Tips and observations from some of the top guides and anglers on the Kenai River
Mike Brown, Fly Shop Owner
Mossy’s Fly Shop
Number of years on the Kenai: 25 years
The Kenai River was quieter when I started fishing it. While it seems like there was more fish, I think really the heavier pressure of today is the biggest change. Heavier pressure means more fish are caught on average. This makes some days less productive, but I don’t think it means there are less fish. It’s a world-class fishery, with some of the most pristine and beautiful scenery you can imagine. This river produces an average-size trout that is a record in most places.
I think we give fish too much credit for their smarts, but these fish do see a lot of flies. Fishing different flies and thinking outside the box can make for a better day on the water.
This river is my home water, and I have always designed my flies and my style of fishing for the Kenai. The river offers a lot of different ways to fish it, due to the seasonal changes in the ecosystem, however, and I love that I can fish it with a streamer, a nymph or a dry, depending on the day.
To become an accomplished Kenai trout angler, you need to be proficient at mending and line control, as well as having a good sense of how to fish a streamer effectively.
Fishing for Kenai trout makes you a hunter. I look for a food source and water with good feeding lanes.
If I had only one fly with which to fish Kenai trout for the rest of my days it would be a sculpin.
Absorb the experience, the scenery and have fun, you’re in Alaska. Relish it.
Guide Jeremy Anderson
Alaska Drift Away Fishing
Number of years on the Kenai: 14
When I first started fishing the Kenai River it was quieter on the middle river and most anglers were fishing for salmon. Most of the trout anglers were fishing in drift boats, so fishermen only had one shot at the hole each day they fished it. Because the middle river did not have angler pressure, the trout ate just about any bead or fly you put in front of them. As trout fishing got more popular and the middle Kenai River exploded with anglers, the game changed very quickly for the angler and the fish.
If the fish aren’t in the same place today that I caught them yesterday, my best trick is simply sliding one lane over. It could be one lane closer to shore or one lane towards the main river. The fish didn’t leave, they most likely just shifted positions slightly. If the trout aren’t close by, then it is time to go hunting—try your next favorite spots within a mile or two of river.
One of the best pieces of advice I received with regards to Kenai River trout fishing was simply to “let the boat drift downriver as the current wants it to.” When I first started running drift boats on the Kenai, a mentor told me that and it is 100% true. You want your bead or fly where the fish are, which is usually towards the bottom of the water column on the Kenai. So longer drifts with your gear on the bottom of the river are going to give you more bites throughout the day. The bottom line: The Kenai is a drifting river, not a casting river. The casting is important to get your line out there, but make sure you keep it on the bottom.
Guide Dave Maternowski
Alaska Wildland Adventures
Number of Years Guiding on the Kenai: 3
As a Kenai guide of just three seasons, the fishery doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last few years. However, I work with two guides who have a combined 50 years experience on the Kenai, and they say the river itself has changed significantly. They also talk about how the methods for trout fishing have changed, but the idea is still the same—whether using spin rods or fly rods, find the bottom of the river. Whatever you are presenting, it needs to get down.
I think fish can become accustomed to seeing some of the same things over and over again. That’s why we see more and more custom beads. Just like you would have dry flies in different sizes and slight color variations, here we have beads that can differ very slightly in different ways to reflect what the real eggs look like out there.
You can always learn something new out there. I love to see the river at different water levels and love to be on the water everyday throughout the season. You see patterns of where fish like to hold and how to approach them differently based on the circumstances. I think I started out fishing this river with boxes of streamers, nymphs, dries and all sorts of beads. But the more I fish it, I’m able to narrow things down to what really works. I’ve also come to realize that there’s a pecking order out there, and dialing-in the right patterns will help you catch bigger fish. If you’re only catching smaller Dollies, there’s something amiss with your fly or bead, and there’s a reason bigger rainbows are refusing it.
These rainbows can really keep you on your toes throughout the early part of the summer. Things can be very different in just a few miles of river. There are pockets of activity all over the place. Sometimes you get fish on flesh patterns, and then you drift through a buggy area and fish are eating nymphs. Sometimes you want to fish small streamers when trout fry and smolt are out in the main channel. The turning point for me is late August. Once we get kings in the upper river and they start to stage up, the bite really picks up. I think it’s a numbers game during the king spawn; lots of fish to catch of varying sizes, but usually no giants. Once we get into September and the sockeye spawn, the quality of the fish comes up. I think lots of fish move out of Skilak and enter the river in September and October to feed selectively, and that’s the time to really target the fish we’re all after. That being said, I’ve had some great days in June and July fishing everything from prince nymphs to flesh flies to beads and Egg-sucking Leeches. It’s the variety of fishing in the early season that makes it fun regardless of the size of the catch.
I would say nymphing and dead-drifting are the most common techniques. Get a good floating line that casts well, and oversize it for your rod. Know how deep the water is that you’re fishing, and if you are dead-drifting, you must be finding the bottom if you want to catch fish. Proper line maintenance is key. Getting a fluid, uninterrupted, long drift through a run is sometimes more important than the minute differences in color and size of your pattern.
I’m always searching for water that is slower than the main channel, but not really soft. Think cover—gravel bars, drop-offs, shelves—that have good water flow and depth. I also think about what water has the food in it. Where is their food coming from?
To me, a perfect day of trout fishing on the Kenai River would be a brisk morning in late September on the middle river, fishing below Skilak with slightly overcast skies—preferably on a pink year. The opportunities are great at this time, and I think it can be the most beautiful weather all year long. It’s really not about going out and catching a 30-inch rainbow. It’s humbling when you fish with people who truly appreciate a clean, bright 10-inch Dolly. It reminds me that all these wild fish deserve appreciation, and partaking in this fishery is a privilege and it needs to be protected.
Guide Dennis Randa
Randa’s Guide Service
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 34
I typically can tell how successful anglers will be within a few minutes after we launch on a float down the river. Most of the time those who I observe mending frequently to maintain a drag-free drift alongside the boat will be the most successful. As we all know any suggestion of un-natural behavior by the ‘bait’ will turn away even a small fish, so the mend is essential. But, I often see anglers mending mindlessly and that is even worse than not mending at all. So I advise ‘purposeful mending,’ and by that I mean the mend must have an intended influence upon the bait. Do you intend to mend upstream to slow the drift or downstream to reduce the drag of the line on the strike indicator? Those questions and others are necessary to be evaluated before making the mend in order to keep the mend purposeful. Remember: Keep calm, fish on…and mend purposefully.
Guide Nate Sims
Anglers Lodge and Alaskan Fishing Adventures
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 14
Other places guided/guiding: Upper Rio Grande in Colorado
The Kenai River trout fishery was a wonder to me when I first started guiding. I had never experienced the size and concentration of trout that can be found on the Kenai. However, when I first started guiding there seemed to be a lot less pressure on the trout and it was much simpler to catch the big ones. The salmon fisheries at that time seemed to take more of the fishing pressure on the river and the trout seemed to be more of an afterthought. I don’t want to make it sound like the trout have not always had a huge following, because there were certainly plenty of people targeting them in those days. What seems to have changed the most is the number of people fishing the trout on a year-round basis with the aid of power boats. The ability and popularity of fishing for trout from a power boat and drifting over fish many times in areas of the middle river seems to have impacted the ability of anglers to consistently take larger trout. It’s still possible to catch big trout on many areas of the Kenai, but it seems that its taking more and more talented fisherman to outsmart them. A positive change in the river has been the protection of the rainbow spawning areas early in the season. In the past anglers took advantage of loose regulations to target big rainbows on their spawning beds in the spring and I think current regs are helping to eliminate that issue.
Kenai trout have absolutely become more sophisticated, as have nearly all the fishing techniques used for them. I would say the big trout are aware of pressure and boat-motor noise and that affects their tendency to bite. To catch bigger trout it can pay to fish areas that have not been fished for a while. The bead game has also become a very exact science and knowing exactly what color is working on a given day has become more and more important. Fishing areas where other guides/anglers are less comfortable, such as between the Soldotna bridge and Naptowne Rapids can be a good way to find big trout. Also, fishing for trout during non-peak hours can produce good results.
It’s encouraging as a fisherman to see that the Kenai trout can handle an extreme quantity of pressure throughout the year and maintain the quality fishing that we have today. But it’s also obvious that as the king fishery has bounced back the last couple years there is less guide pressure on the trout, which is having a positive impact for the trout angler.
For me the bead and flesh-fly fishing has completely changed my fishing both in Alaska and out. I was always a Southwestern river fisherman and fished a dry with a dropper on every rig. Learning to effectively catch trout in big, deep water using indicators and beads has revolutionized the way that I drift-fish. I put more emphasis on color after understanding the bead and flesh fly game than I ever had previously. Painting and customizing every fly to be just a little different than the competition seems to be a key to success.
Each month certainly sees changes to the Kenai trout fishery. I enjoy all phases of the trout fishing, from targeting those hungry early fish in June to the fat and smart rainbows of September. I would say the hallmark of the early season is the low pressure and large numbers of fish that you can catch when the majority of fishermen are focused on salmon. The hallmark of the late season is the very fat and energetic fish, as well as the science of figuring out exactly what they are keying on and getting that perfect pattern that you can’t keep the trout off.
In my opinion, the most essential skill an angler must have on the Kenai is an understanding of what the fish are feeding on even though you can’t actively see what that is. Understanding how just a small change in the color or size of your fly may create huge changes in the the number of strikes you get. Having a good basic knowledge of how feeding locations and choices changs through the course of the season. There are old standbys for each part of the year and knowing these are critical to success. The ability to get the right bait to the bottom with just the right amount of weight and making long dead drifts is absolutely a key component. With deep nymph fishing, being a proficient caster and line mender is important but not as critical as it is in my home rivers of the West. It is more important in my opinion to understand how to get your bait down to the fish with long leaders and enough weight, as well as having the knowlege to find the fish as they migrate around within the system keying on very specific food sources. A new angler on the Kenai should not be surprised if he has to do a lot of searching to find the fish and figure out what those fish want.
I have never fished a river where the fish seem to move around more than they do on the Kenai. This movment has a tremendous impact on the fishing, both good and bad. The fish may be just coming out of the lake and keying on old flesh from the thaw or they may be way down near the tidewater gorging on salmon carcasses leftover from fish-cleaning stations. The trout also follow the salmon fry as they migrate towards the ocean. The patterns of this movment are very predictable but finding the exact locations of feeding fish based on these patterns is often a key to a day’s success. Fish in one part of the river may be keying on a totally different food source on a given day than fish in another part of the river. An example of this would be trout eating king salmon eggs up at Super Hole in August and other trout eating sockeye eggs and flesh down below Centennial Park on the same day.
I look for good structure within a few miles of the spot that I had my most recent trout success. I also might be looking for spawning salmon or an area with high sockeye fishing pressure as well as people cleaning fish in the river.
The perfect day on the Kenai is when you outsmart half a dozen big trout when the pressure on the river is light and you have figured out exactly what the fish want and where they are!
Lastly, like they say in elk hunting: Go where the elk are, not where they were! That saying applies to Kenai trout. The next best piece of advice is be patient and don’t give up until you find the trout and what they are feeding on. Have enough variety in your bead and fly selection to fill a small tackle store! Be persistent! It may take us a little while to dial-in exactly what the fish want today but I know when we find it we will get them. Keep working on making those perfect drifts and I will figure out what they want to eat and where they are hiding!
Guide Dan Hardy
D Ray Personal Guide Service
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 20
I first started fishing the Kenai River as a kid over 50 years ago. Back then, the trout were uneducated; you could fish an unpainted bead directly on the hook and catch enormous rainbows! Also, at that time if you saw more than three boats between Sportsman’s Lodge and Jim’s Landing during September, it was considered crowded. As a consequence of the added pressure, there is more hook damage to the fish today—barbless should be the way to go in my opinion. I also think there were bigger fish back then. I personally saw rainbows that would have pushed the 40-inch mark!
As the fish became more sophisticated and my experience and knowledge continued to evolve, I became keenly aware of the feeding habits, habitat and the subtle triggers that turn these Kenai rainbows (especially trophy rainbows) on. And so, sometimes I tie my flies larger, sometimes smaller. It really depends on different factors, water clarity being one.
I always look for the salmon lanes! To me, what differentiates a good guide from a great guide is the ability to read water. Most days, an inexperienced guide will just start fishing water where all the other boats and anglers are, assuming (and in some cases, they are correct) that’s where all the fish are. I don’t follow that protocol, I look for quiet water.
My perfect day includes finding a stretch of river that’s quiet, doesn’t have a lot of boat traffic or anglers disturbing it. The day is nice and warm, with a slight breeze to keep the bugs at bay. And I’m swinging my two-handed Meiser Spey rod, waiting for that tug!
As a last piece of advice, I’d say it’s always smart to relax…and listen to your guide. Be safe! And ALWAYS work on presentation!
Guide Nick Holman
Kenai River Drifters Lodge
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 6
Other places guided/guiding: Northern California (Sacramento, Truckee, and Little Truckee rivers)
The sport of fly fishing has gotten huge over the last few years, so I would say the biggest change I’ve seen on the Kenai has been the pressure on the river from tourists and locals alike. With the increase in people on the river, it makes it a little more competitive for the more well-known spots, but the Kenai is a big system and there is always a less crowded spot fishing well. The Kenai is a world-class fishery. The quality and numbers of fish is incredible. Having multiple species available also make this a great place to fish. Plus, you always have the chance at a true fish of a lifetime.
Being able to read water and understand what’s happening beneath the surface is crucial. Other than that, anglers should just work on their swing/drift and work on being able to control it. Work on mending and line management.
Kenai fish tend to move a lot. If you are unfamiliar or inexperienced on the Kenai, this can make it hard to dial-in what’s going on. My best advice is to fish a pattern you have confidence in and cover a lot of water. Once you find fish there are usually a few more around.
If the fish seem to be moving around, I tend to focus on holding structure such as downed trees, large midstream boulders, ledges and inside bends.
Slow down and make the first cast the one. Then set the hook well, let the fish run, don’t grab the reel and enjoy the moment!
Guide Perry Corsetti
Corsetti’s Guide Service
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 20
The Kenai River has seen a lot of changes to the trout fishery in its recent history. My introduction to the Kenai was combat fishing at the Russian River for sockeye salmon in July of 1990. While flipping for salmon on that trip there were a couple of guys systematically working trout rods with indicator rigs and beads, drifting through and behind the salmon targeting rainbow trout. Upon seeing them coax out several nice trout behind the pods of sockeye, I was instantly hooked. My next trip to the Kenai I was properly outfitted with my trout rod and began my long love affair with Kenai rainbows. Today, of course, there are many restrictions on the taking of trout and the river is managed as a trophy trout stream, as it deserves. I find most clients appreciate that.
While there are many great fisheries all over the state, I have found the location, accessibility and variety of the Kenai has drawn me into a special relationship. I find myself gauging every other Alaska river on how it compares to the Kenai. Would that fly or technique work on the Kenai? Or, how would my favorite Kenai flies and techniques work on another river? I would say it is a healthy relationship and it encourages me to continually experiment and refine my Kenai River program.
Trout will change locations in the river based on flow, stage, temperature or number of salmon in the river. In this way, they are no different from any other gamefish. In high water, focus on the edges or areas of the river with less flow. In low water, most fish will be in the pockets and seams. And of course, they will always follow close behind spawning salmon.
Guide Stacy Corbin
Mystic Waters Fly Fishing
Number of years guiding on the Kenai: 20
Other places guided/guiding: Baja Mexico, Florida Keys
When I first fished the Kenai in 1980, there was a popular salmon fishery at the Russian / Kenai confluence, and of course king salmon fishing on the lower Kenai was probably the most popular fishery—the first king I ever caught was 77 pounds! Trout fishing was almost nonexistent, even in the later part of the summer and into fall, when the trout fishing is typically the best. It was not uncommon to have the Russian and upper Kenai to yourself, or maybe to see one or two other anglers. The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the trout fishery explode, and of course what we see now is one of the most popular, if not THE most popular trout fishery in the state.
In the early 1980s until about 2010, there were many large rainbows in the upper Kenai, in particular in the stretch from Sportsman’s Landing down to Jim’s, especially in certain water in the canyon between Jim’s and Skilak Lake. Getting 6 to 10 fish over 30 inches was pretty common every season. In the years 2008 to 2010 we saw lots of older big fish and some that had parasites that could be seen on fins and in the gills. It feels like the upper is going through a cycle where a lot of the bigger fish probably died and we have a thriving bunch of smaller fish that are taking their place. We also know that these fish will move throughout the system, and fish tagged in upper have been caught and observed in the middle river, and vice versa.
The fish on the Kenai have absolutely gotten more educated. When the bead came on the scene, it revolutionized the technique, and to this day I know of nothing that will ever imitate a natural egg better. You can always swing streamers or take advantage of the windows when the trout are looking up and eating bugs, but the real feeding frenzy coincides with the spawning salmon. We’re always trying new flies and in low, clear-water conditions like we had this past summer, we were going down in tippet size and adjusting lead and strike indicator placement frequently.
I’m always trying variations on things that work, and occasionally going completely out of the box to try and find something that works. I find myself working much harder, changing patterns more frequently and experimenting in June, July and early August. Once the salmon are spawning, it’s all about the bead. And yes, many different beads will work, but you do have to present it with a good dead-drift. I repeat, the key to getting that better fish is a good, long drag-free dead-drift. That is the one thing I try to get people comfortable with as early as possible every day.
June is a great month. As the river opens, the trout are hungry and aggressive. You can see fish leaving a wake to chase a swinging streamer. Sockeyes are also being caught and filleted, which is another one of the first food sources. Certain bugs are starting to emerge so nymphs can be a great go-to in June. And being the end of the rainbow spawn, they will eat an egg (always). July can be a little trickier, and usually presents some of the most challenging trout fishing all summer. These fish will chase a sculpin, they will eat flesh, they will eat an egg (always); they might eat a nymph and they will eat caddis, stoneflies, mayflies and other bugs that typically come off. But we do have the kings spawning in the later part of the month and into the first couple weeks of August, and if you can get the beads on top of them, there will be trout there. August is when things really get revved up. Usually around the 20th to the 25th marks the day when the river really turns on. The tributary reds that are in Ptarmigan Creek, Trail River, Quartz Creek and other upper Kenai tributaries start spawning first, then it works its way downriver, through the outlet down to Sportsman’s, then through the refuge down to Jim’s, and finally down the last couple miles above the inlet to Skilak Lake. September is my favorite month of the entire summer. Big aggressive trout, silvers including a second run of bigger fish, the fall colors that look fluorescent until a good strong wind strips it all away. September never lasts long enough. And if it happens to be a pink year, and as those pinks reduce to the last few active spawning areas, it can really concentrate some great trout.
Every day on the Kenai is a perfect day. How fortunate to be able to make a living rowing a boat down the Kenai. Now, obviously, some days are better than others, and weather, water and fishing conditions can all have a bearing on how great the day is. But when we see eagles, moose, bears and catch some nice trout and Dollies and maybe some salmon all in the same day, that’s pretty tough to beat.
Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Take a minute to look around at the incredible environment that you’re fishing in. Yes, we’re trying to catch fish, and maybe get lucky and get a really big one, but we are also sharing time on some very special water, and either starting a new friendship, or deepening one that started years ago.
The abridged version of this article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.