Surrounded by 900-foot rolling mountains and thousands of acres of the Alaskan tundra, an abundance of wildlife and vegetation consisting of mixed coniferous, birch, willow, and cottonwood trees, sits the 240-mile-long Nushagak River. Located about 100 miles from Lake Clark National Forest and 70 miles from Wood Tik-Chik State Park, there is no upriver access (other than float plane and jet boats) to one of Bristol Bay’s most prominent and most robust rivers, home to millions of salmon and trout. The remote location of the Nushagak creates a heavenly existence where you can go days without seeing traces of civilization. Home to caribou, moose, grizzlies, mallards, ospreys, bald eagles, insects, and more, this environment flourishes with the lack of human interference.
In August of 2022, I found myself camping and fishing along this stretch of water with my husband and two friends, Kate and John Sittler. In my day to day, I manage and guide at Aspen Outfitting Company, a locally owned fly-shop in Aspen, Colorado. Max and Kate work for an outdoor PR company, and John is a lawyer. For all four of us, this was the most insane way to take a break from a busy summer full of hard work.
The trip started as a pipe dream, exactly one year before our departure date, as we were hiking up to our favorite alpine lake. What started as a joke turned into us contacting Fish and Float Alaska and booking a trip with them two weeks later.
Then began the planning. Our group had significant rowing, backpacking, and fly-fishing experience, so going into the planning, we knew the trip we wanted was for the self-guided package where the outfitter supplies only raft, frame, oars, camping/kitchen essentials, as well as drop-in and drop-out float plane assistance; meaning, the four of us would be out in the bush country wholly isolated from any guides or help and would be taking on the river as it is.
Buying gear for the trip was an unexpectedly significant part of the planning experience. The Simms Waypoint Jacket was my saving grace for the journey, and my Aspen Outfitting Hat and Beanie. Additionally, there was the possibility of bad weather putting us on the river for additional days, so we also included that in our preparations. Max and I handled power banks, flies, fishing equipment, etc. All in all, it was an efficient way to split up trip planning and preparations. A valid key to trip preparations was using OnX to create checkpoints and mark gravel bars that could be potential campsites throughout the week along the 45 miles of river we would be floating.
August 1st arrived. Fish and Float had arranged a flight from Anchorage to Iliamna, where they are based, through Lake and Peninsula Air, an excellent family-run charter. We were greeted by Jonathan, a Fish & Float employee who took us to their fly-out headquarters for self-guided trips on Pike Lake, also known to them as “The Beach.” Driving up to the beach, you are met with a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling mountains and high pine trees, with float planes parked up by the cabins.
Once on the beach, we were greeted by a short storm (the first of many we would encounter), allowing us to spend some time with our pilots, Ben, Chris, and Jonathan.
“Yeah, we don’t send many trips up on the Nush. You gotta know what you’re up for there,” Chris said, “because you are literally on your own. Not much I can do to help from a flying standpoint. You guys are in for an adventure,” he added. “Not many other people get to do this.” Shortly after, we found a weather window, loaded up in the float plane, and were on our way.
Jumping from the plane into cold knee-deep water was a wake-up call, but we soon had the aircraft unloaded in assembly line fashion and inflated and put together our rafts. Saying our goodbyes to our pilots, Chris and Ben, we pushed the plane upriver against the current and walked it down about 300 yards. Holding on to the plane, battling the current, battling the wind, battling the energy from the prop, we gave the thumbs-up signal and stepped back. The plane moved up an inch and quickly began speeding down the river. About 15 seconds later, the floats lifted from the water and were off with a final wave.
After a year of planning, 30 hours of traveling, a day of meal prep, and countless hours of research, we were in the middle of southwest Alaska.
It did not take long for the party to get started. Max felt his line go tight on his third cast and was locked in battle with a gorgeous Grayling. “This is the fish I came for!” Smiles were ear to ear, and the entire crew was cheering and celebrating—the first day passed with fish for all of the crew.
It only took about three hours into the first day when we encountered the first hurdle of the trip. Casting from my right shoulder to the right front of the boat, my attention was immediately caught by a blur quickly moving upstream to my left. Attempting to adjust to my target midway through my cast (not recommended by any fishing guide), I felt my rod tip dip and a literal ear-splitting pain on the left side of my head.
“I just put a hook through my ear.”
“You’re joking,” said Max. “Did you really”
I put my hand up to the top of my left ear and felt the hook deeply plunge into my cartilage. A few tugs on it were confirmed to be solidly embedded.
We pulled over, and John and Kate came over to survey the damage.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty in there.”
“What do we do?”
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), John and Kate had been in this exact situation three times in the past two months. About two months before our trip, John had sunk a size 4 Baby Gonga into his hand and went to the ER. The ER promptly pulled it out, cleaned it, and informed him that if the hook was not in the neck or eye, he could rip it out and clean it on his own. Two weeks later, this theory was tested when John and Kate were fishing in the Keys 20 miles from shore. Kate’s uncle put not just one but two hooks into his hand and foot and called upon John to rip them out.
Unfortunately, I was now the one in need of this service.
“Just rip it.”
“Are you sure?”
As soon as John ripped it out my ear (and Kate held my hand while Max held my shoulders to keep me from moving), we decided it was about time to call it a day and set up camp. Unfortunately, the campsites we had picked out on OnX were flooded with high water levels. Picking on the fly, we chose the worst possible campsite on night one. The only relative “gravel bar” we could find in the next two hours was a small island almost completely covered in vegetation. Vegetation = mosquitoes. Night one was pretty miserable and consisted of bug nets, Maxi Deet, Off, and a Thermacell.
On day two, the crew got into some huge silvers (Coho Salmon). Silvers are big and aggressive; they hammer flesh flies. Silvers look for decomposing parts of other salmon to feed on (besides feeding on eggs and small fish). Allowing a flesh fly to dead drift and giving minor “tics” by lightly and suddenly stripping the line sets you up for an incredible fight with a fantastic fish.
For a trip mainly about targeting salmon and char, the group was able to fight some incredible-looking wild rainbows. Often referred to as “Leopard Rainbows,” these fish have beautiful spots on their faces. All members of our crew were able to land many of these beautiful fish. The most notable is Kate who landed a massive, fat rainbow in a deep river bend. One rainbow, in particular, hit my streamers for the first time, emerging from behind a submerged tree. After missing the hook set six times (along with some very choice words), I finally set the hook in his mouth on the seventh hit.
A week of incredible fishing had passed us, with ridiculous stories amassed each day. But around day four or five, the dream of finding beautiful colored char found us. We had pulled over on a gravel bar as we had passed by a large school of salmon. Kate began linking up with some great fish, and it soon became evident that the char was in line with the salmon school. Unable to tell due to the char’s darker top half of the body and the glare from an overcast day, we had no idea of the fish we were about to be landing. The char were hungry. Eating everything from eggs to streamers, the crew soon caught five or six decent-sized char with beautiful colors.
Choosing to make the trip unguided was the best possible choice we could have made. We were alone in the backcountry, crushing fish and getting to celebrate it with our best friends. Unguided trips are only for some; we felt more than comfortable with our group’s combined rowing, fishing, and backpacking experience. If this trip seems too complicated, go with a guide. If you do not want to camp and can afford a lodge, that is another fantastic alternative. It is crucial to experience this type of remote backcountry adventure. Not only will you experience an adventure of a lifetime, but you will see the need to leave Bristol Bay untouched.
All in all, a blog post can’t entirely sum up the adventure we retained in Alaska. The prep, the packing, the journey, nothing compares to what it feels like to disconnect and go. You do not need thousands of dollars, sponsors, drones, video cameras, or those fancier things. The anxiety of being off the grid with no immediate medical help can only be tamed by thorough preparation and an agreement to do whatever you can to keep one another safe. Conquering fears and experiencing the wild in its most proper form is the most unique and holistic kind of therapy. What makes this trip special is going with those you love to a place you will love, doing something you love.