River of Kings - The Nushagak

By Terry Wiest

 

Close your eyes and picture Alaska - endless streams, untouched wilderness, abundant wildlife, and what else, salmon. Thousands and thousands of King salmon. So many salmon that if you didn't hook one in 15 minutes you'd think something was wrong.

But, does this Alaska exist? I'm here to tell you from my own experience that it does, and this Alaska is the Nushagak River.

I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to the Nushagak the last week of June 2009. My home for 5 days would be with the great crew of Jake's Nushagak Camp located on the lower Nushagak still in the tidewater. Jakes was strategically situated as one of the original tent camps some twenty plus years ago. You know you're in a prime location when you fly in just to see numerous other camps guide boats hitting the area directly in front of your camp, even though there is miles and miles of open river.

After touching down, being greeted by owner Eli Huffman, going through a quick briefing and putting our gear in our tents, it was on! Well, not quite. First we had to tie our "berries", that's what they called our eggs as they were tied with spawn sacks to the size of a small strawberry or a raspberry. Jakes had a whole tent designated just for the berry tying operation complete with mosquito netting, which was a must.

OK, now we are fishing! Because of the mass number of Chum in the river hugging the shore, the kings, although much bigger, were found out further. Directly in front of Jakes, it didn't matter which section, was a slot ¼ mile long. You reach it, chances are you hook up. The wind was our only enemy though and it made it tough to consistently reach the slot. But for fun we'd let our presentation drift in to within 20ft of shore and you'd surely be greeted by a chrome bright chum. And I mean chrome bright complete with sea lice and full of fight.

There were a few chum kept by some guests for the smoker but mostly they were just something to keep us "on the fish" from the bank. Out on the boats however they were a different story and became a nuisance as we were there for the kings. We would fish a little each night after dinner and would consistently get a few Chinook, including a 28lb fish, along with as many Chum as you cared to hook up with. As the wind would kick up we would just sit around the camp fire, have a pop or two, and talk about the days fishing. This would go on until midnight or 2AM and it was still light out.

Day 1

I call this the official day 1, because now we'll be fishing with a guide from a boat. And not only a guide, but Day 1, I was with Eli, the owner himself. I was also fortunate enough to be paired up with two guys from Oregon, the two Jasons - Jason Reid and Jason Johnson. Jake's has a 10 Chinook average per boat guarantee, so if we didn't average 10 Chinook per day, it's a free trip next year. Well let's get this out of the way right now, by the end of Day 1 we already had over a 10 fish/day average even if we didn't touch another fish!

Up at 6:00AM, breakfast at 7:00AM and in the boat at 8:00AM and up river. Only 5 minutes from camp we set up with oversize Spin-n-Glos with a "berry" attached. I brought my G. Loomis 1174's and paired them with Daiwa Luna 300's loaded with 25lb Hi Vis Mono. Leaders were of 40lb mono so it made it easier to handle when bringing the many fish to the boat for quick releases.

I was about to ask how aggressive the fish would take the presentation when like a freight train my rod slammed down. Wonder no more, these fish are hot! Five minutes into the first drift and we're hooked up. The bite is not where these fish give up either. From the hookset it's either an instant run or it's a flight out of the water. We had the drags set to what the Jason's called "WW" mode, which stood for Warn Winch. Because of the pressure we had on our reels, the fish did not hesitate to leave the water to try and shake the hook. Between the Jason's and myself we took care of releasing each others fish so the guide would not have to leave the motor and could keep us in the slot. We also did not reel in as a fish was hooked up which led to many doubles and triples throughout the trip.

Back into camp at noon for a hot lunch, our count was 12 Chinook to the boat.

After lunch it was downstream about 5 minutes and we switched to in-line spinners with a berry attached. One of Eli's "tricks" was to attach an actual piece of black licorice to the hook. Fishing was much better in the afternoon with constant hookups. The rain and sun kept alternating and we didn't even realize we'd all got sun burnt. A word of caution should you need to take a break on the riverside. Make sure you spray bug dope EVERYWHERE before heading out in the morning… nuf said.

I decided to keep what turned out to be a chrome bright 24lb hen stuffed with eggs. That served as a welcome ticket to the bigger fish as we then proceeded to bring three fish over 30lbs to the boat, all to be released unharmed, except maybe for a sore lip.

In at 6:00PM, take some pictures, change clothes and wash up, a nice hot dinner which Eli describes as your "Grandma's" cooking, tie some berries for the next day, a couple hours of bank fishing, sit by the fire for some good company, and even some wildlife viewing as several moose with their calves would come out after things quieted down, then it was off to bed.

Results: Day 1 - 44 Chinook

Day 2

After staying up until 2AM the night before, 6AM would seem early. The generator kicked on at 6AM and it was up and at 'em! Breakfast at 7AM and off at 8AM. with the guide of the day, Swanny. Following the same routine as the day before we were on the fish first pass. The Jason's were in rare form ripping on each other (all in good fun) and didn't hesitate to rip on me when I let a fish "tater" me too long and fail to drive the hook home. But not to worry, miss one and another would be right behind. By lunch we were at 10 fish to the boat.

After lunch the weather just plain got nasty, but even with the high winds Swanny kept us in the groove. Seems like bigger fish this day - probably because we kept our first fish of the day to get them out of the way. Several really nice fish around the 30lb range that day with in-line spinners being the popular lure.

Results: Day 2 - 38 Chinook
Total 82 Chinook

Day 3

Today we're with Mikey. Mikey had a little different strategy in mind for the morning and it paid off. We went beyond where the others were fishing and found a stretch all to ourselves. Now this was Alaska fishing! Spin-n-glos to start with and we started off hot, with a triple! Just like with Eli and Swanny we had Mikey stay in control of the boat while we took care of our own fish and gear. We really didn't want to fall out of the slot and have to run back to the top to get back in the water.

A hot first half of the day with 18 kings to the boat.

After lunch it was a little more difficult to find the fish. Oh, we still found them, it's just by now we're spoiled and if you didn't have a fish on in 15 minutes we were wondering what's wrong. But Mikey persisted and got us on the fish.

Results: Day 3 - 34 Chinook
Total 116 Chinook

Day 4

We were fortunate enough to draw Eli again for our final ½ day of fishing. If only it had been a full day we would have put up some awesome numbers. But as it was we had a float plane coming to pick us up and very doubtful he would have waited for us to catch another few fish. In the 3 ½ hours we did get to fish the last day we brought 21 Chinook to the boat - that did not include those that we tattered, the ones we crackered, or the chum.

Results: Day 4 - 21 Chinook
Total 137 Chinook

137 KINGS!!! And that did not count the beach fish.

Ah yeah, I think we did a little better than the 10 fish per day average guarantee. Sweetness.

 

The Fish:

Chrome Bright King Salmon
Average Size: 18 to 20lbs
Largest Fish: 34lbs

 

Techniques:

Bait (berries)
Eggs cured with Pautzke Fire Cure - Red
Wrapped in spawn sacks

Worden's Spin-n-Glo's
Over Sized - Orange, Red, Pink or Chartreuse (bright sun)
With berry on bottom hook

Mack's Lures Smile Blades - Especially during the slack tide
Over Sized - Orange, Red, Pink or Chartreuse (bright sun)
With berry on bottom hook

Thomas Creek In-Line Spinners
Thomas Creek #7 - Flame Orange, Chartreuse Flame (bright sun)
Single Matzuo Sickle Hook 3/0

Plugs
Worden's M2SP
- Deep Diving Plugs with berry
Chrome with Chartreuse (any pattern)
Single Matzuo Sickle hook 3/0 with berry
These worked exceptionally well with no diver or weight in the 15 - 20ft slots.

Plugs from the Bank
Moulder Bank-Ease Planer
- Attach Worden M2SP and guide out to the slot
Perfect when the wind was blowing and you couldn't cast the plugs that far

 

Flying in we saw the endless streams - but none better than directly in front of Jakes. Untouched wilderness - only a few steps off the river and you set foot where no others have. Abundant wildlife - moose, eagles, loons and all sorts of mosquitoes. Thousands and thousands of salmon - yep I didn't need to close my eyes to imagine it, I was there, the Nushagak River - River of Kings.