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Alaska fishing guide returns to become a Vermont game warden

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Posted on February 22, 2018 |
By Matt Dickerson



asa sargent.jpg
WHILE WORKING AS a guide in Alaska, Ripton native Asa Sargent helps one of his customers display a fish he helped her catch in a cold Alaskan river. Sargent now uses some of the skills he honed in Alaska as a Vermont State Game Warden. Photo courtesy of Asa Sargent

One of the things Asa Sargent had to learn when he left the Green Mountain State to spend four years as a guide in Alaska, was how to know when a charging brown bear was just bluffing.

It’s not a lesson one learns growing up in Ripton, Vt., so Sargent, now 26 years old, had to trust the wisdom of the experienced guide who trained him.

It also isn’t a skill that is likely to prove useful in his new career, as a Vermont State Game Warden. However other skills from his years guiding did transfer.

At the February meeting of the New Haven River Anglers at the Swift House Inn, Sargent shared some of his experiences (and photos) from both of these periods. He broke up his four years guiding in Alaska by the different seasons: a spring bear viewing season, and three very distinct fishing seasons each with its own techniques and species of fish.

The 2009 Middlebury Union High School grad and Saint Michael’s alum worked at an Alaska sporting lodge on the Kenai River at the confluence of the Moose River in the town of Sterling. It is one of the most famous areas of the world for trout and salmon angling. Many of the lodge clients come to catch (and keep in the form of fillets) one of the river’s famous king salmon, and are trolling lures on big heavy rods. Though he did his share of rowing boats trolling for salmon, as an avid fly-fisher Sargent soon became the lodge’s primary fly-fishing guide. Since clients often came to the lodge for a mix of activities — a trip involving wildlife viewing as well as fishing — he would also take clients on flights to Lake Clark National Park where he saw at least 70 brown bears.

Fishing, however, was Sargent’s passion. He led trips on the lower Kenai River, the upper portion of the river, and some of its most famous tributaries, as well as nearby rivers like the Kasilof, and sometimes on hike-in trips to mountain lakes. King salmon, also called Chinooks, are the largest Pacific salmon. They could sometimes be found in the rivers as early as late April but the early season really began in May when larger numbers moved into the rivers along with sockeye salmon. Late season steelhead could also be caught as they made their way back down river to the ocean after spawning, and in mid-June the rivers opened for trout fishing. There were usually so many clients wanting trips that he would take them out four at a time in his drift boat. “Lines could get tangled pretty quick with four rods out the back of the boat,” he remarked. But fishing was good and sometimes they’d have three or four hookups at a time.

In July, after much of the snow had melted in the mountains, the second season began with a different larger strain of king salmon moving into the rivers along with a second run of sockeye. As ice and snow melted, it freed up a lot of dead salmon flesh frozen the previous fall, and big rainbow trout would begin feeding heavily on salmon flesh floating down the river. His flies would imitate rotting flesh.

His favorite season, however, was the third season, running from late July through September. It was all fly-fishing. The king salmon and sockeye would be spawning, and so the rainbow trout and Dolly Varden trout would be feasting on a glut of eggs. By late summer the trout would be fat, heavy, and hard fighting. Silver salmon and steelhead also moved into the rivers. The fishing was mostly on patterns imitating eggs and the fish could get really picky. “That’s when I’d go back for 10 days, if I had a chance,” Sargent said. “It can get pretty damp in August — rainy and cloudy — but the fishing is so good.” He’d spend five days just on Quartz Creek, a tributary of the Kenai 90 miles up from the ocean at the upper end of the run of sockeye and king salmon. Unlike the Kenai, the river is small, easy to wade, and accessible.

Now, however, Sargent is back in his home state. In May of 2016, he was hired to be a game warden for Vermont. His training began with six months of full-time schooling at the State Police Academy. When he finished that training, Sargent continued with another six months of warden training focusing on fish and wildlife enforcement, as well as recreation vehicles such as snowmobiles and boats.

For the past 18 months, he has been on the job serving as warden in an eight-town region in northern Windsor County. He covers some 280 square miles in his regular beat, and nearly triple that a couple days a week when he covers the territory of other wardens. (There are only 44 wardens in the entire state.)

Some of his work has involved the sort of tasks that come right to mind when I think of wardens, namely hunting and fishing violations: hunting turkeys out of season and with a rifle, shooting a deer from a road, illegally baiting deer with commercial bait. Big game violations themselves are already criminal offenses, but sometimes they can lead to the discovery of bigger issues and other broken laws. He also assists other agencies, including occasional pursuits with state police.

Did his time in Alaska prepare him to be a game warden? The answer, he said, was yes, but not in the way I would have imagined. It wasn’t outdoor skills, or experience with animals. It was his experience with people. Being a guide, he had to read people all the time, pay attention to their mannerisms, how they reacted. Guiding developed good people skills. And that has come in handy as a game warden. Most of his job is dealing with people — helping and communicating laws as well as enforcing them. Developing trust is very important. Most of the violations he finds come from either complaints or tips (often anonymous).

Is there any part of his job he doesn’t like?

“Picking up road kill,” Sargent says. “That’s my least favorite.”

Looking at one of his photos of a road-killed bear, I didn’t blame him. Still, there is enough variety and excitement in his job to keep it quite interesting. If and when he returns to Alaska, it won’t be for work — just for the enjoyment.

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