Written by: Simon Perkins, Orvis Adventures
In 2015, the Breaking Barriers Awards were created to honor individuals who have gone above and beyond to bring new blood into fly fishing, to break down the barriers of introduction. Last year’s winners were had Brown of Soul River Runs Wild and Lori-Ann Murphy of Reel Women. This year’s recipient has done amazing work in Alaska to bring local youths into the sportfishing industry and to build bridges with other fisheries users.
On April 8, the second annual Breaking Barriers award was presented to to Nelli Williams of the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy at a gala event in front of 500 fishing guides and industry folk at the annual Orvis Guide Rendezvous in Missoula, Montana.
Nelli Williams grew up fishing and camping in Wisconsin and later earned a college degree in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Education. While in college, she worked summers for the Forest Service in Alaska and fell in love with the state. Of course, one thing led to the next, and in 2003 she caught her first salmon on a fly rod and knew after that she would have to call Alaska home. She now lives in Anchorage in a house with a driveway littered with boats, and spends every spare moment on the water fishing, playing with her husband and two kids on gravel bars, and exploring new places.
Nelli is Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program Director and has played a critical role in protecting Bristol Bay and other key conservation campaigns. But beyond her impressive work through TU, Nelli has been central to establishing and growing the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. The Academy is in its 8th year and teaches young Bristol Bay residents, almost all Alaska Native, how to fly fish, and prepares them for jobs in the local recreation industry. Each year, the program accepts 12 to 15 students between the ages of 14 and 24. They spend a week immersed in lodge and guide life, learning casting, fly tying, customer-service best practices, outdoor safety and first aid, river ecology, conservation, and more from local experts in the fly-fishing and guiding community. They also talk with local community leaders, biologists and elders on how to enrich a visitor’s experiences through their own stories and culture. At the end of the week, they finish with a mock guiding day, where the students practice their new skills on local community members.
Since it began eight years ago, the Academy has graduated 79 local students—about half of which have been young women. Eleven students have gone on to work at lodges, and many students use the rods and reels they received to fish on their own. Students have even brought fly fishing back to their own villages and teach fly-tying classes. And several years ago, Bristol Bay Native Corporation purchased Mission Lodge, a fishing lodge in the heart of Bristol Bay, and hired an Academy graduate as their assistant operations manager.
Although she would be the first one to tell you that there are others who also deserve credit for the Academy, it is Nelli’s work, dedication, and passion that have been central to the program’s success in increasing collaboration and coordination between local communities, as well as sport and subsistence fishermen. Many lodges are seeing the benefit of hiring locals. Her work is helping break down the long-standing barriers that have stood between local subsistence fishing and recreational fishing. Attitudes from both sides are changing from skepticism to potential opportunity. And she is empowering the local communities to embrace fly fishing as a personal passion, professional opportunity, tool to inspire cultural acceptance and chance, and of course a way to foster and nurture future stewards of the natural resource.
For previous Orvis News posts on Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy, click here, here, here, and here.
Nelli poses with Simon Perkins at the Orvis Guide Rendezvous in Missoula, where she received her award.
Photo by Andrew Pierce