Once & Again: The Kenai
by Troy Letherman
If there’s such a thing as insistence from flowing water, then the Kenai River insists we pay attention.
One of the most famous salmon and trout fisheries on the planet, the river hardly needs an introduction. Home to the largest sport fishery in Alaska, and responsible for more current International Game Fish Association world records than any other river in the world, the Kenai ends up spread across the pages of all kinds of publications. The reigning all-tackle Chinook was taken here, and while they may not make the record books—being jointly classed with ocean-roaming steelhead—the Kenai’s resident rainbows regularly top the 15-pound mark. There are guides and lodges operating from its turquoise outlet at Kenai Lake to the tidal reaches near Cook Inlet. The towns of Cooper Landing, Sterling, Soldotna and Kenai offer every convenience imaginable; hotels and restaurants fill to capacity, park campgrounds swell beyond capacity, and the Russian River Ferry does a brisk business. This is the modern story.
Throughout the majority of the millennium that just ended, Dena’ina Athabascans called the area home and relied upon its noted productivity to sustain their way of life, establishing a permanent village named Skitok at the present site of Kenai. For the two thousand years prior to the Dena’ina, Kachemak Riverine culture flourished along the river. The kind of natural abundance necessary to support such long-termed subsistence wasn’t likely to be overlooked by the earliest Europeans visitors to Alaska, and by the 1790s the Kenai area had become the Russian center for Cook Inlet fish and furs. Nikolaevsk Redoubt was built on the bluffs to accommodate the growing trade. As the salmon runs increased in economic importance, the population of the region swelled, and then 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, the ships would haul out the catch gathered at the three processors that were up and running. In July of 1957 another period of growth was prompted by the discovery of oil near the neighboring Swanson River.
Today the Kenai River remains the center of life on a diverse and magnificently endowed peninsula, its appeal as powerful as ever before. A commercial fishing presence still looms large, though the communities’ growth in recent decades has been boosted by burgeoning tourism and sport-fishing industries, leaving no doubt as to the continuing importance of the characteristics that have made the Kenai precious for at least the past three thousand years.
The river itself rises from runoff streams and creeks in the Kenai Mountains and flows some eighty miles west to its terminus. To most observers, it’s easily broken down into three unique sections, each with a completely different character and habitat makeup. 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. At the bottom end of Skilak begins the middle river, the longest and least utilized section. For its final twenty-one miles the river meanders lazily from the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna to its rendezvous with the inlet. The last twelve of these miles are intertidal in nature, and it is on the incoming tides that the majority of the king salmon fishing takes place. Across its entire length, one can find the picture-postcard of Alaska experiences: towering blue mountains, valley-gouging glaciers, thick spruce and cottonwood forests, moose, bears, bald eagles, and of course, salmon galore.
If it were anywhere else, surely the Kenai River would rank something close to a modern wonder of the world; in Alaska, a state unrivalled in scenery or in the number of world-class trout and salmon destinations, it still stands head and shoulders above the rest, making us pay attention.
The Upper River
The river begins where Kenai Lake narrows into a meandering stream coursing through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and despite some heavy summertime traffic, the river maintains an authentic wilderness character throughout the next seventeen miles, until it pours through the Kenai Canyon and finally dumps into Skilak Lake. Most of the river from the lake down is class I water, ideal for drift fishing or floating, except for the canyon, which is rated at class III.
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. From there, 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. The ferry operates just below the Russian, hauling across loads of anglers looking to access the productive shore-fishing grounds on the far side of the river; it’s a particularly popular destination for those in search of sockeye. Also located here is a second public boat launch, Sportsman’s Landing, the most utilized starting point for day-floaters.
From Sportsman’s to Jim’s Landing spreads miles of picturesque Alaska scenery and some exceptional trout and Dolly Varden opportunities, especially for the fly fisher. Fishing for king salmon is prohibited on the upper Kenai, however, and rainbow trout are catch-and-release only, including in Skilak Lake within a half-mile of the river.
The Middle River
The stretch from Skilak Lake downstream to the Sterling Highway Bridge near the Soldotna Visitor’s Center is commonly classified as the middle river. It’s the longest of the three sections and also the least utilized. In fact, 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 14 percent for these nearly 30 miles of water.
Some of the best trout fishing on the Kenai is available from Skilak Lake to Naptowne Rapids (about ten river miles). 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 very 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. For anglers interested in coho, the middle river can fish phenomenally well from August through early September.
The middle river is typically low in the early season, making jet-boat travel above Bing’s Landing a sketchy proposition. The water rises throughout the summer, and boaters will find improved conditions as the summer wears on. Downstream from Naptowne, the Issac Walton Park boat launch at the Moose River in Sterling is the first access point below Skilak. Additionally, there are two closed areas in this section of river—above Morgan’s Landing, which is reserved for bank-fishing only, and a larger closure at the Funny River. Below Funny River, kings are targeted with good success, while bank-fishing for sockeye is always an attractive option for Kenai-bound anglers. However, most of the land in this area is privately owned, so where public access is available, crowds can be as much a feature of the fishing as the middle Kenai’s wide, powerful nature.
The Lower River
The final 21 miles of the river gently wind from the Sterling Highway Bridge, through Soldotna, and onto its confluence with Cook Inlet near the city of Kenai. The final twelve miles of this section are intertidal, and it is on the incoming tides that the majority of king fishing takes place. The area is positively bustling with boats during the king season and only slows slightly following the run.
There are several boat launches that make access to the lower river very easy; although caution is a prudent impulse here, as the lower Kenai also features several rocks and sandbars that make navigation tricky. The crowded conditions don’t help much on that end, and there certainly can be crowds on the river during the months of June and July—the height of the two Kenai king runs.
But before you take off for a day of Kenai king fishing on the lower river, know one thing for sure: the Kenai might be one of the best known rivers in the state, region and country, but all the acclaim didn’t come from giving up boatloads of kings (Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates it takes approximately 29 hours of angling effort to land a Kenai king). They’re the least abundant of North America’s five species of Pacific salmon anyway, and only in select watersheds can one expect to find consistently steady action of the sort often found with the other salmon species. And actually, among Alaska’s top ten or so destinations for river-running Chinook, the Kenai would rate very low as far as per-hour production goes. But they’re big.
Kenai kings are among the largest in the world and have sustained in excess of 100,000 angler-days of fishing effort annually. Five-ocean fish are rather familiar to the river, unlike almost every other system in the state, and the all-tackle world record king was a six-ocean fish. These Chinook are also managed as two distinct runs, early and late, which typically peak around the second week of June and again in late July. Most early run fish are tributary spawners, 80 percent or more, while almost all late-run fish spawn in the mainstem Kenai. Both are sure to be pursued by legions of drifters, plunkers, back-bouncers and boondoggers, all after the next world record to come from these special waters.
The Kenai by Season
Two distinct runs for each of the three most sought-after Kenai salmon—kings, reds and silvers—helps make the river even more unique, and provides anglers with what seems like twice the angling options.
It all begins in the spring, with trout and Dolly Varden anglers braving the last of the winter conditions to tackle the upper river for a chance at the year’s first bent rod. The fishery is brief, closing to protect spawning rainbow trout from May 2 through June 10.
At the other end of the river, hopeful king salmon prospectors can turn up as early as the last week of April, and in most years there are certainly fish to be caught in mid-May (the world record was taken on May 11). The king season typically heats up as the weeks progress, with the early run peaking in most years around the middle of June. From the mouth of the Kenai River to the Soldotna bridge—through June 30—only king salmon less than 46 inches in length, or those 55 inches in length or greater, can be harvested. From the Soldotna bridge upstream to Skilak Lake, the same slot limit applies through July 14. From July 1 in the area from the mouth to the Soldotna bridge, and from July 14 in the area from the bridge to Skilak, an angler may take any Kenai king greater than 20 inches in length; however, at all times from January 1 through July 31, any harvested Kenai king that is 55 inches in length or greater must be sealed by ADF&G personnel at the Soldotna office.
All of this begs another statement—know the regulations, as Kenai king regulations in particular can be quite extensive. There are also regular emergency orders to consider, so be sure to check with ADF&G before any trip.
With the first run of kings making their way into the Kenai also comes an initial pulse of sockeye. The first run of Kenai reds are actually headed for the Russian River and typically get there in a hurry after nosing into the Kenai. The fishing usually picks up by the tenth of the month and remains steady from there, with the best fishing in the upper river.
In July, a second run of kings enters the river, with fish both larger—based primarily on anecdotal evidence—and in better numbers. These are mainstem spawners, and that means good concentrations of fish in the lower river.
By the end of the first week in July, the second run of kings is generally in full swing and continues to improve as the month goes on. The second run peaks in most years somewhere between the second and third week in July. However, the fishing effort remains constant until the end of the season on August 1.
The second run of reds hits the Kenai the second week in July and last through the first part of August. The fishing accelerates in the middle of July and peaks somewhere in the last ten days of the month, though there are exceptions. Typically, fishing for reds is accomplished from the bank.
As the second run of reds is entering the river in July, the silvers are also starting to make their push to spawning grounds. Silvers start to enter the river by the last week in July and in most seasons there are fishable numbers by early August. The fishing stays strong throughout the month of August. The second run of silvers start entering the river in early September and continues into October. However, this is also peak trophy trout time on the Kenai—from August onwards, as the salmon spawn the trout fishing picks up, until there’s almost no one left on the river who isn’t after an egg- and flesh-fattened rainbow of epic proportions.
That’s the thing with the Kenai—whether spring, summer or fall, or whether it’s a particularly strong run or not, whether bank fishing or from a drift- or jet boat, whether fly or lure, there always seem to be fish to catch, and the next one could always be the fish of a lifetime. It’s the kind of thing you pay attention to.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.