drift boat on upper Kenai River

Kenai River drift boat session. © Nicholas Ohlrich

Russian River, Quartz Creek, Deep Creek, Kasilof River, Anchor River, and of course the Kenai River are all world-class fisheries that host thousands of anglers who come annually for the sole purpose of fishing one or several of these systems. The Sterling Highway deserves a stoke award for the heavy hitters that it runs along and through. Four species of salmon, rainbow trout, dolly varden, and steelhead are all present in these waters.

Russian River & Kenai River: Roadside Fishing

Blog by Nicholas Ohlrich

Since this is a blog, I will employ some self-control and discuss the advantages of my two favorite systems, the Russian River and Middle Kenai River.

One of the many great things about Alaska is the availability of world-class fishing right off the road. From Prudhoe Bay to Prince of Wales, epic fishing can be found not far from a road system. While experiencing fishing in remote Alaska is truly an amazing experience, the time and money required make these excursions infrequent for most anglers. No need to worry, one of the best fishing rivers, period, is the Kenai River, and all 82 miles are accessible by roads. The Kenai Peninsula is my stomping grounds and hosts several fantastic fisheries with quick access such as the Russian River.

The above could easily deserve a book per system; together they could form an encyclopedia of awesome.

rainbow trout with fly in mouth

Trout love to slurp floaty bugs. © Nicholas Ohlrich

18 years ago, the Russian River became my home and source of employment. By day I was one of the standard hippies you saw working the contact booth. After work all my time was spent learning the finer points of salmon and rainbow trout fishing. As a Wisconsin native my days on water involved a canoe hunting musky, pike, and walleye in the many lakes there. Scouring the banks of the Russian River with a fly rod swinging streamers and drifting egg patterns was 100% different.

The clear water of the Russian River allows anglers to observe fish movement, behavior, and what their food looks like floating down river. That’s a huge bonus since the Kenai River’s turquoise water masks this and most learning is speculative. In a few miles of water, easily navigable by foot an angler can fish fast water, slow water, deep, shallow, and everything in between. Streamers, nymphs, dries, flesh, and egg patterns are all fair game and extremely deadly most of the time. What an amazing and easily accessible system to hone your skills as an angler! Not to mention the trout here are educated–the same dry fly that floats uninterrupted will suddenly become the ticket with the simple change to a lighter tippet.

man holding rainbow trout on Kenai River

Author with a typical Russian River ‘bow. © Nicholas Ohlrich

The Russian River flows into the Upper Kenai River, so naturally I followed it to that amazing fishery. Again, the trout on this section are highly educated, but with the foundation I built on the Russian River the learning curve was not as steep. A boat is required to effectively fish this section. Yes, you can walk into some pretty good zones, but once there you quickly run out of options. My time on the Upper Kenai River was short lived. I didn’t know it yet, but the Middle Kenai River would become my main focus and is to this day.

The top section of the Middle Kenai River is known as the Dunes or Football Fields. To me, it was a vast labyrinth of gravel bars, weird currents, and a ton of water. I had never seen anything like it before. The ‘bows were not as educated as the Upper River fish, and they ran large. My mind was blown, and I was in love. Not far below the Dunes the Middle actually starts to look like a river. There are plenty of gravel bars, drops, riffles, and options along the way. This was 17 years ago. The Middle Kenai River was still considered a secret, trophy-trout mecca, the Fight Club for rainbow trout.

Fast forward 17 years and the Middle is still home to monster ‘bows, but they have become educated. Big trout are old trout and can spot a terrible drift or pattern a long way out. The Middle, in my opinion, is still one of the best trout fisheries for trophy native fish on this planet, and for a road accessible system it is the best. Several launches are right off the “Highway of Stoke” (Sterling Highway). A boat with a motor is your best bet as mobility will increase your knowledge and observation, much like the Russian River, but on a larger scale. If you are new to fishing and running a boat your learning curve will be steep, but not impossible.

power boat on Kenai River

A Power boat on the Middle Kenai makes obtaining fish like this easier. © Nicholas Ohlrich

Time and budget always shape our movement into a new pastime, and with the quick drive from Anchorage, the Russian River and Kenai River will provide years of enjoyment for folks of all abilities, time, and financial levels. I still go back to the Russian River and drift dry flies, mostly wearing shorts and sandals (there are plenty of hooks in the Russian River, wear sandals at your own risk).

The Russian River is still one of the best places to get your stoke on especially with a tight time schedule and budget. Nothing fancy or expensive is required here. For those with access to a drift boat or raft the Upper River can easily be floated several times a day. The Middle is more demanding as a drift boat will have to motor or row across Skilak Lake (roughly 2 miles) and then float 12 miles to Bing’s Landing. Powerboats can launch at either Bing’s or Skilak. This is the way to go for this section. Mobility helps increase repetition and repetition is key to learning.


Nick Ohlrich is a frequent contributor to Fish Alaska and co-owner/guide of Alaska Drift Away Fishing. For more info or to book a trip check out their website or call 907-529-8776.