Fly fishing guide Triston Chaney holds up a freshly caught rainbow trout in southwest Alaska. Photo courtesy Triston Chaney.
Triston Chaney draws from a lifelong connection to the landscape in his work as a fly fishing guide at Bear Trail Lodge and instructor at the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy near Dillingham, Alaska. ~ as told to Lauren Kaljur
I grew up fishing in and around the Nushagak and Wood Rivers, which feed into the Bering Sea at Bristol Bay, with my grandpa and dad. My heritage is Yup’ik, Aleut, and Athabascan, and both sides of my family have lived in the area for I don’t know how many thousands of years. I grew up hunting moose, bear, salmon—anything that crawls, walks, or swims.
At our camp, after a day of hunting moose, I used to stand on the back of our skiff and catch grayling with an artificial “dry fly.” There’s nothing prettier than a grayling rising from the water. They have a big old sail and a purple shine on them. They don’t fight as hard as rainbow trout, but they’re feisty and are a blast to catch. In the summertime, my best buddy and I used to stay out fishing until one or two in the morning, when it would actually get dark. Because why stop fishing if there’s still daylight?
After catching grayling, I started getting deeper into fly fishing. It looks goofy if you’ve never done it before, throwing the line out into the water with a weird bead or feather on the end. But I love how much there is to learn, like what flies to use and where and when to use them. In summer months, when salmon are spawning, trout love Glo-bugs—flies tied with yarn to imitate salmon eggs. I’m always seeking out new spots for catching the most salmon or the largest trout. And the cast is so graceful. It’s like meditating.
I went through the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy, which is focused on trying to get locals into the recreational fishing industry, one of the biggest moneymakers in the bay, second to commercial fishing. Bristol Bay is one of the best places in the world to catch and release trout and to stock up on salmon. Soon after my training, I started guiding at Bear Trail Lodge.
Most clients come for rainbow trout. They can be 30 inches [76 centimeters] long and heavy. And they fight hard, which is what fly fishers want. One guy fought one for, like, 15 minutes this year.
My job is to make sure clients have a good time walking through the tundra brush, wading in streams, and catching fish. If you accidentally forget your bead box or lose their catch, you have to stay composed. I sometimes bring clients near Brooks Falls, a famous spot where tourists watch bears catch fish jumping up the waterfall. By September, the salmon start dying and those bears are hungrier. That’s when encounters happen. The bears don’t want you, they just want your fish.
One time, I was guiding a husband and wife and both of them caught rainbows. I netted her fish, and paused to take a photo of the couple, when a nuisance bear saw the fish splashing in the net and started jogging toward us. I shouted, “Get in the creek!” So we waded in, just to distance ourselves from the bear. I took the hook out of the wife’s fish, let it go, and yelled “Hey, bear,” with the clients behind me. The bear was looking right at me, only about six feet [two meters] away. He wasn’t very big—probably two or three years old—but big enough to tear me up. Once the fish swam away, he lost interest and trotted off.
In a place like Bristol Bay, it’s easy to catch fish. We just had a record-breaking year for sockeye salmon returns. I try not to take it for granted. We’re extremely fortunate to have a healthy ecosystem. I tell my clients that salmon are the reason everything is so good here. Without salmon, the trout fishing wouldn’t be as good, because trout depend on salmon eggs to fatten themselves up for the winter. And the bears would be a lot hungrier.