Surviving the Nush

Surviving the Nush

The pleasures and perils of roughing it in western Alaska

  • By: Greg Thomas
Each year as Alaska's sport-fishing season draws to a close, outfitters and guides tend to be a tad strung out; any little thing can set them off. They can smell the end of the season and, for many, that distinctive odor is a tremor-inducing amalgam of sex, beer and bonefish. You really can't blame them. They've already had their share of 16-hour days and annoying clients. They've chopped plenty of wood, patched dozens of waders and dressed too many perfect salmon destined for eternal damnation at the bottom of a freezer.

They've also battled the depressing summer weather in Alaska--the rain, the sleet, the wind and that incessant overcast sky. And the only thing standing in the way of the guides' migration south is…us--the last group at camp. It was September and my father, Fred, my friend, Troy Leatherman, and I were on a trip to fish the upper Nushagak River in western Alaska. No surprise then, that we were treated to a full dose of the end-of-season attitude.

Take for instance our pilot from Dillingham to our cabin on the banks of the Nushagak River. He arrived in a DeHallivand Beaver, ushered out a few departting fishermen and inspected our gear. "Well, this is a pile of shit," he declared. I wanted to say, Nice to meet you, too, but I kept my mouth shut. One word and we'd have been out of a plane ride and that pilot would have been a few hours closer to Mexico. An hour and a half later we stood in a rustic cabin set a few yards above the banks of the upper Nushagak. We listened to the plane retreat, chose bunks and watched our breath. "It's cold in here," I huffed. My father whispered, "I wouldn't use the pillows."

Our outfitter, who was scratching a wiry, unkempt beard and wearing a musty T-shirt that could have stood in the corner on its own, grumbled, "The last guys burned so much wood it just boiled in here. I had to cut more for you guys. The last wood run of the season." As in, Don't burn a single extra piece of wood or I'll take that double-bitted axe and cut off your ugly head. A few minutes later we settled around a plywood table and received some surprising news.

The water was low on the upper Nushagak, we were told, and access to the prime rainbow trout locales, especially in the tributary streams, would be restricted by the limitations of a skiff--the only boat in camp that could negotiate the shallow tributary water. In addition, the outfitter admitted, he didn't have the guide he'd promised. The guide left a week early with a broken foot, he explained. And for some unexplained reason he took the cabin's auxiliary skiff--the skiff to be used in case the other broke or sank. But perhaps most significantly, the promised cook also was listed as AWOL.

When my father asked if there was a towel and a place to wash his face, the outfitter pointed to a pail of dirty water and grabbed a musty towel off a nail. Nice. I've been on enough trips in remote locations to understand that we were not only at the mercy of a tired outfitter but we were also set up for one of two situations: We would either stick the fish and forget about any inconvenience, or we would spend nine days in a cold cabin with few fish and an overload of regret. But despite the risk of running into the end-of-season-attitude and a depleted camp, there are good reasons to visit the upper Nushagak in the third week of September.

In order to put on weight to survive another brutal winter, the river's rainbow trout and grayling feed heavily on the eggs and decaying bodies of silver and sockeye salmon at this time. And that's precisely what we hoped to find--rainbows and grayling feeding indiscriminately and often. The Nushagak, a 275-mile-long behemoth of a waterway rated as the ninth-largest river in the United States and located on the north side of Bristol Bay, isn't known for producing monster rainbows. Other streams in the Bristol Bay region, such as the Naknek, Brooks, American, Moraine and Kvichak, commonly kick out 25- to 30-inch steelhead-size rainbows. On the upper Nushagak, which twists through open tundra and beneath timbered hills before spilling into Bristol Bay, anglers should be pleased with rainbows measuring better than 20 inches. There are stories of 28-inch fish being landed on the upper Nushagak, but it's the odd specimen that reaches 20 inches or more.However, what the upper Nushagak's rainbow trout lack in size they make up for in numbers. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the river offers a healthy rainbow trout population and some of the best trout-specific fishing in western Alaska. Big trout or not, the upper Nushagak is a great place to visit. Unlike many of southwest Alaska's rainbow trout fisheries, which offer combat casting and skeptical fish that thumb their noses at every painted bead, flesh fly and Bugger in the book, the Nushagak is mostly overlooked. Anglers who fish the Nushagak find eager trout lacking hook scars, and they enjoy a healthy dose of solitude while casting flies to those virgin fish. And that's what we found--a river completely to ourselves and full of good fish that ate all sorts of flies, including bead eggs, yarn eggs, Egg-Sucking Leeches and an assortment of flesh flies. Our routine while fishing the Nushagak was relaxed. Each day we rose from bed when we felt like it. Then we enjoyed coffee and the kind of breakfast your doctor warned you about (fried eggs, fried potatoes, a mountain of bacon, black coffee, and maybe even a pull off the Black Velvet) before loading gear into the skiff. By 10 each morning we were on the water picking our spots. The trout, of course, were found near salmon, so locating silvers and sockeye became a daily routine. We'd race up- or downriver and slowly cruise by the runs and holes to investigate. "Were there salmon in there?" the outfitter would ask. "Yeah, but only a few," I would answer. "Let's look for a better pod," he'd say, and off we'd go. Once an impressive pod of salmon was located we'd knot the skiff to the bank and tie on our preferred patterns. We'd spread out and run those offerings through the bulk of the salmon, dead-drifting or swinging them across the current. Typically, strikes arrived just as the fly began to rise at the end of a drift. In other words, they were taught-line, crushing hits followed by explosive runs during which the trout raced across the river and right through the salmon at full speed. If you were into a good fish, you always wondered, as you tried to recapture some of the line that had just ripped off your reel, whether a 6-weight rod might not have been a better choice than the medium-action 5-weight that was ready to snap in half. What struck me as most impressive about the Nushagak's rainbow trout was their stamina. They just wouldn't quit. That's a trait consistent with the rainbow trout I've found on other large coastal rivers in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. And I wonder, is it a trait derived from fighting such heavy current all their lives? Is it a result of the fish just turning their broad sides to the current? Or could it be that fish that make their living battling salmon for their spawn are just a little more bad-ass and temperamental than those dainty dry-fly sippers you find on inland waters? When examining a Nushagak rainbow, we often found fins missing, split dorsals, or scales and pieces of flesh ripped from their bodies. I can only conclude that those wounds were sustained when the rainbow darted behind an angry and hormone-pounding coho and tried to steal an egg or two. But perhaps such injuries also result when an overconfident rainbow rips into a coho, expecting a piece of flesh from a carcass, only to find itself clamped to a capable, fully alive and very pissed-off fish. In any case, the Nushagak's rainbow trout are healthy--meaning their bodies are deep and proportional and each fish seems worth the effort it takes to land and promptly release. In coloration the Nushagak rainbows were nothing extraordinary. Would I call them the classic leopard rainbows that Alaska is known for? Probably not. However, following the trip, after I'd started in on a six-pack of Corona one night, I decided that, with the aid of a photograph, I would count all the spots, from tip to tail, on a Nushagak rainbow. I was done with the first brew and three swigs into the second--and ignoring a call from the kitchen to help with the dishes--before I came up with a decent estimate: 500 distinct black spots on one side. On the Nushagak nothing is written in stone. The salmon move daily; the trout follow the salmon. Only a few holes hold fish consistently. Anglers who drift the Nushagak may float eight miles one day, casting over mostly dead water before finding those salmon and the accompanying rainbows. The following day, while hammering the rainbows, the raft might not move a single mile. There are nuances to be learned on the Nushagak, questions to be answered and inconveniences and hardships to be overcome. But in my opinion, only when such elements are in play does a fishing trip offer its full potential. That's another thing that sets apart the Nushagak experience from what you might find on some of Alaska's best-known and most heavily fished trout streams. When fishing out of the big lodges on pressured streams, sometimes I feel more like a lemming than a lion, and I wonder exactly what kind of revelation there is to be garnered when someone tells you where to stand, what to throw, and where to cast--and the guides hail fish by pet names. Some days we caught lots of rainbows and lost many more. Other days we struggled for a few good fish. During the trip there was one fish, in particular, that holds my memory and exemplifies the qualities of a Nushagak rainbow. On that day we were fishing a three-mile-long side channel, a place, it should be noted, that most outfitters wouldn't dare fish in low water. Nevertheless our outfitter ran the skiff and its jet drive over gravel bars and exposed logs to put us on fish. And that he did. My father found a pod of salmon at a deep corner pool and landed a half-dozen solid rainbows before I moved him off the glory-hole. I fished that pool in the same fashion and with the same pattern, an Egg-Sucking Leech, but I couldn't turn a fish. Before calling it quits I tied on a yellow-and-white Double-Bunny. It's a four-inch-long, gaudy, lead-eye pattern pioneered by Scott Sanchez of Jackson, Wyoming. Although this fly sticks big trout wherever they are found, it seemed audacious for the low and clear water conditions we encountered. I tied it on anyway and on the first cast, as I stripped that fly with speed, a big rainbow rose from the bottom and without an ounce of hesitation or fear, tore into that Bunny with a head-shaking intention to kill. It was all good theatre with a little comedy thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, a little suspense would soon follow. Shortly after releasing that fish the outfitter turned the boat around and unsurprisingly hit a gravel bar, fouling the jet drive. As we drifted into the main river the outfitter tried to turn the boat and run it upstream, but it wouldn't gain an inch on the Nushagak's substantial flow. The power was gone. He immediately blamed us and claimed we had brought too much gear, but we didn't buy it. In any case we were 12 miles downstream from the cabin, running out of daylight, with no radio, no shelter and no chance of anyone passing by to help us out of a potential nightmare. To facilitate upstream movement, the outfitter dropped Troy and me on the bank and pushed upstream with my father in the bow. As they turned a corner and out of sight, I wondered when I might see them next. I kicked a few rocks on the gravel bar and said, "No extra skiff in camp. No radio. No food. No water. No rifle. A freeze expected tonight. Running a boat over rocks and logs? What the hell?" Meanwhile Troy peered into the brush and pondered the grizzly tracks in the sand. "Could be a long night," he said. "I hate grizzly bears." Fortunately, the shuttle method worked and at dark we were back at the cabin, half-frozen, but alive. One of the highlights of the trip was fishing right in front of our cabin. Each morning we stepped from our digs and negotiated a set of crude wooden steps to the river. They were "native-built," as the outfitter called them--which was what he rattled about anything built differently from what you might find at Home Depot or Wal-Mart. At the river, we found scads of grayling, and they were eager to please in a comical way. I threw everything in the book at them. Grasshopper imitations, dry Muddlers, Parachute Adams, size 12 Royal Wulffs. They preferred flies skated on the surface and often they would leap over the fly and try to kill it on the way down. In some places we found grayling absolutely stacked up. One evening, while my father worked a deep hole for rainbows, Troy tried an adjacent seam and tore up the grayling. I can't remember the exact number, but it seemed like he hooked grayling on 25 successive casts. Each time I turned Troy's way I saw him with a bent rod, a grayling skating over the surface and a huge grin plastered across his face. At times we caught so many grayling we could have lost respect for those fish and deemed them too plentiful for their own good. But that wouldn't have been accurate. Grayling are products of their environment. They live in a harsh land, they grow extremely slowly (an 18-inch grayling may be 10 or even 12 years old), they battle fish much larger than themselves and, as if they needed another challenge, they have difficulty getting a respectable meal into their tiny, whitefish-style mouths. They do, however, sport a dorsal fin that's as impressive as a Pacific sailfish's and, for me, that fin is as emblematic of Alaska and its wild country as the howl of a wolf, the screech of a bald eagle or the ripple of the northern lights. With its appealing offer of bulky rainbows and solid grayling you may wonder why more people don't focus effort on the upper Nushagak. Certainly, a lack of truly huge rainbows discourages many anglers. But most important, the upper Nushagak, like many areas of Alaska, is extremely remote and difficult to get to. For instance, just to reach the river, anglers must first get to Anchorage. Then it's a two-hour commercial flight from Anchorage to the western coast and Dillingham. From Dillingham, it's at least an hour-long floatplane ride over mile upon mile of endless tundra. And then, to fish the upper Nushagak, anglers must book a trip with one of just a few outfitters who run limited operations on the river--mostly out of tent camps. Or they go it alone. To go at it alone means being dropped off in remote, dangerous country with a raft, a tent, food, fishing gear and a rifle. From the drop-off point it's a float of 50 miles or more through marvelous caribou, moose and grizzly bear infested country, casting to rainbows and grayling, negotiating the river, camping on gravel bars, all the while praying that you arrive at the designated pickup point on the same day as the pickup plane. Above all, you simply hope that the plane arrives--flights are often delayed in western Alaska due to the frequently foul weather. The truth is, Troy, my dad and I could have caught more and bigger rainbows at other locales, and we could have returned to a warm, carpeted lodge with running water and rib-eyes or grilled quail on the menu each night. But I'm not sure it's possible to find a better site for introspection than a wet tent or a cold cabin located in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated from the outside world. During our trip we realized disappointment, discomfort and, it is true, fewer fish than we'd liked to have caught. A couple of us--by which I mean Troy and my dad--handled it better than others. In the end, we had to ask ourselves, What were we really there for? Just the fish, or an experience? In any case, it was an experience we got, and it will be a long time, if ever, before I forget our hardships and the reward for those pitfalls--gorgeous, naive rainbow trout and grayling that likely came to flies for the first times in their lives.