By Kent Danjanovich
Now think about it. What are most fishermen accused of the vast majority of the time? The answer has to be either exaggerating a little on the size of the fish caught or the old line that, “you should have been here yesterday, the fishing was fantastic!”
Well, there is no better place to talk about, in my book, when the subject is about fishing and stories than Alaska. When it comes down to it, there is just no better places for fishermen or fisherwomen of all ages and all walks of life to experience some of the finest fishing opportunities that the world has to offer in some of the most breathtaking settings imaginable. And of course, plenty of those aforementioned stories are just part of the usual adventure when visiting Alaska.
With many great species available throughout the state, probably when it comes down to it, the one that gets more than its share of interest is the Chinook salmon or “King Salmon” as they are commonly referred to. Now there are quite a few stories out there about how they got there nickname, “Kings”, but I have always just thought of it this way – they are the biggest salmon species, with the ability of growing to epic proportions (the Sportfishing record still stands at 97.4 lbs. caught on the Kenai River back in 1985) so why would you call them anything else!
Just like with most other fish species, cycles run their course and king salmon are not exempt from this happening. For as long as I remember, the place to fish if you were after a big old king was the Kenai River. Well, because of many reasons, with way too many to talk about here, the numbers on this famed river have seen a drastic drop in returning numbers over the past few years. And the Kenai is not alone. Many of the prolific king salmon rivers in the state of Alaska have seen their numbers drop dramatically, with the results shortened seasons, limit restrictions and in some cases, even closures to both Sportfishing and commercial use.
But there has been one river in particular that has weathered the storm quite a bit better than most others and that river is the mighty Nushagak in southwest Alaska.
The Nushagak begins in the Alaska Range and flows southwest about 280 miles into Nushagak Bay, an inlet of Bristol Bay, east of Dillingham. And to say the Nushagak River is a fishery of epic proportions would be a vast understatement. With approximately 4,500 miles of streams, tributaries and river coverage, this watershed is one of the most productive salmon spawning grounds in the world. The system supports all five species of Pacific salmon, along with rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, char and even northern pike.
Along with the other great runs of salmon, the Nushagak is also home to the largest number run of king salmon in Alaska, with yearly runs recorded in past years at nearly a half a million fish. Now like in other areas of Alaska, those numbers have declined, but are still hovering in the 100,000+ range with the 2015 season no exception. The combination of big numbers of fish and relatively uncrowded conditions truly make the Nushagak River the place to be if you are looking for the opportunity to catch double-digit numbers of king salmon on almost every day of the week from the middle of June until the third week of July each year.
The Sportsman’s News Team has found one king salmon operation on the Nushagak River that stands out above the rest and that is Alaska Kingfishers. Rob Fuentes and his staff definitely go out of their way to make sure every one of their guests experience the very best that Alaska has to offer and fortunately for them, they just happen to be on the best king fishing river on the planet!
First, let’s talk a little bit about their operation. Alaska Kingfishers is a remote fishing camp on the banks of the Nushagak River and as with almost all of the camps on the river, they are a tent camp. Now I know that some of you will immediately cringe a little when you hear the word ‘tent’, but in this case, please don’t let that fog your mind. This camp is set up to be just about as close to a permanent structure camp as you will ever see, with the quality of tents superior and really all of the comforts of home are available throughout your stay. Two twin sized cots and all of your bedding are provided in each tent, along with towels and a hot shower tent facility situated right in the middle of the camp. Outhouses with ‘real’ toilets are just a short stroll from your tent as well.
When the breakfast or dinner bell rings, everyone gathers in the centrally located, large eating tent to partake of wonderfully prepared meals and to hear of the great fishing stories of the day. Afterwards, you can play a game of cards, head outside for a leisurely sit around the large fire-pit along the banks of the river or even grab your fishing pole for a few casts on your own right in front of camp.
After breakfast each morning, a sandwich bar is set up for guests to prepare sack lunches for their day on the river and once you dawn your gear, it’s off to your assigned boat to be greeted by your guide and filled in on your days’ planned adventure. With one of the best stretches of the whole river right in front of the camp, you don’t usually have to go too far before your line is in the water and you soon hear those magical words, “FISH ON”!
As many Alaska regulars know, many areas of the state have regulations that read that once you retain a king salmon for the day, your rod goes in the rod holder and you watch your other fishing partners try and do the same, making for a long day on the water, especially if you happen to land your fish in the first 15 minutes of the trip. Well on the Nushagak, this is not the case. If you catch a nice fish and you decide to retain it, you are still allowed to continue fishing, while participating in the art of “catch and release” the rest of the day. The limit on the Nushagak River is one adult king salmon per day and four per season (There are some special regulations if you are fishing for less days and for fish under certain size restrictions as well).
King salmon on the Nushagak average in size from 15 to 40 pounds, with of course a few returning smaller ‘jacks’ (first year fish) and then the occasional bruiser in the 40 to 50 pound range. It seems like each time we visit, someone in camp ends up with a big one, with just about everyone fighting a fish in the 30+ weight class. I am more of a numbers guy than a big fish guy in most cases, but I will have to admit, it is a pretty good rush when you have a big one on the end of your line, darting and dashing in every direction as you do your best to win the battle.
And if you somehow get bored, hooking and fighting big kings on a daily basis, you can ask your guide to take a break from the action and hit one of the ‘chum bars’ or ‘back sloughs’ for some awesome chum salmon or northern pike action on the fly! Most fly fisherman will tell you that chum salmon offer possibly the hardest fight on a fly rod of any of the salmon species and although most of the pike you will catch are not quite the giants that you may dream of, they will still be in the 15 to 25 inch range and are very aggressive with both top-water and sub-surface offerings.
Well, whether you are a first time Alaska visitor or a seasoned veteran, if the thought of having the opportunity of hooking into double digit numbers of king salmon on a daily basis sounds of interest to you, then you need to get on the phone right now and give Rob Fuentes and his staff a call to see if they have any days left for the coming season. His Alaska Kingfishers Camp awaits and I guarantee the Nushagak River will not let you down. And if you want to add even more excitement, ask Rob about the possibility of spending time at both his Nushagak River Camp and his Alaska Bearclaw Lodge in the Wood/Tikchik State Park, also in the Bristol Bay drainage. Both operations are first class and by the end of your stay, will definitely have you “Hooked on Alaska”! For more information, visit them on the web at www.alaskakingfishers.com or by calling 907-843-1605.