God, I love king salmon! They’re such badass creatures, aren’t they? And there’s nowhere on the planet better than Alaska’s Nushagak River to experience these bad boys in all their glory. In June and July, the ‘Nush gets invaded by mind-boggling numbers of fish, and the kings themselves are the craziest, most aggressive, over-the-top snappy ones you’ll find anywhere.
Though I’m retired now, I spent 7 years guiding this amazing stream at a lodge called Alaska King Salmon Adventures and, every year about this time, that little itch starts…the little twinge at the back of my skull that tells me I should be thinking about heading north. While I haven’t been to the river in several years, the memories of its loco kings still haunt my dreams.
Since we fished not far above tidewater, the kings we caught in the Nushagak were fresh, hot and super grabby. At home I sometimes think every 1 out of 10 or 20 kings is a biter, but on the Nush, I’m pretty sure it’s more like 95% of them are willing to play.
How else can you explain the obscene numbers of quadruple hookups we’d have over the course of a season? Or how about the fact that I nearly had the rod yanked out of my hands many times by crazy-aggressive kings that bit 2 feet from the rod tip while I was tuning plugs next to the boat? That’s not something that happens at home!
I even had that happen a few times when the boats were pulled up on the beach! Every morning, we guides would go down to our sleds and get ready for the day. I’d always tune my plugs off the back of the boat and I had kings and some very large rainbows grab the lures right there in three feet of water. Talk about a heart stopper!
One day, while the clients were eating breakfast, I started getting the gear together for the day down in the boat. One of the guys in my party was a younger dude who’d brought his own rod — a light, willowy spinning stick with a No. 3 Blue Fox on it that he’d hoped to catch a few trout or char on. Curious as to how the thing felt, I gave it a quick test cast. Two cranks of the handle later, a big king latched onto the spinner and the fight was on. I couldn’t help but think about all being a kid on California’s Feather River, casting spinners to kings. In those days, with fish jumping all around us, we were happy with a grab per day and now here I was making a test cast and hooking a salmon without even wanting to. A different world!
One afternoon, we got into a run known as the Barge Hole and I instructed the dudes to let their Kwikfish out 50 feet. Since we were flat-lining, the plugs stayed on the surface as they drifted back, while the clients watched their line counters. One guy says “hey, my lure stopped going out,” and I look back to see a salmon wallowing on the surface with his plug in its mouth! Insane!
Speaking of surface strikes, while fishing up one of the Nushagak’s small tributaries, I also had kings whack big pink strike indicators. It happened often enough that I went back with a Pink Wog and, while I never caught a king on the dry fly, I had several rise to it. Again, not something I’d even consider trying anywhere else!
We also caught Nush kings on all sorts of goofy things…pink plastic worms behind divers, Rat-L-Traps and black leeches. It was also a great place to try out new, wacky paint schemes on plugs – if the kings there wouldn’t bite it, nobody would! I had a K15 that I brought from home that was…well…let’s just say a custom paint job gone horribly wrong. So, I spray painted it white and chartreuse and put big black spots all over it with a Sharpie. Thus, the “Electric Snow Leopard” was born. Hideous but I must say, quite effective (though I never had the confidence to use it at home!).
One of the things that makes Nushagak kings so endearing to anglers is the fact that they jump like crazy. I’m not sure if it’s just that these fish are super-charged or the fact that the river is generally pretty shallow, but man, do they go airborne…a lot. So much so that we often referred to them as “overgrown steelhead.”
I do most of my king fishing these days in the Lower 48, where a jumping king often means there’s a foul-hooking issue. Not the case on the Nush! I’d say close to 75 percent of all the Chinook I hooked up there came out of the water. I had hooked fish jump in the boat a few times…including one that hit me square in the chest! It wasn’t just the small ones, either.
One day, I had a client catch the then-lodge record king that was just shy of 50 pounds (my good bud and fellow guide Mike Perusse of GLoomis fame eventually got me with a 52 pounder years later). Hooked on a diver and bait, the big king immediately raced straight upstream past the boat at Mach 2, dragging my client to the bow. A few seconds later, the huge fish did a U-turn and then launched himself like a Polaris missile 10 feet off the bow. I can still see it in slow motion — that big buck hanging there mid-air, broadside at eye level right in front of the client. The king made 5 more impressive leaps before we finally subdued him. Cool stuff!
What the Nushagak River also has going for it is numbers. The amount of salmon that swim up it is staggering. There were a couple down years recently, but the river rebounded nicely in 2011-2012!