Q&A with Indigenous Fishing Guide Erica Nelson


Erica Nelson used social media to teach herself how to fly fish as an adult — YouTube tutorials, tips from Tinder matches and DMs on her Instagram account. She learned quickly. Today, Nelson is the only Native American female fly fishing guide in Colorado, and she’s making a big impact on and off the water. Six years after tying her first fly, the Navajo angler is an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing, an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide and host of two podcasts devoted to the sport. Despite all her success, Nelson says she still considers herself a “hard fisherman,” 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 food to improving racial and gender representation in the outdoor industry. Here’s what she had to say.

I use the phrase “strange fisherman” for two reasons. First, it’s about my observations about the lack of representation in flight. It’s weird to mention it. No one wants to talk about it, do they? It’s uncomfortable. I think it will always be uncomfortable. And I think that’s exactly where we need to be.

Second, I’m still catching trees. I still think I’ve caught a fish when it’s really a branch. Fly fishing gets tough. I teach people to remember this and to be patient.

When I was a kid, I hated being outside. I was more of an inner 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 outside regardless.

At first, learning to fly fish was frustrating. I wasn’t sure if I was doing something right. I started watching fishing videos on YouTube. But I lived in Wyoming, which has limited cell phone service. Whenever I was out trying to watch a video while in the water, it wouldn’t load and I’d forget what I was supposed to do. I would have to go home, study the video, and then try to replicate it in the water next time. It wasn’t working. So I actually used a dating app to ask people about casting, flights or where to go. I started meeting some local guides online, and then I found a mentor in the area.

The first time you throw a fly rod straight, it becomes meditative. When you land your first fish, it all comes together and makes sense.

Woman fly fisherman catches fish in mountain river
Nelson hooks a trout in 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 when it comes to not only female guides, but indigenous guides as well. You don’t see many local guides in the outdoors in general, let alone in fly fishing. I felt a sense of responsibility to be that representation.

There is a lot of talk in the industry, but not much action. I understand that things aren’t going to change overnight, and I’m seeing a lot more conversations happening. I’m seeing a lot more programs out there to bridge that gap for people historically excluded from being in the outdoor industry. But it is who directs those efforts that I question. There needs to be a deeper conversation than just throwing people into a program or throwing them into industries in potentially harmful or toxic environments. How are we actually supporting and uplifting different ideas? How do we ensure their voices are heard and their experiences validated? This is the kind of community I finally want to see.

As a guide, authentic connection with your customer is important. The questions you ask them and the words you are using are part of building a comprehensive boat for the day. Does this person feel safe, 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, breathing being the fish, then thanking and letting him go. It’s almost the height of privilege to be able to catch and release a fish.

I am the co-founder of Real Consulting, which stands for reconciliation, development, advancement and leadership. We help lead organizations and individuals toward racial equality 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 do it. In 2019, we co-founded the Angling for All Pledge. Organizations and brands signed up to 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.

the woman throws the fly rod from the rock into the small stream
Nelson is currently the only indigenous 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 gadgets. When I first started, I was given an old rod. I was probably in shorts and Chacos with a tin of flies and nails. I could fit them all in my pocket. Fly fishing can be as expensive and technical as you want it to be. But it can also be really easy and cheap.

I am obsessed with the Green River in Wyoming where I learned to fish. There is a season when the locusts go wild. You’re casting these big foamy shrimp and watching these fish come for 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.





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