Humbled by Kings

The author eventually guided his clients to king salmon glory but called his initial effort “embarrassing.” (photo courtesy Miles Nolte)

My first year guiding clients in Bristol Bay

[by Miles Nolte]


Trout brought me to Alaska. I dreamt of fishing for them since childhood but never had the resources. I spent my mid-twenties fishing in Montana. Waiting at a pizza spot covered my necessities: food, rent and gas to reach the local rivers. I kept my heat set at 52 degrees in winter. Montana was fantastic, but it wasn’t Alaska, and no matter how low I dropped the thermostat, I couldn’t save enough to get there.

After searching, I found a job guiding for a lodge in Bristol Bay. Never mind that I hadn’t guided before or piloted a jet boat or even seen a salmon. I knew how to fish well enough and felt sure everything would be fine. And it was. Mostly.

That June, I entered vicarious nirvana. Two-foot rainbows hid in every soft-water seam and devoured clients’ flies indiscriminately. By July, I could drive the jet boats, navigate the upper 10 miles of the river and consistently get clients into trout, but I had yet to see a salmon.

In mid-July, the owner told me that I would work a week-long, two-boat raft trip. Our float trips usually targeted rainbows beginning upstream of camp at the river’s headwater lake and terminating six days and 20 river miles later at a long, wide straightaway where a Beaver can land safely. This one would be different.

Landing a job guiding in the Bristol Bay region allowed the author to live his dream of fishing for Alaska’s huge rainbow trout. (photo by Tosh Brown)

“These guys want to go all the way down to tidewater. They want kings,” the lodge owner informed me.

“That’s like 60 miles. Why don’t we start at mid-river and float down from there?” I asked.

“Because they want trout, too.”

He had me there–trout numbers in that river system increase in the upstream reaches–but my protests continued.

“But I’ve never even seen a king salmon. How am I supposed to guide for them?”

“We’ll stash a jon boat at your last campsite. I’ll draw you a map. It’s easy… Just backtroll plugs in the deep, slow water on the outside bends. A monkey can do it.”

Four Brits—three very nice fellows and their impossible-to-please friend— arrived for the big float trip. The fourth proved problematic from the start. He informed us of his zero-carb diet after we handed him a plate of pasta for the first night’s dinner. This information should have been delivered in the pre-trip form that asks about dietary restrictions.

The trout in the upper reaches cooperated, and the fishing was excellent for the first two days. Carb-free guy remained unimpressed, not seeing the point in catch-and-release angling. We arrived at tidewater just before dark on the fifth day. The lodge owner had, as promised, stashed a skiff and a cache of fuel.

In the morning, carb-free guy was sprightly. King fishing had been his idea. He wanted to eat fresh salmon for his last night and couldn’t wait to catch one. I was sore from five days of hard rowing, setting up and breaking down camp, but also excited to try king fishing.

The next morning, three boats from another lodge appeared in front of our camp. I sipped coffee and watched them side drift an outside bend. Two boats hooked up on the first pass. Carb-free
guy noticed.

“Looks like they’re biting today, eh?” He grinned at me.

“Seems that way.” I tried to sound confident.

Miles Nolte with a sockeye salmon during his days as a guide in Alaska.

I knew the boats weren’t backtrolling, but I had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it. My fellow guide had no clue either, and with only one jon boat, we ro-sham-beauxed to see who would take the guys fishing. I should have chosen rock.

The next six hours were some of the most embarrassing of my life. I spun baffled circles through every deep bend I could find, praying for a strike. The closest we got to excitement were the half-dozen plugs lost to logjams.

Carb-free guy spent the day complaining, mocking me or pouting. We finally gave up and headed back to camp. After unloading the boat, I entered the cook tent and did not come out until they had all gone to bed, not sure if I was angry at myself for being a monkey or at the lodge owner for setting me up to fail.

I went on to guide three seasons for that lodge. I learned how to catch kings—backtrolling, side drifting and swinging flies. They never supplanted trout as my first love, but I developed respect for them and the chaotic power of their runs, and how they could be finicky one minute and angrily stupid the next.

Carb-free guy never got to see me be successful though. He didn’t come back any of my subsequent seasons.