King Salmon Fishing article by Marcus Weiner
Alaska King Salmon Fishing: The Crown Jewel of Alaska’s Chinook Rivers and the King Camps We Love
Alaska is a land of superlatives. Among the sportsman’s wonderland found throughout its nearly 98 million acres, one river reigns supreme in the annals of Chinook angling. Every year fishermen from far and wide descend upon the burly brute looking to capture its mighty king salmon. That river is the Nushagak.
From mid-June through mid-July, the Nushagak is a superhighway of salmon, with kings, reds, pinks and chums streaming by in amazing numbers. Into August, Coho begin to arrive, completing the annual five-salmon-species entry into the Nush’.
For the last 20 years, we have been traveling to the Nush’ to do battle with the fish that swim within its waters. Apex among the list of species is the king. With annual runs of king salmon between 40,000 and upwards of 100,000 fish, it’s a target-rich environment. Most anglers would agree that it is the best king salmon river in Alaska when it comes to catching lots of Chinook. There are definitely rivers in the state where larger specimens are possible, but they lack in numbers compared to what the Nush’ offers. And while the average adult Chinook is around 20 pounds, it’s possible to catch fish in the 30-, 40- and even 50-pound range. Looking at the ADF&G fish counts, the average run of kings in the Nush’ for the last 10 years is approximately 82,569 kings per year. That’s a lot of chances to catch the state fish of Alaska.
The lodges and camps that dot the banks of the river, especially in the lower section near the town of Portage Creek, are the conduits for anglers to get to kings. They make it possible for visiting anglers to pack some clothes, hop on a few planes and end up in the Nirvana of king salmon angling. There are a few permanent lodges on the river, several upscale tent camps, and multiple spike camps for fly-in lodges. Anglers have their pick, with a wide range of amenities and services available across the spectrum. Here’s a rundown on several king salmon lodges and camps that we have grown to love.
Nushagak River Adventures Lodge
FishtheNush.com • 1-877-876-NUSH (6874)
Pete Von Jess started fishing the Nushagak in 2014. He had been fishing the Kenai and Kasilof and was looking for a river with king salmon without the fishing pressure and combat fishing that are common on the Kenai and Kasilof. I asked him what his vision and mission was for Nushagak River Adventures Lodge (NRAL) and he said, “Nushagak River Adventures Lodge was built to be the premier lodge on the Nushagak River. We are pleased to have turned the vision into reality. The entire operation is significantly safer, with amenities and service not traditionally found in the Alaska Bush. Our focus is on providing exceptional client services and our mission is to be known to deliver that premium level consistently.”
Over the course of four years from 2017 to 2020, Pete transformed a fish camp with dilapidated structures to a safe, clean and functional lodge environment. I asked him for an overview of the operation and he replied, “Eight professional guides captain eight Alumaweld Free Drifter fishing boats, each that can host as many as four anglers. We have 32 client beds arranged in nine sleeping cabins (seven with four beds and two with two beds). Amenities include full-size beds with quality linens, a new bathhouse with sinks, showers and toilets featuring separate facilities for men and women. There is ample privacy, and many can use the bathhouse simultaneously. We have a private well (water) with salt system softener, a whisper-quiet diesel generator, and an equivalent solar system providing full-time electrical power to all our buildings. A flash-freeze refrigeration system ensures that fish depart in perfect travel condition. We also have Wi-Fi for guests. We fish our client groups in four-day rotations from June 15 to July 15, then offer four-day or six-day rotations through August 15 each season.”
Pete’s background in the Army, having spent 22 years as an operations planner and logistics planner, and then later as a CEO of a 500-person-plus company, prepared him well for the skills needed to run a remote operation in Alaska. He is highly skilled at building and leading the team that transformed NRAL from a rundown camp to a polished lodge.
I asked Pete what makes the Nush’ king fishery special to him and he replied, “The sheer volume of kings in this river is what drew me to her and her majestic beauty keeps not just me, but my staff and clients, coming back year after year. No fishing pressure is the key in this phenomenon. It’s a big river and there’s plenty of wide-open space to fish.” NRAL guides employ three main techniques to catch king salmon: downstream trolling, boondogging and side drifting with bobbers. Highly skilled guides are able to transition between techniques to give the kings what they want, as well as to provide the angler with the technique they’d most like to use.
Client experience is paramount at NRAL. I asked Pete what clients say about the lodge and he responded, “Clients resoundingly say we are top shelf all the way—from the fishing, to the food, to the comfort and cleanliness of the lodge. And they love our staff and are grateful for how hard they work to ensure their satisfaction.” We can attest to the incredible dining served up by the hands of Chef Chris and the team.
Every angler who has spent much time on the water develops a database of memories. It’s part of what draws us back to familiar waters and fuels us in between fishing opportunities. I asked Pete to share a special memory from the Nush’ and he said, “It’s always nice when we get kids in camp who are excited about fishing. In 2019 we had two memorable kids fish with us. The first was young Brady Blum. Brady established rank in the inaugural 40-inch club when he was here in June 2019 with his family. This is taken from the blog last fall: ‘And so the 40-Inch Club began during the king salmon season of 2019. The very first club member pin was awarded in the first 5-day period of the season from June 17-22. 12-year-old, Brady Blum, a Washington-state native, hooked into the 40 1/4-inch salmon, set the hook, and held on for the ride of a lifetime. Beaming with pride, onlookers included his father Jason Blum, uncle Eric Thorburn, and grandfather David Thorburn. Our longtime guide, Ron Logan from Portland, Oregon, who helped Brady to this big king, shared that David also landed a 42-inch king but released it since he had already tagged one. Brady caught a dozen fish or more before tagging this beauty. A successful outdoorsman at his young age, Brady has already been dubbed the “Kid Reporter” for Fish Alaska magazine when his first article was published in March of 2018.’
“A second memorable youth was 8-year old Trent Lewis who was the only angler to fish a Nushagak grand slam in 2019. He also happened to sneeze out a loose tooth while he was here and informed us all of his wish for the tooth fairy to exchange his tooth for a newer model Rolex. Here is the blog on young Trent.
Finally, I asked Pete of anything else he’d like our readers to know about his operation and he stated, “We are really the only lodge of our caliber on the Nush’. Most, if not all, lodges/tent camps close up after kings while we fish through mid-August for silvers. Of special importance to me is our support of our Warrior Sportsmen, called Army Special Forces Week. Each summer we host a group of Green Berets who have suffered trauma during active duty.” Here is more detail on that annual event.
AlaskaKingfishers.com • 907-843-1605
Rob Fuentes has been fishing the Nushagak since 2003. As the owner of Alaska Kingfishers, Rob’s goal is for people to have a fun and relaxing experience. Rob bought Alaska Kingfishers from Bob Kratzer in 2013, after Bob ran it successfully for 15 years. I asked Rob for an overview of his camp and he replied, “Alaska Kingfishers operates a remote Alaska salmon-fishing facility located on the banks of the Nushagak River in the heart of Bristol Bay, Alaska. We offer four-day, four-night trips and accommodate up to 26 guests at a time. We have 20- to 23-foot boats that accommodate four fishermen comfortably. We are all-inclusive and provide all gear, tackle, meals, guided fishing, fish processing, etc. The camp has power, running water, hot showers, flushing toilets, comfortable beds and plenty of areas to hang out. Our guests enjoy 10 hours of guided fishing and if that is not enough, we have gear set up to fish from the bank in front of camp.”
Rob’s background was as a biologist, and also as an avid angler. He got a BS Biology degree from Baylor University. “Immediately out of college I worked as a field biologist for a state agency in central Texas which focused on environmental projects in the Brazos River basin. Projects included both chemical and biological assessments of lakes, rivers and streams, which focused on water quality and biological diversity and provided data to determine the health of the watershed,” Rob shared. He’s had a USGC license and an Alaska Sport Fishing Guide license since 2003 and has guided in the Nushagak River and Wood River systems since then.
I asked Rob what makes the Nush’ special to him and he replied, “Aside from having the largest fishable run of kings of any river in Alaska, the Nushagak River is rich in history, wildlife and fish of multiple species.” It’s been a special place for Rob and when I asked him for a lasting memory he shared, “All my special memories involve having my family in Alaska and at camp. I have always enjoyed taking them fishing and sometimes catching something special like a 43-pound king in 2013.”
Rob and his guides fish for kings by pulling plugs, dragging bait and trolling spinners. Clients can expect a well-run fishing program, clean and comfortable living quarters, good meals and an excellent guide staff, all of whom are full-time fishing guides in the Pacific NW when not in Alaska.
FrigateTravel.com • 907-843-1605
Kate and Justin Crump own and operate Frigate Travel. They fish in Alaska and Oregon and specialize in freshwater fishing adventures. They base out of King Salmon, AK, in order to fish the Naknek River as home water and then fly out to destinations throughout Bristol Bay. One of those prime locations is the Nushagak River.
For the last 10 years, they have been fishing the Nushagak River, and started their Nush’ camp in 2017. I asked Kate and Justin what their vision and mission is for their Nush’ camp and they replied, “At Frigate Travel our mission is to provide the best experience for our guests on and off the water. On the Nushagak River we offer an experience different from any camp on the river, a short-duration glamping experience.” As a follow up, I asked them what their clients say about their camp and they shared a recent quote from a client: “Thank you for a wonderful time at the lodge and giving us the best time on the Nush’. Great fishing, great friends, and a great time was had by all. We were a large group and I appreciated all of the organization, attention to detail, and accommodations!”
I asked Kate and Justin for a rundown on the camp and their fishing programs. They stated, “Since 2017, our guests have stayed in King Salmon and made day trips to the Nushagak. This has given them flexibility in the number of days they fish and also provided very comfortable accommodations off the river. Beginning in 2021, we will be offering a two-day, one-night stay at our Nushagak River camp. Guests will fly into King Salmon via charter or commercial flight and then be shuttled to the Nushagak via float plane. They will spend the day fishing and then the night on the river. The following day they will fish and return to King Salmon in the late afternoon where they will spend the night, then return home the following morning. We fish out of two 21’ x 84” Willie Raptors. For 2021, we will be bringing an 18’ Koffler designated specifically for our flyfishing guests.”
They continued, “We accommodate up to eight guests on the river each day and in camp for one night. Our four guest tents sleep two guests each, and there will be two guest bathrooms with showers located a short distance from the tents. On day one, guests will be treated to a wonderful lunch which includes homemade bread and hot soup. Dinner at camp consists of fresh ingredients and a gourmet entrée. On the second fishing day, our guests will experience a shore lunch with fresh salmon, soup, and refreshing salad.”
In my opinion, Frigate Travel has the right approach to harvesting and caring for wild salmon. They conveyed the following: “We take extreme pride in our off-the-water guest experience, and our on-the-water guest experience is held in a similar regard. Our boats are meticulously cleaned throughout the fishing day, our rods and reels are top of the line, and we carry ice in our boats every day. We believe that a wild salmon is too valuable to sit in a fish box or cooler all day without ice, and we go to painstaking lengths to ensure we have ice for our fish every day.”
The Nushagak River is special to people for many reasons. Kate and Justin have their own: “We love the Nush’ for so many reasons. The huge number of king salmon is definitely at the top of our list, but there are so many other things that make this fishery so unique. One thing we love is the ability to fine tune a wide variety of methods. On a given day, our guests may downstream troll spinners, backtroll plugs, bobberdog bait with spinning rods, or flyfish. During the 2020 season we made significant improvements to our flyfishing program and feel we are ready to show our anglers how consistent the Nushagak can fish with flies. Besides the fishing, we love spending the evening on the river when the hustle and bustle dies down.”
I asked Kate and Justin to share a lasting memory from their time on the Nush’. “During the 2020 season we hosted two grandparents and their young grandson. The joy they experienced together as the little guy caught fish after fish was contagious.” I think that about sums up the Nushagak—lots of fish and contagious joy.
Bristol Bay Adventures
winter: 650-796-4534 • summer: 907-644-9018
Our friends Mike and Angela Addiego, owners of Bristol Bay Adventures (BBA), have been fixtures on the river for many years. For the last 25 years they have been providing superb fishing experiences to their clients. I asked Mike and Angela what makes the Nushagak special to them and they replied, “Nushagak means ‘river of life.’ This river has provided us many lifelong experiences, friendships and memories with clients from all over the world. Fish have been harvested, sustaining food for many and bringing the lifeline of the Nushagak’s abundance to those who visit and partake in its glory.” You can see from the sentiment that they love the Nushagak.
Bristol Bay Adventures sits on a high bluff downstream from the town of Portage Creek, directly across the river from the ADF&G counting station. I asked Mike and Angela for an overview of their program and they replied, “Bristol Bay Adventures houses 16 clients in duplex buildings with onsite bathrooms in each unit. We host clients for meals and communal gatherings in the great room which is attached to the kitchen. We use custom-made Koffler boats for king fishing. Our trips are all-inclusive including flights to and from Dillingham to the lodge, meals, fishing equipment and fish processing to take fish home.”
Mike’s primary means of catching king salmon include boondogging with roe and backtrolling plugs. Their lodge sits on a prime drift, and it’s very common to hook kings while boondogging directly in front of their lodge.
Operating for 25 years, Mike and Angela have been stewards of the river for a long time. I asked them what their vision and mission is and they replied, “The vision and mission of BBA is to provide a memorable, safe, fun, and comfortable salmon fishing experience on the world-renowned Nushagak River in the southwest wilderness of Alaska.” Mike and Angela treat their guests like family, with Mike guiding clients in a calm, laid-back and competent manner, while Angela watches over the lodge as mother hen, cooking delicious meals and sending you home heavier than you arrived.
These excellent lodge owners and guides can help you experience the unbridled thrill of hooking, fighting and landing Alaska king salmon. The state fish is worthy of the accolade and combines power, grace, and determination into a perfect anadromous form. While these fish are seemingly endless, we know that this will not remain true if we don’t do our part in conservation.
We believe that anglers have the right to harvest fish to take home and eat from prosperous fish stocks. The Nushagak meets that criteria. Still, in order to perpetuate the species, fish need to make it to the spawning beds. King salmon on the Nushagak that are going to be released cannot be taken out of the water. That’s a good thing. For the fish you intend to keep, we implore you to let the biggest fish go. Keeping salmon in the 10- to 20-pound range will ensure that the bigger salmon have a better chance to make it to spawn, while still providing you with many pounds of succulent fillets.
When you arrive on the river at one of these lodges or camps, be sure to say hi for us. And who knows, we might already be there.
Marcus Weiner has visited the Nushagak River many times over the years and considers it one of his favorite rivers in Alaska.
This article originally appeared as ‘The Crown Jewel of Alaska’s Chinook Rivers and the King Camps We Love’ in the December 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.