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World Class Fishing: THE KENAI

By Jim Durkin

The Kenai River is one of Alaska’s premier sport fishing destinations. Clearly the most popular river in Alaska, anglers from all over the world fish the Kenai River each season. With trophy Chinook salmon caught every year, it’s no wonder why so many anglers can’t resist this world-class fishery. The Kenai River, flowing approximately 80 miles in length, sits on the Kenai Peninsula just a short drive from Anchorage. For a first time visitor to Alaska, the Kenai River is mind blowing with its glacially fed brilliant blue waters. The river is best fished from a boat, but offers bank fishermen a great shot at catching fish. However, there is more to the river than just the fishing. Many residents of Alaska make their lively hood from the rivers resources. Conservation efforts are being made to keep the Kenai River one of Alaska’s best fisheries. 

The Kenai River is in a class of its own. The river supports a healthy population of Chinook (king), Sockeye (red), and Coho (silver) Salmon every year. The king salmon that call the Kenai home are like no other. They are truly the world’s biggest salmon and deserve respect. The Kenai River supports one of Alaska’s few road accessible red salmon fisheries. The reds that return to the Kenai enter the river by the thousands. It is truly amazing how many fish are in the river at one time. With literally hundreds of thousands of fish in the river, it can be very easy to catch your limit. The silver salmon that return to the Kenai are absolutely astounding. They are very large and full of fight adding to the many attractions of the river. The Kenai is also known for it trophy size rainbow trout and dolly varden. In late August and early September, the river is second to none when it comes to rainbow trout fishing.

Each species of fish requires certain techniques and presentations to effectively pursue. Seasons and run times vary each year as well. Anglers must also decide which section of river to fish as it is broken up into three sections; the upper, middle, and lower river. The following paragraphs provide a description of the river, tackle and techniques used by some of the top guides, and the best time to fish the Kenai River.

Upper River

The upper 30-mile section of river flows out of Kenai Lake at Cooper Landing. There is a public boat launch at the mouth of Kenai Lake that allows rafters, drift boaters and other recreational users easy access to the upper stretches of river. For the most part, the upper river contains class I waters. This makes it very easily to navigate for a novice rafter. However, there are several rocks and gravel bars that rafters should be aware of before setting out on the river. Talking with an experienced rafter is advised. Maps of the river are available at most tackle shops in the area. 

The river passes by the several businesses in Cooper Landing and makes its way past the popular Russian River tributary. Just below the Russian River is the Kenai River ferry. This ferry is a popular way for thousands of anglers to get across the Kenai River each season for fishing on the far bank. This area of river is mostly crowded with shore anglers. From the ferry down to Jim’s landing lye miles of picturesque Alaskan scenery with exceptional fishing. Below Jim’s landing is the Kenai River canyon that should only be floated by experienced rafters. This section of river flows through the canyon opening into Skilak Lake.

The river from Kenai Lake to Jim’s Landing runs along the Sterling highway for the majority of its length, only steering away in certain sections. A redeeming quality of this section of river is that it is concealed by trees and vegetation and is only accessible from the road in certain sections. This allows for a peaceful float with some beautiful scenery. 

Guides and outfitters are located on the upper section of river if desired. Curt Trout of Alaska Troutfitters, is one of the top guides on this section of river. He primarily guides with fly rod and reel and also has an instructional school for anglers wanting to learn to fly fish. Curt has developed his own special technique for fishing the river that is deadly for catching fish. His outfit specializes in fishing for trout and dollies but often takes anglers out for reds and silvers. He supplies everything an angler will need for a day on the Upper Kenai. Curt recommends fishing below the ferry for the best action and finds fishing in August to be the most productive for trout and dolly varden.

Middle River

The middle section of river flows from Skilak Lake to the Soldotna Bridge. This section of the Kenai River is the most remote section of the entire waterway. There is a ten-mile stretch with no boat access. Very few houses, roads, or people occupy the area. Bears, moose, waterfowl and other Alaskan wildlife are viewed in this section of river making it a true wilderness experience. 

The middle section of river is generally low in the early part of the season, making boat travel above Bings landing very difficult. The water rises throughout the summer and provides better conditions for boaters. Some of the more favorable fishing holes in the middle section of river are only accessible via boat. However, shore fishing is available near Bings landing for reds and silvers. 

Several miles below Skilak Lake are some of the most productive trout waters on the river. Similar to other sections of the river, trout fishing is optimal in late summer/early fall. Silver salmon fishing is also phenomenal in this part of river. The Middle River sees less action from guides and anglers than other section of river because of its remote logistics. 

Lower River

Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula by Dave Atcheson The lower Kenai River runs from the Soldotna Bridge to the Cook Inlet. It passes through the town of Soldotna and flows through the Kenai River Flats. Before it empties into the Cook Inlet, it also passes by the town of Kenai. The lower section of river has several rocks and sandbars that boaters should take note of, making it a difficult section of river to navigate if you have not spent many hours on the river. It is also very crowded with boaters, which adds to the difficulty. 
There are many houses, businesses, and people who occupy the surrounding property around the river. However, you may see eagles, moose and an occasional bear while fishing the lower river. There are also several boat launches that make access very easy. The lower river sees the most fishermen during the months of June and July for its king runs. This second run of kings has made the Kenai famous and is arguably the best time to fish for king salmon. 

The lower river does not carry high success rates for king salmon. That does not mean there aren't days where multiple hook ups take place, because there are. In fact, there are many days where the fishing action is spectacular. However, don’t count on it for the lower river. Just remember, there is always the possibility for a new world record. That’s what makes the Kenai River like no other river and keeps many anglers returning.

There are nearly 400 registered guides who fish the Kenai River. So finding a guided to take you fishing should not be a problem. However, quantity does not always mean quality. I have fished with many guides on the lower river and hands down the Fenton Bros. top them all. Mike and Murray Fenton operate out of Soldotna and are experts at fishing the lower and middle river. When other anglers have a hard time hooking up with fish, these guys are netting fish. Last season, the Fenton Bros landed numerous fish in the fifty to sixty pound class. Keep in mind the Fenton Bros are not magicians, so they can’t make fish appear. I personally fish with them every season and can attest to their knowledge and hard work trying to put their clients on fish. 

SALMON RUN TIMES

April/May

The Kenai River is like no other river in the sense that there are two different distinct runs for each of the three sought after salmon. Run times vary slightly each year but typically follow the same pattern as to when the fishing gets hot. Kings actually start entering the river sometime in April. Reports of kings being caught usually start to surface around the last week in April. There are fishable numbers by mid May. Remember that the world record was caught in May 11th so don’t rule out an early trip for kings. Some guides actually prefer to fish early because of lower water levels. 

June

Returning king salmon numbers have fluctuated during the first run in past years. Subsequently the fishing was closed by emergency order in 2002 and restricted to catch and release in 2000. However a strong return in 2003 provided anglers with the phenomenal early run king salmon fishing. 

The Kenai River early run king salmon season remains January 1 through June 30, with a daily bag limit of one fish and a seasonal limit of 2 king salmon per year. Only king salmon less than 44 inches in length or 55 inches in length or greater, can be harvested during the first run. 

Only king salmon less than 44 inches or 55 inches in length or greater may be for harvest from January 1 through July 14 upstream from the Soldotna Bridge to the ADFG markers at the outlet of Skilak Lake. From January 1 through July 31, any Kenai River king salmon harvested that is 55 inches in length or greater must be sealed by ADFG or Fish & Wildlife Protection personnel in Soldotna within 3 days of harvest. From May 1 through June 30, non-resident anglers are prohibited from fishing from a boat in the Kenai River, downstream from Skilak Lake during the hours of 6pm. to 6am. Non-resident anglers may only fish from shore during this period. Before you fish the Kenai River in June, make sure you know the current the regulations.

As the kings are making their way through the river throughout the month of June, red salmon are simultaneously right behind them. The first run of reds through the river are headed for the Russian River tributary as they make their way through the lower and middle section of river at record speed. The fishing starts picking up after the 10th of June and remains steady throughout the entire month. The peak time for the early run of reds is around the 15th through the 20th of June. The best fishing occurs in the upper stretches of river. 

July

The second run of kings, determined by the date of July 1st, is a larger run of fish in numbers. These fish primarily spawn in the lower section of the main channel so the fish are highly concentrated and in good numbers. This also means guides and anglers are concentrated in the lower section too. The fishing can become very crowded in July and often creates a social event as boaters swap fishing stories as they wait for their turn to fish the whole. The guides and private anglers are extremely conscious and courteous to one another so that a day on the water in July is very enjoyable. The crowds and excitement are an important part of fishing the Kenai River and not to be missed. You never know when that 100 pound fish is going to be landed. 

By the end of the first week in July, the second run of kings is generally in full swing and continues to improve as the month goes on. The second run peaks somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd week in July. However, the fishing remains constant until the end of the season on August 1st. 

The second run of reds hits the Kenai the second week in July and last through the first part of August. The fishing gets hot in the middle of July and peaks somewhere between the 20th and 30th. Typically, fishing for reds is from the bank and is referred to as combat fishing. This is common on the upper and lower sections of river. However, it is not uncommon for 10 to 20 people to hook up simultaneously in a very small section of water. The fishing is usually shoulder to shoulder and for good reason, there are thousands of fresh sockeye salmon making their passage to their spawning grounds. Kenai River by Anthony Route

August

As the second run of reds is entering the river in July, the silvers are starting to make their final quest to Kenai River spawning grounds as well. Silvers start to enter the river by the fourth week in July and have good fishable numbers by early August. The fishing is exceptional throughout the month of August and the peaks the by the 3rd week or 4th week. 

The second run of silvers start entering the river in early September and continues to run strong until the end of October. The last several years, fishing has been closed to anglers in October. 

Seasons, bag limits, and closed fishing areas change every year. A current regulation booklet should be available when you purchase your fishing license. If one is not available, contact Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the current regulations on the Kenai River. 

TACKLE AND TECHNIQUE

There are a variety of different tackle and fishing techniques that are used when fishing the Kenai River. Some work better than others and some are more appropriate in certain water and weather conditions. But for the most part, there are only a handful of set-ups used on the Kenai River. Deciding what species to go after may be the hardest decision you’ll have to make. Whether it is kings, silvers, reds, or trout and dollies that capture your attention, there are proven tackle and techniques that work on the Kenai River. Anglers have long been using the same presentations for good reason, success. Here are some of the tackle set-ups and fishing techniques broken down by species.

Kings

One of the most popular rigs is the Spin-n-glow. Spin-n-glows work effectively by themselves and are commonly used by guides and your everyday anglers. Spin-N- glows are used in combination with salmon eggs in July. King salmon love salmon eggs and to many, there is no better way to catch kings than this method. Spin-N-glows are easy to purchase in Alaska so do not panic if your local tackle shop in the lower 48 does not carry them. 

The second set-up for catching Kings is fishing with plugs. The larger size (K-15 or K-16) quick fish plugs are suggested, and are used with jet planers (divers) because of their ability to take the plug to the bottom of the river. Using plugs with flashy colors helps provoke a strike and is highly recommended. In addition to using flashy colored plugs, some anglers use sardines or herring to wrap around the plugs. The sardines and herring can be tied on in a variety of different ways but small rubber bands hold the longest.

The third and final rig used for kings is a vibrex. Using a vibrex spinner that is flashy can be exceptionally effective. They are used more effectively when water conditions are just right. A chrome #5 Vibrex will operate just as well as any other lure or bait. 

The first and most common method for king fishing s back trolling. It is generally used with a spin-N-glow and eggs or with a plug. The back trolling technique allows the boat to drift with or at the speed close too the flow of the current, thus controlling the speed and depth of the lure. Using a diver not only takes the lure to the fish but it improves the presentation. 

The drifting technique applies the same principles as back trolling with a slight variation. This technique allows the boat to drift with the current allowing the lure to gently drag or bounce off the bottom. The appropriate weight is needed depending on speed and depth of the water. An 18” inch gap between lure and weight is recommend which will improve the movement of the lure as well as help keep it close to the bottom. 

A somewhat new technique used on the lower Kenai River is back bouncing. This method requires the boat operator to slowly back the boat through a hole while the fisherman bounces the lure off the bottom. Spin-N-glows with eggs work well with this technique with the weight weighing anywhere from 4 to 9 ounces. Again, the weight should be placed 18” inches above the lure for depth and presentation. If used correctly, it is a very deadly fishing method on the lower river. 

Kenai River king salmon can reach up words of eighty to ninety pounds. The world record was 97lb. caught in 1985. Granted, this is not the typical. But most years, there are fish caught in the 70 to 80lb. weight class. In fact, a 50lb fish is considered a trophy on the Kenai. Fishing for King salmon in this weight category can be the most technical fishing an angler will ever do. Every condition has to be just right in order to land a fish of that size and power. 

Silvers

Fishing for Coho salmon in the lower stretches of the Kenai River is comparable to fishing for kings. All the same lures and techniques apply. There are some aspects of the fishing that change for silvers though. Size of the lure and all around lighter tackle set up is usually preferred which makes their fight much more enjoyable. A 15 to 20lb test line is adequate. The “no anchor” restriction is lifted during silver salmon season so anchoring up and drifting on bottom or casting pixies and vibrex is a common method.

One thing to remember when fishing the tidal water for silvers is that they are very vulnerable to catch and release. Silvers suffer a high mortality rate (70%) when released close to tidal areas. If you fish a tidal area, take your limit and stop fishing. 

Similar methods are employed in the middle stretches of the Kenai. Back trolling with plugs is a popular method. Again, another sure way to have multiple hook-ups with silvers is by anchoring up and casting with a pixie or vibrex. 

The upper Kenai holds some fantastic fishing for silver as well. The advantage to fishing the upper Kenai for silvers is the abundance of bank fishing available. There are miles of riverbank available that are within walking distance of the road or ferry. But remember the upper section of river has a few restriction anglers and guides must follow. Single hook artificial presentation is only method allowed. In addition, there is a no motorized boat restriction. 

Reds

Fishing for sockeye salmon on the Kenai River is one of the most popular fishing spots in the state. A generous bag limit with large salmon returns makes it very appealing for anglers to pursue reds. Also, many anglers feel that out of all the salmon species, the sockeye is the most palatable. The lower, middle, and upper sections of river have fantastic red salmon fishing. One of the most poplar fishing locations for reds is at the confluence of the Russian river.

A sparsely tied fly with an orange and white color will work fine for reds. Anglers often use the Russian river coho fly for reds. A moderately priced rod and reel set up is capable of tackling the fight of a red. A 15 to 20lb. test line is acceptable. The technique used for fishing for reds is to cast up stream at 3o’clock and let the fly drift down stream until it gets to 9 o’clock, then retrieve. Reds swim up river continually opening and closing their mouths. The idea is to get the right depth with your weight, place your line in their mouths, and then set the hook. I have found that when reds are not spooked, they will take a sparsely colored fly just as often as any other salmon in Alaska and this method of fishing is not necessary. 

Trout/Dolly Varden

The Kenai River is well known for its excellent trout fishing. Both guides and private anglers support the catch and release of trout on the Kenai River. It is world class trout fishing with a conservation effort that will help maintain the river as one of the best trout fisheries in the state. Trout and dolly varden can be caught on all stretches of the river. Very large trout are caught in the lower portion of the river incidentally while anglers are fishing for kings and silvers. In the middle section of river, the trout fishing is excellent all season long but improves considerably as the reds and silvers start to spawn. The fishing really takes off by August and peaks in September/October. Fly-fishing is the most common method used to pursue trout and dolly varden. Flesh flies, sculpins and nymphs are popular as well as beads (color of salmon eggs). Match the hatch! 

The Kenai River has many different techniques and presentations for a variety of different fish species. Fishing the Kenai River is truly an Alaskan experience and should not be missed by anyone. Anglers visiting Alaska should fish all three section of the river if possible. In reality, they are three completely different rivers all sharing the same characteristics of great fishing. Each section of river offers the angler something different than the other. Although some may say that the Kenai is too crowded to fish for reds and not enough action for kings, there is no river quit like it in Alaska. Where else can you catch a king salmon of a life time, the tastiest sockeyes for table fare, and trophy rainbows all in the same day. 

Some of the best guides in the business call the Kenai River their office. They are second to none when it comes to dedication and experience. The guides I have listed in this article are just a few of the many guides who work the river that are reputable. I highly recommend using a guide your first time out on the river. In a study done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, guided anglers have experienced higher success rates than non-guided anglers since 1981. If you’re looking for a guided trip on the Upper Kenai River, contact Curt Trout at (907) 595-1212. If you are looking to fish the lower section of river, contact Mike and Murray Fenton at (907) 262-2502. And remember, a trip to Alaska would not be complete without fishing the world renowned Kenai River. 

Jim Durkin is an avid Alaska angler and frequent contributor to the Outdoors Alaska fishing and hunting forums.  He lives in Anchorage.


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