Based in Colorado, this Southwest angler is a pioneer on and off the water for diversity, equity and inclusion
A mid-afternoon gust from the west pushed the clouds across the sky. Goosebumps rolled across my neck as I stood on a rock inches above the flowing surface of the Taylor River clumsily casting my fly rod. My friend, Erica Nelson, was teaching me how to fly fish in Taylor River State Wildlife Area, 30 miles southeast of where we live in the ancestral Ute Territory of Crested Butte, Colorado.
“Toss it like you mean it! But not too fast,” Nelson reminded me — right before the two flies caught the tippet and my semi-fluid overhead cast whipped through the air, forging a giant ball of knots. “Now you’re fishing!” Nelson laughed. Five years earlier, she had taught herself how to fly fish.
Today, she’s an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing (BFF), a nationwide organization of anglers led by Black, Indigenous and other people of color. Founded by filmmaker Tracy Nguyen-Chung, the group’s mission is to expand access to fishing, cultivate community and teach conservation through the sport.
Nelson is also a diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) consultant and professional river guide. Basically, Nelson is a top-notch teacher full of compassion and humor. As I stood there struggling with my line, Nelson reminded me that 90% of fly fishing is tying and retying knots or getting them unstuck.
A small fraction of the sport is actually spent reeling in a catch — unless you’re Nelson. I looked over as she tugged her line. While holding tension on the rod, she seamlessly unclipped her fishing net off her hip belt and clutched it beneath her left arm. In 60 seconds, a shimmery brown trout idled inside the net: her third catch that day.
Nelson’s outdoor prowess is well-earned. The 36-year-old grew up in Kirtland, New Mexico, 9 miles west of Farmington. Before following her dreams as an outdoor leader, she worked as the room operations manager for Marriott Hotels in Portland, Oregon, for five years. In 2014, she quit the corporate path to become a river guide.
Nelson described her fear of water, and how she immersed herself into the world of rivers to overcome her fears in order to pursue her personal goals.
“I went to guide school, learned how to respect whitewater, how to read it and how to work with it,” said Nelson, who guided Class III-IV rapids on the American River, one of the highest commercially-rafted rivers in the country.
Between guiding, she served as an assistant camp director at Bear Valley Resort summer camps to face her second fear. “I didn’t know how to be around kids and wanted to get better,” she said. To further solidify her career path, Nelson completed a major in psychology and minor in outdoor leadership at Sierra Nevada University.
After finishing her degree, in 2016, Nelson was hired by her number one choice: National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a nonprofit global wilderness school that provides survival and recreation skills plus leadership training through hands-on outdoor courses. She joined the team as a senior marketing representative and admissions officer based in Lander, Wyoming. There, fly fishing was a popular pastime, so she taught herself how to fish on the Popo Agie River.
“I kept getting stuck in trees. I was terrified going on the water alone. It was stressful and frustrating. But when I set my mind to doing something, I at least want to be mediocre at it. I was challenging myself to catch at least one fish. I ended up fishing every single day,” she said.
When a NOLS instructor position opened up for a river instructor course, Nelson applied for that, too. Out of 300 applicants, she landed the job. For three years, she juggled guiding and instruction alongside her administrative role.
“I love field instruction and it was a milestone, but I was struggling with my job inside of headquarters,” Nelson said. “There was toxicity and I experienced a lot of discrimination. I was dedicated to the mission of the company but seeing the ethics within the organization was hard to deal with, so I had to leave.”
In 2018, Nelson took a job with Vail Resorts as the learning and development senior specialist, where she offered one-on-one consulting with senior leaders, managers and teams to guide them on effective communication and growth in a classroom setting.
That same year, Nelson also became an ambassador for BFF. “Throughout my experience as an angler, I’d get stared at for not only being the only woman, but the only woman of color, especially at boat ramps. That opened my eyes to the fly fishing industry as it is. I noticed all the magazines and advertisements had no people of color. Through Brown Folks Fishing, we come together to call out the fly fishing industry for a lack of representation and hostility on the water, and to be that representation in the space,” Nelson said.
Over the past two years, she helped establish BFF’s Angling for All Pledge, the first-ever industry commitment and curriculum for organizations and individuals to adopt diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Components of the pledge were inspired by the Outdoor CEO Pledge, which was founded by Teresa Baker to address the same issues in the broader outdoor industry.
By the time the pandemic hit, which caused Nelson to be furloughed, she was ready to launch her own business: REAL Consulting, which she co-founded with Sydney Clark — the former NOLS Diversity and Inclusion Manager — to address the racial equity and inclusion needs of organizations. The duo facilitates intergroup interactions with an end goal of reducing prejudice, working with a wide range of outdoor industry retailers, outfitters, brands and manufacturers, as well as communities and government agencies.
As a Diné (Navajo) woman, Nelson believes in Hózhó, a Navajo philosophy that recognizes a holistic connection between humans, our environments and ecosystems. With that mindfulness, fishing can be a gateway to conservation — as long as diversity exists on the water.
“Hózhó means, balance, harmony and walking in beauty. There’s so much more to fishing than the catch. You observe the birds eating or the wind pushing the bugs and how that affects fish behavior. You need to respect the water: how you treat the wild and where you step,” Nelson said. “You need awareness of the technical way you interact with fish — what products do you use on your skin, which affects bugs and the water? I’ve seen the fishing industry and particularly white folks have a tunnel vision that this is just about fish, which worries me that they’re not caring for anything else.”
Self-centeredness leads to a hoarding mentality in the sport’s culture, which inspired Nelson to launch the Awkward Angler Instagram platform and podcast. Her mission is to hold space for uncomfortable conversations and storytelling with a focus on elevating diverse perspectives, social justice and equity on the water.
As Nelson and I worked on retying our lines, which had become tangled again, I asked her how folks can support inclusivity. While holding my rod for me, she said: “The perfect place to start with inclusivity is yourself: understand who you are and be comfortable in your identity. Then you can understand where other people come from, too, and develop compassion. We like to think we aren’t the problem — you should identify that you are both the problem and the solution.”
Follow Nelson on Instagram at @awkwardangler.
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning adventure journalist specializing in outdoor industry news and adventure travel. She grew up on Colorado’s Western Slope, where she first explored the mountains by way of foot in her backyard of Telluride, a movement that continues to inspire her curiosity and joy. Crested Butte is home.