Adventures on the Nushagak
“I love the smell of king salmon slime in the morning,” I proclaim to nobody in particular as we begin to fish. It was day two this past June on the Nushagak River and I was ready to agree with Pete von Jess that indeed, what they have here is a little slice of Heaven. An island roughly 35 miles up the 280-mile Nushagak River on its east channel serves as the foundation of the newly-rebuilt Nushagak River Adventures (website).
If you do not know, I absolutely love king salmon—both fishing for them and eating them—and since the Nushagak River saw a healthy return of 97,239 Chinook salmon in 2018 according to ADF&G, it makes it hard to think of a better place to fish for kings. We planned to fish during the week of summer solstice and I was assured the timing was right.
My companion on this adventure was Bailey Anderson who has been Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska’s Art Director for more than five years. It is a joy to work with Bailey and it was delightful to witness her first time fishing at a fly-out lodge in Alaska, which was also her first time fishing for kings.
Bailey and I took an early morning flight to King Salmon airport on PenAir and were greeted by Forrest from Branch River Air who had come to collect us and our luggage. Back at the Branch River Air office on the Naknek River, we were ready for our flight out to the Nushagak in the early afternoon.
The flight was safe and enjoyable, as I’ve experienced each and every time I’ve flown with Branch River Air’s pilots, who fly all over the Bristol Bay region. Owner Van Hartley was wearing a big smile when we saw him, and I was pleased to meet his wife Donna at their office.
Arriving at the lodge on the Nushagak, I was impressed by what’s been accomplished in such a short period of time. I’ve boated by the lodge previously and seen photos in our magazine’s ads for years. It was now an entirely different facility since the new owner, with extreme help from friends and family, has rebuilt it from the ground up. They’ve really done a nice job.
After a quick orientation to learn the schedule and other assorted about-camp findings, we were invited to gear up and go fish. Bailey and I joined our guide and we enjoyed pleasant banter and learned about a king-fishing rigging some of the guides used at the lodge. It was a setup I had not seen before, and since I always enjoy something new, I was keyed up.
The technique was downstream trolling using a homemade spinner made with a Toman blade. The interesting part was the homemade spreader bar built out of spinner wire. A piece of hollow, ¼-inch pencil lead is squeezed onto the wire with pliers. The benefit is the wire keeps the weight off the bottom and it almost never hangs up.
We were headed to Blood Alley. “We’re fishing . . . for salmon . . . in Alaska,” our guide chimed in when starting our first troll. It was the first of dozens of times we’d hear and say this during the week. Within the beginning 15 minutes of fishing, Bailey was startled by her first king takedown. With steely-eyed determination that descends from her Glover ancestry plus her practiced listening skills, Bailey expertly landed her first king salmon—ever. It was a small jack we released but it left a lasting memory on her. Bailey’s face told it all—It was a combination of exhilaration and “what the expletive was that?”
Soon after, I ninja-jump hook set my first king. It’s what I do. Our guide watched me. He looked worried. I was by his side next to the outboard in less than two seconds. I calmly brought this fish to his outreached net. Piece of cake. I’ve done this before.
We caught and released several kings that afternoon and we each bonked one for the fish box. Bailey had the hot rod for the afternoon.
Back in camp our guide filleted our keepers. “How would you like these?” he asked. “If you really want to know, I would love single servings,” I said jokingly. “That’s how I’ll do it, then.” I assured him he did not have to, but he said that’s how he fillets salmon for himself, too. This is truly such a treat and it allows me to really meter the amount of king I need at each meal for my family without waste.
It’s only November as I write this and we are at least 2/3 of the way through the 35 pounds of king I brought home. It’s my favorite!
Back in camp the first evening, we stripped our rain gear and headed for the dining hall to try the first of three courses Chef Chris Lee had in store. The kitchen staff were markedly considerate to Bailey and I with our dietary restrictions and I was grateful for all the delicious seafood prepared for me this week. That first night Chef Chris made an outstanding smoked-salmon mousse as a starter. We snacked on it and began to get to know the cast of characters.
During the week Chef Chris prepared a seared halibut, sesame-crusted tuna, kale pesto with shrimp and fresh Nushagak River king salmon. All the seafood was cooked perfectly.
Meals are served buffet style—the dining is casual, but the food is masterful. Chef Chris Lee and his sous-chef Korey Siltman are on point. I can’t tell you what dessert was because I forced myself to look away. You can gain five pounds while you are here, but you don’t have to.
Most of the time when I visit lodges for the magazine, it’s a treasure meeting the other guests. Once in a while you meet that guy or that girl who needs to catch the biggest fish in the entire camp. Not Tom von Jess, the owner’s brother. He has a great attitude about fishing and was easy to get along with. We were pleased to fish with Tom for a couple of days later in the week. Bailey and I also both became big fans of Dr. Dan and his brother, Michael.
Pete joined us for our second day of fishing on the Nushagak. Bailey got the first strike again and she already had the hang of it. It’s still an experience for the most-seasoned anglers. She released hers and right after, Pete hooked and landed a chrome king. You could see he has done this a bunch.
Next, I got in the game, reenacting my ninja-jump hook set, again at the aft of the boat silently before anyone knew what was happening—I had to keep the fish out of the prop. Pete watched me; he looked worried. You could see he wanted to say something and tried to show restraint. Our guide, who has now seen me successfully execute this move multiple times, gestures to him it’s okay. After Pete witnessed the move himself several more times, he became okay with it, too.
Later during a drift, Pete explained more about the efforts they’ve made at Nushagak River Adventures lodge. “I am honored to work alongside my brother-in-law, Stephen, who is a trusted general contractor. Stephen is a first-rate person who doesn’t cut corners, so I knew he would help us live up to our lodge standard.”
He shared some of the details people don’t think about too much, from getting the bill of lading correct for the building materials to shipping it all by barge and then unloading it in camp. It’s a massive undertaking. It took their crew of 13 eight hours to unload the shipping containers. In 2017 they erected seven new cabins and added two more and did finish work on four of them the summer of 2018. All of this took place a month before guests arrived for the season and then in season while guests were out on the river. They were thankful for that midnight sun.
I later learned that just before closing camp for the season they tore down and rebuilt an eight-person guide and staff dormitory. The final plan for 2019 is to create a new bathhouse, move the kitchen and tear down the remaining older buildings.
Everything, including the boat we were fishing from was purchased new within the last two years when Pete took over Nushagak River Adventures. He added a fleet of six new, 20-foot Alumaweld boats with 90 HP Mercury motors. The boats fish up to four guests, are safe, quick and have cozy seats you won’t mind sitting in all day.
They also upgraded all the fishing equipment including new Daiwa Lexa line counter reels that are buttery, lined with P-Line fluorocarbon on Lamiglas Redline rods. Back at the lodge the mattresses and bedding are all new as well. You get the idea.
Later that morning, Bailey landed a bigger king in the low thirties. Nush kings average about 20 pounds, a great fighting fish, but these bad boys can top 40, and even a rare 50-pounder can be plucked out of this river. It was exhilarating for Bailey and for us as her boat mates to watch this nice fish go into the net.
Back at the lodge for lunch, news had already spread of Bailey’s 30-pounder. A tasty smoked salmon chowder was a welcomed hot lunch on this wet day that had turned cold. After lunch Bailey stayed back to get warm while I donned extra layers and went back out with Pete.
After several hours of catch-and-releasing kings, we made our way back to the lodge. For once I didn’t balk about quitting fishing for the day because I heard a rumor about hand-rolled sushi with fresh-caught jack king sashimi made by Chef Chris and Korey.
Jack Chinook salmon are male Chinook that return to the fresh water after only a year or two at sea. They are commonly less than 24-inches long, but contrary to the myth that they are sexually immature—they just return to the river at an earlier age and are fully capable of spawning.
Chef Chris served the sushi with a sauce using wasabi that I wanted to wash my hair in. There may or may not have been a lot of happy sounds coming out of me as I gobbled a few pieces of sushi and I may or may not have been stomping my foot.
A gentleman from Louisiana may or may not have quipped, “That looks like it blew your stockings both down and then back up.” True statement.
The next morning brought the dawn of solstice but the wet weather continued making coffee imperative to start this estival day. We went fishing with our guide and Tom von Jess after breakfast and learned more about Tom and his family and shared a lot of laughs. After lunch we were joined by Pete’s army buddy, Bruce. The sun decided to come out and it turned into a gorgeous day on the Nush. I had the hot rod that afternoon as sometimes happens while king fishing.
“I love the smell of anise in the afternoon,” I proclaim to nobody in particular. It was after lunch on day four. My stomach was content from a delicious lunch prepared by Chef Chris. I had hot tea brewing in my new Steepware tea infuser/bottle.
I had caught more kings in 3½ days of fishing than anyone actually needs, but enjoyed every last one of them and felt gratified. You can currently keep four kings from the Nushagak annually and we did, knowing we’d consume them responsibly.
At this point Bailey got another strike. To her it seemed like all the others but when she got it near the boat, we all gawked in silence at a much larger fish than we’d seen that week. It ripped away, taking line. Bailey got it back to the boat where we tried to net it and it took off again. Everyone on board was encouraging Bailey to land that fish, using both positive and negative reinforcement. Then Pete said, “I hope it doesn’t spit the hook.” 20 seconds later the hook was out.
As far as timing, it turned out there was a nice push of kings into the Nushagak the week of solstice, so it ended up being a good bet.
The Nushagak River peaks for king salmon from about the third week in June through the second week in July each year, although they start to enter the system in May and continue through late July. The Nushagak provides prime spawning ground for king salmon, which prefer deeper and larger water to spawn than other salmon species.
One of only three privately-owned lodges on the river, it is also one of the few lodges or camps on the river that fishes for silver salmon. There’s a lull in the action for a couple weeks after kings peak, but then it’s game-on for acrobatic coho salmon.
While you could also target sockeye, rainbow and grayling on the Nush, it’s rarely done because most anglers focus on the amazing king and silver runs. The sockeye numbers are incredible, but the Nush is a big river and it’s hard to target them with traditional methods. There are some beaches where it is doable, and I would not be surprised if the guides at Nushagak River Adventures have tried it.
The guides at Nushagak River Adventures, Albert, Ron, Bill, Kris, Ted, Brent, and Tom are a group of experienced fishermen, USCG credentialed, and certified first responders. None of them have less than 15 years of experience and most of them have far more.
You already know how I feel about Chef Chris and Korey with their sushi and their sesame-crusted tuna.
If you are looking for a comfortable lodge on the Nushagak River with top guides, great boats and equipment, as well as excellent cuisine, then Nushagak River Adventures is a prime choice.
Fish The Nush originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Fish Alaska magazine.