Fly fishing rod

Q&A with Indigenous Fishing Guide Erica Nelson

Erica Nelson took to social media to learn how to fly fish as an adult – tutorials on YouTube, match tips on Tinder and DMs on her Instagram account. She learned quickly. Today, Nelson is the only female Native fly fishing guide in Colorado, and she is making a big impact on and off the water. Six years after tying her first fly, the Navajo angler is a Brown Folks Fishing Ambassador, Orvis-approved fly-fishing guide, and host of two fly-fishing podcasts. Despite all her success, Nelson says she still considers herself a “goofy fisherwoman,” which is her Instagram handle and the name of one of her podcasts. We recently caught up with Nelson to talk about everything from his favorite peach snack to improving racial and gender representation in the outdoor industry. Here’s what she had to say.

I use the phrase “clumsy fisherman” for two reasons.. First of all, these are my observations on the lack of representation in fly fishing. It’s awkward to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about it, do they? It’s uncomfortable. I think it’s always going to be uncomfortable. And I think that’s exactly where we need to be.

Second, I always hang trees. I still think I caught a fish when it really is a branch. Fly fishing becomes tricky. I teach people to remember this and to have patience.

When I was a kid, I hated being outside. I was more of an indoor child. I didn’t like the hot weather. I hated sweating. I still hate the sun. But I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being outdoors regardless.

At first, learning to steal fish was frustrating. I wasn’t sure I was doing anything right. I started watching fishing videos on YouTube. But I was living in Wyoming, where cell phone service is limited. Every time I tried to watch a video while on the water it wouldn’t load and I forgot what I was supposed to do. I should go home, study the video, then try to replicate it on the water next time. It didn’t work. So I used a dating app to ask people about casting or flies or where to go. I started meeting local guides online, then eventually found a mentor in the area.

The first time you cast a fly rod right, it becomes meditative. When you land your first fish, everything falls into place and makes perfect sense.

Nelson catches a trout on the Taylor River. Katy Mooney

I became a fly fishing guide last year. I’ve always said that I never really wanted to be a fishing guide, but there is a need for representation not only for female guides, but also for aboriginal guides. You don’t see many native outdoor guides in general, let alone in fly fishing. I felt responsible for being this representation.

There’s a lot of talk in the industry, but not a lot of action. I understand that things aren’t going to change overnight, and I see a lot more conversations happening. I see many more programs out there to bridge that gap for historically excluded people to be in the outdoor industry. But it’s who is leading these efforts that I question. There needs to be a deeper conversation than just throwing people into a program or throwing them into the industry in potentially dangerous or toxic environments. How do we support and elevate different ideas? How do we ensure their voices are heard and their experiences are validated? This is the kind of community I want to see eventually.

As a guide, an authentic connection with your client is important. The questions you ask them and the words you use are part of building an inclusive boat for the day. Does this person feel safe, valued and welcome? It’s a really important question that you don’t often think about because it’s often just about catching fish.

There is something ancestral about being able to connect with a life and a breath fish, then thank and let go. It’s almost that pinnacle of privilege to be able to catch and release a fish.

I am the co-founder of Real Consulting, which means reconciling, evolving, advancing and leading. We help guide organizations and individuals toward racial equity and inclusion. My partner and I noticed when we worked together as rafting guides in Wyoming that there were people in the outdoor industry who wanted diversity but didn’t know how to get there. In 2019, we co-created the Engling for All Pledge. Organizations and brands have joined to say, “we want to be more inclusive, we want diversity, but we don’t know where to start.” As consultants, we provide the education and training needed to guide organizations through this conversation. It gets awkward.

A woman casts a fly rod from a rock over a small stream
Nelson is currently the only Native female fly fishing guide in the Centennial State. Ryan Duclos

It’s good to go cheap when you’re first starting out. I don’t think people need to have the latest and greatest hardware. When I started, I was given an old cane. I was probably in shorts and Chacos with a tin box of flies and nail clippers. I could put it all in my pocket. Fly fishing can be as expensive and technical as you want it to be. But it can also be very simple and inexpensive.

I’m obsessed with the Green River in Wyoming where I learned to fish. There is a season when the grasshoppers run wild. You throw these big frothy grasshoppers and you watch these fish catch them. They become quite aggressive. It’s really fun to watch.

My most embarrassing moment? There are so many. Once I thought someone was a customer and gave them a big hug. But it wasn’t them, it was the person behind them.

I always say the best snack when you’re on the river is fried chicken.