It's a lot harder to find a career in the fly fishing space than one might think. It's a niche industry, and like many others, it's protected by older generations who have firm opinions and a track record of weeding people out. But what does that mean for the next generation of anglers trying to figure out their own path?
For Joseph Clark and many other anglers of his generation, it started with taking a chance. "It wasn't until I turned 19 years old that I took my first plane flight, and it was a one-way ticket to Anchorage. The second flight I ever took was about 30 minutes later when I hopped into a bush plane from Lake Hood to a remote Alaskan Lodge. It was a reality check." - Joseph ClarkCupcake Ipsum, 2015
Shortly after graduating high school, Joseph took that chance and chased his dream. He traveled to Alaska to become a full-time fly fishing guide working at Chelatna Lake Lodge on the southern edge of Denali National Park. Joseph is one of many young anglers around the country hell-bent on postponing a college degree to chase his passion in the fishing industry. He's not alone. More young people have joined the sport than ever before, and there's no doubt in our minds that it's a good thing.
Over the last 4 years, the fly fishing industry saw its largest growth period ever. The last time we saw a similar surge in participation was when a "River Runs Through It" came out. According to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), angling participation levels hit a record high in 2020 with a total of 54.7 million anglers in the US. Covid changed a lot of things. After being trapped inside and clouded by technology, the natural urge to get outside pushed an entirely new generation of anglers to elevate their passion to the next level.
Joseph is the perfect example of this. He began fishing before he could remember, long before finding himself in Alaska. At the age of 10, his family's hobby transformed into a personal mission after hooking and landing his first largemouth bass on the fly rod. Shortly after, he started picking up shifts at his local fly shop– Unicoi Outfitters. But it wasn't until the pandemic in 2020 that he had the time and space to take his vision to the next level.
For most shop owners, there's a process for giving the younger kids a shot at working their way up the ladder. For Joseph, the path was pretty clear. To get started, hard work and dedication are required. He started to tie flies, learn from older guides, and develop an appreciation for his local fisheries. This formative period of his angling led him to warm water rivers, lakes, and even the coast. Whether it was hopping different creeks to chase shoal bass, searching the reservoirs for landlocked striped bass, or targeting grass carp with dry flies, all he could think about was fishing.
It wasn't long before Joseph was offered an opportunity to start guiding. He began on private water and quickly transitioned into targeting native brook trout in small Appalachian streams. It helped lay a basic foundation for understanding how to work with clients, and how to structure a great experience for first-time anglers.
Everything changed on a gloomy summer afternoon when he randomly received a Direct Message that would change his life. "A guide who had worked previously at Chelatna Lake Lodge saw some of my photos on Instagram. After chatting about some of my photography he asked if I would be interested in guiding at the lodge. From there everything started to snowball."
If you think about it, something like this would never have happened 15 or 20 years ago. Growth in the industry and the connectivity of the community through social media is sometimes thought of negatively, but at the age of 18, Joseph found himself in a situation where he had a chance to travel to Alaska and take a legitimate career step. After working with his parents through skepticism, he connected with the lodge owner and decided to accept the position.
What could have been interpreted as an Instagram scam would turn out to be one of the most transformative experiences of his life. He outfitted himself in some well-deserved new Simms gear, said goodbye to his friends at the local fly shop, and headed north.
By the time Joseph jumped into a bush plane he was headed to a place he had never been to, with a person he had never met. "I was trying to take in everything. It wasn't only my first time in Alaska, it was my first time out of the southeast. I had planned all I could, but nothing could prepare me for what it would be like. At that moment, all I could think was, there's no turning back now."
Although Joseph isn't sure how his long-term guide plans will pan out, taking a season to guide in Alaska was the best decision he ever made. It wasn't only about furthering his guiding career, it was about being open to a life experience that would ground his sense of reality. Like many young people looking to take a gap year before pursuing a degree, Joseph wanted to get a better understanding of what he was getting into.
"From a guiding perspective, It was humbling. It's one thing to get clients into fish on a small private river in Georgia, but being in a wild place and learning a fishery for the first time helped me fine-tune my ability to help other anglers. Whether it was getting someone to dial in their cast, or catching a new species for the first time, there was always something to figure out."
"If I could tell my younger 18-year-old self one thing, I would say, do it. You don't realize how wild the rest of the world is until you get out and see it for yourself. When I would get out on the boat, and away from the lodge, it was completely untouched. No matter how old I am, I'm confident that this part of my life will always be a foundational experience. I really didn't know it was possible to find true peace. Even though it was foreign and new, and somewhat scary, I found a level of truth to life and a much clearer path forward."By: Joesph Clark
After talking with Joseph, he wanted to leave the younger readers with some last thoughts. "If you want to guide you need to put in your time. Consider starting at a fly shop. Always work hard and eventually take a chance to really put yourself somewhere where you have to learn the hard way. You need to stay humble, and at all costs, remember to leave a fishery better than you found it."
When Joseph made it back home everything started to look different. Whether it was the pace of normal everyday life for his friends, or having an entirely different appreciation for hard work. He plans to make it back up to Chelatna Lake Lodge this coming summer, but in the meantime, you can find him working at Unicoi outfitters chasing his dream, one cast at a time. If you are looking to get into guiding shoot him a direct message via Instagram, you never know what might come of it.
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