Alaska Dispatch: Bristol Bay River Academy, Day Three

Written by: John Van Vleet


Students at the Bristol Bay Academy after a long day of fly fishing on the Naknek River.

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.]

The river flowed on, oblivious to our presence, an emerald tint blurring the rocks beneath the surface. Small grayling nipped at passing insects, and a deep blue sky stretched above us, cloudless and clear as a freshly painted canvas. Standing waist deep in that wide, powerful river, watching as two young men began their fly-fishing careers on the heels of my instruction, it was easy to forget about bills, about deadlines, about everything else in the world. It was one of those rare, indelible moments of pure satisfaction that happen every so often and make you realize how grand life can be.

If only the fish had been as cooperative.

After a brief morning session covering wading safety, we hit the Naknek in search of its legendary rainbow trout——native fish that grow large and wild in one of the last untouched places on earth. I ended up in a boat with Geoff, a Bear Trail guide, and two of the Academy’s most interesting students: Jordan and August.


Bristol Bay River Academy student Jordan (left) and August head out in search of big rainbows.

photo by John Van Vleet

Jordan comes from Manokotak, a small village of mostly Yup’ik Native Americans near Dillingham. He’s extremely shy, and somewhat timid on the water, but displays a willingness to learn and a desire to fly fish. August is from Dillingham, and is an animated young man who finds a simple joy in most everything.

“We only have one life,” he told me. “Why worry about stuff?”

They make for a unique pair of fishing partners, but it’s one that I’ve found to be quite entertaining and enlightening. On the boat ride up the river, August began singing a Yup’ik song, slapping his leg and laughing as the chorus sounded. He explained to me it’s a song he and his father sing on the water or while on a moose hunt; it’s a tradition of sorts.

“You have to be four parts crazy to live in Alaska,” he said. “But I like it.”


August casts as Geoff, the guide, looks on and offers pointers.

photo by John Van Vleet

As the afternoon waned and our flies repeatedly swung through the water, our patience was tested time and again. It’s a perfect day. Why can’t we catch any fish? What’s going on here? The contemplation was broken with an ideally timed phrase:

“Fish on!” Geoff yelled.

He was working with Jordan as I stood downstream with August, giving him pointers on casting and presentation. I looked up to see a bent rod and Jordan’s elated face as a fish tore into the current, heading toward us. Just as suddenly as it appeared, the fish vanished, and Jordan’s line fell to the water, limp and lifeless.

“Fish off!” Geoff yelled again.

Sadly, that was the extent of our fish interaction for the day. Hundreds of casts, and just one fleeting glimpse of a fish. Later that evening, as we convened at the boat launch with the other groups, we heard tales of beautiful rainbows and stunning grayling caught literally all around us. It seemed most everyone had caught something, except for us.

I turned to Jordan and asked, “Did you have fun?”

“I did,” he said in his deep, restrained voice. “It was exciting.”

And in the end, that’s all that matters.


The Naknek River is home to giant rainbows, but it’s not always easy fishing.

photo by John Van Vleet

Previous episodes:

Alaska Dispatch: Bristol Bay River Academy, Day One

Alaska Dispatch: Bristol Bay River Academy, Day Two

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