When the net goes up on the Kenai River, the rule of the road is to give the angler some space. Here an angler battles an early morning king. © Troy Buzalsky
Story by Troy A Buzalsky
Flowing westerly like a serpent for 82 miles from its mountainous origin at Kenai Lake, the Kenai River, referred to as Kahtnu in the Dena’ina dialect, is fabled in the fishing arena. Noted for its once-abundant, world-class king salmon fishery, the Kenai is also recognized as a top location for sockeye, and produces banner catch rates of thick and meaty coho once fall arrives in August through October. The Kenai is also ground zero for trophy-sized rainbow trout up to 30 inches or more and big Dolly Varden. It’s no wonder why it’s such an iconic destination.
The Kenai is considered a glacier melt-water river and can be divided into three sections: the “upper river” flows from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake; the “middle river” runs from Skilak Lake to the Sterling Highway Bridge; and the tidally influenced “lower river” flows from Soldotna into Cook Inlet. It’s these last 20 or so river miles that are coveted for those chasing the legendary Kenai kings. Much of the lower river and middle river is best accessed and fished by use of a boat.
Alaska Guide Derek Gardner snaps a photo of a fellow guide’s Willie center-console boat on the Kenai. © Derek Gardner
To better manage and safeguard the Kenai River against water pollution and bank erosion, the Alaska State Legislature created the Kenai River Special Management Area in 1984. Within this legislation are governances on horsepower, boat size/footprint, passenger limits, and four-stroke/fuel-injection requirements. Keeping up with changing times, scientific data, and technologies, regulations have evolved since the initial enactment of this legislation. Today’s Kenai River boat is required to be 21 feet or less in length and 106 inches or less in width. The motor shall be four-stroke or direct fuel injection with a prop horsepower rating no greater than 50 HP and cannot be a larger, de-tuned motor. Passenger limits allow no more than six people onboard.
With these regulations in place, not every boat makes an ideal Kenai River boat, and boat builders must consider every step in the boat design and build process to make a vessel that will actually perform well with big loads and low horsepower. This Boats column will examine four boat builders who have demonstrated success building Kenai-specific boats that actually get the job done.
The Willie Classic is a great cast-and-blast boat, here on the Kenai above Bing’s Landing for an early fall duck hunt. © Derek Gardner
The name “Willie” in Willie Boats is synonymous with Willie Illingworth, who is said to be the first builder of the aluminum McKenzie River drift boat back in 1971. Initially starting Alumaweld Boats, Willie started Willie Boats in 1981 and owned and operated it until his passing in 2007. Today, President Jim Bittle steers the ship, with a focus on building the best custom aluminum boats available and sticking with Willie’s long-established motto: “Simply the Best.”
Twin Willie Boats Classics stacked and heading to the 49th state. © Willie Boats
For many years the Willie Predator dominated the morning and evening aluminum hatch on the Kenai River, where guides by the hundreds were all in pursuit of the next world-record king salmon. The world-record king was caught by Les Anderson on May 17, 1985.
Spawned from the regulations of the Kenai River, the Willie Classic evolved out of the successful Willie Predator, and now could be considered the gold standard for a Kenai River fishing boat. With the help of guides Gary and Val Early, Willie Boats took the best of the Predator model, flattened and widened the bottom, and lightened it up where possible. The end result is a true performer built for the Kenai River fishery.
AK Fins and Feathers Guide Derek Gardner parks his Willie Boats Classic series dockside on the Kenai River. © Derek Gardner
The Willie Classic is 20’ 9” long and features an 84” bottom with 102” beam width. The magical performance bottom is unique in the industry, starting with a 10° bow entry, transitioning to a variable-radius bottom, and finishing with a flat bottom at the transom. This design allows the boat to sit and fish very stably yet get up and run on limited ponies. The Classic has been clocked at 32 MPH running a 50 HP prop-driven outboard with a driver and four clients. You can’t argue with that performance.
Willie Boats is one of the true-custom boat builders, and for you, that means you can design the boat you want, as long as it doesn’t take away from the structural integrity or create a safety concern. This gives the customer endless layout options that include side and transom height, rod lockers, side-tray configuration, seating, and electronics, to name a few. Floors are typically epoxy-painted diamond plate with Sharkgrip, and the boat can be ordered painted, vinyl wrapped, or raw. Staying true to Willie’s form following function, boats are typically built with Willie’s industry-first gunnel rail guard and rod-slider system. Go to willieboats.com for more information.
Koffler has been building boats for the Kenai River for decades. The author took this picture back in 2006, and there are plenty of happy faces enjoying their day afloat. © Troy Buzalsky
Fifty years ago, Bruce Koffler built his first aluminum drift boat, and today the Koffler name is held in high regard among avid anglers as one of the best fishing boats in the industry. Koffler has been building both drift boats and powerboats for the Kenai River for three-plus decades for guides and sport anglers alike. Koffler Boats is still operating as a family-owned-and-operated business out of Eugene, Oregon, home of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers, and the Oregon Ducks…Go Ducks!
Alaskan Thad Seethaler beaches his Koffler Kenai boat in a beautifully scenic setting. © Thad Seehaler
In the Koffler boating lineup, both the Sled Boat and the Koffler Special fit the niche for the Kenai River, the only difference is the shape of the nose, either blunt or pointed. Interestingly, Joe Koffler explains, “We really don’t do anything special to our boats to make them perform to the Kenai River special regulations.” Depending on the customer’s needs, Koffler offers three bottom designs: a flat bottom (which is flat, bow to stern); a semi-V (which has a shallow V in the bow and transitions to flat at the transom); then the V bottom has a 12” flat delta pad which then has a 6° V constant deadrise from bow to stern. “Each of these bottoms performs differently, but all perform well as Kenai River boats,” explains Joe. “It just depends on what the customer is looking for, and how they use the boat.”
The Koffler Sled Boat and Koffler Special are 100% custom made and fully customizable. The base hull design is typically built with a 3/16” 5086 marine-grade aluminum bottom and 1/8” 5052 aluminum sides that are ribbed for increased strength. The bottom width is available in 72” and 78” versions and forms to the sides utilizing an extruded chine that is double-welded from inside the boat. The boat’s gunnel is finished with an extruded handrail that provides great strength and aesthetics with the built-in function of a handrail and rod-rail slider.
The Koffler Guide Boat 177 running a series of plugs for clients. Note, only two rods in the water, meaning they have one fish in the fish box. © Gary Chamberlin
The Koffler bulletproof bottom is engineered utilizing 2” x 2” longitudinal channels running full length with cross stringers every 16”, which support the diamond-plate floor. And because the boat is over 20’ long, there is no floatation foam added under the floor, which translates to less long-term maintenance concerns.
Koffler boats come with a Zolatone-painted interior and the exterior can be vinyl wrapped or left raw. The bow deck includes an anchor-rope locker, fuel-storage compartment, and a sizable fish box or dry-storage locker. When asked if the Koffler fish boxes are sized for big fish, Joe laughs, “Our fish boxes are huge!” And although most choose to run their boats from the tiller, Koffler offers a center-console option. Go to kofflerboats.com for more information on Koffler Boats.
The North River Scout is a versatile boat, rated for 200 HP, but very capable with a Kenai-compliant 50 HP powerplant. © North River
North River Boats is one of the largest heavy-gauge-aluminum boat manufacturers in the US, operating out of its 10-acre, 125,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Roseburg, Oregon. Although known in Alaska for their offshore and sport charter boats, they produce nine different boat models, with the North River Scout their go-to Kenai River boat.
Being a heavy-gauge, all-welded, aluminum boat builder, the 20’ Scout is built without compromise, and still only weighs 1,150 pounds (dry weight). The hull is designed with a 22° hull entry with a 12° deadrise, which is ideal for slicing through chop caused by waves or boat wakes. The sides provide 33” of freeboard while offering 26” of interior height, and the boat’s beam is just less than 8 feet. Though the boat is rated for 150 HP, it performs flawlessly with a Kenai-compliant 50 HP.
The North River Scout’s one-piece bottom and transom are manufactured from 3/16” 5086 marine-grade aluminum and the sides from 1/8” 5086. The hulls are assembled utilizing extruded-aluminum performance chines, keel, and gunnel-cap transitions. The floor bottom utilizes box-stringer construction that nicely nestles the 42-gallon fuel tank, and the floors are non-slip aluminum.
At North River the paint and vinyl options are seemingly endless, with nearly 40 base colors as a starting point. All North River boats also get complete interior Zolatone treatment with clear coat, and the extruded gunnel caps come polished. Custom paint and wraps are also available.
Both guides and sport anglers appreciate the open floor plan of the Scout, which is rated for five persons. The boat comes standard with two sliding, adjustable sport seats on aluminum storage boxes. The step-up bow includes a large fish box to the rear and an oversized dry-storage box forward. And the full-length side trays are great for handy storage and come with rod retainers to allow for easy, out-of-the-way access.
Beautiful to look at and great to fish from, the North River Scout is made for Alaska, and made for the Kenai River. Go to northriverboats.com for more information.
Ready for sea trials, the RH Commander, set up with a Kenai-compliant 50 HP Yamaha outboard, awaits its maiden voyage. © Dewey’s Cook Inlet
Initially named River Hawk Boats, RH Aluminum Boats was born out of the aluminum jet-boat racing industry, so suffice it to say they are steeped in tradition when it comes to building performance boats. Currently, RH Boats offers 10 models, including five coastal and offshore models and five river-going models, including their Commander and Kenai Edition, both perfect for Alaska’s Kenai River and beyond.
The Commander series is available with a footprint of 21’ x 78”, 23’ x 78” or 25’ x 78” and just might be described as the ultimate Alaska skiff. The 34” sides taper nicely, creating a 102” beam. Built like a tank, the Commander’s bottom is shaped from a meaty 1/4” 5052 marine-grade aluminum, while the sides are configured from 1/8” and the transom from 1/5” 5086 aluminum. The shallow V hull includes a delta pad with incorporated reverse chine.
Sitting on the lot at Dewey’s Cook Inlet awaiting new ownership, the RH Commander is ready, willing, and able to tackle everything the Kenai River has to offer. © Dewey’s Cook Inlet
Nicely appointed with full paint inside and out and accented with discretionary diamond plate top-loading gunnel rod lockers, the Commander is designed to be a pure fishing machine. Configured with adjustable seat boxes, passenger placement is a breeze, while the optional full-length rail-track system allows an angler or the captain to set the rod holders anywhere along the gunnel. The bow step deck is diamond plated and includes a storage box that can be used for anchoring hardware, plus an oversized fish box.
The RH Commander and Kenai Edition boats are designed specifically for the Kenai River, including the supersized bow fish box. © Dewey’s Cook Inlet
The RH Commander comes standard with vinyl floors, but diamond plate is an easy upgrade. Another popular option is the center console with fold-down windscreen which puts the captain in a great position to read challenging water with steering-wheel performance. Need more storage? No problem. The Commander has the option for in-floor storage or an in-floor fish box, and that’s including space for the 40-gallon in-floor fuel cell.
If the Commander is a bit too large, or if you’re looking for a boat that is design-built as Kenai River compliant, check out the RH Kenai Edition, the ideal 20’ fish-catching platform.
Similar in shape and style to the larger Commander, the Kenai Edition has a few notable changes that help it perform well when operating with a 50 HP outboard, and if utilized off the Kenai River, the boat is rated for 150 HP. Like the Commander, the Kenai Edition is manufactured utilizing box-girder construction with full-welded chines and slotted top-rail extrusions.
The RH Commander and Kenai Edition boats can be ordered with a custom center console with slide-adjustable seat boxes. © Dewey’s Cook Inlet
Similar in style and design to the RH Commander, the Kenai Edition’s sides are configured from 1/8” and the transom from 1/5” 5086 aluminum, while the bottom is made from 1/5” 5052 marine-grade aluminum. The sides are lower at 32” and the fuel cell is 34 gallons. Although minor tweaks, these changes help cut down on the boat’s overall weight, which translates to on-the-water performance. The Kenai Edition has a dry weight of 1,060 pounds.
The RH Kenai Edition comes set up to fish three people, with two sliding seat boxes and a four-legged pedestal seat for the captain. The boat can be easily configured to comfortably fish five and can even be set up with a center console. The only thing the Kenai Edition needs is a few fishing buddies, six ounces of lead, and your favorite go-to plug or Spin-N-Glo. Go to rhboats.com to learn more.
Troy Buzalsky is the Boats columnist for Fish Alaska magazine, and when not writing about boats he can likely be found chasing fish in the Pacific Northwest and the 49th state and writing about those adventures. Troy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more boats check out Fish Alaska’s entire Boats Blog