Training Native Alaskans to Work on and Protect Their Watersheds

Written by: Kirk Deeter


Editor’s Note: Orvis is one of the Program Supporters for this year’s Bristol Bay River Academy. To learn more visit the organization’s website.

It started when I found myself standing alone in a pelting rain on a gravel airstrip in the Yu’pik village of Ekwok. I’d just taken a mail-run flight from Anchorage to the Bristol Bay, seated next to bulk boxes of rice and paper towels. I was already wondering how I’d get home when an old pickup truck pulled up moving no faster than a riding mower. Out popped Tim Troll of The Nature Conservancy, and soon after, 73-year-old Luki Akelkok. It was a high honor, being welcomed by the village chief. They drove me to Luki’s home and fed me a sandwich of chopped “three-day smoke” salmon.

I’d made the trip to take part in the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy, a cooperative project of The Nature Conservancy, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Trout Unlimited, and the Bureau of Land Management. I was assigned the role of junior guide under head instructor Dan Plummer. The mission of the academy is to find teenagers and young adults from villages around the Bristol Bay region—places like Togiak, Naknek, New Stuyahok, and elsewhere—and teach them the basics of fly fishing and guiding.

For years, commercial fishermen, natives, and more recently, sport fishers have been at odds in this part of Alaska. Many natives have long wondered whywealthy catch and release anglers from the Lower 48 would want to go all that way to fish those rivers and “play with their food.”

But the common threat of a proposed mine is creating strange bedfellows—anglers and gillnetters—to fight the project. The Pebble Mine plan calls for massive tailings ponds contained by earthen dams—in one of the most seismically active regions in the world. The potential environmental contamination could devastate the salmon fishery, an issue eloquently documented in the film Red Gold by Felt Soul Media.

I spent a week with the native population, sleeping in a bunkhouse lodge, sharing meals, and running around in search of silver salmon. The lessons went both ways. It was immediately clear though that nobody had to teach the students how to find fish: they have a deep, physical and spiritual connection to the water and land.

The catch-and-release topic was more nuanced. I was struck by a poignant conversation I had with Reuben, a student-turned-instructor, on the topic. “When we moose hunt,” he said for an example, “We believe the animal presents itself tous as part of a plan. That is the same for the fish we catch. To not make full use of the animal that has given itself to you is disrespectful.”

I thought of the “whack it, take photos, and hang it on the wall” mentality that’s glorified on Saturday morning cable television, and couldn’t come up with a response.

“But I guess, if a salmon or trout presents itself to you, and you respect it, and release it in a way that has benefit to the people and the fish as a whole, that would be good also,” he added.

I felt better. Later in the week, I watched as another student, Fernando, landed a few fish, then simply stopped fishing to crouch on a rock and admire the silver fins as they dipped and slashed in the riffle in front of him. “I like to catch them, but I like to watch them too,” he shouted to me. Whether he becomes a guide or not, I don’t know many others who “get it” like that kid did on that day.

Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large at Field & Stream and appears in The Kodiak Project, from LDR Media, featured in the 2012 Fly Fishing Film Tour. This article first appeared in Stonefly magazine.

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