A cultural shift is underway in the rivers and streams flowing into Bristol Bay, where a unique fly-fishing academy is breaking down barriers between sport and subsistence fishermen while also giving Alaskans a shot at jobs that have traditionally gone to Outsiders.
Held at a different lodge each summer in the Southwest Alaska region -- where rates of poverty are high -- the weeklong Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy involves more than learning to tie flies and cast lines.
The dozen or so students who attend for free and receive fly rods to keep for themselves also get an education in everything from proper fish handling to good customer service, skills they might eventually use to open a tourism business.
One aspiring alum is 29-year-old Reuben Hastings, who grew up in the village of New Stuyahok and now works as an Alaska Native guide at Bear Trail Lodge along the Naknek River.
A product of the first academy seven years ago, Hastings said he's planning to start a hunting and guiding business, using the skills he's learned from the academy and guiding at the lodge in recent years.
"The end result is that the business will support my family and be something I can call my own and be proud of," he said recently, after a day guiding clients along the Naknek River.
The lack of Alaskans working in key industries is a statewide problem.
In the oil and gas industry, one-third of 18,000 jobs in 2013 belonged to non-Alaskans, state figures show. It's more dramatic in commercial fishing, where a little more than half the harvesting workforce -- about 36,000 permit holders and crews in 2013 -- came from outside the state.
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development doesn't track nonresident numbers in the sportfishing industry, but organizers of the academy say the dozens of guides working at some 75 sportfishing businesses in the Bristol Bay region are largely from states like Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, even the East Coast.
Getting more local residents into the industry is partly why Luki Akelkok and Tim Troll, longtime residents of the region, rounded up financial support from businesses and created the academy in 2008, said Nanci Morris Lyon, the program's lead instructor.
Morris Lyon, a longtime guide and an owner of the Bear Trail Lodge, said many local residents in the past didn't see sportfishing as a job opportunity.
One factor is the history of distrust between visiting sportfishermen who pursue fish for pleasure and subsistence fishermen who need them for food. Both sides have traditionally seen each other as competition, she said.
Morris Lyon said the class has helped foster understanding from both sides. She's heard it from elders who are invited to teach culture and history to the students, providing information about local names, plants and traditions they can one day share with clients.
"They say they are so happy to learn this is something their children and grandchildren can do and maybe it's not as bad as they thought," she said of the elders.
The program has produced 77 graduates over the years. Lyon said she employs four of the nine who are currently working as guides. Their services are often the most requested by tourists because they want to learn about local traditions and what it's like to live in Alaska throughout the year.
"They have very quickly risen to the top and they have knowledge and stories of the area that none of my other guides will ever have," she said.
Morris Lyon said interest in the class has grown. Major sponsors include the Bristol Bay Native Corp., conservation group Trout Unlimited, and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.
Part of the academy's goal is opening students' eyes to new opportunities that range from starting boat-rental businesses to opening bed and breakfasts. Some students come from families that own Native allotments, providing land that could support a tourism business, she said.
The most recent academy was held in June at the Kulik Lodge in Katmai National Park, with 11 students arriving from seven communities in the region. The roster also included students from Anchorage who are shareholders in BBNC, the Native corporation for the region.
One alumni, Kvichak Aspelund, 19, said he's guiding at the Bear Trail Lodge this summer for the second year in a row. The work is helping pay his tuition at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Born and raised in the village of King Salmon, Aspelund said a lot of young people in the region are not into fly fishing.
Some would rather fish with nets because it's so much easier than using poles. Old stereotypes are a factor, too, he said. "A lot of people think it's just a bunch of people wasting their time, but there's so much more to it," he said.
A highlight is educating the tourists, who ask every question under the sun, especially what winter is like in the state.
Another benefit is collecting a guaranteed paycheck in a place of unparalleled beauty.
"I love it," Aspelund said. "This is one of the greatest fisheries in the world. And I get to be outside every day catching fish."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing