Remembering legendary Bristol Bay fishing guide Matt Price

Nov 15, 2017

Friends, family and colleagues gathered at the end of July to celebrate the life of Matt Price, who died a year ago this week in a cabin fire in King Salmon. Over the twenty years he spent guiding clients, Price became an icon for how to fish and fellowship properly during a Bristol Bay summer.

At the end of July, hundreds of friends, family, and fishing guides gathered for a proper goodbye to Matt Price, a larger than life character who died in a cabin fire a year ago this week. He was 49.

The evening turned into a rip-roaring good time with a live band, pig roast, and kegs-a-plenty, but it began with the aerial spreading of Matt’s ashes in the Naknek River. Four de Havilland Beavers flew in formation past the Blue Fly’s dock where dozens were gathered.

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“Cheers to Matt!” went out the call as the planes passed and the ashes were spread. A rainbow formed a spectacular backdrop, curiously on cue.

“Matt Price meant everything to everyone from lodge people to pilots, commercial fishermen, and everyone in between, especially locals. Everyone he came into contact with he made feel special and important in their own specific way,” said Michelle Leffingwell. “Look around you. If even a tenth of these people came to see me if I passed away, I’d be flattered. Is this not larger than life?”

Price was large in stature, too. He stood 6’5” tall and weighed between 215 after a winter’s volleyball season in Texas to a bit burlier at the end of a summer’s “good times” in King Salmon. In thousands of photos, there’s Price with his ear to ear smile, long white hair tucked under a knit or ball cap, and arm around anybody nearby. He filled the rooms and spaces he found himself in.

“Matt was the most brilliant, kind, ‘social’ engineer,” said Daniel “Montana” Kirsch, himself a civil engineer and fellow fishing guide. “He was an amazing connector of people and good times. His whole life revolved around good times … and good people … and everyone loved Matt.”

Montana’s rookie year as a fishing guide was 2001, just a handful of years after Price had found his own way to the King Salmon Lodge, which he was then managing.

“It took about a week and he was one of my best friends. He trained me how to guide, and I trained him how to fish,” he said.

Most of Price’s friends admit he was never really in love with fishing, that what had become his life’s profession had far more to do with the people than the area’s legendary salmon and trout. That, and just being outside, running rivers, chasing moose, shooting ducks, and coming home at night to reminisce with a bar full of friends.

Betty and Jim Price, Matt's parents, pictured here just after the fly-by and spreading of ashes. July 29, 2017.
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“Bristol Bay will never be the same without Matt. He had his way with this place. Maybe 20 years, 30, 40, 50 years from now people will come down here and there will be some fabric of Matt’s charisma left in some form or another,” said Montana.

Charisma had carried Price along an interesting journey in life, and often a long way from his home in Fort Worth. First there was the philosophy major, the flirting with med school, a couple years teaching high school biology, and that spell he spent in Hollywood with friends from Baylor.

“One of them was trying to get into the movies, and they kept encouraging Matt to try. He really wasn’t interested, but he did go in, and he ended up in a lot of movies, a lot of television, a lot of commercials,” Betty Price recalled of that part of her son’s life. Friends remember he made appearances in a few episodes of Seinfeld and was a gangster in the Jim Carrey film The Mask.

“It was amazing, but that wasn’t what he wanted either,” said his mother.

Then he hopped on a trip to Alaska with a friend heading north to build pole barns.

“He came up just on a lark and it stoled his heart,” Betty Price said.

From there Matt found his way to Bristol Bay, and got an interview with the manager at the King Salmon Lodge, a story his mother recalls him sharing many times.

“He asked Matt, ‘do you know how to fish?’ ‘No, but I’m a quick learner.’ ‘Do you know how to drive a boat?’ ‘No, but I’m a quick learner.’ And he said ‘well, hire him,’ and that’s where the adventure started.”

In September 1997, someone typed up volume one, issue one of “Price Factor Magazine”. (Price Factor was one of several nicknames Matt was known by. He was also famous for doling them out.) The one page flyer offered a pre-social media update on Price’s whereabouts and recent doings, like “nailing King Kong sized salmon.”

“Hidden in the cozy confines of the King Salmon Lodge in King Salmon Alaska, lurks a mountain of a man” who stood a “grizzly bear span” of six-foot, five inches. “The most accurate description of this Wild Man,” the tongue-in-cheek article continues, is that he has “the long locks and snarl” of Ted Nugent, the “innate craftiness and ruggedness” of Daniel Boone, and “the creative genius and intellect” of Rembrandt.

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Spending summers guiding dozens of interesting people on Bristol Bay’s storied rivers had taken root, and Price became very successful at the job. Mostly, people say, for his personality and charm.

Dan Rather of CBS News fame penned a stirring tribute to Price after his death. Price, he said, had been his guide on many fishing trips over 15 years.

“Money was never what he was about. Sure, he liked to have enough for cold beer, a can of Copenhagen and maybe take a lady to dinner now and again. But he always had in mind what so many of the rest of us tend to forget: there are things more important in life than money. Things like living close to, being attuned to and preserving nature; appreciating and respecting the great outdoors. Also, fondness for living on the edge and being unafraid to take calculated risks. … There was a combination of decency and good naturedness that ran deep within him and made him a pleasure to be around. Even when it was dark and cold and the wind howled and the big bears growled, and you were wondering how or if you were going to get back to camp,” Rather wrote.

A high volume of rich and famous clients come to Bristol Bay each summer to fish, but Price wasn’t one to get swept up in those trappings.

“He loved to talk to everybody whether they were rich or poor. Everybody was equal to Matt, and he just loved to hear their story in life,” said longtime friend Jim Young, a fellow fishing guide who had known Price since his first year in Alaska.

And this was really how he became a legendary figure in Bristol Bay’s world famous sport fishing industry: Matt Price loved people and people loved him back, even more than they loved catching fish.

“Number of years back, had this group of 15 clients to put with five guides for a day of silver fishing,” recalled Matt Norman of the King Salmon Lodge, and another of Price’s longest friends.

“At the end of the day, Jim probably caught 40 silvers, and the next guy got 30, and then you get down to Matt Price and they probably got eight. So as a lodge manager I approached the couple and say ‘Well you guys only got eight silvers today, maybe tomorrow I’ll put you with someone else.’  And they say, ‘Oh no, no, we had a great day. We got like three silvers this morning then Matt took us off the river, we went down to Eddie’s and had a couple beers. Went back out and got a couple more silvers after lunch, then he took us back at 4 o’clock to the King Ko, you know we had a couple cocktails. Went back out and caught three more silvers and then back to the lodge. No, we don’t want to go with anybody tomorrow, we want to go back with Matt Price.’”

At the celebration of his life, his parents both addressed the huge, raucous crowd of Matt Price’s friends and colleagues.  

“It’s truly warmed our hearts to be here. And I think the only failure we made as parents, we just didn’t raise a guy that was very outgoing,” Jim Price said to big laughs.

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On Saturday, November 12, 2016, Matt Price went duck hunting with friends in some chilly, wet weather. He had stayed later into the fall than usual, long after the sport fishing industry had closed down, but had been enjoying the time with close friends. In a couple of days Price would be off to Austin, Texas, to join the volleyball time he spent his winters with.

Around 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning, the local fire department was alerted to a cabin fire in King Salmon. Price was the only person inside and, the best authorities could tell, he never woke up. The wood stove was probably to blame.

Through days of “sorrow and grief” that followed, Betty and Jim Price say learning just how much of an impact their son had had on others was a source of great comfort. Seeing his friends and hearing their stories in King Salmon this past July was “incredible,” said Betty Price. “We came thinking it would be a healing for them and for us to have an evening that’s a celebration of a great life. I know that happened.”

That their son could have lived in a more contemporary manner, perhaps become a doctor (“he would have made a whale of a lawyer” said his dad), stayed closer to home, played things a little safer, is not something the Prices spend time worrying about.

“We came to realize that he needed to be his own person, and I think we raised him in that vein,” said Jim Price. “You follow the dream you’re going to have, because it’s your dream, not ours, so go ahead and do it. We were for him being here. We’re just wishing we had more years to go with him out here, but the time we had was very valuable and very meaningful to us. He was a son in whom we were well pleased.”

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281

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