Feature Stories

Fishing the Nushagak

Fishing the NushagakFlying thousands of feet over remote western Alaska, I peered through the window of a chartered float plane on approach to the wild Nushagak River. While the sky was overcast and gray, the marshy tundra below displayed remarkably vibrant shades of yellow, green, and brown. A seemingly endless number of ponds and streams were scattered across the terrain out to the horizon. The deHavilland Beaver’s propeller gave off a soft buzzing noise as it descended towards the Nushagak River Adventure Lodge. The plane’s floats caught the smooth surface of the river and taxied against the current to the riverbank. I grabbed my gear and moved with a few other guests out of the plane, climbed onto one of the floats, and then stepped on to the bank.

I was met by lodge owner, Brad Giroux, who welcomed me and ushered me to the guests’ living quarters. While small, the rooms in the rustic bunkhouse were warm, clean and quite suitable for sleeping, which was the only indoor activity I was wanting to do on this trip. I was there to fish for prized king salmon over the next several days, with Brad as my guide.

There are no hatchery fish in western Alaska; it’s all wild king salmon pushing up the Nushagak River, or “Nush” to spawn each June and July. These dime-bright aquatic beasts spend several years fattening in the waters around Bristol Bay, only to return to the exact same wild stream in which they hatched. Four kings can be kept by sport fishermen from this drainage each year, meaning there will be plenty of choice fillets to fill the freezer.

I could barely wait for the next morning to come, so I passed a little time in the late afternoon fishing off one of the river banks in front of the lodge. I was shocked by the diversity of species in the Nush that could be caught in just a couple of hours. One section of grassy bank had some nice resident juvenile northern pike that bit at small plugs like they were candy, and put up a great fight on light tackle. A whitefish, which I must say was delicious, was also caught right off the bank by letting a bit of cured salmon roe sit on the bottom.

A few “jacks” (small male king salmon) were also hooked on roe from the bank. In fact, two nights later, I would find myself in a friendly competition with another lodge guest trying to see who could catch our daily limit of five jacks the fastest. That night, a huge slug of jacks flooded the river over a couple of hours, and we could hardly believe how easy it was to get them on the line. The most effective way to catch them in the evening was to cast a small piece of roe downriver, then reel upstream. Apparently, when you are a jack, the unnatural sight of salmon roe moving upstream is enough to annoy you to the point of inducing a strike, and then it’s “Fish on!” If this was bank fishing, I couldn’t wait to get out on the river with Brad to hit the kings in the deeper holes.

Life around the campfire began to pick up in the early evening as guests and their guides arrived after a full day of river fishing. Some huge kings were caught and filleted, and soon, guests found themselves smiling and laughing at happy hour, telling the day’s fish stories of one kind or another. It was interesting to watch these grown adults interacting around the campfire. Some were clearly interested in the big fish caught on the Nush that day. But others seemed to be enjoying the fact that their trip had taken them back to a simpler time of campfires, wilderness, and the camaraderie of childhood friends in the outdoors. While the lodge has many comforts of home, such as nice showers, restrooms, and a dining hall, it is also rustic. There are no cellphones and no television. The entertainment outside of fishing is talking around the dinner table or sharing stories around the campfire. It’s what time in the outdoors was meant to be.

Soon, dinner was served in the mess hall—and prepared by a French chef, no less. “Bruno” was a delightful cook, with great personality and hospitality. Once I was well fed and after enjoying several more stories, I went to bed, wanting to rest up for my first day of guided fishing.

The next several days of fishing the Nush with Brad can only be described as ethereal. I’ll never forget it. And some of the little things the lodge offered really helped to make the difference. First the guide boats were beached on the riverbank just steps from our living quarters. This sets Brad’s place apart from other lodges that fly people in—some of those trips can make for a very long day. But at Brad’s place, breakfast is at a reasonable hour and it takes no time at all to get on the water with a guide. You can motor in for lunch, warm up with some soup and a sandwich, and then get right back out to fish. Next, the fishing arrangements are based around a 2:1 guest-to-guide ratio (or 3:1 in rare instances). This really helps each guest to be on the fish throughout the day. There were days we caught 25+ fish each, combining all the adult kings, jacks, chums and other species in the Nush. It is so much nicer than having 4-6 guests in a boat where the catching rate is reduced and the boat is crowded. At the Nushagak River Adventure Lodge, you can be more selective about which kings to keep, and you get more frequent action on the line.

Brad’s choice of lure and bait for getting me on the big kings that first day was a large, yellow-tipped silver Kwikfish® or a plug wrapped with a cured, sliced sardine from Alaska Nitro Bait. He also uses a little Smelly Jelly® to freshen up the scent later in the day and keep the kings biting. His next choice was salmon roe, which is useful in catching kings of various sizes, some fresh, silver-colored chums, and later in the season—those coveted, feisty silvers!

In the several days that I fished the Nush, some enormous fish were caught, with several netted in the 32 to 38 inch range, and a few in the 38 to 44 inch range. When we found the good holes holding some huge fish, the lunkers really dropped the rod tip and put up a BIG fight. It’s exhilarating seeing these behemoths finally rise to a point of visibility in the water column. The king, or “Chinook,” salmon is such a beautiful silver-colored fish on the outside, marked with characteristic black spots. Its meat is a gorgeous ruby red color and cooks up so well on the grill.Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

Considering the unbelievable sportfishing, the relaxation, and the camaraderie in the wilderness at the Nushagak River Adventure Lodge, it is a certainty that I will make my way back again to “Fish the Nush!” with Brad and his crew. Unforgettable.

Interested fishermen can book a king or silver salmon fishing trip at the Nushagak River Adventure Lodge by calling 907-250-1598 or by visiting the lodge’s website at www.FishTheNush.com. Alaska Nitro Bait can be reached at 907-252-6072 or by visiting the website at www.AlaskaNitroBait.com.

Kalb Stevenson is an experienced biologist and fisherman and a long-time Alaskan. He is the owner of Axiom Environmental, Inc., a consulting company based in Anchorage, Alaska. Dr. Stevenson has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, agency reports and popular press pieces in the areas of fish and wildlife ecology and environmental science. He enjoys spending time with family and friends and fishing around the state.

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