I don’t know what shocked me more: the fact that the Nushagak served up a big, fat, ditch-dead-smelly skunk to a trio of Pugetropolis anglers and then over 100 Chinook.
Then again, when you read those events occurred on the famed Alaska salmon fishing river within three days of each other, your brow and jaw do a dance that contorts your face and you find yourself really glad there’s not a Web cam trained on you.
In this case, it was a tale of epic and uncharacteristic fishing days by Terry Wiest of SteelheadUniversity.com and Alaska Sporting Journal photographic contributor that had my face going two ways at once.
Wiest was up on the Nush at Jake’s Salmon Camp for five days in June 2011, came back over the weekend, sent me some stunning fish-fighting-under-the-midnight-sun images and posted a few others on his Facebook page.
Looked like a cool trip, I thought — hardcore angler and his buddies got out in the bush, caught some fish, had a good time, right on.
And then early that afternoon Terry emailed me a fuller accounting of the escapade, and that’s when my face started doing funny things.
My first reaction was, Preposterous!
But then I did a wee bit of fact-checking and thought, well … there weren’t that many fish around, but then there was a huuuuuge spike on the sonar just upstream of where he was fishing.
And Terry insisted it was true (editor’s note, July 1, 2011: Bob Toman’s camp was reporting good fishing as well) and since he’s never steered me wrong, I’m posting an edited version of his tale here (look for the full one on SteelieU, and see his FB page for photos and a video).
Nushagak River – June 19 – 23, 2011
Jake’s Nushagak Camp – Steelhead University
By Terry Wiest
Anticipation was high this year as we ventured on our third annual Steelhead University/Jake’s Nushagak Camp trip. The kings were starting to trickle in, and Alaska Fish and Game announced no commercial opener for kings or sockeye until after the escapement had been reached. This was fantastic after last year’s commercial slaughter in which they caught over 40,000 kings as bycatch during the sockeye harvest.
- HEADING INTO THE BUSH. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
- JAKE’S SALMON CAMP, FROM THE PLANE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
We had a dozen fishermen in our group this year and would be joined by another 18, bringing the camp to full capacity. I would be fishing with my friends Terry Fors and Jeff Norwood, which would give us a solid hardcore lineup looking to put our knowledge to test against what has been known as Alaska’s great king salmon run.
Day 1: Yes Virginia, even in Alaska you can find a skunk!
Day one was unbelievable – and I mean I still can’t believe it. A big SKUNK!!!
What the heck was this? I have many adjectives to describe this and I’m sure many were thinking worse, but zilch on the Nushagak?
This was not due to lack of trying or anything to do with our guide (which happened to be No. 1 guide and camp manager Swanny). Something not to be proud to be a part of, we handed Swanny his first EVER skunking on the Nush.
We decided to check out the sonar station at Portage Creek which is just a couple miles upriver from Jake’s. Now this explains it – 66 fish came through in the last 24 hours. We thought, oh my god, what are we in for?
Last year was a down year due to the commercial overfishing, but there were at least several hundred coming though each day.
Day 2: Could it be a repeat?
Maybe day two would be better, we hoped. It was — but barely. Even with another top guide, Brian, we avoided another skunk with two fish.
Not much to say here except things have to get better. They said there’s fish in Bristol Bay, but they’re not moving upriver for some reason. Today’s sonar count was a pitiful 122 fish. Again, this is very uncharacteristic for this time of the run and things aren’t feeling very good.
Day 3: Captain Fred puts us on a few fish
I finally get to fish with the old man of the river, Captain Fred. Many call him grumpy or simply Old Man, I call him my friend.
- CAPTAIN, NEE, “PROFESSOR” FRED, THE GUIDE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
We had some great stories to swap back and forth which made the time between fish seem to fly by, but old Fred’s a smart cookie and wasn’t about to let us have a bad day. Finally a respectable day on the Nush, but far from fantastic. The fish seemed very small compared to the last few years, but hey, we were getting fish. Our daily total for the three of us was 26 fish to the boat. Not bad considering only 981 passed through the sonar station.
Day 4: Captain Fred becomes Professor Fred: A legend is made
We were supposed to fish with Eli, the owner of Jake’s, but due to a medication reaction, Eli was in no shape to take us out. We would have gladly taken the boat out ourselves, but Swanny asked if we minded fishing with Fred again. Are you kidding? Fred’s great – let’s get this show on the road.
- STANDARD DRILL IS TO TROLL A SIZE 7 WORDEN’S OR R&B LURES’ INLINE UV SPINNER WITH A PAUTZKE’S SPAWN SACK DOWNRIVER. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
Day 4 started out with an absolute bang – a triple to start the day.
As we came down through the tailout, Fred asked if we wanted to pick up and return to the top.
“Just another minute, Fred,” we said, “this looks like good water.”
Fred had explained that it was snaggy in the past, but that he did notice a new sandbar formed on the side. I think all that sand created a trench and we hit the slot perfect – fish on, fish on. A double and we’re at five fish the first drift.
- KINGS RANGED IN SIZE FROM 8 TO 30 POUNDS, AVERAGING IN THE TEENS. WIEST ET AL FOUGHT THEM ON FETHA STYX’S SM-904-2 HOMEWATER RODS, DAIWA LUNA 300 REELS, AND 25-POUND MAXIMA HIGH VIZ. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
We matched our daily total from the day before in four hours of fishing so we went in for lunch. Of course we tried talking Fred into skipping lunch, but he didn’t think Eli would appreciate that.
After lunch, back to the same drift and it was lights out! Now we were getting at least one fish a drift and most drifts between three and five fish. Doubles were the norm and several triples. The boats from other camps that were back bouncing just kept shaking their heads in disbelief — we were on fire!
- JEFF NORWOOD WITH A PAIR OF NUSHAGAK KINGS. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
- TERRY FORYS HOLDS ONTO THE ROD. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
As the 90-fish mark approached, we were all aware of how close we were to that legendary 100-fish mark — but also well aware of how little time we had left to achieve this milestone.
“Don’t worry, Fred, Eli said not to come in until we get 100.”
“We still have over an hour left, Fred, Eli said 7:00 was fine since you got us out late.”
We tried every excuse, but Fred just smiled. We had a 6:00 deadline.
At 5:45, we finished a drift with a triple, putting us at 99!
Are you kidding me!?
“Fire ‘er up, Fred, and let’s hit it.”
Luckily Fred didn’t hesitate and we were back up to the top of the hole.
Immediately we got a double – 100 and 101. Number 102 came just minutes after.
Fred said, “OK boys, one last drag through our new snag hole and we have to reel them up.”
Woo hoo – we end the day with a triple and count that as 105!
That hole is now known as the Double TJ hole (Terry, Terry, Jeff).
More importantly, Steelhead University graduated Fred to the title of Professor! We’re going to make you a legend, Fred.
Getting back to shore, rumors were already flying. Although Fred could barely move we worked him so hard, he was grinning from ear to ear. Yeah, buddy!
Oh, by the way, 2,238 fish past the sonar today. We expected much higher numbers with the catch we had, but at least it’s a good number.
We also landed over 70 kings from shore this night and numerous chrome bright chum — the Nush at its finest.
- WHAT’S THERE TO DO ON THE NUSH AFTER A HARD DAY OF CATCHING AND RELEASING CHINOOK FROM THE BOAT? CATCHING AND RELEASING THEM FROM THE BANK ! WIEST AND OTHERS LANDED NUMEROUS CHINOOK AND THIS BRIGHT CHUM FROM THE BEACH USING A SPIN-N-GLO AND SPAWN SACK WITH A 1-OUNCE WEIGHT ON A FOOT-LONG DROP LINE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
And how’d Day 5 go? Well, you’ll have to dial up Wiest’s Web site to find out, but let’s just say, book me for 2012, Eli and Swanny!!!!