Q&A With Indigenous Fishing Guide Erica Nelson

Erica Nelson used social media to teach herself how to fly fish as an adult—tutorials on YouTube, tips from Tinder matches, and DMs to her Instagram account. She learned quickly. Today, Nelson is Colorado’s only female Indigenous fly fishing guide, and she’s making a big impact on and off the water. Six years after she tied her first fly, the Navajo angler is a Brown Folks Fishing Ambassador, an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide, and the host of two podcasts dedicated to the sport. Despite all her success, Nelson says she still considers herself an “awkward angler,” which is her Instagram handle and the name of one of her podcasts. We recently sat down with Nelson to talk about everything from her favorite fishing snack to improving racial and gender representation in the outdoor industry. Here’s what she had to say.

I use the phrase “awkward angler” for two reasons. First, it’s about my observations of the lack of representation in flyfishing. It’s awkward to bring that up. No one wants to talk about it, right? It’s uncomfortable. I think it’s always going to be uncomfortable. And I think that’s right where we need to be.

Secondly, I’m still snagging trees. I’m still thinking I caught a fish when it’s really a branch. Fly fishing gets awkward. I teach people to remember that and to have patience.

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

At first, learning to fly fish was frustrating. I wasn’t sure if I was doing anything right. I started looking at fishing videos on YouTube. But I lived in Wyoming, which has limited cell phone service. Anytime I was out trying to watch a video when I was on the water, it wouldn’t load, and I had forgotten what I was supposed to do. I’d have to go home, study the video, and then try to replicate it on the water the next time. It wasn’t working. So I actually used a dating app to ask people questions about casting or flies or where to go. I started to meet some local guides online, and 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, it all comes together and makes sense.

fly angler woman catches fish on mountain river
Nelson nets a trout on the Taylor River. Katy Mooney

I became a fly fishing guide last year. I’ve always said I never really wanted to be a fishing guide, but there is a need for representation when it comes to not only female guides, but Indigenous guides. You don’t see very many native outdoor guides in general, let alone in fly fishing. I felt a sense of responsibility to be that representation.

There’s a lot of talk in the industry but not a lot of action. I understand that things are not going to change overnight, and I’m seeing a lot more conversations happening. I’m seeing a lot more programming out there to bridge that gap for historically excluded people to be in the outdoor industry. But it’s who’s leading those efforts that I question. There’s got to be a deeper conversation than just purely throwing people into a program or throwing them in the industry into potentially harmful or toxic environments. How are we actually supporting and uplifting different ideas? How are we making sure their voices are heard and their experiences are validated? That’s kind of the community I eventually want to see.

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

There is something ancestral about being able to connect with a living and breathing fish, then thanking and letting it go. It’s almost this peak of privilege to be able to catch and release a fish.

I’m the co-founder of Real Consulting, which stands for reconciling, evolving, advancing, and leading. We help guide organizations and individuals towards racial equity and inclusion. My partner and I noticed back when we were working together as rafting guides in Wyoming that there were folks in the outdoor industry that wanted diversity but didn’t know how to make it happen. In 2019, we co-created the Angling for All Pledge. Organizations and brands signed onto it 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 to guide organizations through that conversation. It gets awkward.

woman casts fly rod from rock on small stream
Nelson is currently the only Indigenous woman fly fishing guide in the Centennial State. Ryan Duclos

It’s okay to go cheap when you’re starting out. I don’t think people need to have the latest and greatest gear. When I first started, I was given an old rod. I was probably in shorts and Chacos with a tin box of flies and fingernail clippers. I could fit it all in my pocket. Fly fishing can be as expensive and technical as you want. But it can also be really easy and cheap.

I’m obsessed with the Green River in Wyoming where I learned how to fish. There’s a season when the grasshoppers go wild. You’re throwing these big foamy grasshoppers and watching these fish come up for them. They get pretty aggressive. It’s really fun to watch.

My most awkward moment? There are so many. Once, I thought somebody was a client 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.

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