University of Salmon Camp by Josiah Darr
When you graduate from high school, the world is at your fingertips.
There are so many directions you can go with nothing holding you back. For some, the next step in life consists of what so many people consider the American Dream.
You go off to a prestigious college where you work hard for four years and graduate with a highly desirable degree in some fancy field. Next thing you know, you’re hired on at a growing company in a high paying position, you find the guy or girl of your dreams and settle down to raise a family. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
But, if you want to be a salmon fishing guide in Oregon, Washington, California or Idaho, you’d better think long and hard about taking a crack at working for a salmon camp deep in the Alaskan bush.
For those of you that want to guide someday, it’s the easiest way to see if you have what it takes to turn your dream job into a career, and it’s an opportunity you may never get again.
Hundreds of post-high school men and women get their first chance to experience Alaska salmon fishing by getting hired on as a guide or camp hand at one of Alaska’s many remote salmon camps. Rivers like the Nushagak, Alagnak, Togiak, Kasilof, and Kenai have countess openings for guides due to the high turnover rate. If you want to guide in the lower 48 someday, an Alaskan bush guiding job is the best way to get started for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, you get to use someone else’s boat.
Not a lot of high school graduates have a brand new 20’ Alumaweld Super-Vee with a 150-horse Yamaha jet on the back. At least not where I went to school.
When you’re guiding in Alaska, depending on where you work, a beautiful boat like that will be assigned to you. You can’t beat that! Not to mention, if you grind into a gravel bar because you were wiping your glasses while driving into the teeth of a blistering rainstorm, you don’t have to pay to fix it.
Oh sure you’ll get chewed out and your boat driving privileges revoked for a while, but you won’t be out thousands of dollars. The embarrassment and endless ridicule from your fellow guides will humble you, but a valuable lesson will be learned at no financial cost to you. Just remember, even a talented fisherman can be dropped to his knees the instant he loses focus. Remember that.
Another huge upside to bush guiding in Alaska for a few summers, if you’d like to guide in the lower 48 someday, is you’ll get a glimpse of what the workload of running a guide business is like.
Sure, people think that anyone who fishes for a living must have the easiest job in the world, but I can assure you that’s not the case. Quite on the contrary.
Depending on where you work, you’re going to wake up every morning in a cold and often damp tent around 6 a.m. Oh, and it’s going to smell like a combination of salmon guts and wader gas...
Next, you’ll get your lunches and drinks together for your customers, make sure your gear is order, meet your guys and maybe snag some breakfast. Then, you’ll have to be personal and polite while driving up and down the river in whatever elements Mother Nature throws at you while trying to get amateur fishermen to execute what you’re teaching them. All while hoping the fish cooperate as well.
Your patience and frustration levels will be tested.
Eventually, you’ll lick your wounds and take your customers back to camp around dinner time, but that’s not where the work ends.
After dinner you’ll have to take care of the fish you caught through the day and box it up for customers, clean your boat and prep your gear for tomorrow. If you’re lucky, you’ll get done with your day by 9 p.m.
At that point, you’ll probably want to meet up with the other guides and get their reports from the day and maybe even get a beer. Once that’s done, you’ll be more than ready to hit the sack only to wake up to do it all over again. If you think a 9 to 5 office job is draining, you won’t make it a week.
Despite Salmon Camp being a lot more work than your typical summer job, there’s no question that it will open the door to a world that is like no other.
It’s in this world where fishing dreams come true that are impossible anywhere else, which is exactly why a young fisherman has to at least consider making the leap.
After guiding in Alaska myself for a few years after college and seeing all the goods and evils of salmon camp, I was reluctant to go back.
Honestly, the fishing was incredible and the river was euphoric, but the camp life was a living nightmare—bad owners, dysfunctional staff and some of the nastiest guides for coworkers you could ever imagine. I assumed that was just how salmon camp was.
Little did I know I experienced a rotten example of what salmon camp was really like.
Luckily for me while working for Clackacraft Drift Boats, I got to know Bob Kratzer and was able to see what a truly incredible salmon camp was really like.
I knew Bob as one of the Forks, WA area’s premier fishing guides with years of experience chasing salmon and steelhead around the Olympic Peninsula. What I didn’t know was that Bob was also the former owner and current manager of one the Nushagak River’s top camps, Alaska Kingfishers.
Seeing the ungodly number of kings on the Nush was always a dream of mine and after talking to Bob and the new camp owner, Rob Fuentes, the trip was booked for dad and myself to spend a few days seeing just how many kings we could land on a river said to have the most kings in the world.
I’m not even going to get into the number of kings dad and I landed in the five days fishing we spend at Alaska Kingfishers, but I will tell you it was more than I could have ever dreamt of.
Bobbers dropping as fast we could cast them out and plug rods pounding to the water every time we felt like changing it up. Doubles, triples and even quads if we felt like working that hard.
That doesn’t even include the endless supplies of aggressive chums available and the superhighway of sockeye pouring though. It was a fisherman’s dream, but it wasn’t just the fishing.
It was the people at the camp who made the trip truly incredible.
Unlike anything I’d ever seen before, the camp was made up of people who really cared about the customers and not their own egos or agendas. It was an all for one and one for all mentality.
Bob’s wife Traci, who I suspected was really in charge of the whole operation, was right there to answer every question and help out with any little detail the customers might have. His daughter Kaitlyn was running around helping with all the day to day chores that needed to be done all while dolling out freshly baked cookies like they were going out of style.
The owner’s son and friend were there busting their butts to make sure camp was well maintained and they were quick to jump to any request that was asked of them. It was a well-oiled machine. And the guides? They were in a league of their own.
Every guide there was a talented fisherman and lower 48 guides as well, who knew their craft inside and out.
More importantly, they were personable, patient, friendly and kind towards each other. Young men who’d been working on rivers their entire lives that knew one more fish landed or beating another boat to the spot wasn’t going to make or break the trip for the clients. Instead, their goals were obviously to make every person on every boat feel like they were part of the family. A giant fish-catching family.
It was incredible.
After a few days at camp the owner, Rob, flew in with a few clients from his nearby Bear Claw Lodge who’d been trout fishing all week and wanted to get into the king action.
I watched as Rob greeted all the guides and staff with smiles and handshakes. He knew his lodge was being well run while he was away. He’d hired the right people and was on the most plentiful king river in the world. It was hard for Rob or anyone at the camp to stop smiling from the moment they got there until the day they left.
It’s been about eight months and I still smile every time I think about it.
- written by Josiah Darr