By Steve McGrath
With one ear aimed at the sky, as if it were a satellite dish looking for a signal, I hoped to hear the low hum of what is likely Alaska’s most common method of transportation, the bush plane. Just about any visit to “the last great frontier” includes a trip on a backcountry plane, but this plane was different. I have been to Alaska a few times and enjoyed every trip, but I was headed to a wilderness camp on this trip. We had flown into Dillingham the afternoon before, spending some time around the tiny town located on Bristol Bay. It was easy to see the impact fishing has on the community. Buildings were adorned with native styled fish, a homage to the lifeblood of the area.
Summertime in Alaska brings little darkness at night, so morning came quickly. Time was spent repacking our gear to ready for our 8am flight across the tundra to our tent camp on the banks of the Nushagak River. Eight o’clock came and went, the fog had descended overnight and overstayed it’s welcome. The faintest noise brought a few of us out on the patio to see if the planes were flying yet. No amount of willing, wanting or wishing was lifting that fog quick enough. Eventually things warmed up enough that low hanging clouds lifted as the sky came to life. We scurried over to the local pond with wide smiles, knowing we would soon be on the river fishing for kings.
Alaska Kingfishers is situated right on the Nushagak River, it’s deluxe tent accommodations sprawled out into a wilderness tent city. The camp is temporary, set up for less than two months each summer. Like the fish migrating up the river, the fishermen do the same. Though it is a camp, there are few comforts of home missing here. A large dining hall was clearly visible from the river with the rest of camp scattered behind it. There was electricity during the day while the generator ran, enough time to charge camera batteries and anything else we needed. There were private showers with hot water on-demand, the perfect way to end a day on the water.
The friendly camp staff met us planeside ready to grab our gear and get us settled in. We found our tents and got ready to fish for the day. The orientation was brief as boat assignments were made; we knew the fishing was going to be good, the pleasantries could be saved for later.
The trip featured our writing contest winner, Mark Francis and his two friends, Jeff Wardell and John Atwood, neither of which had been to Alaska before. Most of the camps on the river had already cleaned up and left the river, leaving the water to us. Our first day guide, Steve Isaac, had guided that river for a few years and knew its corners, riffles and runs well. The first fish of the trip came quickly on John’s rod. It doubled over as the line peeled off the reel, this was just the way it was supposed to be. More rods would double over and forearms would strain, all of which ended with big smiles. We had caught our limit within a couple hours and returned to camp to settle into our deluxe tents. Each tent had two bunks, a footlocker and hanging organizer to keep the fishing gear ready for the next morning. Comfortable accommodations for a wilderness camp, but as we soon found out there were very few luxuries of home we didn’t have out there.
There were other guests in camp that week from all over the country, most of which had been to Kingfishers previously and were back to relive the Alaska dream. Each day brought a new guide and boat, but also a chance to fish with other camp guests. The weather during our week in camp couldn’t have been much better, it’s rare to find five straight days of blue skies and sunshine, but that is what we were treated to. The unfortunate part of bright sunshine is it makes the fish a little more wary and at times, harder to catch. The sunscreen worthy weather kept the guides working hard and changing techniques to make sure fish were caught. Everything from back trolling plugs to bobber dogging and dragging eggs were used, each one effective at different times. Knowledgeable guides make a huge difference on any trip, but they especially did on this one. We were there after the peak of the run and even though most would easily say fishing is tough, our guides worked as hard as any I have fished with to make sure each day was memorable. Fishing was fast at times making the decision on what fish to keep tough.
The Nush boasts one of the largest king runs in Alaska. Its remote location is about the only thing keeping it from being better known and more heavily fished. Unlike other popular king fisheries in Alaska, on the Nush you are able to practice catch and release. You can be selective on the fish you decide to keep, but even after catching a keeper you can continue to fish. There is a four fish annual limit for kings, which equated out to a fish a day for us. When the fishing was hot it was tough to decide which fish to keep. I learned on a deer hunt with this publication a couple years ago not to pass up on the first day what you would love to have on the last. I played the fish gamble a little more conservative, picking smaller chrome fish over larger colored fish. With nearly 10 hours of fishing each day there were plenty of opportunities to try for that trophy. The largest of the week also happened to be the biggest of the season, tipping the scales at a little over 43lbs. Rob Fuentes, Alaska Kingfisher’s owner smiled as his daughter struggled to hold the huge fish up for photos.
When I travel to Alaska to fish, I want to spend every waking minute on the water living the sportsman’s dream and this camp didn’t disappoint. Evenings were spent just down river from camp at what became known as the “Chum Bar.” It was the perfect way to end a day on the river, casting a fly to a crowded shallow flat. The constant tug of a chum is unmistakable, though I would be lying to say that I hadn’t hoped each one of those fish might be a king. Being in Alaska during the summer deceives your body’s internal clock; we watched the horizon thinking we had plenty of time to continue to fish. Truth be told, we had already fished 12+ hours that day and the time on our watch said 10pm, but the light outside said there was still time to fish. There really are no limits to the fishing at Kingfisher’s, just pick your species and plan your day with the guide. The “bragging board” in the dining hall boasted the expected king salmon, but also showed grayling, pike and chum salmon.
I work for a cooking equipment manufacturer and we often joke that while outdoors there aren’t many things you can control. The fish may not be there and the weather is always a crapshoot, but if the food isn’t good, it’s your fault. Naturally any trip I go on the food weighs heavily on how I remember the trip. The kitchen at Alaska Kingfisher’s wasn’t an afterthought; it was the centerpiece along with the dining hall. The full time cook made sure that every day started with a good meal, he knew it would be needed for the long day on the boat. Lunch was eaten on the boat, but with a large sandwich bar every morning it was hardly skimping while on the boat. One of the rules of camp was all boats needed to be in by 6pm, not necessarily for safety reasons, but for dinner. We had everything from fresh salmon to smoked pork loins and to end the week, we had the largest porterhouse I’ve ever seen. The food left nothing to be desired, the camp is proud of its meal offerings and they should be!
It says something of the camp ownership and management to have returning clients, but to have so many repeat guides; it speaks to their family mentality in camp. From the moment the plane landed I knew this place was different and the time in camp only confirmed that. It was what a true Alaskan adventure should be about, a camp setting on a river that has sustained generations of native people. Don’t let the idea of a tent camp in Alaska deter you, it’s as nice a place as I have ever stayed. Even if you have experienced other parts of the last frontier, you owe it to yourself to visit Alaska Kingfishers on the Nushagak River. Alaska Kingfisher’s, visit them on the web at www.alaskakingfishers.com or by calling 907-843-1605.