Blake Yorde’s dad could see that his son was going to need some incentive to graduate from the University of Minnesota Duluth in just four years. So Steve Yorde made his son a promise.
“He told me, ‘If you graduate in four years, we’ll go fishing anywhere you want,’ ” Blake said. “I said, ‘Alaska.’ “
Duluth’s Yorde, now 31, made that first trip to Alaska with his dad in 2006, the summer after he graduated from college. The first fish he landed was a 50-pound king salmon.
Alaska took it from there. For seven of the past nine summers now, Yorde has been guiding anglers for king salmon, sockeye salmon, rainbows and Arctic grayling, mostly on tributaries of the Copper River. For the past few years, he’s been guiding single-day and multi-day fishing trips by raft for all of those species. He guides for River Wrangellers at Copper Center, about 200 miles northeast of Anchorage in the shadows of the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains.
The life of an Alaska fishing guide still seems like a dream to Yorde, who is bearded and back in Duluth for the fall and winter.
“I giggle sometimes,” he said. “I’m getting paid for this – standing in the middle of a river waving a stick. It’s not a bad deal.”
He fishes the Klutina, Gulkana and Tonsina rivers, fast and cold waters that are tributaries of the famed Copper River. Trout and salmon swim 180 miles up the river to spawn in the tributaries.
“King salmon average about 30 pounds in July,” Yorde said, “and you have a legitimate shot at 50-pounders about every day.”
His largest king is 52½ inches long and likely weighed about 65 pounds, according to length-weight ratios. He catches rainbow trout that run to 30 inches or more.
But guiding other anglers to fish like that is Yorde’s joy. He’s an affable guy with a quick laugh, but he takes his guiding seriously.
“I love watching people fish, working people through a day, teaching them something they didn’t know before,” he said. “It’s really neat to see somebody be successful at the end of the day.”
Guiding with Alaska’s backcountry as a backdrop never gets old. As he fishes, he can gaze up at 12,000-foot Mount Drum and 16,000-foot Mount Sanford, both within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
“Pictures just can’t describe the scale and immensity of it all,” Yorde said.
Danny Schmitz is general manager of River Wrangellers and has known Yorde since both started working in the area.
“It doesn’t take Blake long to notice patterns,” Schmitz said. “He can really figure out what’s happening with the fish and with the fishermen. He can work what he’s got to get those fish on and get them landed. It’s a big-game kind of fishing, and you might only have a couple chances a day.”
Joyanna Yorde, Blake’s wife, has made trips with him as an assistant guide. She has watched him with his fishing clients.
“He’s incredibly confident and very patient with newcomers and people who haven’t fished before,” she said. “He’s a good teacher. He doesn’t let anything ruffle his feathers.”
From the beginning
Even as a small child, Yorde couldn’t get enough of fishing. His grandfather, the late Milton “Grandpa Swede” Englund, lived in Nashwauk and had a cabin on Swan Lake near Pengilly. He took Blake fishing summer and winter.
“He was probably 2 when my dad started taking him out in a wooden fishing boat,” said Adele Yorde, Blake’s mom and Swede’s daughter. “They’d pack a lunch and go out for hours.”
“If I complained, he’d spend even more time in the boat,” Blake said.
One day, fishing alone from shore at the cabin when he was 5, Blake hooked a decent largemouth bass, his dad said.
“Swede always told him, ‘If you get a big one and can’t reel it in, just walk up to the cabin and beach it.’ “
So that’s what young Blake did with this bass, which weighed 2 pounds, 15 ounces.
“We all ran outside to see it,” Steve Yorde said.
They had the fish mounted, and it’s still in the Yorde garage.
Yorde’s mom and dad weren’t big into fishing, but they helped him pursue his passion. Blake fished all over as a kid, often on his own along North Shore streams.
“When he was 8 or 9 years old,” his dad said, “we’d take him up the shore past the Lester River. We’d drop him off, and he’d disappear into the woods. He’d say, ‘Come back and get me in four hours.'”
He learned to fly-fish at a demonstration event in Duluth and became a serious fly-fisher. He catches rainbows of 30 inches or more on his fly rod on Alaskan rivers where he guides. He also guides fly-fishers on Wisconsin’s Brule and other rivers each fall along with Duluth’s Brian Porter, through Porter’s Far Out Fly-Fishing guide service.
When he was younger, Yorde would hang out at the Superior Fly Angler, a fly-fishing shop, soaking up information about the Brule River. That’s where he met Duluth’s Bruce Pomeroy, a longtime Brule angler. Pomeroy became a mentor of Yorde’s.
“I started teaching him about fishing on the Brule River,” said Pomeroy, 65. “He listens intently and follows instructions well. He’s one of the best fishermen I can think of. He’s very talented and catches lots of big fish.”
When Pomeroy was forced to quit fly-fishing because of arthritis two years ago, he sold all of his fly-fishing gear to Yorde.
“He’s probably my best friend,” Pomeroy said. “He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s personable as hell.”
Making it all work
Yorde married Joyanna, the former Joyanna Schultz from Duluth, in 2011. She knows her way around a fishing rod, Yorde said.
“My wife is an incredible king salmon fisherman,” he said. “She listens, and she sets the hook. I tell my clients, ‘That’s what I want you to do.’ “
Together, the Yordes are trying to figure out how to make this Alaska-Minnesota lifestyle work. At this point, they have no plans to move to Alaska.
Blake Yorde spends his winters in Duluth, tending bar at Tavern on the Hill. Joyanna is employed by the Human Development Center. Blake has been bartending the past eight years for Black Woods and ran the Black Water Lounge martini bar for two years. He also makes snow for Spirit Mountain every winter. He tried selling insurance for a year or so, but that didn’t take.
“He’s not a briefcase kind of guy,” his mom said. “He’s a tackle box and lunchbox kind of guy.”
Joyanna Yorde said she and Blake talk often about their future and how Blake’s guiding fits into that.
“Of course, my wife wants me to get a big-boy job,” Blake says with a smile. “But if I can keep doing this and make a living, I’m going to do it. I don’t know if the dream has fully culminated yet.”
For more information on Yorde’s guiding in Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, go to riverwrangellers.com or faroutflyfishing.com. To contact Yorde, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (218) 310-3353.