Story and Photos by Nick Ohlrich
From the opener on June 11 through late fall, the Kenai River offers trout enthusiasts the opportunity to try a myriad of patterns, presentations and locations to target big rainbows. Each month, anglers can find world-class trout fishing if they are aware of the conditions that surround them. Knowing where, when and why is the key to staying in the loop with trout as the summer fades into fall.
June on the Kenai is an incredibly dynamic and complex time to be fishing trout. Weather, water temperature, trout spawn and migration are all critical factors in determining the productivity of the bite. Additionally, a variety of patterns and presentations can be used to create the most effective approach to deal with these ever-changing conditions.
By the time anglers are hitting the water on June 11, much has already happened from the time trout season closed on May 1. Typically, rainbows are still actively spawning on shallow gravel bars below Skilak Lake (trout spawn all the way to Bings and beyond). Most of the spawning activity is found in the first few miles below Skilak Lake. It is extremely important to leave the vulnerable spawning fish alone, as they are busy making the next generation of Kenai super-beasts. These fish are under a ton of stress as they don’t feed during their spawning process and will hit at almost anything to protect their beds.
As the long summer days melt the spring snowpack, the river begins rising and carcasses and eggs from the winter spawn of silvers wash down, creating a wonderful food supply. Lurking in the deep main channel of the river lie ultra-chrome, aggressive ’bows feeding on anything that floats buy. Simultaneously, salmon smolt are making their way downriver to begin entering their ocean life cycle, and trout can often be seen lunging out of the water voraciously feeding on the balls of smolt, some following the migrating smolt towards the lower river.
The diverse food supply offers anglers the options to drift bead and flesh patterns as well as swing streamers. Water levels and temperature play an important role in fish activity and presentations during June. An increase in air temperature will generally cause the river to rise, and this rising water will typically cool the river’s ambient water temperature. A sharp decrease in water temp will slow or kill the trout bite. A large rain event can also bring up the water level. Fortunately, dramatic changes in water temperature are not as typical with big rain events. But, when the water levels rise, one can expect that the old eggs and carcasses from the previous fall/winter will wash downriver, and the trout will not be too far behind.
In terms of effective presentations, anglers should look at what is going on in the trout’s environment. If one notices that the water levels have risen dramatically in the past few days and water temps have dropped, one can imagine that the trout are likely more docile and may not want to chase a streamer. Rather, rainbows may be down to munch an egg or hunk of flesh if it floats by.
Being able to gather as much information about what is going on in the river before one starts their day will help determine where to start and what to start with.
The beginning half of July can offer some of the most challenging times to find and stay on Kenai ’bows. Historically, water has been rising for over a month now and has washed the bulk of food that trout were feeding on downriver, while the smolt migration is mostly at its end. The large pockets of trout found below Skilak Lake in June have dissolved and spread out, looking for food as far as Eagle Rock. Trout will only stay in large concentrations if there is enough food. An easy way to get into the mind of a trout is to consider where the fish can find the most amount of food with the least amount of effort.
Once the second run of sockeye enter the river in fishable numbers, trout fishing picks way up. Salmon anglers are busy filling freezers, and as a result, fill the river with egg skeins and filleted carcasses. Towards the latter half of July the sockeye run should be in full swing, producing an ample and easy food source for the masses of trout desperately trying to quench an insatiable appetite for flesh and eggs. Don’t be surprised if you stumble into a “fall” fat ’bow or two. The moral of this story is wherever salmon anglers are found, hungry rainbow trout are not too far away, munching on an easy supply of food.
Under these conditions, the pattern du jour is fresh flesh and egg patterns. Matching the hatch doesn’t only apply to those presenting nymphs and dry flies. Thinking about what is in the water to feed your target species and what said fish is likely keying on should be at the top of your priority list.
The first week of August can be just as awesome as late July. Sockeye anglers keep a steady supply of food in the water for trout lurking nearby. However, the party cannot go on forever. As August pushes on, trout anglers are faced with another very tough time to find and stay on fish… perhaps the toughest.
The reasoning is much the same as early July: lack of food in the water and changes in diet. As the sockeye run nears its end, so does an easy supply of sustenance. Trout will naturally gravitate to catchment areas where food has been washing into or hanging up over the course of the season. A second place to look for them is king beds, as a few kings are starting to spawn and some are staging on beds. The third hiding area is the main river transition zones, where food is funneling down the main channel but in zones where trout can find shelter from the current and feed on the main river pipeline.
This is why mid-August is so difficult; anglers are dealing with trout that are searching for food, not sure where that food is, and to make matters worse, it’s a constantly changing food source. This keeps trout on the move and spread out. A lack of consistency in both location and food makes for challenging fishing. Old flesh and egg patterns are the best, but each area and day will determine what the fish are keying on. Daily evaluations are essential for successful trout fishing.
Fortunately, the end of August can make up for the arduous fishing during the middle of the month. Kings start spawning in full force somewhere around the third week of August, fueling a full-throttle rainbow trout party underneath the turquoise waters of the Kenai. This is the first time since the end of July/early August that trout will be hanging out in numbers.
If one is not sure where king beds are located, simply search for giant, bright red dinosaurs porpoising out of the water. Once sighted, begin running drifts over the spot or simply drift down the middle of the river. Fresh egg patterns (8-12mm) are the standard starting point for targeting these fish. The very beginning of the king bite can find big ’bows with their guard down. It has been almost two weeks since there was an easy supply of food and these big, educated fish are experiencing a state of irrational exuberance. Round and orange egg patterns can hook big fish at first, but once the big kids get a hook in the face or see their cohorts get hooked, reality sets in quick and they become extremely picky again.
Don’t be shocked if you hook into a king while trout fishing this time of year; actually, expect it. The important thing is to release that fish quickly, do your best to recover your line and let the fish be on its way. Just like rainbows, salmon are under a ton of stress while spawning, and spawning Kenai king salmon are a marvelous thing to behold.
Most Kenai trout anglers would agree that September is their favorite time of the year, and I know many folks who eat up quite a bit of vacation to hunt fall fatties on the middle river during this season. There is good reason, too, as spawning salmon and the onset of winter result in rainbows on a feeding rampage. This is the time of the year where anglers can expect to catch numbers of fish and run a strong risk of hooking into big fish. This big spawn causes trout to congregate in high populations. Mostly, it’s a giant end of season party and all are invited!
The beginning of September is met with the downswing of the king salmon spawn and the beginning of late-season sockeye spawning, and on even years, pink salmon as well. Sockeye primarily spawn in the first few miles below Skilak Lake, while pinks can be found spawning from Skilak Lake to the lower river.
During this time, trout are focusing on a vast supply of eggs tumbling down the river. Having a healthy mix of fresh and old egg patterns from 6mm to 10mm is key. Sockeye eggs are typically 6- to 8mm while pink eggs are 8- to 10mm. Remember to match the hatch!
The variety of eggs in different stages floating downriver is what makes this time of year technical and bountiful. I’m certain that all rainbows do not like hooks getting shoved in their face and I know for a fact that big ones loathe it.
The big ’bows are going to key on an egg pattern that allows them to feed and not get hooked. There will be no doubt once you crack the code and find what the big fish are feeding on. The tug of small ’bows and Dollies will be smoked by drag-ripping Kenai super-beasts. The correct big-fish bead will change by the day, hole and even time of day.
A strong egg bite will continue throughout most of September with a definite decrease in productivity towards the end of the month. Towards the end of the salmon spawn, one should try running a flesh fly or swinging a streamer. Many times, this easy switch can be the catalyst to reconnecting with some well-fed ’bows.
I have seen the Kenai fish strong into October, and have seen it tank. The amount of spawning salmon, the rate of and duration of the spawn, and water levels will dictate the performance of the second half of the month. Normally, water levels drop throughout September, but a bursting ice dam, like the one we experienced this September, can throw a major wrench into the equation. An ice damn failure results in an unexpected and dramatic rise in water levels that quickly wash food downriver. This will generally result in a decrease in water temperature, and the end result is very angry trout for a few days or longer.
As September fades into October, focus on the silver salmon spawn that will happen intermittently from mid-October well into February.
Tying it Together
Whether you are a seasoned angler hunting down the fish of a lifetime or a novice that is stoked to just catch a fish, the Kenai is a great place for everyone. Applying a few of these concepts to your formula will put you on more fish and bigger fish, and the best way to get better at fishing is to fish more.
An important thing to keep in mind is having the proper tools needed to safely release trout back into the water and the knowledge on how to safely and appropriately handle the extremely fragile ’bow. All rainbows need to be handled with care and not kept out of the water for more than 5 seconds.
A quick and efficient release will not only save a great fish but also let it successfully return to feeding and getting ultra-fat.
A quick refresher on the proper gear—you’ll need a rubber net (this creates a safe handling environment for you and the trout), a couple pairs of forceps (one always disappears during the day) and a camera to capture your conquest for all of posterity. Providing a little extra care when handling our pink-sided friends will help keep the Kenai a world-class trout fishery.
Nick Ohlrich is co-owner/guide for Alaska Drift Away Fishing. For more info check out their website at www.guidekenairiver.com or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-999-8677.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.