Catch and Keep on the Nushagak River

Story and photo by Troy Letherman

I had been looking at water all summer long, trying to make sense of something we were probably never meant to understand. Naturally, I had discovered as much about myself as I had about the places favored by trout, but in this moment, regardless of my affinity for all things flowing, I looked from shoulder to seam to tailout and I felt out of place.

The river was big, befitting its billing as the largest clearwater system in Bristol Bay, and even these hundred-plus miles from its mouth, it roiled in riffles half a mile long and spread into expansive deep-water flats that would have hidden a Los Angeles-class submarine as easily as a few marauding rainbows. That didn’t bother me, though. The secrets of big rivers, like the five proofs of Thomas Aquinas, eventually give way to understanding if only a person is willing to study and reflect and occasionally look the fool. By remembering that, I knew whatever the uneasiness, it had nothing to do with water and everything to do with me. The angler’s sole recourse at such times is to cast.

I had hopped a Pen Air flight from Anchorage to Dillingham earlier that morning, half expecting to be dragged from my seat before the plane could taxi, for in the tumult preceding my trip, while I crammed fly boxes, reels, and long underwear into my bags, nearly everyone I know had called to make unreasonable requests on my time, or just as maliciously, to demand I fulfill any and all outstanding obligations. Several people, many of them quite close relations, had feigned incredulity about the trip itself, choosing to spend spare moments debating my incompetence as a scheduler, a weakness that’s admittedly more pronounced when trout are involved. Additionally, a regular lineup of life’s little calamities was in play, among them a kitchen faucet that suddenly took to spraying water like an upended fire hydrant, family checkup time with our dentist, who should now be able to afford that second home on the moon, and yet another poor start for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Feeling as harried and harassed as Butch and Sundance, I had staved off utter bedevilment by reminding myself that I was on my way to the upper reaches of the Nushagak drainage, an area long in the Freudian lockbox, to do no less than fish. Only, unlike the Argentina-bound banditos, I knew I’d eventually be forced to return.

After five or six casts, I could at least take comfort in mechanical competence, as I delivered the fly to spots that were decidedly not in the trees behind me. A few grayling came to eat right away and I felt proportionately better. Still, a rainbow had not been heard from, and even more vexing, I’d yet to be paroled from the emotional gulag to which I’d been sentenced.

The best travel does include some level of uncertainty, I tend to think, and in this solitary regard, I was doing well. I’d never been here before, and better, I didn’t know anyone who had. I came with a wide assortment of flies and a variety of lines, no friendly reports, no directives to fish this bank or that confluence, my load entirely unburdened by expectation. One shouldn’t overlook the efficacy of the unknown to mend the spirit, for as those first minutes turned into hours, I began to concentrate less on the injustice of mortality and more on the dragless track of my fly. Perhaps this, and not exotic locales or the bigger fish around the bend, is what lies behind the destination-angling boom. As I had just encountered for the millionth time, one can still fret over the credit card bills while fishing the home pool, but stepping off a cliff into the dark tends to take up all of a mind.

Then it happened, halfway through a seemingly innocuous drift, the tip, tap-tap, pull of a solid strike. The rod went down and stayed down, bending deeply, much too deeply for a grayling. Wet line sailed off the reel, and I knew rainbow.

Minutes later, I unhooked and released the fish, soaking in a serenity brought on by the first trout of a trip. Now when I looked around, I no longer focused on the reflection of my own unease but instead I saw a sky fighting off the advancing shell of night, the sun’s final few rays doing much to enhance the shades of fall, colors sui generis among even the finest in nature’s palette. In between the timber lining the banks, matted avenues of grass marked the passage of both brown bear and moose. Directly across the river, a bald eagle stood sentry over its nest, a snarled construction of branches about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. A quarter-mile upstream, a positively rotund porcupine danced Thriller-style across a gravel bar, walking backwards, sliding from side to side, spinning around and around. Who knows what he was up to, but as I watched him groove, I felt I could finally claim the moment for myself. In remote Alaska, arrival never really occurs at an airport terminal; it comes later, after the trifles of contemporary culture have disappeared, hidden deep in the gut of relentless space. A fly rod and a good fish had gotten me there, and honestly, during the few moments I held the trout alive in my hands, I was pretty damn sure I’d never die.

In The Upanishads, Hindus searching the outer world for Brahma—the ultimate ground of all being—are taught to meditate upon space. While no Sanskrit text goes so far as to explicitly mention western Alaska, anyone looking down from a DeHavilland Beaver bound for the upper Nushagak can immediately sense the region’s spiritual possibilities. It’s an area of prepossessing beauty, as scenic as it is vast and untamed, and later in the year, when the coming autumn ratchets up the color and the tundra responds with about thirty shades of red, I can think of few places in its class.

Of course, the river itself provides all the motivation one needs to travel here, reasons of the sentimental and the sublime notwithstanding. Beginning at the base of the Nushagak Hills, it commences in classic trout-stream fashion and then quickly picks up steam, gaining several major tributaries in its 275 miles. As it winds across the lowlands towards Nushagak Bay, the river is a massive, slow-moving thoroughfare, cutting a swath over half a mile wide. Its waters are packed with fish: sea-run Dolly Varden, resident rainbows, grayling, and northern pike, and of particular importance, five species of Pacific salmon, their returns staggered from late May to the first weeks of September. All manner of wildlife finds cover on the forested banks and passes through the backwater sloughs, migrates along nearby ridgelines and spreads across the tundra valleys to feed. It’s always been this way.

Over six thousand years ago, the area around Dillingham, then known as Naugeik, was settled by Athabascans and Yup’ik Eskimos, most of whom remained very mobile, migrating with the game and the anadromous fish, setting up seasonal camps in locales chosen to maximize the harvests. Much later, in the early nineteenth century, the Nushagak became a trade center, people coming from the Kuskokwim region, the Alaska Peninsula, or even from as far away as Cook Inlet to live at or visit Russian-built Alexandrovski Redoubt. Soon, the Russian explorers learned to use the river for travel as well, and in 1829, Ivan Vasilev took Native guides and traveled up the Nushagak and Nuyakuk rivers, eventually making his way into the Tikchik Basin. A few years later, he went upriver again, this time crossing over into the Kuskokwim system. First Native, then Russian, and finally, American explorers, trappers, hunters, and miners used a small tributary of the lower river to portage their boats from the Nushagak to the Kvichak River of the Iliamna drainage, thereby avoiding the open waters of Bristol Bay and a long, dangerous trip around Etolin Point. The stream was given the name Portage Creek and it’s now a spot famous for the quality of the king salmon fishing nearby. Likewise, the Nushagak River remains as vital as ever: It’s a passageway for travelers moving from coastal Alaska into the Interior; it’s a world-class hunting and fishing destination, and thankfully, after thousands of years without change, it’s still a home to Alaska Natives, still a waterborne protector of their way of life.

My own journey into the system began at a point much removed from the meandering, even-tempered flows of the lower river, and even further away from the tent cities and the boat traffic that can characterize a peaking Chinook return. I was a guest of Mike Addiego, whose Bristol Bay Adventures keeps an upper river camp in operation deep into September, and the hour-long flight from Dillingham ended with floats touching down on a placid stretch just below the confluence with the King Salmon River. Well over a hundred miles separated us from the mouth, and there was nothing else, save land and river, nearby. Lodging consisted of a cabin leased from a Native family in Koliganek, who had been using the camp for years as a summertime base for their subsistence activities. Much plywood had been sacrificed to its construction, and the floor suffered for it, sagging here and there under the weight of every step. No one had ever bothered to fuss with finishing the inside walls, and the exposed studs and cellophane-covered insulation explained the finer points of remote living, where functionality and not frippery was all the rage. A granddaughter’s portrait, its brass frame long since tarnished, hung alone, the single personal touch to the cabin’s interior.

But while running miles of river in search of fish, I did happen to see a handful of other visitors to the area. Without exception, their accommodations included stakes and poles and almost certainly a better sleeping bag than the one I had. After a glimpse of these carefully fashioned campsites, tents clinging perilously to wind-stricken hillsides and tarps futilely deployed against the torrential autumn rains, I eagerly adjusted my criteria for comfort. The colloquial “three hots and a cot” had never sounded more agreeable.

The panacean rainbow of the first evening had done its work well, as I wake to find my mind free from burden. The sky is clear and the air cold, a thin layer of frost tipping the fingers of the longest grass in a sparkling white. The cowboy coffee, complete with stray grounds in the bottom of each cup, is a guaranteed cobweb-remover, strong and bitter but strangely right for standing by the fire and watching the river go about its business. After a short boat ride, barely long enough to put a little color to a person’s cheeks, I find angling success a touch more difficult to achieve.

Initially, I hardly spend any time rooting through my trout patterns, instead choosing flies with something approaching Forrest Gump’s indifference, so harmonious, so lucky do I feel. My boxes are stuffed with proven takers, I tell myself, and I’m sure any one of them will do. I cast and let the fly swing, strip off a few more feet of line, and do it again. Three times, four, a half dozen, a dozen, two score—no bumps, no pulls, not even a snag. Trying times for the Alaska trout angler, and not surprisingly, depression is kept at bay by constantly questioning the length of my leaders, some random fretting about tippet size, and a nagging notion that I should have already retrieved the sink-tip stashed in my vest. By now I’m referring to my fly boxes often, peering over the patterns intently, feeling like Bobby Fischer down a game to Spassky and staring at check. In rapid succession I try a pink and white flesh fly, a black articulated leech, a Muddler, and when true desperation sets in, a single egg. I re-check my tippet size; it’s a frigging towrope.

Back in the boat, we travel upstream, swapping the shoulder water of a confluence seam for a deep, even-paced oxbow corner, the outside bend crowded by a short ceiling of overhanging trees. I put the sink-tip to work and tie on an Egg-sucking Leech, the Great Alaska Equalizer. I touch nothing. In a karmic sense, I guess this might be payback for the presumption of waking up happy, but even for a fly fisher, I decide that’s a bit of a stretch. More likely, the river is just reminding me of my status as visitor.

But, as the day wears on and we see more water, drifts increasingly end in a tight line and a bent rod. The parade of fish again starts with a grayling—long and full-bodied, cheeks of amethyst, scales flecked with gold. The rainbows appear to be widely spread, though I eventually pick up one here and two there, as I move from hole to hole or walk the length of a gravel bar. All are good fish, 16 to 22 inches in length, a few longer, with big shoulders and substantial girth. Every now and then, we find a pocket filled with trout and take fish one after another for fifteen minutes, thirty, an hour, until the bite turns off and it’s again time to move. Everything works at these times, a Scott Sanchez Double Bunny, flesh and egg creations, Buggers, sculpins, and leeches. An olive and black Matuka, a pattern designed for brown trout in New Zealand, is so hot at one point the ‘bows are coming up to eat, boiling on the fly as soon as it hits the water, drilling it on the run. Satisfaction threatens to run amok moments later when waking a large-profiled dry fly results in an exciting topwater take. I’ve yet to trot out the porcupine happy-dance, but it’s clear the Nushagak and I have stumbled upon symbiosis. I don’t know the river, but now I know where to start. It’s as much as a traveler can hope for.

Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re looking for something until you find it. Anglers know this, for despite libraries of information and countless hours lost to contemplation, the discoveries we make while on the stream are almost always accidental. Francis Bacon had it right when he suggested that all travel is either an experience or part of an education. Empiricists would argue they’re one in the same, but that would be to miss Bacon’s point, education getting more at the building of a worldly knowledge base, which once assembled, will allow a person to both acknowledge and truly appreciate the event of an experience. I agree, though it’s obvious the great essayist did not fish for trout, an endeavor that demands all of an angler’s focus and faculties, while at the same time offering glimpses of a much wider, more wondrous world. Dalliance is justly rewarded, but it’s punished, too, as evidenced most convincingly by the feel of fewer fish on the end of your line. We can never complete our education as anglers, a complication new waters tend to magnify. But we can abandon it, in search of the Baconian experience, even though it may only last a moment. If you travel to fish in wild Alaska, it’s a choice you’ll be asked to make.

It was with this in mind that I allowed myself to be persuaded into making a hike that, strangely enough, led away from water. In September on the upper Nush, there is a different language being spoken, a vernacular heavy with Boone & Crockett vocabulary, which lends much importance to bezzes, double shovels, and backscratchers. Case in point: In eight days I never saw another angler, but the air was abuzz with Super Cubs ferrying hunters to their drop-camps.

With my fly rod—and hence, my only passport to such magnificent settings—left behind in the boat, I clamber up a steep, aspen and birch-lined slope. At the top of the bluff, the ground opens into a valley that appears to be the size of Rhode Island. A covey of ptarmigan takes flight, and after watching them disappear into a stand of thick willows, I step off behind Mike Addiego towards the distant ridge. The tundra might look flat and easily traversable when viewed from a floatplane or the pages of a magazine, but there is nothing simple about walking across it. It’s painfully slow going, with each step a decision between hardened grass tussocks and saturated muskeg, which really means choosing between an ankle sprain or sopping wet socks. By the time we reach the more stable footing of the alpine slopes, I’ve got both.

Cresting the first ridge, I immediately see the effort to get there has been worth it. The vistas are more than impressive; they’re cathartic. I can see all the way to the Tikchiks, to the Nushagak and Shotgun hills, to the point on the horizon where a post named Alexandrovski once sat. And after the spotting scope and tripod have been assembled, I see caribou. Mike points them out for me—feeding on hillsides, crossing the valleys, silhouetted against the skyline. Just a few weeks prior, these Holarctic deer—part of the Mulchatna herd—were still gathered in their post-calving aggregations, far away in the high mountain country or along the seacoast, where cooler temperatures gave them at least a little protection from the bugs. Now, they were shedding their velvet, the rut was approaching, and they’d broken into smaller groups, headed once more for the winter ranges. As I watched, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how effortlessly they crossed the difficult terrain. Of course, they’re made for it, with large, concave hoofs that act almost like snowshoes, spreading widely to support them in both snow and on the soft, moist tundra. The feet also function as paddles when they need to swim; the hollow hairs of their coat help to keep them afloat, and they can cross fast-flowing rivers and large lakes with ease. Watching them, my sense of displacement was profound, and yet, I felt closer to the land for it. This was an experience.

Later that evening, after returning to camp and reacquainting myself with my waders, I went looking for a last rainbow. There is a long gravel bar not far from the cabin and I figure it’s worth a try. As I get set up, I hear the report of a single rifle shot far in the distance. No more follow, which usually means the first was good enough to kill. I step into this river that means so much to so many, and has for so long, and I begin to cast, methodically working all the water that can be reached with a fly.

Darkness comes with haste, but before the curtain of night can completely fall, I’m into a good fish. No one else is around, and I land the rainbow quickly, briefly hold him in the current, feeling his bulk, and then loosen my grip, watching him swim away with a flick of the caudal fin. To me, it’s an utterly natural act, the release. To others, in particular those who have lived here throughout the ages, it is not and I understand. And yet, while walking back to the cabin, I’m nearly overcome with contentment; the amber glow in the window and a trail of smoke from the chimney only improve my mood, only take me further from a place that all too often measures a life in dollar bills. For even in the release, I’ve taken something from the upper Nushagak.

Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine.