Chinook Bonanza on the Nushagak
By Marcus Weiner
After nearly 15 years spent traipsing around Alaska, we find ourselves coming back to places where the fishing was hot, the guides exceptional and the lodges top-notch. Such is definitely the case when it comes to the Nushagak River and our friends Mike and Angela Addiego at Bristol Bay Adventures.
I’ve never experienced a bad trip on this river, and every visit I’ve made to Bristol Bay Adventures has left me with plenty of lasting memories, as well as fish for the freezer. The river can be fantastically productive for Chinook and coho salmon, and I’ve encountered blistering hot action for the resident trout and grayling and the thousands of Dolly Varden returning from their summers at sea. On top of that there’s always the treat-you-like-family hospitality of the Addiegos, making a return journey to this southwest Alaska waterway feel something like a trip home for the holidays.
This past year we visited them at the end of June to explore a peaking Nushagak Chinook bite and to see what tricks Mike had devised to capture more king salmon. When I saw him at the Great Alaska Sportsman’s Show in Anchorage in April he was grinning like the Cheshire cat. He confided that he had been experimenting with his boondogging setup in the years since we last fished together and felt like his catch-rates were at an all-time high. I was pumped to see this first-hand, test out new gear on bright, sea-lice-wearing 25-pound king salmon, reminisce with old friends and enjoy fishing with Wayne Norris and Brian Woobank.
It had all the makings of a great trip.
The Nushagak River
The Nushagak River is among the best locations in Alaska to catch king salmon. From its origin in the Nushagak hills, the stream gains size and power, combining with several major tributaries to become a massive river as it flows towards Nushagak Bay. It’s a thoroughfare for all five species of Alaska’s Pacific salmon, as well as sea-run Dolly Varden, rainbows, grayling and pike.
According to ADF&G data, the Chinook run has averaged about 90,000 kings per year for the last four years, with a recent high of 113,743 in 2013. With that many fish entering the river it’s no wonder anglers experience such high catch-rates. It’s not uncommon to catch 10 kings in a day, and that makes the Nushagak an incredibly special river.
Nushagak coho numbers are strong as well; ADF&G reports that 478,198 coho entered the river from July 14 through August 16, 2014, which is among the largest runs of coho ever recorded on the Nushagak.
Bristol Bay Adventures (BBA)
The lodge is one of few permanent structures on the Nushagak River and provides all the comforts of home. It was built by Mike and BBA guide Bob and incorporates a series of cabins, each with individual bathrooms, and a main lodge, which is attached to the kitchen. Angela prepares home-cooked, delicious meals, and Mike holds court in the lodge after a day’s fishing, the combined effect leaving everyone feeling like they are a part of the family.
Capable of housing up to 16 guests, the lodge was founded in 1998, which makes it one of the longest-established operations on the Nushagak. Guides are top-notch, and each have many years of experience. Mike is one of the best guides on the river, and his expertise results in high catch-rates and guides who are dialed into the nuances of the Nushagak. Fishing is done from a fleet of comfortable and stable Koffler boats. Chinook are targeted from late June through the end of July and silvers are the focus beginning in late July and continuing through August.
Positioned about a mile downstream from Portage Creek, roughly 30 miles from Nushagak Bay, BBA sits on the high bank across from ADF&G’s sonar counting station. The slot on BBA’s side of the river proved to be one of the most productive drifts we fished, and every morning we’d start right there and catch salmon. And we weren’t alone. Boats from other lodges up- and downriver filed into position each morning and all around us nets would fly as chrome Chinook fresh on the incoming tide bit roe clusters drifting downstream. Most of the large run of Chinook passes by Mike’s front door on their way to spawning locations throughout the system.
The main technique we employed, as with most of the other boats on the river, was boondogging. The boat captain moves the boat to the top of a drift, turns it perpendicular to the current and uses the motor to keep the boat in position. All anglers fish off the same side of the boat and cast upriver. Typical bait is a cluster of salmon eggs, and the eggs drift downriver with the boat, while Chinook are swimming upriver. Bites range from subtle to arm-wrenching.
The lodge uses 9-foot Lamiglas rods rated for 10- to 25-pound-test line, Ambassadeur baitcasting reels with 25-pound mainline and 50-pound leaders. Mike has been experimenting with his terminal rigging, and his catch-rates are increasing. Suffice it to say that Mike’s rigging is getting the bait closer to the fish. If you want to learn what Mike is doing, take a trip out the lodge in 2015 and he’ll show you.
We arrived on June 27 with five solid days to fish for Chinook. In 2014 an angler could keep four kings per year on the Nushagak River, and on any given day, an angler could keep one fish over 28 inches and one under 28 inches. Additionally, 10 jacks under 20 inches could be kept per day and wouldn’t count towards the annual four-Chinook limit. With these limits in mind, our pre-fishing plan was to try and take one good king per day each, hopefully still bearing sea lice and over 20 pounds. We have one extra day to keep a king if we are unsuccessful on any of the first three days, and if we happen to be unsuccessful on two of the first three days in keeping a king, then on the last day, we’d be able to take one under 28 inches.
The extra planning was not needed; catching is steady and after starting at 10:30 a.m. on the first day, we have three fish in the box by 1 p.m. Action continues to improve as the five days unfold. The kings that we keep get a little bigger each day, starting at 22 pounds and exceeding 30 by the last two days. They are in prime shape and bulldog-strong, and more than one battle includes burning runs, jumps and 360-degree maneuvering around the boat by the lucky angler. We experience lots of double hookups and an occasional triple.
The largest fish of the week comes on the last afternoon. We are on a long drift, boondogging several miles upstream of the lodge when a big king erupts out of water, clearing the surface by a couple feet and plunging back in with a massive splash. We’d all fallen into a half dream-state, and the sight and sound of the king sent the group in action. Wayne grabbed a camera, Brian manned the GoPro and I held on while the king ripped line off the reel. When we finally got it next to the boat for release, it appeared that the big buck easily exceeded 30 pounds. Check out the footage at www.fishalaskamagazine.com/videos/.
Over the five days of fishing, each angler averaged 10 Chinook per day, with about 40% mature fish, 30% smaller kings under 15 pounds and 30% jacks. Fishing ebbed and flowed with the tide, with hot bites occurring in coordination with fresh pulses of kings coming into the river. Fishing each day started at the drift in front of the lodge and usually resulted in multiple fish. From there, we’d travel up- and downriver to known holding spots for kings and work them until we stopped catching fish.
Good Times with Good Friends
Each trip we’ve made to Bristol Bay Adventures has been enjoyable and memorable. From pounding big kings with Larry Csonka while filming his North to Alaska television show to ambushing coho on incoming tides and on to trips upriver in search of trout, char and grayling, we always enjoy our adventures with Mike and Angela at Bristol Bay Adventures. I think you’ll find that if you visit their lodge you, too, will be treated like family; you will inevitably catch lots of fish and of course, return home with great stories, big smiles and fond memories.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com.