Surviving Alaska’s Nushagak

What’s Up When You’re Last in Camp

By the end of Alaska’s sport fishing season outfitters and guides are at the end of their respective ropes and any little striation might set them off. They can smell the end of the season and, for some, it smells like drugs and sex, cold beers and the tops of their feet burning on the equator. It smells like a place to spend their hard-earned cash in the most outrageous of ways. Donkeys. Tequila. You know the options.

Dropped off on the Nush—all possibilities ahead.

You really can’t blame them. It’s the end of the season, boys, the end of 16-hour days, and some classless clients and keeping their lips shut, and filing those broken props and clearing jet drives, and chopping wood and patching waders, and dressing so many perfect salmon, destined for the bottom of a freezer, they could cry. It’s the end of battling that depressing summer weather in Alaska – the rain, the sleet, the wind, and that incessant overcast sky. Unfortunately, at some Alaska camps, being the last group in camp places anglers directly between their hosts and where they want to be.

That’s where we were in September on a trip to western Alaska and the Nushagak River. The last group in camp, the impediment.
Take for instance, the pilot who picked us up in Dillingham for a flight to the upper Nushagak River. He pulled up in a Beaver, ushered a few fishermen out and inspected our gear, which was no more and likely less than what the other group unloaded. “Well, this is a pile of f’in shit,” he grumbled. Bushpilot on powertrip. I wanted to say, Nice to meet you, too, a-hole, but we kept mouths shut. One word and we’d have been out of a plane ride and that pilot would have been two hours closer to Mexico.

Open skiff rides during and Alaska fall.

An hour-and-a half later we stood in a rustic cabin set a few yards above the banks of the upper Nushagak, listening to the plane retreat, choosing bunks and watching our breath. “It’s cold in here,” I huffed. My father, Fred, whispered, “I wouldn’t use the pillows.”

Our outfitter, who was scratching a wiry, unkempt beard and wearing a musty T-shirt that could have stood in the corner on its own, grumbled, “The last guys burned so much wood it just boiled in here. I had to cut more for you guys. The last wood run of the season,” he added with poignancy, with a sliver of threat. Like, hey man don’t burn an extra piece of wood or I’ll take that double-bitted axe and cut your ugly head off. I inspected a measly pile of willow and cottonwood resting on the porch and thought, Is that so. I studied my fishing bud, Troy, donned in a stocking cap, adding a jacket to several layers of fleece. I considered my down jacket.

Troy Letherman and Fred Thomas with a good late-season 'bow.

A few minutes later we settled around a plywood table and listened to the surprising news. The water was low on the upper Nush, we were told, and access to the prime rainbow trout locals, especially in the tributary streams, would be restricted by the ability of a skiff – the only one in camp – to negotiate shallow water. In addition, the outfitter admitted, he didn’t have the guide he’d promised. The last guide left a week earlier, it was explained, with a broken foot and the extra skiff – an insurance skiff if all went to hell and we either sank or broke the one we were left with. Significantly, the promised cook also was listed as AWOL. The following morning, my father asked if there was a place to wash his face and a towel. The outfitter pointed to a pail of dirty water and grabbed a musty towel off a nail. He tossed it to dad. Gee. Thanks. Don’t outdo yourself.

I’ve been on enough trips in remote locals to understand that we were not only at the mercy of a tired outfitter, we were set-up for one of two things: we would either stick the hell out of the fish and forget about any inconvenience or we would spend nine days in a cold cabin with a lack of fish and an overload of regret.

Blown out back but still managed this 'bow.

Despite the risk of outfitter-attitude and a depleted camp, there were good reasons to visit the upper Nushagak the third week of September. At that time the river’s rainbow trout and grayling feed heavily on the spawn and decaying bodies of silver and sockeye salmon, putting on weight to survive another brutal winter. And that’s what we hoped to find, rainbows and grayling chowing-down, feeding indiscriminately and often.
The Nushagak, a 275-mile long behemoth of a waterway, which is rated as the ninth largest river in the United States and is located on the north side of Bristol Bay, isn’t known for producing monster rainbows. Other streams in the Bristol Bay region, such as the Naknek, Brooks, Moraine, Kvichak, and Wood, commonly kick out 25-to 30-inchers – steelhead-sized rainbows. On the upper Nushagak, which twists through classic open tundra and under timbered rolling hills before spilling into Bristol Bay at an amazing, fertile delta, anglers should be pleased with anything rating better than 20 inches. There are stories about 28-inch fish being landed on the upper Nush, but it’s the odd specimen that rates 20 inches or more.

However, what the upper Nushagak’s rainbow trout lack in size they make up for in numbers. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the upper Nush offers a healthy rainbow trout population and some of the best trout-specific fishing in western Alaska.

Big trout or not the upper Nushagak is a great place to visit. Unlike many of southwest Alaska’s rainbow trout fisheries, which offer combat casting and skeptical fish that make a game out of naming every painted bead, flesh fly, and bugger in the book, the Nush is mostly overlooked. Anglers who fish the Nush find eager trout lacking hook scars and they enjoy a healthy dose of solitude while casting flies to those virgin fish.

That’s what we found – a river completely to ourselves, meaning devoid of competing anglers and full of good fish that ate all sorts of patterns, including bead eggs, yarn eggs, egg-sucking leeches, and an assortment of flesh flies. Our routine while fishing the Nush was relaxed. Each day we rose from bed when we felt like it, meaning just before the sun rose high enough to burn a little frost. Then we enjoyed coffee and the kind of breakfast your doctor warned you about (fried eggs, fried potatoes, a mountain of bacon, black coffee, and maybe even a nip off the BV) before loading gear in a skiff. By ten each morning we were on the water picking our spots. The trout, of course, were found in proximity to salmon, so locating silvers and sockeye became a daily routine. We’d race up or down river and idle past runs and holes.

“Were there salmon in there?” the outfitter might ask.

“Yea, but only a few,” I might answer.

“Let’s look for a better pod,” he’d say, and off we’d go.

Once an impressive pod of salmon was located we’d knot the skiff to the bank and tie on our preferred patterns. We’d spread out and run those offerings through the bulk of salmon, dead-drifting or swinging them across the current. Typically, strikes arrived just as a pattern rose at the end of a drift. In other words, they were taught-line, crushing hits that offered an impression that the fly was inhaled as a trout raced across the river, through the salmon, at full speed. Which may have been the case: what would you do if stealing an egg from an animal five or six times your size? Then, if you were into a good fish, it was off to the races, recapturing some of the line that just ripped off your reel, contemplating if a six-weight rod might not have been a better choice than the medium-action five that was ready to snap in half.

What struck me as most impressive about the Nushagak’s rainbow trout was their stamina. They just wouldn’t quit. That’s a trait consistent with the rainbow trout I’ve found on other large coastal rivers in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. And I wonder, is it a trait derived from battling such heavy current all their lives? Is it a result of those fish just turning their broad sides to that gravitational force? Or, I wonder, are fish found in large rivers battling salmon for their spawn just a little more bad-ass and temperamental than those dainty dry-fly sippers you find on inland waters? I’d like to think the latter.

When examining a Nushagak rainbow, often we found fins missing or split dorsals, or scales and pieces of flesh ripped from their bodies. I can only conclude that those wounds arrived when rainbow trout darted in behind a pissed-off and hormone-pounding coho, trying to rip-off an egg or two. Or, perhaps those wounds arrived when an overconfident rainbow ripped into a coho, expecting a piece of flesh from a carcass only to find a fully capable, fully alive fish and a fight on its hands. In any case, the Nushagak’s rainbow trout are healthy – meaning their bodies are deep and proportional (no skinny-minis found here) and each fish, which likely has never seen a fly, is worth the effort it takes to land and promptly release.

That’s another thing that sets apart the Nushagak experience from what you might find on some of Alaska’s best-known and most heavily fished trout streams. When fishing out of the big lodges on pressured streams sometimes I feel more like a lemming than a lion and I wonder exactly what kind of revelation might be garnered when you’re told where to stand, what to throw, and where to cast … and the guides hail fish by pet names.

On the Nushagak nothing is written in stone. The salmon move daily, the trout follow the salmon. Trout are where you find them. Only a few holes hold fish consistently. Anglers who drift the Nushagak may float eight miles one day, casting over mostly dead water before finding those salmon and the accompanying rainbows. The following day, while hammering the rainbows, the raft might not move a mile. It’s all Greek on the Nush. There are nuances to be learned and isn’t pioneering what each of us really desires? Questions to be answered, inconveniences and hardships to be overcome. In my opinion, only when such elements are in play does a fishing trip offer its full potential.

In coloration the Nushagak’s rainbows were nothing extraordinary. Would I call them the classic leopard rainbow that Alaska is known for? Probably not. However, after the trip I started in on a six-pack of Corona one night and decided that, with the aid of a photograph, I would count all the spots, from tip of the snout to fork of the tail, on a Nushagak rainbow. I was done with the first brew and three swigs into the second — and ignoring a call from the kitchen to help with dishes — before I came up with a decent estimate: 500 distinct black spots … on one side!

Some days we caught lots of rainbows and lost many more. Other days we struggled for a few good fish. During the course of the trip there was one fish, in particular, that holds my memory and exemplifies the qualities of a Nushagak rainbow.

On that day we were fishing a three-mile long sidechannel, a place, it should be noted, that most outfitters wouldn’t dare fish in low water. Our man ran the skiff and its jet drive over gravel bars and exposed logs to put us on fish.

And that he did. My father found a pod at a deep corner pool and landed a half-dozen solid ‘bows before I moved him off the glory-hole. I fished that pool in the same fashion and with the same pattern, an egg-sucking leech, but I couldn’t turn a fish. Before calling it quits I tied on a yellow and white double-bunny. It’s a four-inch long, lead-eyed gaudy pattern pioneered by Scott Sanchez of Jackson, Wyoming. That pattern sticks big trout wherever they are found, but it seemed audacious for the low and clear water conditions we encountered. I tied it on anyway and on the first cast, as I stripped that pattern with speed, a big ‘bow rose from the bottom and, lacking an ounce of hesitation or fear, tore into that bunny with head-shaking intention to kill, to tear that fly in half. It was all good theatre, a little comedy thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, a little suspense would soon follow.

In fact, shortly after releasing that fish we charged downstream, hit a gravelbar and fouled the jet drive. As we drifted into the main river the outfitter tried to turn the boat and run it upstream, but it wouldn’t gain an inch on the Nushagak’s substantial flow. The power was gone. Our outfitter blamed us and claimed we brought too much gear, but we didn’t buy it. We were 12 miles downstream from the cabin, running out of daylight, with no radio, no shelter and no chance of anyone passing by to bail us out of a potential nightmare.

To facilitate upstream movement, the outfitter dropped Troy and I on the bank and pushed upstream with my father in the bow. As they turned a corner out of site, I wondered when I might see them next. I kicked a few rocks on the gravelbar and said, “No extra skiff in camp. No radio. No food. No water. No rifle. Running a boat over rocks and logs? What the …” Troy peered into the brush, pondering grizzly tracks in the sand. “Could be a long night,” he said adding, “I hate grizzly bears.” Fortunately, the shuttle method worked and at dark we were back at the cabin, swallowing scotch while commandeering that pile of wood on the porch and the stove inside.

That wood stove! I would call it the least efficient piece of equipment ever fashioned by mankind. It radiated as much heat as an iceberg. You could drape socks over the top of it, at full blaze, without threat of a burn. Hot coffee set on top fell luke-warm in minutes.

Part of the problem was fire management. You could get two small twigs rolling with flame and the outfitter would set a single, wet cottonwood round – about the size of a garbage can – on top. The entire mess would smolder as if the focus of a Jack London tale. The end of the season. The end of woodcutting, damn it. The promise of Mexico. I digress.

Grayling ad to the fall angling mix and the upper Nushagak holds some dandies. The typical grayling measures a modest 10 or 11 inches, but it’s common to land and release Nushagak grayling measuring between 15 and 19 inches. And that’s a good grayling. On a good day, an angler specifically targeting grayling might land and release two-dozen or more. And most of those eager fish eat dry flies. Any combination. Any color. Any size. Regarding the gluttony of those fish, just take a Rocky Mountain westslope cutthroat, multiply its appetite by five, and what you end up with is a Nushagak grayling. I truly believe those fish would have creamed a three-inch long Cheeto or even a fried-egg sandwich fixed to a hook and skated over the surface.

One of the highlights of the trip was fishing in front of the cabin. Each morning we stepped from our digs and negotiated a set of crude wood steps to the river.
At the river, we found scads of grayling and they were eager to please in a comical way. I threw everything in the book at them. Grasshopper imitations, dry muddlers, parachute adams, size-12 royal Wulffs. They preferred patterns skating on the surface and often they would leap over the fly and try to kill it on the way down.

In some places we found grayling absolutely stacked up. One evening, while dad worked a deep hole for rainbows, Troy tried an adjacent seem and tore up the grayling. I can’t remember the exact number, but it seemed like he hooked grayling on 25 successive casts. Each time I turned Troy’s way I met the vision of a bent rod, a grayling skating over the surface, and a shit-eating grin plastered across his face. Some of those fish measured 18 inches and they ate flesh flies and bead eggs just as they rose from the bottom at the end of the drift or as Troy stripped line in. Occasionally, they took as the fly was being raised for a cast, which sent them flying through the air and set a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression on Troy’s face. There he is. I meant to do that.

At times we caught so many grayling we could have lost respect for those fish and deemed them too plentiful for their own good. But that wouldn’t have been accurate. Grayling are victims of their environment. They live in a harsh land, they grow super-slowly (an 18-inch grayling may be 10 or even 12 years old), they battle fish much larger than themselves for an existence and, as if they needed more challenge, they have difficulty getting a respectful meal in their tiny, whitefish-style mouths. They do, however, offer a dorsal fin that’s as impressive as a Pacific sailfish’s and, for me, that fin is as symbolic of the north land, of Alaska and its wild country, as the howl of a wolf, the screech of a bald eagle or the ripple of northern lights.

With its appealing offering of bulky rainbow and solid grayling you may wonder why more people don’t focus effort on the upper Nushagak. Certainly, a lack of monster rainbows keeps many anglers at bay. But most important, the upper Nush, like many areas of Alaska, is super-remote and difficult to access. Just to reach the river, anglers must first gain Anchorage, Alaska. Then it’s a two-hour commercial flight from Anchorage to the western coast and Dillingham. From Dillingham, it’s at least an hour-long floatplane ride over mile upon mile of endless tundra expanse. And then, to fish the upper Nush, anglers must book a trip with one of just a few outfitters who actually run limited operations on the river – mostly out of tent camps. Or they go it alone.

To go at it alone means being dropped off in remote, dangerous country with a raft, a tent, food, fishing gear, and a rifle. From the drop-off point it’s a float downstream for 50 miles or more through marvelous caribou, moose and grizzly bear-infested country, casting to those rainbows and grayling, negotiating the river, camping on gravelbars, all the while praying that you arrive at the designated pickup point on the same day as the plane. And you hope that the plane does arrive – often in western Alaska, flights are delayed, sometimes for a few days, before the weather lifts and a pilot arrives.

The thing is, anglers who only visit the high-end lodges never gain a true feel for the breadth of the country and the fragility we exist in when dropped off in the middle of it. Perhaps as fly-fishers – dressed in our million-dollar garb and paying astronomical rates for a few days of guaranteed fishing — we’ve all become spoiled. More often these days the big-name lodges offer the sensation of being spoon-fed from a Gerber bottle or suckling straight from the nipple. They are places where the catching and releasing of a good fish appears more as a monetary-influenced guarantee than a reward for learning a river’s nuances and solving its mysteries, over a few days or a few years if necessary.

The truth is Troy and dad and I could have caught more and bigger rainbows at other locals and we could have returned to a warm, carpeted lodge with running water, and rib-eyes or grilled quail on the menu each night. But I don’t know that it’s possible to find a better site for introspection than a wet tent or a cold cabin located in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated from the outside world.

During our trip we realized disappointment, discomfort and, it is true, fewer fish than we’d liked to have caught. Some, meaning Troy and dad, handled it better than others. In the end, we had to ask, What were we really there for? Just the fish or an experience?

If it was an experience we wanted, it was an experience we got and it will be a long time, if ever, that I don’t frequently recall our hardships and the reward for those pitfalls — gorgeous, naïve, elderly rainbow trout and grayling that likely saw flies for the first times in their lives.

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