My wife Tylee and I recently went on an Alaskan Adventure that led us to Dillingham and into the Alaskan Wilderness. Our friends, Ralph and Camille Green, had recently purchased Jake Nushagak’s Salmon Camp (https://jakesnushagaksalmoncamp.com/) and we wanted to visit them and try our hand at catching King’s and tossing big flies to Salmon. Little did we know that our trip would teach us so much and change our perspective on life.
We landed in Dillingham a couple days before flying up the Nushigak River to Jake’s. We were not sure what to expect but were excited to see some country and meet new people. I had spent a couple summers working in a fish cannery on the Naknek River when I was younger and was anxious to show Tylee this way of life. On the flight from Anchorage to Dillingham we sat next to a couple of Native women who were just giddy that the gill nets were starting to fill up and they said we could stop by and seem them “work” the fish. They were more than willing to explain “subsistence” fishing methods to us and their fish culture heritage. You could feel their exuberance the Salmon run brought them. This was our first indication that we were in for a treat seeing a different way of life then what we are used in Western Wyoming.
As soon as we got off the plane we started seeing Save Bristol Bay stickers and signs. At first we didn’t pay attention, but as the trip progressed we learned of the issues. I have made my living permitting mines, so I am very slow to form an opinion on a project until I know all the facts. We also own a meat processing plant in Thayne, Wyoming (www.starvalleymeatblock.com) and support our living processing wild game in the fall so we understand the need to protect and preserve wild resources. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of a beautiful place in the world and a culture that is worth protecting. Saying no to mining projects isn’t the answer, but with educated public input, our Government is able to make fair balanced decisions towards managing our resources.
Figure 1. Fish Collage Painted by Local Students in Dillingham
Walking the streets of Dillingham, it didn’t take long to realize how the vast Salmon runs of the region impact each and every person. From the commercial fisherman, to the grocery store owner, to the net repair and boat mechanics, to the tavern keeper; the economy is surged by the return of the Salmon each year. Unfortunately we weren’t able to meet up with the Natives we met on the plane but we were able to talk with a few Natives tending gill nets and watch and learn as the women of the tribe cleaned and prepared the Salmon in little garage type buildings all across town. All were very welcoming.
Figure 2. Native Subsistence Fisherman Checking Nets
Figure 3. Commercial Fisherman Getting Ready for The Opener
Figure 4. Local Wall Mural
Not having a vehicle in town limited our transportation, but the welcoming little inn (Bear Paw Inn) we stayed at provided bikes and we explored all that Dillingham has to offer. It was dreary and rainy but we were able to see the sights and learn about a special way of life directly connected to the environment through the Salmon. After 100-years of commercial fishing in Dillingham and continued substance and sport fishing, the system seems to be in balance currently. The King Salmon run of the Nushigak is legendary and continues to thrive even though other fisheries in AK and along the coast are struggling. Obviously there is significant concern around town about the proposed mining project upstream.
Then we were off to fish camp with only our glimpse into the local Dillingham way of life to hold our thoughts.
Figure 5. Headed Up River
The flight to camp was a thrill that neither Tylee nor I will ever forget. Vast is a significant understatement. Flying over the Alaskan wilderness in a small plane should be on everyone’s bucket list. We were also lucky enough to spot a moose and catch a glimpse of a brown bear along river shore.
We were the first fisherman of the season and everyone was excited in camp. Within minutes of landing at camp and unpacking they had us hooked up with fish from shore! Fighting a King with light tackle from shore is beyond fun and in total we caught four (4) species of fish from shore before our trip officially began. Fantastic!
Figure 6. Tylee’s First King – From the Bank!
Figure 7. Grant’s First King
The trip came together very quickly and we hadn’t done our normal research. We were expecting a few rustic wall tents and were blown away to see the camp Ralph and Camille had setup!
Figure 8. Jake’s Camp – Ready for the Season
The next few days were filled with big fish, laughs, and great comradery around camp. I have often said that I haven’t met a fisherman that I didn’t like. This proved true again as we made great friends. I even stayed up all night “Flossing” for Reds and learning from some of the best.
Figure 9. Grant’s Best King of the trip – 34 lbs.
In the evenings after dinner we would wade fish for Chum and King’s. I hooked several nice Kings but was not able to land the might fish on my fly rod. Luckily I was able to score some Chum and few Reds! What a trip.
Figure 10. Casting to Salmon in the Slough
Figure 11. Grant’s First Chum Salmon Landed on a Fly Rod
Figure 12. Dinner!
Figure 13. Salmon Steaks for Days
Figure 14. Tylee with a nice 20 Lb King that Had major Fight
After a few days of big river fishing for big fish, Ralph was kind enough to fly us to his Up River Camp to check-it out. The sights and experience of the flight will be etched in our memory forever. Lake Aleknagik, the Wood-TikChik Mountains, the Upper Nushigak oh my. For the first time for us the wildness of Alaska became directly apparent to us. We were spotting moose horn sheds in the tundra from the plane, seeing pods of fish headed up river, watching moose wade without concern in little ponds, and looking at untouched wilderness land in all directions without end.
Figure 15. Off to the Upper River Camp in Ralph’s Plane
Figure 16. Lake Aleknagik Fuel Station
Figure 17. Fueling at Lake Aleknagik
Figure 18. Tributary of the Wood River Just North of Dillingham
Figure 19. Lake Aleknagik and Wood -Tikchik Wilderness
Figure 20. Wood-TikChik Mountains
Figure 21. Upper Nushigak River
Landing on a small river will get your heart pumping! Ralph dropped the plane in perfectly and we were tied up in no time. He has a lease with a local Native American on their family fishing/hunting camp. Native families were each granted 160-acres of property within the US government managed wilderness so they can carry on historical subsistence hunting and fishing. Building any type of structure this far from civilization is a feat in itself as the cabin was localed over 100-river miles upstream from developed communities and ports. We felt very lucky to have this experience.
After some exploring and organizing we were in Ralph’s cached jet river boat and headed up river. Unfortunately I made a bonehead move and forgot my flies back at base camp. Luckly Ralph had a few along and I was able to try my hand at landing a big Alaskan Rainbow on a fly rod and Tylee tossed spinners. The “Nush” was very high from recent rains, but clearing by the minute. Directly after starting our downstream drift we hooked into a school of Artic Grayling! These are the most beautiful fish I have ever seen and truly worth a trip to the North Country to pursue.
After about an hour I hooked my first Alaskan Rainbow on a wet fly. What a blast! The colors on the fish were the most vivid I have ever seen and it was an aerial acrobat. Unfortunately we didn’t have a net and weren’t able to photograph this lunker. The memory is forever etched my memory though. It was about 3-lb fish, but that one (1) fish has me thinking of returning to Alaska on a daily basis. Tylee’s spinning rod was on fire. Besides numerous grayling she also hooked an Artic Char, which was a glorious fish.
As we came to a good location along the river to park the boat and climb out on to the tundra, we took advantage. If you haven’t walked across the Alaskan tundra – you must put this experience on your Bucket List. The little nats were annoying at best, but the environment was so different from any that we have witnessed in the lower 48 – I am still thinking about it. There was no hard footing and you find yourself following ancient game trails to make your way. After looking for moose sheds that we had seen from the airplane with no luck, we enjoyed the view of a landscape untouched and unchanged by man. It was a sight to behold. The photos below are grand, but do the feeling justice in the least. We need to protect this country. There is no other place I know of where you can have the same wild feeling consume your body.
Figure 22. Tieing Up on the Upper Nushigak River
Figure 23. Up River Fish Camp
Figure 24. First Artic Grayling
Figure 25. Tylee, “It’s Squishy.”
Figure 26. The Upper Nushigak
After returning to the river Tylee wasted no time hooking a monster Bow on a little meps spinner. The river boat stopped as the fish turned and ran upstream. We took our time knowing that we didn’t have a net. Right when Tylee reached grab the tired fish it made one more run and broke her line. It’s a bummer because it was a Dandy fish. Besides wanting a picture for ourselves we wanted to get one for Ralph and Camille as they start to market the Up River fishing experience.
That was the last Rainbow for the day but we hooked many more Grayling on our descent back to the cabin. The last mile we just relaxed and took in the scenery and grandeur of the river system. Spawning salmon hadn’t reached the upper reaches of the river yet, but the bald eagles lined the river edges with dignity. We were also lucky enough to see a dandy bull moose work his way up river. These animals make our moose in Wyoming seem tiny!
One of the last experiences of the trip became one of our favorites as we were able to use an authentic Native sweat lodge. At first I was unsure but after a few minutes steaming my mind was completely changed with an ease of mind and body. We didn’t want to leave and come home. It was a fitting time to spend connecting all the experiences of the last 10-days into one adventure. The untouched wild lands of the upper Nushigak give birth to the river and feed the Salmon that feed an Native and commercial economy. Even with significant commercial fishing, the system is in balance.
Figure 27. Native Sweat Lodge
Figure 28. Trying Out the Sweat Lodge
It’s not just Bristol Bay that we need to protect – It’s a way a life.