August 03, 2021
Early on a cool September morning, guide Tyler Gottfredson launches his wooden, wide-body drift boat at the Kenai River State Park boat ramp just below Kenai Lake and the Milepost 48 Sterling Highway bridge. Two other anglers and I don chest waders, ready our gear and step into the lengthy boat for the 14-mile float down the famed Kenai’s Middle Section past Juneau and Cooper Creeks and the Russian River.
Using fly rods, we gently cast salmon-egg imitations with trailing stinger hooks off each side of the boat during our drift downstream. I have an immediate hookup and reel in a hungry, 18-inch-long rainbow, while one of my partners boats a similar-size Dolly Varden trout.
Soon, the third angler in our party is fighting another feisty rainbow to Tyler's waiting net. Ten minutes later, a chunky Dolly chases down my salmon egg and battles against my light tackle.
After quick releases, we continue to drift downstream and immediately hook up with two more Kenai River trout, this time both fat rainbows. Our guide works overtime on the net while controlling the boat through a series of swift runs.
He carefully maneuvers the craft with his oars—motors aren't allowed in this section—so that we can enjoy the gorgeous scenery, eagles and other wildlife.
Focusing on the hot fishing spots in the river, we leave the boat five or six times to wade thigh-deep and roll-cast our egg flies to prime areas. The action continues almost non-stop for the five-hour jaunt. We catch and release nearly 40 trout, and we’re treated to a moose that steps out of the Chugach National Forest as we float by. Welcome to the Kenai Peninsula.
The River’s Bounty
Although we boat rainbows and Dolly Vardens up to 21 inches long, Gottfredson, who is guiding for Alaska River Adventures (ARA) during this trip, says bigger trout swim in the Kenai. His largest trout from the river was a 29 1/2-inch rainbow. The largest ever reported from the Kenai was a whopping 42 inches in length.
Quite a few rainbows in the 12- to 15-pound range are caught and released each week in the summer and early fall, according to ARA outfitter George Hein. Hein was one of the first to start an outfitting operation on the peninsula 40 years ago in the historic town of Cooper Landing. Today, he can attest that there is quite a bit of fishing pressure on the beautiful Kenai waters.
The ARA operation is one of the few in the region with permits to float the entire Upper Kenai River from Kenai Lake to the glacier-carved Skilak Lake and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Hein conducts "walk and stalk" trips using drift boats to move anglers downstream and also offers all-inclusive lodging adventure packages. When the weather warrants, more fishing is done from the boats than by wading, although the outfitter provides each angler with chest waders.
A float trip down the Kenai may be the best way to take in Mother Nature's exquisite creation on the peninsula. The beautiful headwaters run through the Kenai Moose Refuge, and the river twists and turns through canyons, hills and lowland forests for about 82 miles to Cook Inlet.
The Kenai's depth varies from 6 inches to 10 or 15 feet in some pools, and there are a few small rapids that hold fish as well. Plenty of rocks, boulders and gravel bars slow the current and provide sanction for the abundant fish. Numerous islands and back channels all along the twisting river offer great habitat for trout spawning and growth.
Timing the Action
The Kenai’s rainbows start spawning in May, and the fishing season usually starts around the second week of June. Action continues on through September and October. Prime time for Dolly Varden trout is also mid-June through October. Silver (coho) salmon make their seasonal runs from mid-August to the end of October, while king (chinook) salmon are found in the river's deepest and fastest waters from mid-May to the end of July. In fact, eight of the 10 world-record kings were caught in the Kenai.
All the fish in the Kenai are native, notes Gottfredson. Along with the trout, we catch a half-dozen Arctic char up to 24 inches in length and a few sockeye salmon up to 10 pounds. Arctic char and Dolly Varden are in the same family, and they can be difficult for an inexperienced angler to discern. Identifying the two is where a good guide can help. Gottfredson points out that Arctic char have more of an orange color and black lips.
The rainbow trout fishery in the Kenai is interestingly linked to the river’s salmon fishery. The average harvest of sockeye salmon in the Kenai is a quarter-million fish. A good portion of those carcasses go back into the river after they’ve been filleted, according to ARA guide Ty Wyatt.
"That creates a lot of nutrients that normally wouldn't be there for the trout to eat," the guide notes. "Thus, a lot of our trout are flesh eaters, and they will attack a carcass. Some of the biggest rainbow trout are right in the Middle Kenai River section, and it is not uncommon to get a 20-pounder.
"In the premier Upper Kenai, which runs through a narrow mountain valley, an angler can keep Dollies or rainbows that are 16 inches and under," Wyatt said. "In the Middle Kenai River, anglers can keep only one of each 18 inches or under. The gin-clear Russian River area off the Kenai has an artificial food source for bears because of the fish-cleaning and the carcasses that folks discard."
Wyatt says another reason that anglers catch larger rainbow trout here is because the fish spawn intermittently. The rainbows obtain a larger size because they may spawn only every other year.
"In Alaska, the resident fish don't typically spawn every year because the season is too short," the guide explains. "They skip a year, so a large amount of their energy goes toward growth instead of spawning. You will catch rainbows of different sizes with different life spans."
The Dollies are a lake fish and they seek a lake-type environment, Wyatt notes, but they come back to the rivers to spawn. They ravenously eat salmon eggs in the river.
On a following day, I arrange a fly-out trip with ARA and Wyatt to Big River Lake, about 60 miles northwest of Homer at the base of Mount Redoubt in the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The beautiful 10,500-foot mountain and others nearby, all in the volcanic Aleutian Range, control the weather around the scenic lake. Our float plane this morning is met with a very low cloud ceiling, heavy fog and light rain. After a short flight over Cook Inlet, we land safely, board our waiting boat and head off after silver salmon.
Wyatt spent 16 summers in Alaska, splitting his early years working in fishery research for both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, before becoming a guide. He has helped clients catch fish on the Kenai Peninsula for more than 13 years. He and I are fishing where two glacial rivers come into the lake, and the silvers typically head there to spawn.
"Silvers tend to be in rivers and seek out the slack waters, so to catch them in a lake is unique at least for Alaska," Wyatt says. "Our silver salmon fishing here is usually better on days when it's overcast and rainy. We caught over 30 two days ago on this fly-out trip."
Wyatt and I fish salmon eggs both on the bottom and under a float, some spinners and even a few crankbaits as we search for active fish. The silver salmon bite that had been great just two days earlier is slow. We catch two small silvers and three sockeyes that range larger, from about 6 to 10 pounds.
"That’s unusual," Wyatt says as it becomes clear the sockeyes are winning the size game this morning. "In general, silvers are the third-biggest salmon and grow to over 20 pounds, and sockeyes are the fourth biggest. The silvers spend about 18 months in the ocean and then come in to spawn and die, while sockeyes spend three to five years in the ocean and then one to two years in freshwater."
In a shroud of fog and light mist, we pull up to a small tributary and see a huge school of salmon in the clear waters. They bask in 4 to 6 feet of water below a small runoff from the steep bank. A mixture of some 60 or 70 sockeye and silver salmon swim around the clump of pink eggs that I cast in front of them. Initially they pay no attention to the attractive offering. Then one fish darts for the fare, grabs it and takes off. The others scatter, and I notice a large red streak bulling away from the area, pulling my drag.
The 10-pound sockeye isn’t our focus, but the fight is thrilling. I finally turn the fish and it comes rocketing back between our boat and the bank. About 15 feet behind the sockeye I see a much smaller silver salmon seemingly trying to keep up. I turn the front fish again and work it closer to the boat, and then I realize the silver salmon is actually hooked while the big sockeye is just caught in the line! The battle has almost concluded when the sockeye finally rolls over on the surface and swims away unencumbered. I land the small silver as the rain continues to fall.
The beautiful Kenai Peninsula and the surrounding area offer great trout and salmon fishing for a variety of species in south-central Alaska’s numerous waterways. I was well aware of this before I made the trip. Still, I’m surprised to catch two species on one line. The Kenai’s abundance must be experienced to be truly appreciated.
Kenai Peninsula Trip Planner
After fishing, venture inland to tour Denali glaciers.
Alaska River Adventures (ARA) offers fishing, sightseeing and bear-viewing trips, and the outfit will tailor an epic Alaskan experience to its clients’ wishes. Chase rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and silver salmon on a multitude of waters, or go after giant king salmon (or steelhead) on the nearby Kasilof River. Anglers using spinning, casting or fly rods will all find productive waters with this outfitter. Conventional tackle is preferred for salmon fishing in the Lower Kenai River section near the ocean.
The outfitter possesses permits to operate in Katmai National Park, Chugach National Forest, Lake Clark National Park and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, in addition to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. A trip to view Alaskan marine life along the Kenai Fjords, horseback riding, hiking and whitewater rafting are ARA options to enhance a fishing adventure. Contact ARA at alaskariveradventures.com to plan a trip.
For comfortable and convenient accommodations just five minutes from great Kenai River fishing, check out the Hutch Bed and Breakfast in Cooper Landing. This cozy, three-story cedar-framed lodge was built in the mid-1990s and features 12 individual rooms with private baths. For rates and reservations, visit thehutchbandb.com.
While you never know what the weather will be, a "flightseeing" tour of the Denali National Park and Preserve (a short drive north of Anchorage) may be the most memorable thing to do in all of Alaska. Various operators fly from Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Anchorage, and offer summit tours, glacier landings and day trips.
On a cloudless day, you will experience dramatic views of Denali's summit and the surrounding Denali National Park. At more than 20,000 feet, Denali, along with mounts Foraker, Silverthrone, Hunter, Huntington and Dickey, are usually covered with snow. You'll also notice many snow-covered valleys formed by the five large glaciers (Peters, Muldrow, Traleika, Ruth and Kahiltna) that slowly roll downhill from Denali. For more information on the area and flights, go to alaskavisit.com. Accommodations close to Denali include the McKinley Chalet Resort.
If you have time, check out the unique nearby village of Talkeetna, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Established in 1919, it still has original log buildings, a rustic look and old Alaska character. Grab a burger for lunch at the West Rib Pub & Grill.
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