Heading into its second year, the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing Academy is beginning to see the fruits of its work emerging on such Southwest rivers as the Nushagak.
The weeklong academy aims to start youngsters from such towns and villages as Aleknagik, Manokotak, Ekwok and New Stuyahok on a path allows them to eventually work as local sport fish guides.
"We're trying to make it apparent that that's a business out there -- and it's not something new that has to be created," said Tim Troll, executive director of the Nushagak-Mulchatna/Wood-Tikchik Land Trust, a sponsor of the academy. "We think that lodges would be very interested in hiring locals, but they have to have basic skills.
"Personally, I think lodges need to be a little more engaged locally."
Reuben Hastings, 24, of New Stuyahok, who went through the first academy, is finishing up his U.S. Coast Guard certification, which will enable him to drive a boat with paying clients.
"I'm lucky because I grew up in an outdoorsy family where everyone relied on kings, reds and silvers," Hastings said. "That was one of our major protein sources for the winter."
Plus, his father worked as a guide out of the Ekwok Lodge for Luki Akelkok, a lifelong Bristol Bay resident and president of the Ekwok Tribal Council and lodge owner.
"He had lots of lodges that wanted him to guide," Akelkok said of Hastings. "He knows the area around here. He was born and raised around here."
Recreational fishing in the Bristol Bay region is big business, with anglers from around the world arriving each summer to pursue feisty salmon, chunky rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling.
"Although the industry provides hundreds of seasonal jobs, local residents, particularly Alaska Natives, have traditionally played a very small part in this lucrative and sustainable industry," said Paula Dobbyn of Trout Unlimited Alaska, one of the academy sponsors. "Most of the jobs go to seasonal workers from the Lower 48.
"Trout Unlimited wants to see that change. Recognizing that Bristol Bay is a region of high unemployment with staggering costs, (we) want to encourage residents to get involved in the sportfishing and outdoor recreation industry by providing opportunities for local young."
For Hastings, the thrill of guiding is similar to the thrill of fishing.
"Seeing a newbie catch their first fish is one of the most fun things of all," he said. "You may get somebody who's never caught a fish over 20 inches, and see them catch a 30-pounder. That's a treat. I remember catching my first fish as a little munchkin and what a big deal it was for me. Their jaw kinds of drops, and there's lots hooting and hollering."
Helping provide that thrill may be the most exhilarating part of the job, but a life spent near the river can benefit customers too.
"Generally, you get a lot of questions like, 'What's this landmark?' " Hastings said. "We can lean back and tell them the story of certain areas. This is what we call this place.
"The outsiders that come in (to guide) can't offer that."
When the academy starts next month, students learn first aid and CPR, take fly-tying and knot-tying workshops, receive tips on using traditional knowledge when guiding and get hours of fly fishing instruction on the Nushagak.
"I was surprised when we got kids here for the first camp," Troll said. "Only two or three of them had ever fly-fished before. But they were wanting to wet the flies within two hours of starting, and really got into it.
"It helped that there were plenty of cohos to catch."
Each student gets a set-up fly rod and some flies at the end of the week.
"Maybe it fosters some understanding," Troll said. "If you're a young person growing up in the Nushagak region, (fly fishing) is very different from what you've been doing your whole life. But it's really something anybody can do, anybody can enjoy."