Kenai River Fishing blog by Melissa Norris
Photos courtesy of Visit Soldotna
Kenai River fishing for silvers
Kenai River fishing for silvers (AKA coho) salmon is hard to beat in southcentral Alaska. The multitude of river access points, boat launches, lodging, camping, dining, local breweries and more make it an easy fishing destination for Alaskans as well as folks who come to visit from outside Alaska. With a bounty of options, it’s the perfect home base for a Kenai Peninsula-wide experience. Here we are smack dab in the silver season on the Kenai. Coho started to enter the estuary weeks ago and we’ve got about seven more weeks to get after these chrome bruisers in the lower Kenai. At Fish Alaska we often lament that coho should be considered the state gamefish due to their size, abundance, culinary value and fighting ability.
Silver salmon really must be special to stand out among the other incredible Kenai River fish species that grace this 80-mile stretch of pristine, glacial-fed water. The world’s largest breed of king salmon is what the Kenai is most known for, but huge stocks of sockeye, trophy-sized Dolly Varden and rainbow trout also contribute to this river’s street cred. We often say that pound for pound, silvers are the hardest fighting and most exciting fish to catch (though some might argue large, fresh chum salmon are). Silvers average about 10 pounds on the Kenai but we have seen some big toads in excess of 20 pounds come from the Kenai. A tide-fresh, 20-pound lower Kenai silver is a difficult fish to land…and quite a trophy.
The Kenai gets two distinct runs of silvers: an early run which is at its peak in mid- to late August, and a late run that starts early in September and peaks in early October.
Fishing for silvers on the Kenai can be accomplished in a couple of ways. If you are visiting Alaska, are new to the area, or just don’t fish it that often, you should definitely consider hiring a guide. They’ll be dialed in to what’s working at the time, where fish are being caught, and the trends in the fishery that affect success. There are a bunch of great Kenai River fishing guides to choose from. The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce lists their fishing-guide members here. You can always email me if you would like a personal recommendation. I have a few favorites.
Regulars who flood in from around Southcentral to fish the Kenai are well equipped to fish the river themselves, as well as folks visiting who are knowledgeable anglers, have experience fishing for silvers in a rather large river, and know how to seek out advice. There are access points from the lower river in tidewater all the way up to Kenai Lake. The lower river is laden with elevated fishing platforms throughout Soldotna—offering more river boardwalk than any other community in Alaska. There are abundant public shoreline access sites, too. You can launch a boat at any of number of boat launches along the river. Silvers are caught both by shore-bound anglers and boating anglers, from August through late October.
Bag limits on the Lower Kenai Mainstem for both residents and nonresidents are 3 salmon per day, of which only two may be coho, from July 1 to August 31. Possession limit is the same as the daily bag limit during this time. From September 1 to November 30, the bag limit is 3 per day (of which all may be coho), 6 in possession. Silver fishing is closed upstream of Bings Landing from November 1 through June 30. There is no retention of silvers allowed anywhere on the river starting December first. Note that if you retain a limit of coho on the Kenai River, you may not fish in the Kenai downstream of the Soldotna bridge on that same day. The regulations are different for the Kenai above Skilak Lake. There are several nuances about keeping multiple species of salmon as well as where you can fish at certain times of the year, so be sure to read that in detail on ADF&G’s website. Plus, the regs change so you should always check for Emergency Orders before you go.
The Kenai has a wide variety of water types that hold silvers. As such, a wide range of presentation techniques can work, depending on the water in front of you.
Anglers often target coho by casting spinners or spoons. One go-to is a 3/8-ounce Blue Fox Pixee spoon or size 4 or 5 Vibrax spinner in pink—it’s a well-known fact that silvers love all things pink. Spinners and spoons are often cast and retrieved, slowly. You want the spoon wobbling just above the bottom. For spinners, retrieve just fast enough to get the blade to spin. For either spoons or spinners, you’ll want the lure to be working close to the bottom, so you may need to let the lure sink a bit before beginning your retrieve.
For those who prefer to fish bait, salmon roe plunked on the bottom with a medium-sized drift bobber and a 2/0 or 3/0 hook is hard to beat. In some places, anglers fish roe under a float and do quite well. An 8’6”- to 10’ spinning or casting rod rated for 8- to 17-pound-test line is a good choice for Kenai silvers. A matching spinning or casting reel spooled with 30-pound braid or 12- to 15-pound-test monofilament completes the setup.
Others employ the twitchin’ jig technique. 3/8- and 1/2-ounce twitchin’ jigs in shades of pink are hard to beat in certain types of water. However, purple or black with contrasting heads also produce well. Sometimes, if the bite dies, changing colors is all it takes to get a few more bites. The same rods and reels mentioned for casting spinners or spoons can work for twitchin’, but many prefer rods specifically made for twitchin’. They are typically shorter, fast-action rods of 7’6” to 8’ long.
Plugs, either backtrolled, fished on anchor, or cast-and-retrieved also produce good numbers of Kenai silvers. Plugs in the three- to four-inch range are proven producers. Kenai silvers will whack almost any color of plug, but just like with all the other techniques mentioned, it’s hard to go wrong with pink. When bait is allowed, wrapping a sardine fillet, a piece of tuna belly, canned tuna in oil, or even salmon roe to the bottom of the lure can make plugs even more effective. We generally replace the stock treble hooks plugs are sold with to a single, Siwash hook attached to the rear of the plug with either two split rings, or a split ring and a barrel swivel. The single hook greatly aides in the survival of any fish you might want to release. During some times of the year, multiple hooks aren’t legal on the Kenai. If you switch out your plugs to a single Siwash, you’re always good to go. An 8’6” to 9’6” baitcasting rod rated for 10- to 20-pound test is a great choice for plug fishing Kenai silvers. 15-pound-test mono or 30-pound-test braid are good choices. Bes sure to use a baitcasting reel that can hold 150 yards or so of your line of choice.
Fishing with fly rods (single- or two-handed) can also produce coho on the Kenai. Swung flies work, but heavy, lead-eyed flies stripped through the water often work better. The heavy lead eyes cause the fly to undulate up and down in the water column—and silvers have a hard time refusing that movement. Again, pinks are good, but other colors can produce as well. My buddy, Mike, owns Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage. He has a place on the Kenai and fishes there often. He says the list could go on forever but some of his favorite flies for coho on the Kenai are the Dolly Llama, Flash Fly, Egg Sucking Leech, Hare Snare, and ‘Wogs. Mike says anything with pink or purple or a combination of them, or pink and white, are his go-to colors. Whatever your lure or fly of choice, pink should be in your box to attract silvers. Eight-weight fly rods are a good choice for Kenai silvers, paired with 12- to 20-pound-test tippet or leader.
If you’re looking for some salmon for the freezer or just want to keep playing while summer is still here, then head to Soldotna for some Kenai River silver fishing. Reserve a cabin at one of the riverside lodges or camp along the river. From Centennial Park Campground near the Soldotna Visitors Center all the way up to the upper river in Cooper Landing, there are plenty of campgrounds along the way.
I personally love this time of year in Alaska, especially on the Kenai. Fall starts up quickly around here. The air feels notably cooler, and the busyness of July is behind us. Their community welcomes us anglers. Music in the Park is even happening for a couple more weeks. For more information about fishing the Kenai and a map of the river, click here. And for additional resources when planning your trip go to VisitSoldotna.com.
Melissa Norris is Publisher/Founder of Fish Alaska & Hunt Alaska magazines. She has fond memories of fishing the Kenai River that span over 20 years and will head back this fall, as usual, to get some time on one of her all-time favorite rivers.