Nushagak Challenge

Story & Photos by
Marcus Weiner

“How about a fishing contest?” Audrey suggests in a confident, yet surprisingly innocent tone.

Larry, ever the gladiator, has a quip ready to return, though he knows Audrey is quite the accomplished angler and a tough competitor. I’m thinking the same thing about Melissa and can’t help but wonder where this is going.

“Well, what are we playing for?” Larry asks.

“The losing team will serve the other team dinner this evening,” Audrey retorts with a gleeful smile. She and Melissa have had the hot rods for the better part of two days and odds are that Larry and I will be filling their wine glasses and bussing their plates this evening. Chef Al Levinsohn, owner of the Kincaid Grill in Anchorage, is with us on this trip to Bristol Bay Adventures (BBA) on the lower Nushagak and has been churning out a large number of delectable morsels including roast pork, gumbo, duck, wine-infused pears and candied pecans, so there is no doubt that serving the winning team will be a full-time job.

We agree that there will be three categories in this contest: first fish, largest fish and the most fish landed during a four-hour period. It was about the last time we agreed on anything.

The attitude on the boat had been great all day – anglers helping one another to land fish, untangle lines and remain baited and in the water. As soon as the contest began, the atmosphere became charged and all conversation ceased, the four of us concentrating to land that first fish.

We are sidedrifting – the boat is turned perpendicular to the flow of the river with anglers presenting eggs to waiting king salmon. Each mainline is attached to a three-way swivel, with one eye leading to a short dropper attached to a 2-ounce weight and the other to a stiff 2-foot leader culminating in a Spin N’ Glow, tandem hooks tied with an egg loop and a cluster of cured eggs. The eggs tumble near the bottom with the speed of the current.

Melissa is the first to get a bite, but she doesn’t convert the strike. Audrey’s next, but loses the fish before the hook is well set. Larry, still the clutch player, gets bit in one instant and sets the hook in the next. The 15-pound king is played cautiously and comes to hand in another moment: the first fish.

Mike Addiego, owner of BBA and seasoned guide, decides that we’ll have some shots at some bigger fish if we move upriver to a spot where the flow makes a slow right-hand turn. At the point where the river bends, a slough extends away from the river and helps to provide holding water in the deep trough. Fishing the outside bank and down into the slot has provided many a hot day of Chinook angling for Mike and his clients.

We position ourselves at the top of the run and switch to back-trolling Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish. We start at the top of the run and Mike slowly eases the boat downriver. The art form in this type of fishing rests with the boat operator. A good driver will keep the boat moving at a speed just less than the river current, allowing for the maximum chance that a salmon will grab the plug wobbling in front of its face. The operator will also work the boat from one side of the slot to the other, insuring full coverage of the holding water.

The essential piece of advice for the angler is to wait until the king has grabbed the plug and turned its head before setting the hook. Anglers lose fish when they pull back too quickly after a strike and don’t allow the king to inhale the plug.

To top off our rigs, each Luhr-Jensen K-15 Kwikfish is wrapped with a sardine fillet. I notice throughout the day that my action diminishes immediately when fishing with a plug that is not wrapped. We let out about 50 feet of line and let the plugs dive. Two rods are positioned on each side of the motor, with one line running directly behind the boat and the other out wide. Action begins right away and for the next hour, someone is hooked up at all times. One for the guys, two for the women, two more for the guys – and the action remained steady. We work well as teams, helping one another to net and release fish. Most are kings, with one in five a chum salmon. Mike backs the plugs down into the slot and can predict with precision when someone will be tagged.

When catching and releasing large fish, it makes the release far easier when you can use a hook remover to dislodge hooks. I like ones that are long enough to give you plenty of separation between your hand and the fish’s mouth. This holds even truer when working with treble hooks. Specifically, I like the Rapala 9-inch Classic Hook Remover, though there are plenty of choices on the market to meet your needs.

Another important aspect of landing fish lies with the person doing the netting. Too many fish are lost boatside by an impatient or inexperienced netter. One important aspect of netting a fish is to wait until the fish is ready, meaning it is near the boat, at the surface, and has rolled onto its side. It is tired enough at this point that a clean swipe of the net picks up most of these fish. All too often, a novice netman will stab at a green fish and cause it to come unbuckled.

Secondly, make sure that the mesh basket is not dragging in the water as you try to net thefish. This causes greater drag and makes it hard to properly steer the net. This can be witnessed to its fullest extent with the new rubber mesh nets. This material is easier on the fish, but the thick netting becomes almost immovable when submerged. I like to keep one hand on the netting until I’ve broken the surface with the net frame.

Back to the action: I’m daydreaming about catching a big king when Melissa’s rod tip is pulled down hard. In reaction she jumps up and slams the hook home. From the outset, it is obvious that this is a bigger fish.

It makes a few screaming runs from the high bank to the middle of the river and sounds enough times to show its broad shoulders. There is little doubt that this is the biggest fish we will see today. At one point it ran downriver with enough steam that it threatened to spool the reel. Melissa applied enough pressure to turn the fish and Mike expertly moved the boat downriver to avoid losing the beast. After 15 heart-pumping minutes, Melissa had tired the Chinook enough that it could be netted by Audrey. The chrome buck tips the scales at 40 pounds.

We’ve got a few more hours left and now it’s simply a matter of which team can land the most fish. Larry and I get hot and we start to build on a lead that will become insurmountable. At the end of the contest, Larry and I have landed the most fish and won the title.

It’s been a great half-day of fishing with more twenty kings brought to hand. Most anglers would be all smiles to land this many Chinook in several days. For us at Fish Alaska magazine, the North to Alaska show, and Bristol Bay Adventures, it’s the reward of the challenge.

Bristol Bay Adventures Nushagak Alaska fishing lodge

Mike and Angela Addiego are the gracious hosts of Bristol Bay Adventures and are our good friends. The atmosphere at the lodge is laid back and caters to the type of experience that one wants. We fished most days after dinner and usually skipped the early morning session following an evening of festivities. Mike, Angela and guides Bob and Alan simply want their guests to enjoy themselves fully.

BBA is equipped with two cabins with full bathrooms, each split in half and able to sleep up to four per side. Large, raised Weatherport tents serve as sleeping quarters in the rest of camp, and with 8 of these tents, the camp is able to host up to 32.

New to BBA in 2006 is a dining hall and kitchen that dramatically improve upon Angela’s previous kitchen facilities and provide not only an enhanced eating area, but also a place for tired anglers to relax.

Fishing is done from comfortable Koffler boats. Mike’s new sled is spacious, fast and stable. It makes for a great platform to fight a big king and has enough room to scramble around other anglers in the midst of battle. Melissa appreciated these amenities as she fought the big fish of the trip. She needed all that room to run around and keep a tight line attached to the fish.

Mike, Alan, and Bob are good guys with great attitudes. Fishing is always fun here. In our first day of fishing, Melissa and Wayne are the lucky anglers and out-fish the rest of us quite easily. We are not experiencing much luck drifting eggs, so we switch to back-trolling plugs and are immediately rewarded with the first keeper fish. It’s here that I first see the improved catch rate with plugs wrapped in a sardine fillet. I’d venture to guess that other oily fish like herring would also work for a fillet wrap.

On the second day, Al and I fish with Mike in the afternoon drifting eggs in the run in front of camp. We begin to get the hang of side drifting and feeling the subtle take as a king mouths the eggs. We are not catching big fish, but the numbers have gone way up and the action is steady.

Before joining Audrey and Larry on Mike’s boat, we fish the morning of day three on Alan’s boat. We try something new this morning and change out the tackle to drift eggs for spinners. Trolling large custom spinners, with silver blades and orange and green beads, immediately yields chrome 20-pound hens for Al and Wayne.

In addition to proving guided fishing for king salmon, Bristol Bay Adventures offers opportunities to catch sockeye and coho salmon as well as rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char. In the fall, Mike operates a hunting camp upriver. Bristol Bay Adventures can be contacted at 650-637-0260, through email at or on the web at