Early-season Rainbows on the Middle Kenai

By Nick Ohlrich

For trout enthusiasts in Alaska, June 11 is a very important date. For some of us, it may even rival December 25.

June 11 is the date the Kenai River opens for trout fishing. The month and a half prior to that date, Kenai rainbows have been left alone to participate in their annual spawning ritual, an act I like to refer to as job security.

In the shallows trout are finding that special someone to create the next generation of 30-inch super beasts; however, in the deep main channel a party is happening. Chrome, super-charged rainbows are actively feeding on a variety of forage from smolt, sculpins, old salmon eggs/flesh and fresh eggs. The stoke level of these fish is comparable to patrons attending 2-for-1 night at the Golden Corral. No joke, the ferocity these fish have is impressive, as a 22-inch chromer this time of year has the potential to produce explosive runs right into the backing.

A variety of food options in the water translates to a variety of possible presentations and patterns. Streamers, beads and flesh should accompany any angler at all times while fishing the Kenai for trout, but this especially holds during the June fishery.

Swinging streamers is probably one of the most exciting ways to target June trout. Rainbows slam streamers hard enough to rip the rod out of your hand. Black, brown and olive in a variety of sizes and pattern is a must. Depending on the conditions, sink-tips will out-perform a standard indicator setup, but the opposite holds true as well. Dead-drifting a streamer with an indicator or swinging an indicator can also bring in big results.

Beads, beads, the magical fruit: It is possible to only fish beads year-round on the Kenai River, and odds are you will have a pretty good go of it. There are eggs in the Kenai all year, at least to some degree. Remember, trout are spawning, have been since late April, and a few will be spawning into early July. In conjunction with spawning trout, Mother Nature theoretically should be cleaning up a winter’s worth of silver salmon remains.

In mid- to late June the Kenai begins to swell back to her normal size due to warm temperatures and snowmelt. The increasing CFS (cubic feet/second) pushes carcasses and loose eggs into the main channel, where large pockets of aggressive, chrome ’bows anxiously devour the opportunity.

Classic June day: Sun, bent rod, and close encounters of the chrome kind.

The other white meat: As mentioned above Mother Nature is cleaning house and bits of decomposing silver carcass are swirling downriver, adding a great complement to the buffet of eggs, smolt and sculpins. Washed-out, old flesh patterns of various sizes and weights should be considered when attempting to get dialed into Mr. Rainbow’s ever-changing needs.

Tying it Together
Cracking the daily “code” of which pattern/presentation to implement can seem like a daunting task, especially when streamers, beads and flesh are your three patterns. Thankfully, there are only two presentations, dead-drift and swinging.

June is a fairly volatile time of year in terms of how weather, water flow and water temp affect what the trout are feeding on and to what level of aggression. It’s imperative to take these factors into consideration when planning your first or next move.

For example, rising water usually equals a drop in the water temp; a drop in water temp will typically result in a drop of feeding activity. Let’s say you’re swinging a streamer during this event—the odds are trout are not hitting the pattern during the fast part of the swing, or hitting very hard. As conditions decline they may only bump the fly during the bottom of the swing or on the hang-down. This is a perfect time to switch to a flesh or bead and dead-drift.

It will still be tough fishing, but a lethargic trout will be more inclined to take an egg or flesh that drifts into its face versus chasing a streamer or eating something the size of a streamer.

A strong assortment of flesh, beads, and streamers are necessary. Check out Mossy’s Fly Show in Anchorage for the best assortment of flies and beads before heading to the Kenai.

One more example, and this one seems to happen often during this time of year. The day before you are going to fish is magical; your buddy said they slammed them on streamers. Naturally, you are stoked, but Mr. Murphy steps in and due to a hot day or massive rainstorm overnight things change. The morning breaks, you put your boat in at the launch and discover the water has risen well over a foot; consequently the temp has plummeted a few degrees. Deep sigh; what to do? Pull boat out of the water, head to the gas station and plow down one more breakfast sandwich? Not the worst idea, as the water should warm eventually. Or you can harden up and head to your favorite zone to swing. If there is no love from our pink-sided friends at first, switch to a bead/flesh setup. Maybe as the day progresses the water will warm, and the trout could become aggressive, wanting to slam streamers again.

If conditions stay consistent with only slight changes, you should also see consistency with what has been working. The key is when conditions change you should be thinking how this will effect the fish, and what you will need to do to adapt to the changing fish behavior.

June is a great time for family fun onthe Kenai River.

“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
Written by Voltaire, spoken by Spider Man, hopefully exercised by Kenai trout enthusiasts. June is a very dynamic time to be trout fishing on the Kenai, and an important time to keep ethical practices in check. For most it has been several months since that last encounter with a Kenai-class ’bow and anticipation to make another memory sooner than later is radiating through your body.

In the shallows and on top of gravel bars lurk large, dark beasts that will not hesitate to snap at anything that gets near. It’s an easy hookup for anyone trying to secure a photo of a big fish. Unfortunately this practice can hurt all of us in the long run.

Spawning trout are incredibly vulnerable and under a ton of stress during their reproductive cycle. Hooking a fish that is not feeding but instead striking to protect their redd, fighting it downriver and then conducting a photo/measuring session is extremely detrimental to the mortality rates of these fish. Guides and recreational anglers are both guilty; however, guides should know better and should be setting the proper example.

Plain and simple, spawning rainbows need to be left alone, as does the zone in which they spawn. The future of our trophy fishery depends on it.

The Kenai in June is not the best time to target trophy rainbow trout. Instead it’s about enjoying the hard-charging chromers in the main channel, getting back on the water and feeling a part of this amazing resource.

The photo fish you want is sitting in close proximity to pockets of midsized fish, a chrome super beast, one that will not hesitate to test your backing knot. Get out there and search. Combining pattern, presentation, conditions and ethical choices will bring you a great deal of enjoyment and success while chasing Kenai chromers this June!

Nick Ohlrich has been addicted to fishing throughout his whole life, making his decade-long career as a Kenai River rainbow trout and salmon guide a dream come true. His favorite part is seeing how excited people get when they tie into their first big Kenai ’bow.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fish Alaska.