Alaska Dispatch: Bristol Bay River Academy, The Final Exam

Written by: John Van Vleet

BBA Day 6 1

Sherilynn proudly displays Candi’s first fish on a fly.

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.]

Five days of training, covering everything from the mechanics of casting to the basics of first aid, led us up to today. For the students of the 2012 Bristol Bay River Academy, this was the final exam. Their leaders were hand tied, their flies arranged neatly in boxes, and their fly-fishing confidence at an all-time high. Three days of on-the-water experience, bookended by classroom presentations on topics such as guest expectations and conservation ethics, provided them with a knowledge base wide and deep enough to become a guide for the day.

They were ready.

Clients began showing up mid-morning. Of course, these weren’t just any clients; they were members of the communities that each of these students were from. Many were familiar faces. Guests from King Salmon, Koliganek, and Dillingham began entering the lodge—mingling with each other, the students, and the lodge guides—preparing themselves for a day of fly fishing the Naknek River. For many of them, it was their first fly-fishing experience, period, and they began the morning with the same skill sets the students had had at the beginning of the week.

But the students took to the challenge readily. As each guest entered, the students introduced themselves and chatted for a while, then fitted their clients into a pair of waders and took them to the front lawn for some brief casting instruction.

Just another day at Bear Trail Lodge.

BBA Day 6 2

Danielle lines her “client’s” fly rod before the day of fishing.

photo by John Van Vleet

One of the things we tried to hammer home to the students is that being a guide entails much more than just being on the water and fishing. As such, the students were required to serve lunch to the guests, make sure no one had any allergies or physical ailments, and provide anything and everything that the guests needed or wanted. With a jovial and excited group of clients, there was little to worry about.

After lunch, the guides (I think it’s fair to call the students “guides” at this point) corralled their guests into one of several vehicles, and we began our drive to Rapids Camp, a boat launch downstream from the outlet of Naknek Lake. Once we arrived, the groups climbed into boats, motored off across the river, and began the day.

With no clouds in the sky and the sun shining overhead, it was the perfect day to do so. Minus the abundance of mosquitos and no-see-ums, of course.

The flotilla of boats spread out across the river, dropping groups at each promising bend in the river. I accompanied the largest group to the outlet of Naknek Lake, and watched as the guides lined their clients’ rods, showed them where to cast their flies, and passed on their somewhat limited, but completely accurate, knowledge. Within minutes, two guests were hooked up with grayling.

Sherilynn, a very shy, but highly inquisitive guide, helped her client, Candi, catch her first-ever fish on the fly. It was a medium-size grayling, ordinarily nothing to write home about, but for both of these women, it represented much more than just a fish. For Candi, it was a way to connect with her husband and son, not to mention a great opportunity to rub it in their face that she caught a fish. For Sherilynn, it was the first step toward her ultimate goal of renovating several cabins and turning them into her own fishing lodge.

It was a success on multiple levels.

One of the first questions most people ask about guides in Alaska is this: “Are any guides native Alaskans?” And the answer is no. Most of them aren’t. But that’s the entire goal behind this project, the entire reason Tim Troll and Trout Unlimited worked together to bring it into existence. Native Alaskans have a wealth of knowledge about their home areas, knowledge that guides who spend the summers in Alaska just can’t have, and the goal of the Academy is to bring fly fishing to these people, so that they can pass on their knowledge, their stories, and their love of the area to all who visit there.

One of the student-guides, Travis, told us stories about shooting his first moose at age seven. He killed his first caribou when he was four. He knows nearly every inch of the Nushagak River by heart—and that river is nearly 280 miles long. He grew up on its banks, eats salmon from its waters, and learned about the plants, animals, and seasons of the river from his family and village elders. That information is priceless—worth more than whatever money potential clients in the future could pay him for his time and fly-fishing instruction.

At the end of the day, when we all gathered in the lodge for dinner, I sat down next to Travis, and we talked for a while. He told me he was going to go back home to Koliganek, work on obtaining his Coast Guard license, and keep practicing with his fly rod.

I asked him if he had learned anything this week.

“Oh yeah,” he said, excitedly. “I learned more than I ever thought I would.”

So did I.

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