Story by Melissa Norris
Photos by Brian Woobank
Sockeye fishing may not be what the Nushagak is best known for, but the runs have been so off the charts these last couple seasons that the in-river fishery is booming and effective. It has become noteworthy. It also has an impact on the king fishery, which I’ll later get in to.
We chose dates based on availability at Nushagak River Adventures Lodge. They stay pretty well booked with repeat guests, and readily fill the open slots with new ones. We knew we would be toying with the tail end of the king run but simultaneously sockeye should still be around.
The Adventure Begins
After landing at the King Salmon airport on July 7 this summer, we were picked up by Branch River Air Service. Our destination was Nushagak River Adventures Lodge, one of our great clients and a place we like to visit regularly. For the most part the protocol is for guests to fly into Dillingham on Alaska Airlines, overnight there, then fly out to the lodge first thing the next morning to commence fishing shortly after arrival. We made varied arrangements so my team could fly up and hopefully make it to the lodge same day. That plan came together when Branch River Air’s owner Van Hartley bobbed and weaved and arranged for us to get dropped off in between all the many flights they had coming and going. Van is another longtime client we are very grateful for.
I was with my homies: My brother and business partner Marcus and our brother from another mother and head photographer Brian Woobank. No matter what went down, I knew there would be lots of laughs, an abundance of fishing enthusiasm, and the cameras would be rolling.
The floatplane ride was lovely, and the landing was buttery smooth. Upon arrival we were met by Drew, who is growing in the ranks in lodge operations. After being shown to our four-person cabin and presented with a safety briefing and orientation, we were happy to turn our attention to camera gear prep and getting dialed in for the next day.
Evenings in camp are pleasant with guests coming off the water from the day. Guides scurry about pulling chrome out of fish boxes, staging photos for guests in front of the handcrafted aluminum lodge sign, and getting salmon to the fillet table to start preparation for their freezer-bound destiny. The air is buzzing with salmon-battle narratives from the day as guests mill around. Some reach for their afternoon toddy while others are more interested in the really nice shower and bathhouse to wash off salmon essence.
But it’s what happens behind the scenes this time of the day that piques my interest at this lodge. At the heart of the operation is Nushagak River Adventures Lodge’s Chef, Chris Lee, who runs a fantastic hospitality staff and serves some seriously topflight yum yums. Chef Chris is my boy. He is not only a sweet, hilarious soul, but he is one overachiever of a chef. That suits me perfectly! I always enjoy what he and his kitchen team carefully prepare as do the rest of the guests. The meal is comprised of three photo-worthy courses starting with an appetizer, followed by an outstanding main course, and chased by whatever blue-ribbon dessert that the all-star Chef Jenn concocts.
Bellies full and happy, it’s a relaxing evening for most everyone. We end up riverside taking photos while Marcus flips a line in front of the lodge. Soon we hit the rack knowing we want to get after it the next day. The atmosphere at this lodge is relaxed and low key. Their guests tend to be more reserved, not the hard-partying type. You can feel good about a multi-generational family trip knowing it’s relatively mellow and safe. It’s usually pretty quiet by 10 p.m.
Friday morning arrived at last, our first day to fish! After breakfast we donned our rain gear and practically skipped to the boat. The majority of Fish Alaska’s first string was present and more than ready to fish. We were on a world-renowned king river, so we discussed trolling for kings first. None of us could say no to that. We knew it could go either way since there had not been a significant push of kings in the river for a couple days. The run has also seen some tough declines in recent years. Although we had significant snowfall last winter, we also had an early and warm spring and and what seems like an early appearance of kings in the river.
King fishing was tough that first day but got marginally better over the three days of fishing. As mentioned, this wasn’t unexpected. We knew the run had showed early, has been smaller than historically, and we were at the tail end. Still, we managed to put a couple in the box and still had the time to focus some effort on sockeye.
Day two of fishing was memorable. The winds were stronger than we often see on the Nush’. Thankfully our guide acted astutely. He used a wind sock to help keep our boat in position. That saving grace allowed each of us to tag a king for the day. Over twenty-plus-years of fishing all over the state I have learned that Alaska rarely disappoints. It’s not always the fishing that makes the beauty of the moment shine.
Around 9 a.m. that morning, Marcus and I determined we had enough coffee in our systems to record some clips for our YouTube channel trailer. We have been spending our video efforts improving and expanding our content on this platform and if you haven’t subscribed or checked it out, it’s worth doing so. Seated beside him, my brother was animatedly listing all the attributes of our video content and playlists as we recorded. I watched our camera man’s eyes go big. He doesn’t want to talk over our audio but you could see he was getting excited. That is the moment when we realized a float plane had taxied near the boat and took off right behind us—and it was all captured on video while we were talking. It was so perfectly Alaska. We cannot plan such moments, and always remember to be thankful for them!
With some good footage under our belts, we were on solid ground and ready to fish! Day three we spent with Nushagak River Adventures Lodge senior guide Joe Terleski. Joe is a retired fire fighter and a heck of a nice guy. He really wanted us to focus more on sockeye fishing with him so that’s what we did.
Timing is everything and so is technique. Marcus has always been one of the best sockeye fishermen I know so I wasn’t surprised when he hooked into them. We also got to record some footage with Joe, who shared his gear setup and technique for fishing sockeye on the Nush’. And while we seemed to have timed it to the tail end of the sockeye run, too, the ones we hooked and landed were in great shape—chrome bright, healthy, and sizable.
Bristol Bay wide, we saw the highest recorded inshore sockeye salmon run ever in 2022 with 79 million fish. The 20-year average is 43.6 million from 2002-2021 so that’s a whopping 81% above average. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) is predicting a strong run for 2023, estimated at about 51 million sockeye throughout Bristol Bay. It’s not quite the behemoth numbers from these last two seasons that have set and broken records, but it’s still above average. As it turns out, the big runs have been both a blessing and a curse. It certainly looks like a blessing to the naked eye. How could a huge abundance of sockeye salmon have adverse effects? Well, that story has multiple prongs.
A Bristol Bay commercial fisherwoman I know recently told me that their concern for those high numbers of fish coming in and their ability to harvest as much as they can degrades the quality of the product. Think about it. It’s abundantly clear to us that fish care in processing goes a long way towards quality. Moving at the speed necessary to fill capacity to the brim is going to degrade quality. Abundance drives price down and I can’t imagine that the number of fish that makes it to market is 100% consumed. The amount of potential waste is incomprehensible to me.
Conserving Alaska’s Fisheries
Over the years ADF&G has been openly managing the Nushagak for the commercial sockeye fishery. They haven’t managed it for kings at all and kings are in decline. Thankfully, just a little over a week before this magazine was off to press, ADF&G designated Nushagak Chinook to be a “stock of management concern.” What this ultimately means remains to be seen, but I am pleased for this move in the right direction as several possible actions are being discussed during the Board of Fish meetings.
The king run has been declining for several reasons. By my estimate, one of the two most obvious heavy hitters is the trawl fleet. Their methods used are intrusive and seem to be poorly regulated. If the outcome is closed crab fisheries and a reported 100,000 kings in bycatch, there is some major reform needed. Another Nushagak king culprit is the management of the commercial netting fleet. For the record, I am in full support of commercial fishing, especially for those small Alaskan family-owned businesses. It’s a challenging, respectable living and it’s necessary. A little reform, however, could create vastly improved opportunities for kings to get into the river, a resource that should be protected.
I am definitely not trying to point blame without looking internally. For myself, I struggle because my main source of protein is wild Alaska fish with king salmon and halibut being my favorites. I know I ought to lead by example and simply quit harvesting kings until the runs are back in shape. So, I definitely always try to just take what fish I need for myself and my immediate family. This is something that I am going to sit with until after the New Year and make my decision. There is plenty we need to do and think about as sport anglers to protect kings as well.
Don’t get me wrong, the Nushagak is still one of Alaska’s best wild king rivers. Combine that with an abundance of sockeye for us sport anglers to harvest, and the Nushagak remains one my favorite salmon fisheries. But we have to protect its future if we want the king runs to stay healthy. I sure want my daughter to be able to fish here with me one day. We wish there was an obvious answer to this David-versus-Goliath problem. I am all ears if you want to present reasonable ideas to me. My team has a lot of contacts in the industry and friends who share our view. Email me at email@example.com if you want to become part of the solution.
Fishing with Meaning
Alaska is 100% a world-class fishing destination and the Nushagak River is one of the best salmon-fishing destinations in all of Bristol Bay. It was another great trip to Nushagak River Adventures Lodge. I am thankful that I can see the big picture of what fishing means to me. It’s not at all about quantity and size of fish. Like any other salmon lover, I do value the harvest and am thankful for taking fish home. But for me, the trip and the time spent outdoors is much more meaningful with my loved ones, being among good folks like their lodge staff, and for the experience Alaska gives in all her glory as she fills my adventurous spirit with goodness.
As this issue of Fish Alaska goes to press, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has presented to the Board of Fish the Nushagak River King Salmon Stock Status and Action Plan. They are considering options for regulation reform of the commercial, sport, and potentially subsistence user groups. I am thrilled Nushagak king protection is on the table for discussion. It will be interesting to see what transpires.
Melissa Norris is Publisher and Co-Founder of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. Alaska is her home year-round. She makes her living in the sportfishing industry and cares deeply about fisheries preservation.
Check out past Fish Alaska Magazine articles for more reading about salmon, Bristol Bay, and more.