For many young people in rural Alaskan communities, finding a job with a decent and reliable income is challenging. The Bristol Bay River Academy is determined to change that by creating employment opportunities while also supporting the choice of residents who wish to maintain their cultural lifestyle values—which often revolve around salmon.
The Bristol Bay River Academy, formerly known as the Fly Fishing & Guide Academy, is a weeklong, comprehensive educational program that trains the area’s young adults in the sport fishing industry. The free program, which is subsidized by individuals, businesses and organizations, is designed to teach its 15- to 22-year-old participants the ins and outs of fly fishing in preparation for careers as guides or fishing lodge owners. The program also promotes conservation principles with the goal of inspiring local leaders in salmon stewardship and river preservation.
To contribute to keeping the industry healthy and viable, students learn how to read the waters, what types of flies to use, what knots to tie and similar skills. Students become familiar with rods, reels and chest waders. They learn river etiquette, rigging and casting. They also get to meet local biologists and talk with regional experts about river ecology and conservation issues.
It’s a rewarding pursuit, alumni say. “Seeing someone who’s never caught a fish over 20 inches catch a 30-pounder is a treat accompanied by lots of hooting and hollering,” Reuben Hastings of New Stuyahok, a new guide and a graduate of the Bristol Bay River Academy’s first class, told the Anchorage Daily News.
The academy launched in 2008 with a class of nine students from local villages. It was founded by Ekwok Village elder Luki Akelkok; Nelli Williams, the Alaska outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited; Tim Troll, regional director of The Nature Conservancy in southwest Alaska; and Nanci Morris Lyon, owner of Bear Trail Lodge along the Naknek River in King Salmon, Alaska.
“We’ve got 16 students signed up for the current program, most of them Natives from seven different villages,” Williams told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The idea here is to steer these young people toward a goal, building their skills, and mentoring them to help get them into a job in this sector of the tourism industry.”
According to Save Bristol Bay, an Alaska-based project of Trout Unlimited that works to protect the world’s most productive salmon fisheries, roughly 37,000 fishing trips are taken annually to Bristol Bay freshwater fisheries, and out-of-state tourists make up about one third of those trips.
“Although the industry provides hundreds of jobs, local residents, particularly Alaska Natives, have traditionally played a small part in this lucrative industry [in which] most of the jobs go to seasonal workers from the Lower 48,” Paula Dobbyn, Trout Unlimited Alaska’s director of communications, told the Anchorage Daily News.
To counter that trend, the Bristol Bay River Academy is preparing locals and Alaska Natives for this line of work. “We haven’t done an economic analysis of the nearly 60 students who have participated in the program so far, but there are millions of dollars in sportsman revenue involved where these students could get guide jobs on their home rivers,” Williams said.
The beautiful Bristol Bay area offers world-class fly fishing. But so pervasive is the aquatic life in its culture that it means much more than simply tourism dollars.
“Villagers for centuries have subsisted on its voluminous salmon runs and gradually an entire industry has formed around this natural phenomenon, thriving each year as salmon reclaim their waters and give birth to another generation of fish,” said John Van Vleet, an Orvis Outdoor copywriter and an Academy instructor last year. “As the salmon go, so goes life in southwest Alaska.”