Kenai River Fishing
The Kenai River is one of the most famous rivers in the world. With the world record king salmon being caught here in May of 1985, millions of king, sockeye, and silver salmon making their yearly migrations, and easy access from Anchorage, the Kenai River is one of the most popular fishing destinations in the state. The genetics of both the king salmon and the sockeye salmon found in the Kenai River make them the largest of both of those species. Combined with a later summer and fall Silver salmon run the Kenai River is simply in a league of it's own.
After you've checked out this Kenai River Fishing overview make sure to check out the specific pages on rods, reels, lures, baits and locations to target Kings, Silvers, and sockeye on the Kenai River.
Kenai River Fishing - Three Unique Sections of River
The Kenai River is 82 miles of gorgeous glacier melt river. Starting near the town of Coopering Landing, it continues through Skilak Lake, on through the towns of Sterling, Soldotna, and Kenai before finally finishing it's journey in Cook Inlet. Fishing the Kenai River successfully means understanding water levels, salmon migration patterns, and the uniqueness of the different sections of those 82 miles of river. We'll provide an overview of all of these things and how we use them to provide the best fishing opportunity.
The Upper Kenai River
The Upper Kenai River is the 17.3 mile stretch of river from the outlet of Kenai Lake and flowing into Skilak Lake. This entire section runs through the Chugach National Forest, and the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. It is an amazingly beautiful section of river.
The elevation at the outlet of Kenai River Lake at Cooper Landing is 446' MSL and the elevation of Skilak Lake is approximately 195' Ft MSL creating roughly 250 Ft of vertical drop over the 17.3 miles. Areas of this section of river can be quite swift and the last 6 miles is called "The Canyon" which can develop into Class III rapids.
The water clarity of the upper Kenai River is absolutely amazing and the aqua color created from the glacier is something to behold.
The Middle Kenai River
The middle section of the Kenai River begins at the 195' Ft. MSL outlet of Skilak lake and continues through the town of Sterling and Soldotna to the Soldotna Bridge which is at 105' Ft. MSL. The middle section therefore has only 90' of vertical drop over it's 19.5 journey. Even though the river only has 105' through this section, portions of it are still fast and just before reaching the town of Sterling you'll find Naptown Rapids. Bings Landing is the last boat pull-out before Naptown Rapids so unless you are an experienced boater and understand those rapids its best not to miss that pull out.
As the river continues to flow sediment is constantly picked up and water clarity and color continues to change all the way from Kenai Lake to the final destination of the ocean. One area in particular of interest is the Killey River which is about 1/2 way between Skilak Lake and the Soldotna Bridge. This tributary has a tendency of pushing a lot of mud into the Kenai River significantly changing water clarity downstream as the mud from the river spreads out.
The Lower Kenai River
The Lower Kenai River starts at the Soldotna bridge at an elevation of 105' Ft. MSL and travels 21 miles to reach Cook Inlet. This is the most gentle section of the 3 and the most heavily fished. There are no rapids to worry about but there are lots of shallow points and gravel bars for the inexperienced to be concerned about.
Cook Inlet has some of the largest tidal swings in the world moving almost 30' Ft. in a 6 hour period on the largest swings of the year. Such large swings can actually influence the river flow up to about Eagle Rock since Eagle Rock is at 16 Ft. MSL. Eagle Rock is located at Mile 12 and is generally considered the last point at which the tide influences the river. At certain times of the year, and extremely high tides, this section of water actually reverses and flows temporarily backwards from it's normal flow. On extremely large tides, the section of river below Eagle rock can be difficult to fish productively because there is so little current that it's difficult to get proper action on lures such as Kwikfish and other crank bait type lures.
Due to the shallow nature of the river in general, in the early weeks of May and June we typically restricted ourselves to the Eagle Rock/Pillars Boat Launch area and below. The depth of the river changes throughout the year and what this looks like historically can be seen in the graph below.
How To Fish The Kenai River
The closest location we have for tracking the water depth on the lower Kenai River is the automated measurement station located at the Soldotna bridge. The chart above is the 5 year average in blue and the year 2018. One of the things that examining the average fails to display however are the huge peaks that happen throughout the year bringing the river to flood stage. This can be caused by rain but is often also caused by ice dams that build up in Skilak Lake and Kenai Lake and restrict the outflow for a period of time and then eventually release. This can happen at any time of the year including summer if large chunks of glacier calve. Notice that the gage height is only about 6' ft. in January of 2018 and then there was an enormous release of water that happened around January 21. This is showing an ice dam building and then eventually failing under the pressure of additional water and ice building up. Flood stage at the Soldotna bridge is listed as a gage height of 12' ft.
As we move towards spring and summer notice that the low point during the year for gage height is around the 3rd week of April where the depth at the Soldotna bridge is less than 6 feet of depth. With a constantly moving river bottom, rocks and boulders underneath the surface, and high and low spots throughout the river, navigating higher than Pillars before the water comes up is extremely challenging - and sometimes simply not possible. In late May to early June when the water level has come up about another foot we can move further upstream and reach the Soldotna bridge allowing us to fish an additional 10 miles of river. Eagle Rock is at river mile 12 and Soldotna bridge is at river mile 21. With a little more water depth we can usually get as far as Swiftwater Campground which is just above the Soldotna Park. Of course all of this is specific to using a power boat and when choosing to use a drift boat the entire stretch of river is available more often.
As the days continue to get longer pushing towards 24 hours of sunlight, warmer temperatures and constant sunlight continues to melt the snowpack and ice off the glaciers further raising water levels. By the time we reach the end of June and certainly through all of July the entire section of river from the mouth all the way to Skilak lake is navigable by power boat. Care still does need to be taken as the river is constantly changing, trees and other debris are always moving down the river, gravel bars shift from year to year, and there are still rapids and shallow water in many places particularly on the middle section of river but the lower river has it's gnarly areas too.
The Lower Kenai River Map
Folks familiar with Kenai River Fishing know that just about every section of the Lower Kenai River has name used to describe that "fishing hole". The Lower Kenai River Map shown below will help you learn the names of each of those stretches of river and also give you some perspective on mileage to nearby towns like Kenai, Kasilof, Anchor Point, Homer, Anchorage and more.
For a really interesting perspective of the Lower Kenai River Fishing Holes check out the drone footage below starting just above the Soldotna bridge and ending just past Eagle Rock boat launch. The video on the left is taken in late August and the video on the right is the exact same video shot in early March. The names of all the local fishing holes have been annotated over the video as well!
When To Fish The Kenai
Now that we've discussed where to fish the Kenai river lets answer the really important question of WHEN to fish the Kenai River. First off, there is always fish year round to catch on the Kenai River. Resident Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden for example are "resident fish" and never leave the river. However, most folks are interested in the salmon migrations that take place each summer and timing is everything.
The good news is you can come up to the Kenai River pretty much any time between May 15 and Oct 15 and expect to catch fish.
We've mentioned before that there are 4 different species of salmon that come up the Kenai River in the summers and the timing of each of them is different. The 4 main runs of salmon are the Sockeye, King, Silver, and Pink with the King Salmon runs broken into two distinct runs. Each of these runs of salmon are really unique so lets discuss each of them individually.
When To Fish The Kenai For Kings
These graphs show the Kenai River King Salmon fish counts for both the early run and late run combined into one single continuous run. This information is provided from the mobile app available on iOS and Android called Alaska FishTopia
The graph on the most left shows the daily number of Kings that pass through the counting sonar each day and the graph on the most right is the cumulative total.
The early run of King Salmon begins May 15 and ends June 30. The late King Salmon run begins July 1 and ends August 20th, although it is really important to note that King Salmon fishing ends by regulation on July 31 at midnight.
The horizontal red and orange lines on the cumulative graph are showing the minimum and maximum number of fish the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are hoping to see in the river.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game monitor keep an extremely close eye on how the daily runs of this mighty fish are doing and if the escapement goals appear to be in jeopardy they can, and often do, change the rules on thing such as whether or not bait can be used versus artificial lures only, whether or not retention/harvesting is allowed or if you must adhere to catch-and-release fishing, and in extreme cases whether or not anglers are allowed to even target these fish at all.
These King Salmon are so majestic and special that many of the guides on the Kenai River adhere to a 100% catch-and-release policy and many more are moving to that philosophy every year.
When To Fish The Kenai For Sockeye
It's best to discuss sockeye fishing on the Kenai River also in the context of Sockeye fishing of the Russian River. The Russian river is one of the tributaries of the Kenai River whose confluence is located just downstream of the town of Cooper Landing which is on the upper section of the Kenai River.
The sockeye must actually travel through the Kenai River to get to the Russian river but they are not tracked as they come through the Kenai because these fish are primarily headed towards the tributaries of the Kenai River such as the Russian River to spawn and this is what we care about - where are these fish spawning.
The early Russian River sockeye run goes from June 6 - July 14 and the late run goes from July 15 - Sept 6th.
Notice that in 2019 an epic number of sockeye made it to the Russian River allowing fish and game to up the daily catch limit from 3 to 6 to eventually 9 per day!
Now lets look at the Kenai River sockeye and it's relationship to the Russian River. While the early summer sockeye are primarily headed for the Russian River and other tributaries of the Kenai River to spawn, the sockeye salmon that show up in July and August are primarily spawning directly in the main channel water of the Kenai River. They are also doing it in incredible numbers. If you look at black line in the Kenai River Late Sockeye Run Chart above (the chart on the right) you can see that in a single day at it's peak in 2019 there were nearly 100,000 sockeye that passed the sonar. Just imagine it! This peak moves around by a few days each year which is why if you start averaging the years together it starts to lower the overall peak daily average which is what the red line above shows.
There is a direct correlation between the peak of the late run Russian River and the peak of the late run Kenai River Sockeye. These fish are basically being counted twice. First as they pass the Kenai River sonar and then as they pass the Russian River sonar. What we know from this is approximately 5-7% of the total Kenai River late run sockeye are headed for the Russian River. But 5-7% of 100,000 fish going on for days is a lot of fish and you can see this reflected in the 2nd peak of the Russian River around the first week of August. It takes these fish 7-10 days to get through the Kenai and Russian River to the Russian River counting station.
So when do you fish the Kenai River for sockeye salmon? If you are willing to consider the Russian River sockeye as part of that question (which you should) then the answer is any time between late May and Aug 15. Whenever the fish counts on the Kenai River are better than 20,000 fish a day you can expect to have a great day of fishing on the Kenai. By using the historical fish counts you can get a good approximation of when we can expect the fish returning to the rivers.
There are a wide variety of factors that figure in to how many fish are going to return each year. It begins with, of course, how many fish made it back to the spawning grounds many years earlier, survival rate in the ocean against predators, food supply, temperatures, contamination, fishing nets and a wide variety of other factors . While predicting how many will come back is difficult prediciting when the fish will come back can be much more accurately estimated.
When To Fish The Kenai For Silvers
Unfortunately due to a number of different factors, counting Silvers on the Kenai River is challenging. The silver run is actually a bi-modal run just like king salmon - there is an early and a late silver run. The first silvers start to show up about August 1st and are completely mixed in with Kings, Sockeye, and in even numbers of years the pink salmon. This makes it extremely difficult to count silvers. While the silvers are on average several pounds larger than the sockeye, the size difference is not great enough to allow differentiation from sonar images. Also, the sockeye salmon are still continuing to come into the river in large numbers even into late august. The Kenai river will see more than 10,000 sockeye a day in the later parts of August. With such a high concentration of sockeye compared to silvers it makes it difficult to count the silvers.
On even numbers of years pink salmon start to come into the Kenai River around mid July and these fish enter the river by the millions. On many years the pink salmon run is so great that counting the sockeye simply stops because there are too many pinks and it's not possible to discriminate them on the sonar.
The main goal in counting fish is to understand the total number of salmon that are spawning in the river to ensure sustainability. It might be possible to count the later run of silvers (Late Sept-Dec) in the Kenai River but without knowing how many silvers have already entered the river that were not counted we'll never know what the true total spawning numbers were and therefore it just doesn't make sense to count the silvers.
What we do know is these silvers will start to enter the river on Aug 1 and the run will typically grow in strength each day until around mid to late Sept.
Silver fishing is one of the best fisheries on the Kenai River. We can anchor our boats, throw our plugs or bait out the back and relax. These fish are also pretty aggressive towards spinners so finding some slightly slower current and casting spinners into the water is a great way to be engaged with the fishing.
These silver salmon are not as big as the kings but they are definitely larger than the average sockeye and put up a great fight. And they make great table fare as well. When the rod goes off there's no doubting it and the fight is on!
With all the fish that have been coming up the river over the last few months the trout fishing becomes incredible in the fall and switching out salmon gear for trout gear is always a great day on the water as well.
When To Fish The Kenai For Pinks
Pink salmon spawn in the Kenai River only on even number years: 2018, 2020, 2022 etc. On odd numbered years you can catch the occasional pink but it's not very common. On the even numbered years however, these pinks come up the river by the millions. And best of all, they are extremely aggressive fish striking at almost anything put in front of them.
There are so many of them and they are so aggressive that when the pinks are coming up the river and you've cast your line 3 or 4 times without getting one you start to wonder what's wrong! We've had clients that simply wanted to see how many pinks they could catch and release in a single day. I don't recall the exact record but we've had clients catch nearly a hundred (per person!) in just a few hours of fishing. It's a total blast.
If you have children that are just getting into fishing and you want them to have an amazing Alaska experience there is literally no better way than to take them pink salmon fishing on the Kenai River.
When, Where, And How To Fish The Kenai River
Fishing the Kenai river is a combination of where, when and how. It begins in the middle of May and ends around the first of October with different fish arriving throughout the summer. It's one of the greatest migrations of animals anywhere on earth and brings an abundance of wildlife with it. Bald eagles are sighted many times throughout every day and bear sightings are common depending upon where you are.
In the vicinity of the Kenai River there's more to do than just fish the Kenai all summer long. Halibut trips out of Homer and Seward are an easy drive and day trip, fly outs for bear viewing, clam digging, glaciers, white-water rafting, farmers markets, and food and music every Wednesday in the Soldotna Park just to name a few.
If you're interested in learning more, booking a guided trip with us, reserving boats and equipment or even just have comments please don't hesitate to reach out via email firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-260-1955. It's would be our pleasure to speak with you.
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