For the past seven years, a mosaic of organizations including Bristol Bay Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, and BBEDC have run the Bristol Bay River and Guide Academy to train local kids in the art of fly fishing. The students spend a week at a lodge learning to be guides.
Jet boats hydroplane up the Kulik River and floatplanes skip across Lake Nonvianuk as Kulik Lodge comes alive for a day of fishing. David Parks Jr. of Iliamna is one of the 15 students at the academy. He stands in the crystal clear water of the Kulik with Sarah Pearl.
Pearl works as a housekeeper at the Kulik Lodge but today she’ll pretend to be a client so Parks can test out the fly fishing and customer services skills he’s learned this week.
Before this week, Parks had never fly fished. He always liked fishing but grew up only with a typical rod and reel.
“It was either that or ice fishing,” added Parks.
The first time he had ever picked up a fly rod was the first day of class.
“The next day we had to come out here and fish so I spent like half the time just swaying my rod back and forth just trying to get that perfect swing,” said Parks.
The students had a week long crash course in fly fishing and what it takes to be a guide.
“Like tying flies, and making leaders, and making sure we had all out customer service skills down,” said Parks. “Making sure we got it down in our heads.”
Sonny Peterson is the owner of Kulik Lodge. He currently doesn’t have any Bristol Bay locals working for him but says they add a great value to services that a lodge like his can provide.
“People come up there and ask where you’re from and your guide says he’s from New York or Florida, you know, it doesn’t sound as good if he says he’s from Igiugig or Nondalton,” said Peterson.
The Bristol Bay River and Guide Academy was founded in part by Tim Troll. He also is the head of the Bristol Bay Land Trust. Troll says the time is about right for locals to play a bigger role in the lodge industry.
“It took 70 years in the commercial fishery before locals really broke into the commercial fishery and now the lodge industry has been here about 70 years,” said Troll.
Troll also used to be the President of Chogguing Limited in Dillingham. The native corporation owns a sport fishing lodge and he says shareholders would often ask him why no locals worked in the lodge.
“And I asked the operator that and he said, ‘Well, I need guys who fly fish.’ And Bristol Bay wasn’t producing any local fly fisherman,” said Troll. “There were maybe a handful. So that sort of planted the idea in the back of my head that if we are going to serve the industry, we have to produce somebody who can fly fish.”
In 2008, Troll was finally able to see that idea come to live with the first guide academy. This is the 7th academy and roughly 80 students have gone through the program and 4 have been placed as permanent employees and a few other internships at sport lodges in the region.
Troll says that even if most of the students don’t get jobs at a lodge, they can learn about an industry that is all around them. He says many of these students may someday be leaders in their native corporations, which often own or lease land to lodges.
“Just understanding the industry, how it works, how it operates, and also lodges from the other side understanding what village corporations are all about,” said Troll. “And trying to deal fairly with everybody and make it work.”
He also says it’s a way for the kids to get exposure to people from all over the world.
“The business leaders of the world come here. You get to mingle with these people. And who knows where that could take somebody,” said Troll.
Troll doesn’t think the lodge industry will ever be a major employer in the region but it could be a significant one.
Sonny Peterson, owner of Kulik Lodge, says a major hurtle to hiring locals as guides is that the work is only seasonal.
“You know, a local kid here, it’s tough for them because once this is over, that’s it. And unless they can figure out something to do the rest of the year,” said Peterson.
“It’s hard to have just a seasonal jump with a box of Tide costing 30 or 40 dollars,”echoed David Parks.
Parks will be starting a new job at the post office when he gets back to Iliamna but he would love the chance to work at a lodge if he could.
“If I had a job that would allow me to take a month off in the summer. Maybe I’ll work in the schools. Work at the schools in the winters, be a guide in the summer,” said Parks.
Whatever career path lays ahead for Parks, it’s evident that this academy has left an impression on him. He smiles wide as he talks about his experience at the camp.
“The best part about it was catching that fish with that fly rod with a fly that I tied myself,” said Parks.
Each student at the academy gets a fly rod to take home. Even if it doesn’t work out that Parks can be a guide someday. He says fly fishing is a new skill he’ll enjoy showing off to his friends at home.