Nushagak Kings – Best Of The BEST
One of the largest predicted king runs in recent years saw anglers hitting Alaska’s Nushagak River with high hopes, and a record burst of 40,000 fish in one day didn’t let them down.
As the 1942 vintage float plane maneuvered for a landing in the high winds, it was obvious a storm was approaching. Frantic to beat the rain, we grabbed our camera equipment and ran for the boat. The moment we pushed away from sore of the Alaska King Salmon Adventures camp, the first of 18 hours of nonstop raindrops hit.
With rain forecast for the next few days, we pushed on, intent on getting the two TV shows we came to shoot. Eight hours of fishing in driving rain and a mere four fish later, we barely had enough footage to get started. Calling it a night, we headed back to camp to begin drying our gear around the cozy wood stove.
The objective of the trip was to shoot two TV shows, an hour-long series titled Salmon, Trout, Steelheader which airs on the Outdoor Channel’s new high-definition channel, and another for the Woolrich’s Classic Outdoor Stories, which airs on the Men’s Channel. Four weather can put the damper on any trip, but when the intent is to capture it on film and the fishing is slow, optimism is tough to maintain, even for the host.
“Remember last year at this time?” consoled the always positive owners of this elite camp, Jeff Boggs and Bret Brown (1-877-534-7466) as we huddled around the fire. “The same thing happened, we had heavy rains, high winds and the fish showed in one day.”
They were right, and how could I forget. It was one of the best fishing trips of my life, where three of us in the boat released an average of over 50 fish per day for the last three days.
“And this year is predicted to be an even bigger run than last,” offered Brown. Sipping on hot chocolate and coffee, our bodies warmed while our attitudes started to shift. “It will happen, just be ready,” smiled Boggs.
The Best Day Ever
In 2004, a massive escapement of 113,47 kings migrated into the Nushagak, and based on that year’s returning number of three-year-old fish, bigger fish were predicted to make it back in 2005. If bigger fish weren’t enough to boost spirits, an even higher number of kings were predicted to enter the river this year, and that’s exactly what happened.
“These are some of the highest tides in Alaska,” Boggs noted of Bristol Bay, at Dillingham. “A big tide change and those high winds moving from the west will force a huge mass of water to move upstream. When that happens, there will be a big push of fish.” The more than 20 years of combined experience between Boggs and Brown on this river continued raising everyone’s spirits.
The rain finally subsided mid morning the following day, and once again we gathered the cameras, crew an hit the water. A short run downstream from camp found us in a hole all by ourselves.
“This is one of our favorite stretches on the river when a surge of fish move in,” voice Brown as he swung the boat in to position. “Lets drop ’em back, it won’t take long to see if any fish are around,” noted Boggs.
We were backtrolling sardine-wrapped K16 Kwikfish, a proven tactic for early season Nush’ kings. Opting to hold the rods in anticipation of feeling the strike, it didn’t take long to learn where the fish were. “For some reason these fish don’t seem to jump much,” Brown offered. Just when one rod went down, then another, then the third.
Within five seconds we had a triple, and released them all. Another pass yielded the same results, a triple hook-up within seconds of one another. Our first four passes produced 12 of the brightest salmon anyone could ever ask for. Sea lice draped from the base of the anal fins, and their hard-fighting demeanor left no question they were fresh from salt. “I think they’re in,” smirked Brown.
In less than a half-hour of fishing we hooked in to more than 20 kings. Before calling it a day, we’d land fish ranging from 18 to 42 pounds. A bit of pike fishing across from camp, and some fat grayling caught a few fee from the tend door, and we had our first STS show.
The next morning action picked up where we left off. We backtrolled Kwikfish then free-drifted and back-bounced eggs with Mike Perusse, filling the guide’s shoes. My dad, Jerry Haugen, one of the top salmon anglers I know, rounded out the third slot in the party, and served as a guest on way to our second STS show.
By noon we hooked in to more fish than I ever thought possible, and had our second STS show in the can. Fish up to 34 pounds would be caught, and triples landed on both the K16s, back-bouncing and backtrolling baits proved just how amazing this fishery is.
In terms of salmon fishing, the Nush’ is a fairly shallow river, with much of the water we fished ranging from four to eight feet in depth. The result is the hardest fighting kings I know. Due to the shallow depths, the fish have no choice but to dart up and downstream, swing sideways and get airborne; if it’d aerial acrobatics that turn you on, these hot fish would make Dr. J proud.
Man people point out that the only thing lacking in the Nush’ is big fish. Reality is, given the propensity of these strong-willed fish to survive, I’d be surprised if an 80-pound fish could be landed in this river. The kings here seem genetically superior to other kings, and once you’ve battled Nush’ fish in the 30 and 40-pound class, you’ll come away with a respect for these magnificent specimens.
With so many fish in the river, we sucked it up and pushed hard. That evening we’d shoot a half-hour show, followed the next day by two more shows. In all, we came away with three STS shows, one for Woolrich’s Classic Outdoor Stories, and another for good friend Steve Gruber’s award-winning show, “Limb Saver’s Outdoor America”, on the Outdoor Channel. Three days, five shows, that’s what the Nushagak is capable of producing.
Taking an afternoon break to rest our bodies from fighting so many kings, we took the film crew to the sonar station, near the mouth of the Nushagak, where fish counts are monitored. Here, near Portage Creek, sonar counts have been conducted for more than a quarter-century, helping biologists determine fish populations and much more.
“The counts give us a good index to work with from year to year,” shares Jason Dye, area management biologist. “There are three sonar stations in the river- one in the middle and two on each side – which are used to count fish passing by.” The images of fish passing by the sonar appear as blips on a monitor, inside a technician’s tent.
From there, two members of the fish counting crew head out in a boat and strategically run a small drift net in designated portions of the river, near the sonar site. The nets remain in the water for just over tow minutes, then are pulled. At the time, species of fish are identified – the Nush’ get all five salmon species – to determine the ration of what’s passing by the sonar. Fish are also sexed, weights estimated then aged through scale samples before being quickly released.
This information is also used to help establish commercial and sport harvest quotas for the following year. “Last year (2004) there was a high number of three-year-old kings that returned,” pointed out Dye. “Return predications are base on parent year returns and sibling returns. For example, last year’s high number of three year fish means the four-year-old return should be high this year (2005). It’s much more detailed than this, and is hard to get a handle on exactly how it works.” But there’s no question it does work, as I fished the river each of the past two season’s and the size comparison between them was exactly as Dye explained it: many more kings and bigger size average in ’05.
But a new piece of equipment, known as the DIDSON radar system was put into effect a the start of the 2005 run. “This system should account for more accurate counts,” points out Dye. “You can actually look on the computer screen and see the fish passing by on the DIDSON system.”
As we huddle around the screen, watching fish swim by the DIDSON, it reminded me of my wife’s ultrasounds when she was pregnant In an arching projection, the images of fish on the screen were simply amazing. Not only could the size of fish be seen, from fry to chums to kings, but you could actually see the caudal fin action and serpentine-like motion of fish swimming by the monitor
Until data from the DIDSON can be accurately interpreted, net samples are still being taken. As we watched fish pas by the screen, size calibrations were being implemented by authorities to learn the correlation’s between the size of fish projected on the screen, and what’s actually swimming in the river. It may take a while to perfect, but there’s not question this advanced system is a big step in the right direction. The result will be a closely monitored fishery which will ensure long-term survival and preservation of all wild runs of fish making their way into this amazing drainage. Alaska Department of Fish & Game manages are thrilled with the new monitoring system, which will allow them to gain more detailed information which will aid in decision making process impacting both the sport and commercial fishing industry.
In late July, sonar counts came to a halt for the season, and predictions were every bit of what biologists expected, which says a lot when dealing with nature. The total escapement for king salmon in 2005 reached 181,101 and this after the commercial harvest. To put this number into perspective, the next highest count was back in 1981, when 130,252 kings made it pas the sonar. The 2005 run is even more impressive when compared to the annual average, which sits at 87,000 kings.
The Nushagak is one of those rivers that anyone who has ever desired to catch a king must visit. The numbers of fish to be caught here are min-boggling. On this trip, the day after the big push, a buddy and hi four friend worked all day and released 153 kings. Another group of friends quit counting around 125. Sound crazy? It is, but it’s the truth, with is why this rich fishery must be experienced to be appreciated.
Obviously not every trip will yield such high numbers of fish, as 2005 was an exceptional year. Then again, this is the Nushagak, where anything is possible. Bottom line, not matter what your level of king fishing experience, this fisher is one that should top the “dream list.”
Getting there is easy. Fly directly into Anchorage then catch a plane to Dillingham. From there, Alaska King Salmon Adventures take care of you all the way to camp and back. It’s easy, safe, and the bangs for your bucks leave no question as to whether it was money well spent. If there’s a fishery which surpasses the Nushagak, and all the special elements it has to offer, I’d be hard pressed to think it exists anywhere other than in fish heaven.
Note: To reserve your Nushagak River Salmon trip with Alaska King Salmon Adventures, contact Bret Brown or Jeff Boggs at 1-877-534-7466. You can also visit their website at www.alaskakingsalmon.com, or check out the Alaska Fishing, Travel, Showcase, page 88; Alaska Guides & Lodges, 96 page.
To learn more about planning your Alaskan dream trip, signed copies of Scott Haugen’s book, A Flyfisher’s Guide to Alaska, can be ordered by sending $38 (included S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. This is the most comprehensive guide (includes light tackle) ever written for anglers heading to Alaska, complete with maps, stream facts, campsite locations and much more. It can also be ordered from www.scotthaugen.com.