It’s clear, crisp and cool on the river this early September morning, and coming to the edge of the Naknek River at the Rapids Camp bend feels like coming home. Nanci Morris Lyon knows the wind will be biting as we make our way up to Preacher’s Rock, so she prepares by donning her beaver-lined hat before taking the tiller arm of the skiff I’m riding in with her and her daughter Rylie. This same waterway has sustained my family since our ancestors followed the salmon here millennia ago, but this time with Nanci has given me fresh eyes from which to view my home stream. I see this as Nanci’s gift, and one she shares freely: the ability to teach and enhance the perceptions of those she comes into contact with in her salmon life.
Nanci has been guiding sports fishermen in Alaska since her early twenties. It was fish that brought Nanci up north, but it was the small town feel of King Salmon and the Naknek River that made her fall in love and stay. Today, Nanci is the owner and manager of Bear Trail Lodge, where she guides clients from all over the globe who come to fish all five species of Pacific salmon, world class Rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden. Though guiding season consumes roughly half of her year, Nanci still plays a full-time role in her local community, helping to protect the life-giving waters of the Naknek River and to educate visitors and residents on the salmon that provide for its people.
While Nanci explored and guided in other parts of Alaska, it was Bristol Bay that held her when she arrived. She was amazed to come to a place where it was possible to still discover untouched sport fisheries and feel as if she was touching raw footage. The small town atmosphere appealed to Nanci, and the sheer numbers of fish amazed her. She remembers thinking, “how can you ever go through this stock or have to worry about conserving them?” It didn’t take long for Nanci to realize the vulnerability of the environment and the fragility of the resource system. She witnessed firsthand the impacts of natural disasters, such as slides that caused creek die offs, and the effects of fisheries management and choices made by individuals that, over time, collectively diminished fish stocks in Bristol Bay. It was then that she felt compelled to share her values by contributing her time to the Bristol Bay Regional Advisory Council and other fish committees that work to steer fish management through local citizen involvement.
Nanci lands the boat upstream and sets to preparing a fly-fishing lead for Rylie to cast for Rainbow Trout. This time of year is what Nanci calls the ‘shoulder’ season and the focus for anglers is catching record-sized rainbows. We see a few spawned out red salmon meandering aimlessly through the water, mostly moving from the downstream pull of the river. Their decomposing bodies create rich food for the river system and their eggs are poached by the feeding trout.
I felt the need to inquire about the relationship between rainbow trout and salmon. Nanci was the perfect guide to walk me through it.
The night before our trip, Nanci interrupted dinner service to announce the triumph of one of her clients at Bear Trail Lodge. He had landed a 30-incher and his glory was to be recognized by his photograph’s addition to the 30-inch or greater Rainbow Wall of Fame. Being the salmon-centric person that I am, I felt the need to inquire about the relationship between rainbow trout and salmon. Nanci was the perfect guide to walk me through it.
The rainbows feast on what the salmon bring to the watershed. As Nanci explains, “without salmon, the rainbows would take forever to reach the size that they become.” When she first started guiding on the Naknek River, Nanci says that 25-inch rainbows were treated with the same reverence that 30-inchers receive now; the numbers had been diminished by anglers catching their limit and stringing them up to take home as meat.
Considering that a rainbow trout does not even begin to reproduce until it is 20-inches or greater and that this usually takes at least 12 years, Nanci recognized that unless perceptions and practices were changed there would soon be no rainbows to catch at all. She advocated for catch and release and risked losing clientele who didn’t see her point of view, but her gamble has paid off. Today, it is not uncommon for visitors to the Naknek River to catch rainbow trout that are 30 inches or greater in size. This allows her lodge to be open when others are boarded up. This landlocked fish, thought to be a salmon to some, draws people to her lodge even when the salmon runs are not taking place.
Nanci stands out in that she "would rather share than keep" what she's learned.
SHARING THE KNOWLEDGE
In an occupation and industry where trade secrets are king, Nanci stands out in that she “would rather share than keep” that knowledge. After years of learning from the Bristol Bay environment and its people, Nanci became a teacher, helping to create the Bristol Bay River Academy. The Academy is a place-based river education course that fosters sustainable outdoor employment opportunities for Bristol Bay young people, striving to “merge salmon and river education with recreation and conservation principles to educate, engage and inspire Bristol Bay young adults to become local leaders in salmon stewardship and prepared for jobs based on healthy salmon in their home rivers.” Nanci serves as Lead Instructor at the Academy alongside biologists, river ecologists and expert fly anglers who travel to the area to work with young adult students from across the region.
Rylie is one of these young adults, and she is eager to follow in her mom’s footsteps. She’s been fishing with her mom since she was small enough to fit in Nanci’s waders. Still in high school, she and her friends have spent the past couple of summers sharing information with fishermen about salmon related issues. Already an accomplished fly fisherman herself, I wasn’t at the lodge long before somebody pointed out that Rylie, too, is on the lodge’s Rainbow Wall of Fame. She is a graduate of the River Academy and has begun to take clients out from the lodge on her own.
Nanci has hired a number of other academy graduates and one of them, Reuben Hastings, picked me up from the King Salmon airport. Reuben is from New Stuyahok, a village in the Nushagak River drainage. He was a student of the first academy class and has worked for Nanci since graduation. He lights up when he talks about his experience and encouraged me to have my own daughter apply, despite her shyness and even though she sits at the lower end of the age limit.
It seems that being a good learner of the environment has made Nanci an equally effective teacher. Seeing Rylie, Reuben and the other graduates of the academy makes it easy to understand why Nanci feels positive about the future of salmon: the more youth are being educated, the more likely they are to protect the future of salmon and this salmon life. As Nanci puts it, “salmon are the link that holds Alaska together; they are the building blocks.” As Rylie wades out into the Naknek River, I feel optimistic about this salmon life and its future. And after my time with Nanci, I would gladly place my own daughter in her capable and loving hands. The thought of our children carrying salmon lives forward is one that brings me faith and hope for our salmon future.