Story by Troy Letherman
When it comes to fishing in Alaska, it’s hard to begin with anything outside the mighty Kenai River. One of the most famous salmon and trout rivers in the world, it is home to the largest, most active sport fishery in the state, and it’s responsible for more current IGFA world records than any other river in the world. The reigning all-tackle World Record king salmon was taken here, and while they won’t make the record books due to joint classification with the ocean-going steelhead, every year anglers manage to land several resident Kenai rainbows that tip the scales at 15 pounds or better. Thriving sport fisheries also exist for sockeye, silvers, pinks and Dollies, depending on the time of year, each helping to make the Kenai the capital of Alaska’s angling map.
All this production didn’t just happen overnight, either—the Kenai has always been important.
Throughout much of the millennium that just ended, Dena’ina Athabascans called the Kenai area home and relied upon the river to sustain their way of life, establishing a permanent village named Skitok, from the Dena’ina Shk’ituk’t (“where we slide down”), at the present site of Kenai. For the two thousand years prior to the Dena’ina, Kachemak Riverine culture flourished along the river. Likewise, the kind of natural abundance required to support such long-termed subsistence wasn’t overlooked by the earliest European visitors to Alaska, and by the 1790s the Kenai area had become the Russian center for Cook Inlet fish and furs. Nikolaevsk Redoubt (Fort St. Nicholas) was built on the bluffs to accommodate the growing trade. As the salmon runs increased in economic importance, the population of the region swelled, as it did again when Russian mining engineer Peter Doroshin first reported the discovery of gold along the river’s banks. By World War I ships were sailing into Kenai Bay every spring with supplies for the community. At the end of the season, these same ships would haul out the catch gathered at the three processors that were up and running by then. In July of 1957 oil was discovered near the neighboring Swanson River, prompting more growth.
Today the Kenai River remains the center of life on a diverse and magnificently endowed peninsula, its appeal as potent as ever before. From its earliest beginnings at Kenai Lake through the trout-filled waters of Skilak and finally on to the slow-moving tidal area where it empties into Cook Inlet, the Kenai is a river unlike any other in the world, particularly as it’s road-accessible for the majority of that length. The access provided by the Sterling Highway can mean enormous angling pressure during certain times of the year, yet amidst piles of fishermen stepping all over each other, the Kenai River continues to produce fish, and big fish at that. It’s astounding when you think about it, or say, drive past the Russian-Kenai confluence during the peak of the sockeye run. It really is a testament to this river’s remarkable natural blessings, as well as to the work of the guides, residents and visiting sport anglers, who bear the brunt of most conservation efforts.
The river itself rises from runoff streams and creeks in the Kenai Mountains and flows some eighty miles west to its eventual terminus. To most observers, it’s easily broken down into three unique sections, each with a completely different character and habitat makeup.
The Upper Kenai
The upper river, designated a trophy trout area, issues from the outlet of Kenai Lake and courses through a panorama of scenic mountains and forests until it meets giant Skilak Lake. Travelers will first glimpse these turquoise waters where Kenai Lake narrows, forming a meandering stream that maintains a real wilderness character despite the moderate to heavy traffic. Most of the river from the lake down is class I water, ideal for drift fishing or floating, except for the Kenai Canyon, a stretch of class III water right before Skilak Lake.
The rainbows and Dollies are legendary on this section of water, 17.3 miles in length, and while the fishing pressure can get high, the population of fish is anything but weak. At the Kenai Lake outlet there is a public boat launch for rafters, boaters and other recreational users to easily access the upper stretches of the river. The river passes several businesses in Cooper Landing and eases past its hugely popular tributary, the Russian River, and the campground of the same name. Just below the Russian, the Kenai River ferry operates, running crowds of anglers across the river to reach some productive wade-fishing ground. From the ferry down to Jim’s Landing spreads miles of picturesque Alaska scenery and some exceptional trout and Dolly Varden opportunities.
Fishing for king salmon is prohibited on the upper Kenai and rainbow trout are catch-and-release only, including in Skilak Lake within a half-mile of the river.
The Middle Kenai
From Skilak downstream to the Sterling Highway Bridge near the Soldotna Visitor’s Center is commonly referred to as the middle river, the longest of the three sections and also the least utilized. According to statistics released by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks, approximately 60 percent of registered guides operate on the lower river and 25 percent on the upper, leaving only 15 percent for these nearly 30 miles of water.
From Skilak Lake to Naptowne Rapids (about 10 river miles), a number of good salmon and trout holes exist. Approximately the first four miles of this section are within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and the only access point for boats is at the lower Skilak Lake landing. This section of the Kenai is the most remote of the entire waterway, with no boat access and few houses, roads or people. Portions of the river in this area are deep by Kenai standards, more than 15 feet in places, and an area that commences with the private property near Wally’s Hole is closed each year from June 25 to July 15 to protect holding kings.
The middle section of the river is generally low in the early part of the season, making boat travel above Bing’s Landing very difficult. The water rises throughout the summer, though, and provides better conditions for boaters as the year goes on. Downstream of the rapids, the Isaac Walton Park boat launch at the Moose River in Sterling is the first access point. There are two closed areas in this section—above Morgan’s Landing, which is reserved for shore fishing, and the much larger Funny River closure, which covers nearly one mile of water.
The Lower Kenai
For its final 21 miles the river meanders lazily from the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna to its rendezvous with Cook Inlet near the town of Kenai. The last 12 of these miles are intertidal in nature, and it is on the incoming tides that the majority of the king salmon fishing takes place. However, the lower Kenai has several rocks and sandbars that boaters should take note of, making it a very difficult section of river to navigate for the inexperienced. The crowded conditions don’t help, either, and the area is positively bustling with boats during the king season and only slows slightly following the run.
Still, across the entire length of the Kenai, from Cooper Landing to Soldotna and beyond, one can find the picture postcard of Alaska experiences: towering, blue-faced mountains, valley-gouging glaciers, thick spruce and cottonwood forests, moose, bears, bald eagles and of course, salmon galore.
Fishing the Kenai
Although the first king salmon begin easing into the Kenai in late April every year, May marks the arrival of spring in Alaska and the real beginning of fishing season on the river.
Chinook salmon returning to the river are managed as two distinct runs, early and late, which typically peak around the second week of June and again in late July. Beginning in May, the early run generally builds day-to-day, growing stronger as the month goes on. Although only 50 to 150 fish might enter the system daily, good fishing can still be had due to limited fishing pressure and low water conditions.
The majority of king fishing takes place in the river’s far lower reaches, below the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna, and one can fish for holding kings from a drift boat on river miles 36 through 13 or hit several holes in tidal water, awaiting the arrival of ocean-bright fish. During this time of year on the Kenai, you should be prepared for long hours between strikes—the Kenai king fishery isn’t about sheer numbers of fish, it’s about the size of the fish.
Kenai king anglers should be aware that the entire early-run fishery is managed as a single-hook, artificial lure only (no bait) fishery with a slot limit requiring the release of any king between 44- and 55 inches (particularly when considering Kenai kings, please make sure to check the regulations closely, including looking for recent Emergency Orders, prior to fishing).
The month of June marks the peak of early-run Kenai kings, with the historic midpoint of in-river return being June 13 (typically, over half the run enters the river in the two-week period between June 6 and June 20). Early-run sockeye salmon also enter the river in early June. Bound for the Kenai’s major tributary, the Russian River, these June fish usually zip through the lower river, making fishing for them difficult until about the second or third week of June, when they begin stacking up in the upper Kenai River.
The sockeye fishing scene at the lower end of the Russian River presents one of Alaska’s most famous combat-fishing scenes: Near the U.S. Forest Service campground off the Sterling Highway, tens of thousands of sockeye salmon arrive where the clear water of the Russian mix with the Kenai’s turquoise flows, bringing along hundreds of anglers to flip yarn flies at them. Upstream, however—near the river’s twin source lakes—anglers can not only access the fantastic fishing the Russian River is known for, but a fairly remote and scenic section of water as well. Visitors to the upper river can even witness one of nature’s most dramatic spectacles, as the sockeye try to negotiate the falls and reach their spawning grounds at Upper Russian Lake.
The mainstem Kenai also offers explosive sockeye fishing. Areas of the middle river, such as the confluence with the Moose River in Sterling, provide much of the best angling opportunity for shoreline-migrating sockeye. However, most of the land in this area is privately owned. Where public access is available, crowds are as much a feature of the fishing as the middle Kenai’s wide, powerful nature. The upper Kenai offers anglers another option. Probably the state’s most famous day-trip float destination, the upper river, much of which lies within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, somehow clings to its wilderness quality despite heavy summertime raft traffic.
Also in June, the middle and upper Kenai River opens for trout (June 11) as well, usually providing good fishing for the first week of the season.
The most popular time to fish the Kenai River is in July, due to a variety of factors—namely, the arrival of the second run of sockeye salmon, the second run of Kenai kings, the lifting of the bait ban and the lifting of the early-run slot limit in the lower river (the slot limit remains in effect above the Soldotna bridge through July 14). However, one must factor in the huge increase of fishing pressure and how it affects overall success.
The sockeye fishing tends towards the spectacular in July, but keep an eye on the commercial fishing openings, which can dramatically impact success rates in-river. Middle and upper Kenai trout fishing remains open in July, but the fishing is generally slow to fair.
With the closing of the king season on August 1 comes the departure of the crowds, and the fishery shifts gears to a more laid-back experience as early-run Kenai River silvers begin arriving, peaking around mid-month. In even-numbered years, pink salmon enter the Kenai literally by the millions in August, and this fishery is perfect for those looking for guaranteed success and lots of action. Sockeye salmon fishing remains good in the middle Kenai during the first two weeks of August.
August also marks the onset of spawning season for kings and eventually sockeye in the middle and upper river, which provides a marked improvement in fishing for big rainbows and Dolly Varden. These fisheries improve by the day as the month progresses.
As the sunny, warm days of summer give way to blustery September weather, diehard anglers find some of the best fishing of the year on the Kenai. The second run of Kenai silvers typically arrives in force by the end of the first week of the month, and these substantially bigger, stronger coho tend to peak during the second or third week. Likewise, fishing for resident trout peaks mid-month, as big, native rainbows and fat Dolly Varden engage in a feeding frenzy around the loose salmon eggs and rotting flesh flooding the system. World-class trout fishing can be found in the middle and upper Kenai throughout the month of September.
Beyond the Kenai
Traveling south from Soldotna, anglers will first encounter the glacial Kasilof River, which supports a mixture of wild and hatchery-enhanced king salmon returns, as well as sockeye and silver fisheries that feature their own superlatives. A drift-boat-only river, the Kasilof represents a more leisurely day afield than many spent searching for salmon in the lower or middle Kenai.
Next, on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula as you move towards the community of Homer, a triad of clearwater streams crosses the Sterling Highway en route to Cook Inlet. The two southernmost, the Anchor River and Deep Creek, support native stocks of Chinook, while the king salmon returning to the Ninilchik River are a mix of wild and hatchery fish. Each also offers the opportunity to pursue anadromous Dolly Varden, silvers and later in the fall, steelhead.
Visitors wishing to get in a day on the ocean don’t have to go far, as within a couple hours in either direction of the Kenai lie the busy ports of Seward and Homer. Even closer, between Soldotna and Homer, dozens of charters operate out of the Deep Creek area, launching for Cook Inlet halibut daily.
And then there are all the trailheads, lakes and small streams just waiting to be explored, not to mention the freshwater fisheries that lie across Cook Inlet, accessible by a short floatplane flight. Many of these offer some of the best wilderness sockeye and coho fishing available in the region—and it’s usually just a 20-minute flight from the Kenai area away.
In sum, the Kenai area is home to Alaska’s definitive road-system angling environment, bustling and vibrant throughout the Alaska summer when the salmon pour in from the coast and the midnight sun offers nearly unlimited hours on the water, and then the opposite in autumn—sleepy and comfortable and as easygoing as the big river meandering through the trees alongside the highway.
People come here for many reasons, maybe oversized kings or perhaps spirited, gravity-defying sockeye streaming in by the hundreds of thousands. As the season shuffles towards autumn, the silvers start to arrive, hook-nosed and hard-fighting, eager to belt lure or fly. With the kings and the sockeye already on their spawning beds, the fishing for resident rainbow trout as well as Dolly Varden rises towards crescendo, providing a world-class fishery that draws anglers from across the planet.
The Kenai River is truly one of a kind, and regardless of the time of year, you should give it a try.
Troy Letherman was editor of Fish Alaska magazine.
Kenai All Around originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.
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