Alaska is considered by many as the sportsmen’s capital of the US, with vast public lands and plentiful wildlife. With fishing and hunting opportunities unlike anything in the lower 48. The state is gigantic, you fit Texas into Alaska twice! Half of the roughly 700,000 people live in the capital Anchorage. All of this can only mean that the fishing is not pressured and very very productive. It also means getting to these areas can be challenging and requires some long travel.
When trying to plan out your first fly fishing expedition to Alaska it seems like most people look up a few different fishing lodges and end up booking an all-inclusive lodge package. This can be a great way to experience some unreal scenery and productive fly fishing with guides. But, it can be quite expensive, tough to experience some of the local cultures and you don’t have as much freedom while at the lodge. A great place to plan your first Alaska fly fishing trip is on the Kenai Peninsula specifically on the Kenai River systems. It’s proximity to Anchorage, quality fishing, and accommodations make it a great place to experience Alaska fly fishing.
Traveling from the states to the Kenai Peninsula is fairly easy relatively speaking to other Alaska destinations. Flying out of Denver, a quick connection in Seattle and flight up to Anchorage. Once in Anchorage, a quick 30 minute commuter flight down to Kenai will get you there. Or if you’re renting a car in Anchorage, the drive is only about 2 hours. I would recommend staying in Soldotna or Cooper Landing area. As for lodging and accommodations, there are a few fishing lodges in the area as well as many hotels, Airbnb’s and VRBO’s. If you are able to pack your camping gear, there is plenty of camping. Just be sure you also pack your bear spray.
The Kenai River:
The Kenai River is a glacial stream draining the central Kenai Penisula. It is a larger river that is best fished from a boat. Hiring a guide or renting a drift boat while fishing the river can make the fishing much more accessible and productive. There are over 40 different fish species in the Kenai. Some species are residents while some are anadromous like the various different salmon species. Anadromous meaning that the fish spend most of their lives in the salt water and then return to the freshwater to spawn. The productive fishing season is roughly June-October give or take. Historically, the Kenai is famous for its large salmon runs as well as trophy rainbow trout fly fishing. The Kenai is split into two sections: the “upper” and “lower.” Both sections have various segments to float.
Rainbow Trout —
The rainbow trout fishing on the Kenai River is without a doubt some of the most productive rainbow trout fishing in the world. The wild fish gorge on the bottom of the river to grow to behemoth sizes. The average size fish is somewhere between 15-20 inches. With a 30 inch, 20 pounds fish being a potential catch every day.
Dolly Varden —
Dolly Varden’s are ultimately a brook trout on steroids. A member of the char family, the “Dolly’s” can be found with the rainbows and provide some fun fishing opportunities. Their headshakes often remind me of fighting a large brown trout. Similar to the rainbows, Dolly’s can grow to the 30 inch range and a 20 inch fish is common on a daily basis. Some Dolly’s live part of their life in the ocean, while others remain in the freshwater their whole life. In the fall, the colors of these fish can be mesmerizing with vibrant colors.
While the rainbow and dolly fishing can be the primary targets for the fly fishing trip, runs of salmon can provide entertaining fishing opportunities. As well as a great way to fill the freezer and bring some wild caught salmon back home. The salmon runs vary year to year and are at the mercy of commercial fishing and environmental impacts. Catching salmon on a fly rod is a challenging and very rewarding task. Below are some of the salmon species you can find on the Kenai River and it’s neighboring rivers.
King Salmon (Chinook) —
First Run: Mid May to July; Second Run: Mid July to July 31 (last day of the season). The King’s are the largest of the salmon in the river. On a fly rod they can be a daunting task, on average they range in size from 15 pounds to 35 pounds. Some kings will reach sizes of 65 pounds in this system. These fish make aggressive runs and wild jumps and seem to never be ready to give up the fight. While the runs of King Salmon have been declining on the Kenai River, the neighboring Kasilof River offers ample opportunities.
Red Salmon (Sockeye) —
First Run: Late May to Early June; Second Run: Mid July to Early August. During the sockeye runs, the salmon cover the river bottom and they can be an absolute blast to catch on a fly rod when they are “fresh.” Meaning they just came in from the Ocean. During the sockeye runs on the Kenai, the river can be extremely busy as catching sockeye on traditional gear rods is a popular activity for many people in the area. Good sockeye runs usually mean very productive rainbow trout fishing to follow.
Pink Salmon (Humpbacks) —
Late July to Late August (Even Years Only) The pink’s only run on even years, but when they are in there are a lot of them. Typically smaller than the other salmon, these fish are eager to take flies. And for some reason their favorite fly color is pink.
Silver Salmon (Coho) —
Late July to November 1. The Coho’s are the last salmon to run and can be some of the most entertaining salmon to catch on a fly rod. Typically they are eager to eat fly’s and can be targeted with larger brighter colored streamers or even topwater poppers. After hooked, the fish usually will put on quite the show, with a variety of jumps until finally calling it quits. They are some of the most sought after for their delicious taste, as they are the least oily of the other salmon.
Unlike the trout fishing in Colorado, the fish in Alaska’s main food source is eggs. They gorge themselves on all the fish eggs that are in the system. The most common setup is a long leader nymphing rig with an egg pattern and a good amount of split shot to get it down. “Peg Eggs” are the most versatile and relatively cheap. They are plastic beads that can be situated a couple inches above a hook. Having a variety of different colors and sizes is important as conditions are always changing. Some days when you find the right color bead, it is hard to keep the fish off of it. Check out the chart below to understand the rigging of these “peg eggs”.
Another common fly pattern is the category of flesh flies. These flies represent the free floating salmon flesh that floats down the river after the salmon has spawned and died. In the late summer and fall when a lot of salmon are in the system, flesh flies are an effective way to target fish. Common flesh fly patterns include cream or white colored rabbit strips with beads in them like the Barely Legal. Bring a variety of brightly colored streamers, white, pink, purple, and black are great for targeting some of the salmon.
Two handed fishing with spey or switch rods can also be effective in the faster riffles. Fish moving through these riffles will often be triggered to strike of a well swung fly.
The all around rod for the Kenai area, in my opinion, is a 10 foot 7 weight rod. The extra length and stronger weight gives you the one up for fighting larger fish. As well as the ability to cast the longer rigs. For catching salmon on the fly, a 9 foot 8 or 9 weight is preferred. As the salmon are typically a bit bigger than the trout and dollies. Making sure you have a suitable drag on your reel is important as well. The salmon can really put a test to any drag, especially if one is foul hooked accidentally. Floating lines are suitable, with larger tapers being preferred to cast the heavier rigs. Not leaking waders and raingear is essential to staying warm out on the river as well.
Other Fishing Opportunites:
The Kenai River is not the only place you should fish while on the Kenai Peninsula. The Russian River is a tributary of Kenai that can be accessed near Cooper Landing. It is a great river to enjoy some wade fishing on. Every summer the sockeye salmon stack into the river, providing anglers with opportunity. All these sockeye are followed by large rainbows that gorge on the eggs. Just be sure to have your bear spray on hand, as there are quite a few bears around.
The prolific salmon runs, giant wild rainbow trout and common 100 fish days make the Kenai a river system every angler should check out at some point in their life. If you are looking for a guide be sure to check out Kenai Fishing for Fun. James Walker is the lead guide and was a guide at Vail Valley Anglers for a number of years.
Patrick Perry Content Contributor and Former Guide @patperry