Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy works to bring more jobs to the region

Byron Singley and Abbey Whitcomb pose with their fourth fish caught on the final day of the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. (Photo by Sarah Miller)
Byron Singley and Abbey Whitcomb pose with their fourth fish caught on the final day of the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. (Photo by Sarah Miller)

Every year, sports fishermen from all over come to Bristol Bay for world class fly fishing, typically with the help of guides. But frequently, those guides are not local.

The Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy is looking to change that by teaching area youth the skills needed to get a job in the sports fishing industry.

On the shore of the Naknek River, Christen Gardner attempts to teach Kitty Wilson how to cast a fly rod.

“So what you want to do is keep it in the air instead of touching the water because the fish will see it,” Gardner explains.

“Kay, tell me when to do it,” Wilson responds.

Gardner counts her down, but she just can’t get a handle on it.

“Have you done this? It ain’t easy,” she says.

Gardner is Wilson’s fly fishing guide and he’s one of 14 students in this year’s Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. It’s the last day of the week-long course and the young guides are testing their skills by leading clients on a fishing trip.

The academy started 10 years ago. Its mission is to teach fly fishing and other skills for free that’ll help young adults from Bristol Bay pursue jobs in the region’s sports fishing industry.

It may seem like a simple idea that people from Bristol Bay would make good fishing guides. But since sports fishing took off in the region in the fifties, most of the guides working in Bristol Bay haven’t been locals, said Nellie Williams, one of the organizers of the academy.

“The Bristol Bay sports fishing industry was kinda originally born of people flying in and the fly out fishing experience,” Williams said. “And, for a long time, you know, there wasn’t a lot of integration between the sport community and local villages.”

Fly fishing isn’t something a lot of people grew up with around Bristol Bay, which is one of the reasons why so many guides are hired from the Lower 48. So, the academy was started by a few lodge owners and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust to help more people from Bristol Bay have access to the hundreds of sports fishing jobs in the region.

Having guides from the area won’t just bring more jobs to Bristol Bay, it’ll also give visitors a better experience, said Dorothy Larson, a client out with the academy’s students.

“They know the nooks and crannies and where the shallow spots are and [where] the rocks are,” Larson said.

Standing in waist deep water, 16 year old Abbey Whitcomb is watching her client cast. So far, they’ve caught three fish. She said the trick to being a good guide is pretty simple.

“Try to get them a couple of fish and, you know, make their day,” Whitcomb said. “Just try and keep them happy the whole time, whether they get fish or not.”

Abbey didn’t think she’d like guiding, but it turns out she loves it as much as fishing.

“I mean fishing is fun, but, I don’t know, it’s kinda cool like when you see him and he caught his first fish out here, she said. “He had the biggest smile on his face. Like you get a big feeling of joy when you just see them so happy.”

Abbey’s client Byron Singley is having a great day. He’s a commercial fisherman by trade and has never really fly fished before. He said how it feels to commercial fish doesn’t compare to the feeling he gets while fly fishing.

“You just catch a lot of volume. It’s in a net and you pick the fish and what not and you get a bunch of them,” Singley said. “Here you’re fighting the fish, it’s a battle!”

Byron lets out a shout of pure joy as he hooks his fourth fish. As he reels in a small rainbow trout, he finishes his thought.

“Just that moment of him, just biting and getting that feel for it,” he said. “I’m hooked, I’m addicted. I’m just having the time of my life. This is just too fun.”

Singley and Whitcomb release the fish and the trip slowly winds down after that until it’s time to head in. The clients will hopefully leave with some good memories, and the young guides, with confidence in their new skills that could get them a job in the future.

Next year, the guide academy is switching where it will be held to the west side of Bristol Bay. The plan is to alternate where the academy is held on a yearly basis to help students get a better feel for fishing throughout the region.

KDLG - Dillingham

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