Top Women Guides

A WORLD OF ADVENTURE Animated and engaging beneath a crown of reddish locks, 45-year-old Niki Atcheson doesn't really look deadly... until she starts talking about dangerous game. Last June 13, she aimed her custom .458 at a patch of black hide deep in the brush of Zimbabwe's high veldt and squeezed the trigger on her 13th buffalo. Perhaps those inauspicious numbers should have told her something, but nothing occurred to her until she woke up in a Johannesburg hospital- in Room 13. The long road to her encounter with the buffalo reads like an improbable Hollywood script. Niki grew up in what was then Rwanda-Urundi, the daughter of an American physician who took her along when he hunted buffalo to supply his mission clinic with meat. Her collection of faded childhood photographs looks right out of the pages of Ruark or Hemingway. After her return to the United States, memories of her unique African upbringing eventually prompted her to take up hunting again. She readily acknowledges the support she received from several mentors along the way. Her odyssey began at a local gun club in Washington state, where an Alaska bush pilot introduced her to the fine points of marksmanship. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Africa, where she met Zimbabwean PH Gavin Rourke and began to develop an interest in hunting professionally. When she traveled to Hawaii to hunt with renowned guide Eugene Yap, he was so impressed with her ability that he offered her a job, which she accepted. By then, she'd met Montana guide Keith Atcheson through Rourke. She married Atcheson in 2000 and has been guiding with him ever since. Despite the encouragement she received from mentors and clients alike, Niki also encountered her share of bias. While guiding in Hawaii, she had to deal with an irate client who was indignant that Yap had assigned him a female guide. "I just walked his butt off," Niki recalls fondly. By the end of the hunt- and after he had taken an exceptional mouflon ram- the two had made their peace. For Niki, Africa still exerts a powerful influence, and she returns to hunt and rekindle her childhood passion for the bush at every opportunity. She realizes that her enthusiasm for buffalo hunting stems from memories of an Africa most of us will never know. "That was hunting as it was in Beryl Markham's day," she recalls. "Sometimes when my father went out to shoot buffalo to supply the hospital with meat, our old tracker would carry me along on his shoulders. The days I couldn't go, I'd listen for the sound of the drums announcing their return. I still remember helping with the skinning, and cleaning rifles by the light of a kerosene lamp. Those were the memories that ultimately made me return to Africa." Which leads us back to the ordeal with her last buffalo... As they took up the wounded bull's track, Niki began to suspect that she'd made a mental error in her shot placement. A long day's effort on the trail confirmed her fears. When they returned the following morning, they eventually encountered the buffalo- in full charge at eight paces. Before she could shoot, the bull knocked the rifle from her hands and began to gore her as Keith and their PH fired from point-blank range. The dead animal eventually collapsed on top of her, but the damage was done: fractures of her forearm, collar-bone and ribs, a concussion, and two nasty horn wounds in the back of her legs that required multiple surgeries to repair. Which sounds like an excellent reason to forget about buffalo number 14, but not for Niki Atcheson. She's already eager to return to Africa and introduce her daughters to dangerous game. Contact: Niki Atcheson, 406-782-2382; Hunters Montana, 3210 Ottawa St., Butte, MT 59701.Outdoor Life Online Editor
READING THE WATER Fueled by glacial runoff, the mighty Kenai River rises every summer and invites salmon staging in Cook Inlet to begin their upstream run. The upper Kenai's turquoise waters look stunning to travelers along the Sterling Highway, but anglers quickly learn to temper their appreciation of the river's beauty with healthy respect. Frigid water and powerful currents might dissuade most people from tackling the tricky upper Kenai in a drift boat. But not Dusty Byrd, a 26-year-old woman with dark hair and an enthusiastic smile who earns her living there June through October, guiding visitors eager to face the challenge of salmon, Dolly Varden and some of the most beautiful rainbows in the world. When she was growing up in Talkeetna a hundred miles to the north, Dusty shared her family's enthusiasm for the outdoors. As a youngster, she worked for Mahay's Riverboat Service on the Talkeetna River. Five years ago, she headed to the Kenai and wound up guiding for Curt Trout's Troutfitters in Cooper Landing. Laughing at the gender-ambiguity of her first name, Dusty says that some clients show up at the boat launch and ask her where they can find "Dusty." And she still remembers the time a disgruntled angler marched back into headquarters and announced that he "wouldn't fish with a girl." Persuasive rather than confrontational, she's chosen to turn the other cheek to such slights and demonstrate her skills where it counts: on the water. "I don't feel like I'm trying to prove anything; guiding has always come very naturally to me," she says. "But sometimes in the back of my mind, when I first started, I would hope my clients were thinking 'What a great guide' rather than 'For a girl she does pretty good.' But I've gotten over that." For years, the Kenai fishery focused on its famous king salmon. Over the last decade, however, anglers have discovered what used to be one of Alaska's best-kept secrets: fantastic fishing for trout and char in the scenic upper river. It is a different kind of fishing: light tackle and flies rather than heavy hardware, drift boats rather than power craft. And that's where Dusty Byrd found her home on the water. Operating a 20-foot drift boat in heavy current with four anglers aboard may sound like a job for an Olympic rowing champion, but Dusty doesn't consider her trim 5-foot 3-inch frame a disadvantage at the oars. Technique and knowledge of the water trump brawn every time, she says. "The rowing has gotten easier over time. I've learned how to use the current to my advantage. Once you have a feel for it, it isn't strenuous." Dusty offers simple advice for other women interested in following the path she¿s chosen: "Just do it! Forget all the reasons not to and prove yourself where it counts." No doubt her many repeat clients are glad she did. Contact: Dusty Byrd, 907-595-1212; Troutfitters, P.O. Box 570, Cooper Landing, AK 99572.Outdoor Life Online Editor
BORN TO THE WILD Nature-versus-nurture arguments can run all day, but which ever side prevails, there's no doubt that Alisha Rosenbruch-Decker came by her outdoor ability from the very start. At an age when most teens are eagerly awaiting their first driver's license, Alisha had something more ambitious in mind. In Alaska you have to be 18 to obtain an assistant guide's license, which she did as soon as the calendar allowed. After the mandatory two-year period as an assistant, she met the state's stringent standards as a registered guide herself. When she married three years ago, she and her husband reversed the traditional order of entry many married guide teams follow. He had no prior experience as a professional outdoorsman, but now he works as an assistant guide aboard the family's 85-foot vessel, Alaska Grandeur. Growing up along Alaska's coast provided Alisha with an exceptional introduction to the skills needed in this challenging environment. In addition to her qualifications as a guide, she's licensed to operate 100-ton vessels. When she decided she wasn't satisfied with the taxidermy on some of her personal trophies, she mastered that skill as well. Based out of Gustavus, Alaska, Glacier Guides remains a family affair. At any given time Alisha's mother, father, husband or brothers might be aboard the Alaska Grandeur with her. Her busy season begins in late April, with bear hunts scheduled through May. In August, she sometimes leaves the area to guide a sheep hunt in the mountains west of Anchorage at the request of a repeat client. September and October mean fall bear hunts. And once snow begins to push game out of the high country, she guides hunters along the coast for mountain goats and blacktail deer. How she finds time to do any taxidermy remains a mystery. While she's hunted just about everything in Alaska, she admits a long-standing fascination with brown bears. She uses the adjective "magnificent" repeatedly as she describes a lifetime of experience hunting the fearsome animals. A successful client- who happened to be a woman- once asked Alisha to photograph her posed with a foot on top of the fallen bear's back. Alisha flatly refused: The request conveyed insufficient respect for the animal. Her own quest for an exceptional brown bear turned into an epic. "I had been hunting bears for nine years and had turned down close to two hundred of them," she says. "I had one day to hunt this spring and went out and saw three bears. Two were over nine feet and I couldn't believe I was turning them down. I started to wonder if I really didn't want to take one. I have such awe and respect for them that I almost felt I wasn't worthy." But later, while hunting with her dad, her bear- the only bear she says she'll ever take- appeared. The ancient boar squared 10 feet 4 inches, a remarkable specimen even by Kodiak Island standards. Quite possibly, no one has ever killed a larger bear in southeastern Alaska. "For as long as I can remember, brown bears represented the wilderness where I grew up. Killing one is always an intense spiritual experience for me, even when a client pulls the trigger," she says. After three years of marriage, Alisha says she is starting to think- think, mind you- about children. But she has no intention of neglecting her outdoor career, and achieving a balance between guiding and parenting represents an obvious challenge. Of course, she's seen it done right before. "When the time comes," she reports, "I'd like to be able to raise kids the way my parents raised me." Contact: Alisha Rosenbruch-Decker, 435-628-0973; Glacier Guides, P.O. Box 460, Santa Clara, UT 84765.Outdoor Life Online Editor
LADY OF THE LAKES Maine's storied Rangeley Lakes region has lent its name to several classic fly patterns and a double-ended watercraft uniquely designed to position anglers in front of fish. For the past 18 years, Maine native Bonnie Holding has steadily earned a reputation as one of the area's best guides, introducing a long string of clients to her favorite game fish: brook trout and landlocked salmon. Bonnie's many friends instantly recognize her at a distance by her trademark braid of strawberry blonde hair, a memento of the days when her brothers teasingly dubbed her "The Ugly Redhead." She admits that she had little exposure to the outdoors growing up. That all changed when she met her husband, Blaine, now one of Maine's most experienced game wardens, 28 years ago. The two learned to flyfish together. Bonnie went on to become the first woman employed in L.L. Bean's outdoors department, where she honed her casting skills under the direction of renowned angler Dave Whitlock. Soon, she was giving casting clinics herself. Maine's rigidly structured system for licensing guides is similar to Alaska's. Bonnie, now 48, has held the highest rating of Master Guide for 18 years. Along the way, she's learned to temper her natural competitiveness and desire to catch fish and has become a better guide in the process. "It's not always about the fishing," she says. "Just being out there and seeing the moose and deer is the main thing for most people- the fish are secondary. I've also learned never to promise anybody a fish. I'll promise them a good time, just not a fish. Some people couldn't catch their own rear end with a hook; others are so good that it makes me wonder why I'm even guiding them." Alone among our subjects, Bonnie can't remember facing skepticism from male clients. She credits her good fortune to growing up with four brothers, an experience that taught her a lot about dealing with men. Despite her many achievements in the field, Bonnie considers her involvement with Casting for Recovery her most satisfying accomplishment. This national program (www.castingforrecovery.org) allows women recovering from breast cancer to meet in a remote setting and learn about flyfishing. Teaching participants to cast, Bonnie admits to a special satisfaction when she identifies the one or two attendees at every session who obviously plan to make angling a lasting part of their lives. "It's such an incredible program," Bonnie explains. "The sporting camps in Maine have been tremendous. Very few of them have charged anything for hosting us." Her own commitment began after she gave a brief casting clinic during her first retreat. "As we finished," she recalls, "I noticed one of the women in tears. When I approached her, she explained that she'd been preoccupied with chemotherapy and radiation for months, but for the last twenty minutes she hadn't thought about anything but her fly line! When I realized how much that meant to her, it reminded me that I had an obligation to give what I could." Contact: Bonnie Holding, 207-246-4102; Edge of Maine Fly Fishing, PO Box 377, Coplin Plantation, ME 04982.Outdoor Life Online Editor
MOUNTAIN WOMAN The remote peaks of northern British Columbia include some of the continent's least forgiving terrain. It's not a place for the faint of heart; you have to be tough to survive there. Just ask the wolves and grizzlies...or a remarkable woman named Heidi Gutfrucht, who leads her packstring into the mountains every fall to provide her clients with opportunities at a half dozen challenging species of big game. "Raised on moose meat" in rural British Columbia, Heidi-dark-haired, blue-eyed and 5 feet 6 inches tall¿left home at age 20 to become a big-game guide. "Well, my school teachers couldn't do much with me when I told them I wanted to live in the bush," she says. "They told me to go get a job but I didn't listen. I was just a country kid and I headed for the mountains." Her outdoor-minded father treated his son and daughter as equals when they were growing up, and it never occurred to her that hunters might be reluctant to engage a female guide- until she started booking hunts. At that point, overcoming male skepticism "became my life story," she says with a laugh. Responding with determination, she simply went about her business, relying on word of mouth from satisfied hunters to build a base of repeat customers. Over the last 25 years, she's never missed a day of hunting...a record of endurance that baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. might envy. From early August through mid-October, Heidi, now 46, leads hunts by foot, on horseback and by boat for Stone's sheep, goats, grizzlies, black bears and moose, aided only by her daughter and an occasional assistant guide. Tending to her equipment, farm and nearly two dozen packhorses takes care of the rest of the year these days, although prior to the recent crash in fur prices she ran a winter trapline for lynx, marten and coyote. She isn't shy about the secret of her ability to handle this daunting schedule: "I was born strong. And the life I've led has made me stronger." Heidi acknowledges a special enthusiasm for hunting sheep and goats because of her love of the high country. "The scenery is spectacular and the toughness of the animals up there is amazing," she says. "Their ability to survive those winters is what makes them so majestic." Heidi also relishes the physical challenge of high-country hunting. "Everything is unpredictable in the mountains, especially the weather. We get lots of rain and snow, and because the headwaters of the rivers and creeks where I hunt can get so high so fast, I carry life jackets for the river crossings. Not many hunters expect to see them on a sheep hunt." It's hard to spend a lifetime in grizzly country without a few unnerving bear encounters, and Heidi, who carries a .45/70 lever gun for protection, has survived her share. She estimates that she's killed a half dozen grizzlies in self-defense over the years, and that number represents only those confrontations she considers "really scary." Horses in rough terrain can be as dangerous as bears, but Heidi laughs off those concerns with the aplomb of a veteran horsewoman. "You just get up, dust yourself off and get back on," she says of her colt-breaking sessions each spring. Asked for her advice to women interested in a career in the outdoors, Heidi Gutfrucht offers a two-word response: "Don't quit." She didn't, and it certainly worked for her. Contact: Heidi Gutfrucht, 250-394-4652; Box 41, Hanceville, BC, Canada VOL 1KO.Outdoor Life Online Editor

They're tough, talented, capable guides- complete pros to the core. Whether you need them to row through boulder-strewn white water, guide you up a cliff to chase mountain goats or face down a charging grizzly, they've done it all. Meet five of the most impressive hunters and anglers working in North America today. And, yes, they're all women. By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.