4,427 miles away from Dawsonville in Kenai, Alaska, Hannah McConnell is taking control of her life she was once too afraid to take control of.
McConnell, a 2015 graduate of Dawson County High School, was scared to leave home when she first found out she was accepted to work at Big Sky Dude Ranch in Montana.
It was in Montana that McConnell found her true passion — fly fishing.
“Growing up in Dawsonville, we didn’t even know what fly rods were until later off in life,” McConnell said. “When I moved out to Montana, watching someone cast the fly rod was a really cool sight for me. I immediately fell in love with it after I picked up the rod. When I found out you could fish and be in the hospitality field, I knew I had found my passion.”
McConnell said she resembles a wildflower because of the difficulty to get her to stay in one place for an extended period of time since discovering her love for fly fishing. After going through fly fishing guide school, McConnell led expeditions at Yellowstone National Park and for the last six-months has been guiding trips on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
“I don’t like to be planted somewhere,” McConnell said. “In fly fishing, I do what I love and can go wherever I want to go. Now I can live the life I want to live but didn’t have the courage to before. I don’t know if it’s an itch, or whether I'm taking opportunities that lead me to a better place that takes me to the next place I’m supposed to go.”
Every day is a new adventure, according to McConnell. Some days, she could be teaching a new group of fly fishers all of the basics and other days she’s guiding seasoned experts. There are dangers all along the way, so McConnell has to be ready to spring into action at any given moment
“There’s always danger in our fly fishing industry,” McConnell said. “The rivers out here are much different than the waters back home. It’s easier to swipe people away because the currents move much faster. The hooks get caught in places they shouldn’t like skin or apparel. Out west has wildlife I didn’t have in Dawson, or changes in weather we didn’t plan on.”
Though it does not define her daily experience, McConnell faced and continues to face struggles of being one of the few women in the fly fishing industry.
“Being a female in this industry is extremely tough and extremely hard mentally at times,” McConnel said. “If we’re being honest, there’s a couple people from all over that I have just wanted to shove my middle finger in their face. It’s not that people don’t think a woman is capable, they just don’t think that a woman is as capable as a man is.”
“It’s really awesome to be able to fly fish. In guide school, I was the only woman in the program and I was catching the biggest fish. It might come across as cocky and arrogant but to me, it feels like I’m constantly proving myself. I can row a boat full of heavy dudes. It’s not exhausting, but it is kinda sad that a woman has to prove herself.”
Along the way, McConnell has been introduced to other female guides in the Northwest, including her best friend and current boss, who have helped her along the way.
Leaving her home in Dawsonville was never easy for McConnell. Four years later, she still gets homesick frequently. Though she tries to make the trip back to Dawsonville every six months, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic kept McConnell unable to come home for the last 10 months.
“Something that keeps me going is knowing how proud I’m making people by just doing my thing and being so ‘young, wild and free’ and the courage I've built along the way,’ McConnell said. “Seeing people’s reactions without asking for reactions makes it easier for me. I guess it’s just that I grew up in a small town and was sheltered by how big the outside world was.”
For days when she’s homesick, McConnell comes back to her cabin in Alaska to be greeted by a nine-month old St. Bernard Newfoundland named Bonnie. She got Bonnie right before Christmas last year and she is already a pro on the boat.
“As a puppy, I immediately started putting her on a boat and getting on the river,” McConnell said. “Every time I’d catch a trout, she’d give it a kiss and then release it. She’s my partner in crime.”
McConnell’s parents have always been supportive of following her dreams, even when they lead her to the other side of the country. McConnell’s mother told her growing up that she didn’t have to go to college, but that she had to find something she wanted to make her career in. Now, McConnell shares her dream everyday with customers.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to do anything without wanting to accomplish anything,” McConnell said. “If I’m not sharing my passion with what I'm doing, I’m using my passion to watch these people. There’s accomplishment in every aspect of it.”
With a few years of experience under her belt, McConnell said she’s eager to continue to expand her fly fishing career. For the months that the United States’ waters are colder than usual, McConnell wants to continue guiding somewhere tropical so that she can continue to gain more confidence.
“Something for me growing up that was hard to realize was that it’s okay to break out of normality,” McConnell said. “The biggest thing I learned in church was to be comfortable in the uncomfortable...teaching yourself to be okay with being alone, but you’re not lonely. You’re just in your own happiness.”
“There’s going to be days I go out there and I’m clueless of what’s going on but now I have the background knowledge. Since I'm so far away from home, I might as well go see these places. And it works out that these places have such great fishing. The places that are much larger than me are where I find my true happiness.”