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Nushagak River, Alaska 08-05-2005

One of the favorite moments on any Alaskan river trip comes after all the preliminaries are well behind you. It comes after all the dried food is packed, trip gear is sorted and rafts are shipped. It comes after fresh produce is bought and packaged in Anchorage and after anglers and guides make the flight from Anchorage to the gateway bush village. It comes after the bush flight touches down on the river and after the raft frames are built and all the gear is stored onboard. With all these chores and logistics in your rear view mirror, you lift wadered legs over the raft tube, settle in on one of the coolers, now jam packed with food and gear, and reach forward to grab the handles of your oars. As you lean back pulling the oars through the clear dark waters, you hear the frame quietly creak and the oarlocks click lightly. There is a palpable excitement present in the boat both from the guides and the anglers. At precisely this moment, all the promise the trip holds is at its zenith. You begin to glide downstream and someone makes the first cast. The trip has begun and you just left all your cares, concerns and worries on shore right next to the tracks you left in the mud where you assembled rafts and built rods.

On this adventure we were on the legendary Nushagak River. We were floating with Brightwater Alaska and guide extraordinnaire, Chuck Ash. Chuck has been a close friend since the 70's and is truly one of the finest guides in Alaska. He loves these western Alaskan rivers and it shows in everything he does on the water and in camp.

Except for one Alaska neophyte, Jim Dean of Casper, Wyoming, we were a seasoned crew having floated many of Alaska's best rivers including the Kanektok, the Goodnews and the Togiak River. This crew had fished together in Kamchatka, the Seychelles, Argentina, French Polynesia and all over the Caribbean, yet given their broad grins, you would have guessed this to be our first "trip of a lifetime". Craig Johnston M.D., Steve Peskoe M.D. and Eric Berger seemed as eager as they were on the first Alaskan float trip we took so many years ago. As experienced Alaskan travelers, we were prepared for the worst. We all had great rain gear, enough bug dope to bath in it daily and most importantly, an attitude to take what was given us... both in the way of weather and fishing. If it rained every day or the wind blew so hard we had to row downstream, so be it. We were ready... let the games begin!

The Nushagak River lies west of the Lake Iliamna area. Its clear cold waters come from the eastern slopes of the Kuskokwim Mountains and from the western slopes of the Aleutian Range, forming the upper Nushagak and Mulchatna Rivers respectively. These two major forks flow southward. West of Iliamna they converge to form the main Nushagak River and continue their course south, flowing into Bristol Bay at the village of Dillingham, our gateway bush village. We floated the western of these two forks, most often called the upper Nushagak. The topography immediate to the river is a riparian flood plain with rolling hills. The Kuskokwim Mountains and the Aleutian Range are 70-125 miles distant.

That's the nuts and bolts, but it only tells part of the story: The Nushagak is a clear little gem flowing over a cobblestoned and graveled bottom. It is the quintissential Alaskan River. The river's bank is speared with sweepers and carpeted in long grasses that sway mesmerizingly in any breeze. In a splash of fushia, fireweed brightens these amber and green grasses. Just a few paces away from the river, alders stabilize the banks and in the same winds that wave the grasses so hypnotically, alders leaves show their pale undersides. Cottonwood and birch begin the real forest a few more paces back and behind them, tall spruce lend a real northwoods feel to the Nushagak. Above the trees, tundra hills gently rise up and are covered with sedges, willows and scrub brush. On the Nushagak, every turn and twist in the river presents another classic northwoods vista.

The Upper Nushagak is a riffle and run river. Long, seemingly flat, stretches eventually give way as the Nushagak gives up its gradient at these riffles. The best fishing begins at the tailouts to these long slick runs where shallower waters speed up and provide oxygen-rich spawning grounds for king and chum salmon. The redds often continue all the way through the riffles until a new long-running slick begins and the fishing once again begins to slow down.

As you float through these areas you see huge kings and garishly patterned chums scatter. The kings are now the color of a rich burgandy while the chum salmon are further along in their spawn with many showing signs of their imminent demise. These salmon are usually paired and if you get out of the boats to wade, you can watch firsthand their spawning dance. The males, with huge kyped jaws, chase other courting males away from their hen while any egg-stealing predatory fish are repeatedly escorted from the area. In the meantime, females turn on their sides to dig redds or lay eggs. Often these redds are big enough to create boils and eddies that actually alter the hydrology of the river. Sometimes the bigger redds create rubble heaps of gravel below the salmon's boudoirs that reach almost to the river's surface. It is here, behind these "salmon buckets", that we searched for what we had traveled so far to find... the predators. The dollie varden, arctic char, grayling and the legendary Alaskan rainbow trout that follow the salmon hoping to feast on their roe and then ultimately on their decomposing flesh.

These fish that follow the salmon are best caught using glow bugs, beads and flesh flies. Glow bugs are tied with egg yarn and Alaskan anglers are obsessed with egg colors. Peach, champagne, hot pink, apricot, pale pink, orange... the list is semmingly endless and anglers add to it each year. Glow bug boxes are like heirlooms and represent the eggs of different species including silver, king, pink, chum and sockeye salmon, as well as the different egg stages of these species from newly layed to old and adrift. Beads do the same thing, but use a sneakier technique than simply egg yarn tied on a hook. A bead is threaded on the tippet, secured with a toothpick about 3-6 inches from a bare hook. When the fish takes the bead, the toothpick allows the bead to slide down and the fish is hooked, often on the outside of the mouth. Experienced Alaskan anglers collect beads of all sizes and colors. Their bead boxes are as elaborate as glowbug boxes with even more color choices and hues. Bring a bead box out in an airport and you'll get some strange looks as non-anglers try to figure out why these guys have a bunch of pink and orange, not-exactly-masculine, ornaments. I'm sure they think its probably for jewlery used in some demented debauchery so in order not to have your sexual orientation questioned, it is best to follow up a discussion on beads with one on the NFL and/or the bar fight you got into last week.

In any case, beads and eggs are best fished right on the bottom using classic nymphing. You can demonstrate to yourself why this is important by throwing a real salmon egg in a riffle. The egg's density will take it right to the bottom where it settles in the gravel. Or you can watch a char or a 'bow feed on an egg and they will often turns sideways to scarf up a bottom-bound egg. The result of this for the angler is be on the bottom or be skunked. A drift with drag or not enough weight and you will not be where these fish forage and feed.

It should be noted that these salmon rivers of Alaska are places where one of the great dramas in the natural world is acted out each year in all its beauty and raw ugliness. Salmon carcasses litter the shore. Some were killed by bears and drug to the grasses to be consumed while others were washed ashore by the currents after the salmon's final natural expriration. Eagles, wolverine and otters feed on this bounty of decaying flesh, but so too do maggots and bacteria. River bars, the inside of bends and bear dining areas can be rather pungent places. River trips in Alaska are therefore not for the squeamish, but then anglers who prefer float trips rarely are delicate souls!

Regardless of how many squirming cadavers you can personally tolerate, all these salmon carcasses represent food to fish that follow the salmon up their natal streams and the classic flesh fly is a deadly (no pun intended) pattern this time of year. There are many versions of the flesh fly, but they usually involve rabbit and sometimes maribou. Tan rabbit strips palmered around a streamer hook with a splash of pink somewhere work great. Variations include fushia, pink, white and pale yellow. Strikes on a flesh fly can be violent as a big hunk of salmon meat represents a lot of "groceries" to a hungry 'bow or char. Sometimes even grayling, with their small whitefish-type mouths, will suck in a flesh flies and be seemingly choked on it as you remove the hook. Flesh flies are also best dead drifted, although we had some great luck casting flesh flies at the bank and behind sweepers in the slicks. A slow retreive often elicited a visible "dry fly" take. Superb! It doesn't get better than this!

On this trip, we all caught rainbows over 20 inches with many in the 21 to 22 inch range. These 'bows were fat little footballs with bold red stripes and pale purple cheek patches that fought as if to uphold their considerable reputations. The biggest rainbow caught on the trip was 24 inches. We caught lots of char and dollies up to 23 inches and even caught enough to make a few meals of these delicious, pink-fleshed, big brookies! Char are simply beautiful fish and a male in spawning regalia is a sight to behold!

Grayling on the Nushagak are prolific! I've heard anglers denigrate grayling. I don't get it. While there are better fighting fish, there are no more beautiful fish. With gaudy dorsal fins and elegant color accents, these fish epitomize the cold, clear, healthy streams of Alaska and Canada.

We caught enough fresh silvers to make an excellent meal towards the end of our trip, but we were a bit early for this run. Sockeye were everywhere, but for some reason, the char, 'bows and grayling did not seem to be keying-in on these colorful monsters. I would like an explanation for this, as it seemed that often the sockeye were actively spawning and should have been hounded by these predators.

Our meals were great! For dinner we had burritos with chicken enchiladas, fresh fish accompanied by fresh salads, macaroni and cheese and rich chowders. For breakfast, given we had a crew eager to get on the river each day, we usually opted for omelets, French toast and pancakes with blueberries fresh-picked from the tundra hills behind our scenic gravel bar camps.

We saw three wolverines, numerous otter, beaver, but no bear although their sign was everwhere in the form of scat and partially consumed salmon cadavers. Often just the skin and eggs of these slamon were consumed. Apparently, there is so much food available that the bears just go for the good parts! Almost every camp had wolf tracks and a porcupine wandered into camp one night during the cocktail hour. In between sips, we ushered him into the alders.

Our weather was great, even for the Bahamas. We had no rain, only a few clouds and temperatures almost every day pushing into the eighties. If we have any complaint, it would be that we would have wished for more cloud cover and cooler temperatures. With all the sunshine, the river got lower and clearer each day and the fish got more and more skitterish. With all the eagles and osprey that we saw, it is no wonder the fish were nervous. But all this good weather made the fishing, especially in the afternoons, a bit tougher than we are used to. I know wishing for slightly worse weather will insure that my next trip to Alaska will be a rainy cold fiasco... but it is too late, the fates have been tempted.

If you have never done an Alaskan river float it is one of the greatest experiences in the angling world. The fishing can be superb! We caught eight different species on our trip, but a wilderness float trip is so much more than just fishing. It is about being on the river and seeing the ebb and flow of each day. It is about watching the sun make it journey across a blue Alaskan sky. And its about friendships and late night conversations around the campfire and again over morning coffee. Its about floating languidly in the wilderness as the stresses of city life slowly slide away into the cold and clear waters of an Alaskan river.

Written by Scott Heywood


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