The Kenai River is perhaps the most famous of all of the rivers in Alaska. This is partly because this is the river that holds the record for the largest King Salmon caught by sports fishers. While that is an outstanding fact, it is not the only thing the Kenai River has going for it. It boasts some of the best King Salmon fishing in Alaska, million-plus Sockeye Salmon runs, a large run of Silver Salmon, and Rainbow Trout that can weigh 20 pounds, Dolly Varden, and Steelhead.
The Kenai River begins at Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing and flows 82 miles where it empties into Cook Inlet. The river is diverse and divides into three parts - The Upper Kenai River, the Middle Kenai River, and the Lower Kenai River. While this is all the same river, each component is different and offers something unique. You can choose to fly fish the Kenai River or use conventional gear…if you go with a guide they'll help you choose the best option for time of year and the species you are targeting. If you are interested in fly fishing learn about essential flies for Kenai Peninsula fly fishing here.
The Sterling Highway follows much of the river, which makes it accessible for both for guided fishing and DIY fishing. It is about 2-hours by car from Anchorage to Cooper Landing where the Kenai starts at Lake Kenai. The major towns along the river corridor include Cooper Landing, Sterling, Soldotna, and Kenai. Spread along the river are state-run campgrounds, a few spots to launch your boat, and trails for hiking that take you to various fishing holes.
The intensity of fishing on the Kenai River is such that people argue that this might be the very spot where the term "combat fishing" originated…although, as you'll read below, the entire river isn't like that only certain sections at specific times of the year. During peak seasons at the most popular fishing areas, you may have to wade through hundreds of anglers to vie for a place to toss flies. The Kenai River is one of the most fished rivers in all of Alaska, so the amenities around the area offer visitors lodging, fine dining, access to the river, hiking, and many other outdoor activities.
Fishing the Upper Kenai River
The Upper Kenai River is a 17-mile stretch that runs from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake. Note - Kenai Lake is a no-fishing zone. The Upper Kenai is a drift only zone as no powerboats are allowed, but there are places where designated trails lead down to the river, and you can DIY fish. Cooper Landing is at the heart of the Upper Kenai, and here you have access to King Salmon, Silver Salmon, Chum Salmon, and millions of Sockeye Salmon. On occasion, you may encounter a Pink Salmon though they tend to stay in the Lower Kenai River. Beyond the Salmon are the massive Trophy Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden and on occasion, Steelhead. The area around Cooper Landing has many amenities and fishing guides.
The Upper Kenai is a great place to hire a guide and with good reason. First, there are special permits required to fish parts of the river. The river flows through a national forest, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The King Salmon season begins in May and closes by July. There are two runs of Kings – the first run peaks by mid-June, and the second begins by July. The better time to fish for Kings is early as the season on the Upper Kenai can close early. Mid-August to September is the better time to fish for Silver Salmon in the Upper Kenai. The Sockeye runs start in mid-June and peak by Mid July. Expect Dolly Varden in the 4-6 pound range and big Rainbows from 5-20 pounds.
One of the hottest spots to fish is at the confluence of the Russian River and The Kenai River. This occurs around river mile seven. You can access this spot via the Russian River Campground and hike the trails. You can also take the Russian River Ferry across the Kenai River and access the confluence. The place is active with fishers as many of the fish in the Kenai River spawn in the Russian River.
Fishing the Middle Kenai River
The Middle Kenai River stretches from Skilak Lake to the town of Sterling. If floating the river, you'd float through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The Middle Kenai is vast and runs slow. It is a broad stretch of water that is perfect for targeting big fish, Trophy Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, and Salmon. Salmon tend to pool downstream and then dash up the Middle Kenai in large groups. This is one of the reasons this is a hot fishing spot. Big Schools of Salmon, followed by Big Trout and Big Dolly Varden, means it is easier to target Trophy Fish.
The Middle Kenai River is a drifter's paradise, though there are spots where you can DIY fish. This area of the Kenai is also A hot spot for late-season fishing. . After the Salmon have spawned the big Fat Rainbows remain. You can fish this area into the winter until the Rainbow Trout season closes. August and September are some of the best months to fish for Silver Salmon on the Kenai River.
Note: Rainbow Trout Season opens here on June 11.
Fishing the Lower Kenai River
The Lower Kenai River runs from Sterling to the Mouth, where it empties into Cook Inlet. There are two runs of King Salmon here, and the first begins in early May and peaks mid-June. Mid-July begins the second run of Kings and the Sockeye Salmon too. Sockeye show up here in the hundreds of thousands of fish. The lower Kenai is also a hot zone for Trophy Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden. The flowing water washes down salmon roe, Salmon carcasses, and other food sources that fatten up the Rainbows and Dolly Varden. You may also encounter Steelhead now and then.
The Lower Kenai River is one of the most fished areas of the entire 82-mile body of water. Powerboats are allowed here, and people drift too. There are plenty of places to fish from the banks also. Early Season Fishing remains hot as May 17 was the fabled date when the World-Record King Salmon was caught - on the Lower Kenai River.
As one of the most significant Salmon fisheries in the world, the Kenai River attracts thousands of visitors each year. The local area supports the influx of fishers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and travelers. With such a diversity of fishing and such a fantastic selection of sports fish, it is no wonder that the Kenai River is one of the most visited places in Alaska.