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Fly Fishing the Kenai River

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Posted by David Lisi on

If there's one thing to say about Alaska, it's that the fishing does not disappoint. This holds especially true for fishing on the Kenai Peninsula and particularly the famed Kenai River. Anglers from all over the globe travel here each year for one simple reason: any cast could (quite literally) produce the fish of a lifetime or even more stunning, a world record. Beginning at the outlet of Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing and flowing 82 miles through Sterling, Soldotna, and the city of Kenai, where it reaches Cook Inlet, the glaciated aquamarine water boasts 14 different species of game fish, including trophy-sized rainbow trout and all five species of Pacific salmon. With a close proximity to Anchorage, spectacular scenery, abundant fish runs, and relatively easy boat and walk-in access, it is no wonder that the Kenai River is Alaska's most popular fishery; in fact, the river alone accounts for 1/5 of Alaska's total annual sport fishing. Add in the extra hours of daylight during the summer months, and you can fish 'round-the-clock, should you so desire. It truly is every angler's dream.

And by every angler, I mean any! One of the great things about the Kenai is that it has something to offer for every skill level. Whether you are just starting out or consider yourself an expert, fly fishing or casting a spinner, you will find more spots to fish along those 82 miles than you can feasibly fit into one day. The fish are numerous and often voracious, offering plenty of leniency should you blow your first shot.

Summer on the Kenai River

Summer is by far the most popular time to fish the Kenai River due to the salmon runs, but if you are versatile and fish for multiple species, such as rainbow trout and dolly varden, the river provides for year-round fishing (except for closures)! Glacial melting and runoff keep the river flowing continuously, though it is significantly decreased during winter months. However, this makes for easier wading and an altogether different experience entirely than fishing in the summer, as you can more easily make out features that are otherwise too far under the water and/or obscured by the glacial silt. I find that fishing in the winter when the water is low helps you "learn" the river, where the holes are, etc.

Three sizable drainages feed into the mainstem Kenai River: the Russian, Killey, and Moose rivers. While the mainstem Kenai River usually sees a larger portion of the action, almost every tributary lake and stream contains salmon. The Russian River is probably the most well-known among the three, due to its clear-flowing water, easy access, and sizable sockeye salmon run. It has been said that the Russian may well be "some of the best angling in the world for the species". A weir installed at the outlet of Lower Russian Lake counts the number of sockeye salmon passing into the middle and upper Russian.

The Upper, Middle and Lower Kenai River

When discussing the river and fishing, it is commonly broken into three distinct sections: the upper, middle, and lower. They each vary drastically from one another-in appearance, regulations, methods used…. They could easily be fished as three different rivers.

The Upper Kenai runs from the outlet of Kenai Lake until it reaches Skilak Lake. This area is drift-only, meaning no powerboats are permitted. It is thus much more relaxed and quiet than other parts of the river. It is not surprising that here you will find a mix of not just fishing boats, but several rafting and scenic tour boats.

The Middle Kenai begins at the outlet of Skilak Lake and ends at the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna. Here you will find a mix of drift and powerboats.

The Lower Kenai flows from the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna into Cook Inlet. This area is primarily fished via powerboat, with very few drift boats present. It is here that you will find the largest concentration of bigger King salmon, making it congested on both shore and boat during the peak salmon fishing seasons.

Fishing for Salmon

As with most salmon, those of the Kenai River are anadromous, meaning they are born in freshwater, migrate to sea after up to two years, spend one to six years in the ocean, growing to adult size, and then return to the place of their birth to reproduce. After spawning, the salmon die off, leaving behind their offspring to carry on. If you fish the Kenai, or any water containing anadromous fish, throughout the summer, you can observe for yourself this life cycle-it is fascinating!

The Kenai River is most well-known for the massive King, or Chinook, salmon it produces. The world record King salmon caught on rod and reel weighed 97 pounds 4 ounces and was caught on this river in 1985; test netting has found some specimens weighing up to 106 pounds. Kings are usually the first salmon to enter back into the river and consist of two distinct runs or pulses, the first pulse being in May (the "early run") and June, and the second run (the "late run") being in July and August. In years past, it was estimated that the total drainage population was 50,000 to 75,000, although there has been some concern more recently about the decreasing numbers of King salmon returning every year. The early run fish are typically headed for clearwater tributaries and smaller, about 20 to 40 pounds, while the late run spawn in the mainstem and average 30 to 50 pounds-though they can get up to 70 or 80 pounds. The Middle and Lower river are more popular King fishing locations and generally done by backtrolling out of a boat, as the river is wide and deep with heavy current, and migration patterns suggest that the Kings prefer deeper holes. If you are looking to get after it on your own, there are a few spots to fish from shore, namely Centennial Campground and the boardwalk near the Sterling Highway Bridge.

Right up there in popularity with the King salmon is the sockeye salmon(or reds, as they are commonly called), largely due to the incredible numbers pouring into the river (estimated in the millions) and the fact that they are often considered the best fish for the menu! These fish are usually second behind the King salmon, to return into the river, with the first run returning in June (mainly headed for the Russian River) and the second run following in mid-July. After about three weeks in the river, the sockeye salmon will have lost any trace of silver color and look more so like the green-headed, red-bodied fish that is so often depicted. Females will deposit up to 4,500 eggs, and all sockeye will die within approximately ten days of reproductive activity, about six to seven weeks after entering the river.

Silver, or coho, salmon arrive later in the season but are a favorite of many anglers due to how aggressively they take a fly or lure and the epic battle that follows after! These fish typically arrive after the King and sockeye, showing up in late July and also running the latest, sometimes even into October. While the exact number that enter the river is unknown, it is estimated to be about 100,000-150,000. Silvers can be found throughout the entirety of the river. As with the King salmon and sockeye salmon, silver salmon appear in two distinct runs, with the first run headed more so for tributaries and the second run for the mainstem river. A slight overlap typically occurs in September, where some fish may not fit into either run. Also as with the other salmon species, the second run may hold slightly larger fish than the first, with some even nearing the 20 pound mark. While most salmon will follow the same life cycle as sockeye and die within ten days of spawning, some stocks have a considerably longer lifespan in freshwater. Personally, I have observed a few into January and even some into mid-March!

Pink salmon is the most abundant species in the river; however, they only show up in sizable numbers during even years. When they do arrive, however, they can reach well into the millions and on a similar schedule to the coho salmon. These salmon are also commonly referred to as "humpys", due to the large hump they will develop on their back as they come into their spawning stage.

While some Chum, salmon can be found in the Kenai River drainage, they are not as common as the other species. Their numbers are estimated to only be in the hundreds-to put it in perspective, some claim to have fished the Kenai their entire lives without catching a single one. And that's probably just as well! They are commonly referred to as "dog salmon" and not desirable for human consumption in the fresh water… more so fit for the dogs.

Trophy Rainbow Trout & More

Outside of salmon, the Kenai River is home to sportfishing for another prized species: rainbow trout. And as with King salmon, the rainbow trout of the Kenai have the potential to grow substantially larger than other rivers in Alaska. You will often hear anglers talk about the magical, trophy rainbow trout "30" - for 30 inches. Though not an every day occurrence, one could indeed land a 30 inch trout out of the Kenai. There are chances to come close to it as well, but most fish will fall within the 8-20 inch range. Regardless of size, they all have one thing in common-their fight. Spending their lives in the heavy currents of the Kenai turns an encounter with even the smallest rainbow into a battle. Many head to the area for the trout fishing alone, as there is no shortage (it is estimated that 43,000 rainbow trout are caught and released annually in the mainstem river alone), particularly when the salmon are spawning and begin to die off. The trout will gorge themselves on the eggs and flesh of the salmon, which leads to those aforementioned epic proportions.

Caught as frequently as rainbows, and perhaps just as fun, are dolly varden. Though appearing somewhat similar to a trout in size and fight, these fish are actually a char. They are renowned for their beautiful spawning colors, which will turn their spots bright pink and orange. Typical size is 10-20 inches, but catching a dolly of 25 inches is not unheard of. Trophy fish weighing 18 pounds have been recorded. Much like the rainbow trout of the Kenai, these fish will be present in the river and can be caught year-round.

There are smaller numbers of whitefish, grayling, steelhead trout, lake trout, Arctic char, northern pike, and burbot in the river system, which are occasionally caught. In the lower river, ocean species such as flounder and halibut may be found.

With all of that information, it's pretty apparent the Kenai is an angler's paradise; with large runs of fish passing through and the popularity of the Kenai River as a sport fishing destination, there is one to-be-expected experience, especially if you are fishing for sockeye salmon. If you've ever wondered where the term "combat fishing" originated, look no further. Thousands of anglers fish here every day during peak seasons, and this most commonly involves "flipping" for sockeye salmon. You've likely seen the pictures of anglers standing two or three deep, shoulder-to-shoulder. And while horror stories of verbal assaults and fist fights breaking out may deter one from exploring all that the region has to offer, it is more likely that you will find a sense of camaraderie at the more popular locales… though it may be a lesson in patience and respect.

There are a few unwritten rules here when fishing in close proximity to fellow anglers, which are mainly common sense. When trying one of these places for the first time, it may be wise to stand back and observe for a few moments to get the gist of it. For your own safety(!), give those around you enough room to cast; getting whacked with a rod or hook will be highly unpleasant. The same goes if you're the one casting; be aware and in control of where your line is going, and don't be the one flinging line around to make a point or keep people at a longer distance from you. The casts required are typically very short (hence, "flipping"), so there is no need for helicoptering, dramatic Spey casting anchor placement techniques, or hero casts. Additionally, don't walk in on top of someone. If you absolutely must fish exactly where they are fishing, definitely wait your turn. While you may have areas you like to fish and frequent, on public waterways, there's no such thing as "your" spot. Avoid casting over someone else's line-you will not make friends this way. If an area is being heavily fished, you may observe that there is a cadence or sequence to how everyone is casting. Follow suit. Most importantly, an angler with a fish on has the right-of-way; reel up to avoid accidentally crossing lines while they're fighting the fish. Fish will fight and run once hooked, and they won't care what's going on above the surface; it's just the nature of it.

Another important point and common mistake by anglers-make sure you have read and thoroughly understand the regulations. There is an entire section of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Sport Fishing Regulation book dedicated to the Kenai River, and it can be extremely confusing at times, particularly closures. You will also need to check for Emergency Orders on the ADF&G website before you head out for the day; these can change at a moment's notice. If you don't know, ask! It's better than risking a citation. The complications of the regulations and sometimes tough access are why many visitors opt to fish with a licensed guide on the Kenai River. The guides must attend a guide academy before they are allowed to conduct a trip, which includes extensive training on regulations! Most vacationers are only going to be fishing for a small part of their trip and would rather rely on the guide's expertise and knowledge than try to learn a whole new set of rules.

So with the chance of catching a fish of a lifetime, a limit of a variety of salmon species or some casual catch-and-release fishing, the Kenai River truly offers ideal fishing to match your experience level and expectations. Communicating with knowledgeable locals and guides will definitely give you a great idea of when the best time to visit is for the particular experience you're looking for. With that, good luck out there and we'll see you on the river! Tight Lines!

About the Author: David Lisi

Owner/Guide for Cooper Landing Fishing Guide, LLC located in the small mountain town of Cooper Landing, Alaska where he is a year-round resident, guide, carpenter and trout bum. On any given day, you will most likely find Dave on the banks of the Kenai swinging for trout with his best friend and future wife, Jackie. Dave spent most days of his youth wading the waters of upstate New York fishing for smallmouth bass, muskie, pike and walleye. His journey to Alaska was sparked by a chance fishing trip on the Salmon River in New York with Mike Harpe, a legendary guide on the Kenai River. After the fishing day was done, Mike invited Dave to Alaska to fish the mighty Kenai River. At that time, Dave thought fishing Alaska was a pipe dream and didn't arrive in Alaska until several years later to take Mike up on his offer to fish the Kenai with him. Once in Alaska, Dave fell in love with the Kenai's mystical waters and the amazing fishing opportunities. He began his guiding career almost immediately and found a place to call home. Cooper Landing Fishing Guide, LLC was built in early 2017 with the goal of sharing the love and passion Dave and Jackie have for the Kenai Peninsula and the fish that live there.

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