Alaska Dispatch: Bristol Bay River Academy, Day Two

Written by: John Van Vleet, Orvis Outdoor Copywriter

BBA Day II 3

Students at the Bristol Bay Academy work on their fly tying skills in the lodge.

photo by John Van Vleet

[Editor’s Note: Orvis outdoor copywriter John Van Vleet has traveled to Alaska to be an instructor at the Bristol Bay River Academy, which we posted about back in April and which Orvis sponsors. He will be sending daily dispatches on his experiences.]

A dense fog greeted us this morning on the Naknek, shrouding the river so completely that its far bank may well have been in Russia. Ghostly tree-shaped silhouettes ran along the horizon like ridges on the back of some prehistoric beast, disappearing and reappearing with the shifting of each breeze. After the exemplary weather and amount of time spent outdoors yesterday, the prospect of spending the majority of the day inside wasn’t received enthusiastically at first; but not only was it part of the daily schedule, the weather dictated as such.

Welcome to Alaska, where the weather waits for no one.

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If you’re going to be a fly-fishing guide, you’ll need to know your knots.

photo by John Van Vleet

Although spending a full day teaching nail knots, blood knots, and leader construction might sound like something that would lull most young adults to sleep, the students at the academy not only paid attention, they excelled. Willie, a Koliganik native who hasn’t been seen without his sun-baked “No Pebble” hat, tied five consecutive leaders without having a single knot come undone. Connor, an artistic young lady from Dillingham, has drawn a different native-art-inspired scene every morning and filled her chest pack with hand-tied leaders in the time it usually takes me to remember where I put my streamer box.

Morale took a further upward swing when we introduced the students to fly tying. With help from academy graduate Reuben—, who now guides for Nanci at Bear Trail—, the students started with a basic Woolly Bugger pattern, and, as fly tying so often goes, they quickly created their own designs, plowing through orange marabou, pink saddle hackle, and black chenille as if they were the last reserves of these materials in all of Alaska. Some of the flies resembled egg-sucking leeches; others looked completely out of this world. Their unbiased and innate creativity shone through, and it’s easy to see everyone is eager to try them out on fish. As I type this, they’re spread around the lodge tying up their own leaders and wrapping rabbit strips onto hooks, preparing for the next few days on the water. Danielle, a fisheries ecology student who currently lives in Eagle River, tied several patterns that not only would catch fish anywhere, but look better than most of the monstrosities I try to tie myself.

Their talent is undeniable.

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Then, it’s time to head down to the river to see how all these skills work together to catch fish.

photo by John Van Vleet

Starting tomorrow, we’ll hit the river much more vigorously, preparing the students for their final exam later this week: guiding local residents for an afternoon of fishing on the Naknek. But guiding isn’t just about catching fish and tying knots. Along with the essential tools and gear required to become a guide, we’ve also given the students a background in something of extreme importance that pervades not just the fly-fishing culture, but society in general: conservation. While talking with co-founder Tim Troll, he told me that the original goal of the academy was not just to teach the students how to fly fish, but how to gain employment at area lodges and how to pass on their knowledge of pertinent conservation issues on to clients.

Without a doubt, the most prescient conservation issue at hand in this region is the proposed Pebble mine. (Click here for the Orvis Pebble Mine Action page for more info.) Dr. Sam Snyder, Director of Bristol Bay Fisheries Protection Campaigns for the Alaska Conservation Foundation, spends most of his waking hours staunchly fighting the mine. This is his second year as a guest instructor at the academy and he’s provided the students—,as well as fellow instructors and guides at the lodge, —with up-to-the minute updates on the Pebble mine battle. It’s an important issue, much too large for a single blog post, but one that has been conveyed to eager listeners who each have a stake in the outcome.

It’s a learning experience for all of us.

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