Know your Fisherman:
Nels is on his ninth season working in Bristol Bay. He secured his first drift permit in 2019 at age 23 and runs the F/V Coachman II.
“Fishing in Bristol Bay has taught me to expect the unexpected, work hard and hold fast. Its taught me mechanics, good judgement, troubleshooting, and how to be the fastest picker on the back deck.”
How long have you been fishing?
I’ve been fishing for eight summers in Bristol Bay. I am so excited for my ninth season up here. I secured a medical transfer last year and just purchased the permit.
How did you get into fishing?
I got into fishing because it was never really an option for me. I remember summers when I was young wondering where my dad and his brothers went to. As I got older I learned about the salty seas and sockeye that provided for our family. My dad and his three brothers have been in the bay since the ‘80s, and as I began fishing with them, I knew I would one day follow in their footsteps. Now eight summers later, I’m here.
What makes you return to Bristol Bay each fishing season?
I’m brought back to Bristol Bay each year because I’m in a slightly abusive relationship with it. I come back every year thinking things will be different, but instead get slammed around by waves, risk my hands’ and wrists’ integrity, and somehow never have enough sleep. But for some odd reason, the sunsets and salmon make up for it. I have experienced some of the most incredible views and visited the wildest places. This area of the world speaks to me. I feel connected to its waters, its people, and the lifestyle that comes with it. The sense of community here is unparalleled.
"Bristol Bay sockeye salmon are healthy. They are wild and untamed. They spend their lives swimming in the cold waters of Alaska and are as bright red as a summer sunset."
What’s special about Bristol Bay salmon?
Bristol Bay sockeye salmon are healthy. They are wild and untamed. They spend their lives swimming in the cold waters of Alaska and are as bright red as a summer sunset. They are so much better and brighter than farmed salmon. People need to see comparisons in order to understand.
Whom do you typically fish with? Tell us about your crew.
I fish with my younger brother, Stig, and best friend/adopted brother Gunner Armstrong. We have so much fun on the back deck. This will be our fourth year together. Our relationship and work ethic are so honed in and fantastic. Fishing with them doesn’t even feel like work. We have fun every day, and I wouldn’t trade summers with them for anything.
What’s it like Commercial Fishing in Bristol Bay?
Bristol Bay is a mixture of a carnival, rodeo, and race track all under a fishing umbrella. This place attracts the weirdest, wildest people from all over the world. There are big boats, small boats, fast boats, slow boats all battling it out on the line, racing to the next fishing spot.
When you close your eyes and think about being on the water in Bristol Bay, what do you see?
When I close my eyes I am flooded with memories: I see the crewmembers before me that taught me how to pick, how to drive, how to be a good fisherman. I see the net reeling off the back deck. I see walrus bobbing behind the boat. I see stormy seas and a hundred shades of Ugashik gray. I see boats squatting on the way to the tender. I see my family laughing and working hard. I see my future and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Do you have any unique fishing traditions that you do during the season?
My personal salmon tradition is picking the first and last salmon of the season. Grabbing the first fish out of the net sets the summer out right for me, focuses me, excites me. Sometimes, actually a lot of the time, Stig and I before setting do a little salmon slammin’ dance we created (there’s lots of twerking involved). But my favorite is the Fourth of July. My dad gets out the mango chutney and flambes steaks for us. We haven’t missed a summer yet.
What has Bristol Bay Taught you?
Fishing in Bristol Bay has taught me to expect the unexpected, work hard and hold fast. It’s taught me mechanics, good judgement, troubleshooting, and how to be the fastest picker on the back deck.
What is your favorite way to prepare Bristol Bay sockeye salmon?
My favorite way to prepare Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is on the grill with a little bit of black pepper, lemon slices and dill. Simple and delicious. But I can’t deny poke bowls, salmon curry, or salmon chowder.
What words of wisdom would you give to someone who was considering becoming a commercial fisherman?
PAY ATTENTION. To everything. Where you’re fishing, where you are on the back deck, what’s going on around you. Although this fishery is fun it is quite dangerous. It is imperative to ask questions and get educated. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know how to do something. Learn as much as you can.