmon’s return each year. Next season, Riley will hold her captain’s license and plans to guide clients by boat from her mom’s lodge. She will also help out at the 2018 guide academy, teaching the next group of young sports fishermen about guiding clients and their own careers in Bristol Bay. 

Reach the author at news@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

KDLG summer intern Zoey Laird knew there was only one real way to learn what all this fuss over Bristol Bay sport fishing is about.