Nushagak Kings

Nushagak Kings

  • By: E. Donnall Thomas

Three days past the summer solstice, southwestern Alaska is operating in the manic seasonal mode I never adjusted to even when I lived here year-round. Although the hands on my watch inch toward midnight there’s plenty of light left by which to fish, and I can’t tear myself away from the river.

Twenty miles downstream on the shores of Bristol Bay, friends are pulling in the year’s first big haul of red salmon in their set-nets, a labor intensive exercise from which I’ve been excused in order to pursue a different quarry in a different way. While they’re breaking their backs making hard-earned money on reds, I’m casting quietly to king salmon (chinooks) in solitude compromised only by a cow moose at the head of the gravel bar and the inevitable drone of mosquitoes.

Fly-fishing for king salmon is a lot like flying airplanes in the bush, with long periods of relaxing routine punctuated by moments of outright panic. After a busy and productive day, my quest for one last after-dinner king has acquired its own hypnotic rhythm of casts and mends as I keep my bulky imitation egg pattern drifting through the current and wait for a migrating fish to swim by and grab it. At this point in the day I don’t really need another king salmon.… But I don’t really need a good night’s sleep either, not now, not on the banks of the Nushagak River.

Of Alaska’s five Pacific salmon species, the early arriving and aptly named king is by far the most difficult to take on fly tackle. Part of the king-salmon challenge derives simply from the size of the quarry. I was living next to the Kenai River when it produced a world-record 98-pound king and was fortunate enough to get a look at that fish. Of course, Kenai kings are a unique race of fish, but even a “little” 30-pound chinook from other Alaska waters can beat up fly anglers.

Size is only part of the equation. There’s no substitute for a target-rich environment and kings are the least numerous of the five salmon species found here in Alaska. The ability to read water is a particularly important skill when placing flies in front of fish so you can predetermine the species you’ll catch.

Many Alaska kings return to glacial drainages, where strong current and limited visibility make fly-fishing difficult if not impossible. Because kings return to fresh water early in the season when streams remain under the influence of spring runoff, currents are likely to be higher and harder to fish than they might be when silvers return in August and September. The affinity of kings for the bottom of the river only compounds the difficulty of reaching them with flies.

None of this would matter if king salmon were just another fish, but they’re called kings with good reason. In addition to being the largest of the lot, I think they are the most powerful of Pacific salmon on a pound-for-pound basis, and while they may not be quite as acrobatic as silvers or sockeyes, I’ve seen lots of kings spend time airborne. Most Alaskans regard them as the best table fare of all the salmon, and there’s no reason not to appreciate that virtue in moderation. But before you invite friends and set the table you have to find the right water and fish it properly.

The Nushagak drains a huge swath of southwestern Alaska wilderness south of the mighty Kuskokwim area before emptying into Bristol Bay at Dillingham. The Nush, as it is called, becomes truly special in late June and early July when it offers what many enthusiasts consider the best flyrod king fishing in the world.

The river’s appeal as a king destination begins with the size of the run, often the largest in the state. Annual numbers fluctuate from highs of nearly 200,000 fish to a worrisome low of less than half that several years ago. Fortunately, king returns now seem to have stabilized near robust historic averages of 160,000 fish.

But it takes more than fish in the river to make a prime flyrod king destination. Although water visibility varies I’ve never found the Nush too turbid to fish productively with flies during king season. Long gravel bars offer plenty of room to cast and make the Nush great water for Spey-rod enthusiasts. While its current deserves respect, smooth gravel bottoms make for easy wading in many prime locations and the absence of obstructions makes it possible to fight big fish successfully on fly tackle from shore.

While it’s possible to fish from tideline upstream into the Mulchatna River, the Nushagak’s longest tributary, the fish are generally concentrated and at their best and brightest in the lower river from Portage Creek upstream to the Ekwok area. Anadromous fish are most vigorous fresh from the sea (which is why I don’t spend a lot of time fishing kings in upstream tributaries). Kings from this stretch of the river are almost always bright and often still carry sea lice.

The Nush is a big river there, and its main flow can be intimidating. Fortunately, it breaks into numerous smaller channels and sloughs along its course, and many of them hold migrating kings. Aided by local knowledge from a good guide, the flyrod angler should be able to find fish in accessible water away from the occasional bustle of boats and conventional tackle anglers.

On a recent return trip to the High Adventure Nushagak King Camp, a great operation run by old friends from my days on the Kenai, my wife Lori and I jumped ship and waded up one such side-channel while the rest of our party set off to fish the main river by boat. We soon reached an attractive run featuring an even slot at the end of an easily waded gravel bar. Lori quickly hooked and landed a shiny six-pound jack king—not quite what we were after, although no slouch on an 8-weight rod.

After we’d landed another half-dozen jacks (we were fishing in June, when immature males or “jacks” often appear at the leading edge of the main run), a push of chrome-bright chum salmon moved through and reminded me all over again what fun these powerful, underrated fish can be at the their best. Then the real thing arrived, and we beached a dozen fresh kings in the 25-pound class before we took a lunch break.

That’s the kind of fishing that draws me back to the Nush.

In the pursuit of anadromous fish, proper presentation trumps fly selection. Kings are more reluctant to leave the smooth layer of slower water next to the bottom than other salmon. The fly doesn’t have to drag bottom, and kings will rise to take a fly at the end of a classical swing, but I aim to have the fly within two feet of the gravel as often as possible. When kings move through four-to six-feet deep water with moderate current you can reach that zone swinging streamers, with the proper sinking tip and perhaps some split-shot ahead of the fly. Pattern selection is empiric: I use Buggers nd Bunnies in orange, fuchsia and chartreuse. Never underestimate the value of egg imitations. These flies can be dead-drifted, which allows more contact with the bottom, especially when fishhold in deeper water or where the current is strong.

Nushagak guide Jeff “Flip” Wilson modified an old standby egg pattern by adding lead wire and heavy dumbbell eyes to create his Flip’s Fat Freddy (FFF), which has become my go-to king pattern on the Nush. There’s nothing elegant about the FFF and casting it wears an arm out, but it draws strikes from moody kings when nothing else does.

The Nush is big water without a lot of structure, and no pattern or technique produces if the fly isn’t in front of fish. I’ve learned a lot about where to look for kings by flying rivers like the Nush on sunny days when fish are easy to spot from the air. One encouraging find: kings spend a lot more time in relatively shallow water than most people think. I like to start prospecting on the downstream side of gravel islands, against the bank below confluences with side channels and sloughs, and in the slot next to the first bar above the junction between a side channel and the main river.

As it happens, the bar just upstream from the High Adventure Camp is a great place to catch kings on a fly, which is why I’m standing in the water instead of curling up in my sleeping bag waiting for tomorrow. I’ve been at it for an hour or so with nothing but a bump to show for my trouble…but it was a definite bump, not one of those rock-textured maybes, and that’s enough to keep me at my station.

I admit that long hours have cost me my edge, which is why I’ve got line hissing upstream before I set the hook. No matter; the fish has nailed my FFF hard enough to do my job for me. Ten minutes later I’ve got a 20-some pound king easing toward the gravel, chrome flanks improbably lustrous even in the gathering gloom. When I ease the unbuttoned fish back into the current, I declare no mas and promise that the next one will wait until tomorrow. Then I glance at my watch and realize it is tomorrow.

Only in Alaska.

When we went to press with this issue, Don Thomas was guiding brown-bear hunters in Alaska. If he makes it out of the bush unscathed, expect more of his writings on The Last Frontier. Thomas’ latest book is How Sportsmen Saved the World.