Kenai River King Salmon Fishing
Early Run Best Fishing: 6/3 - 6/16
Late Run Best Fishing: 7/11 - 7/31
When fishing with our guides we're going to use every tool at our disposal to put you on a mighty king salmon. It involves a deep understanding of fish biology, water patterns, regulation limitations, and best application of the right gear and equipment. Enjoy the information provided as we lead you through all the considerations we'll be putting into play during your guided fishing trip with us. We're happy to share our knowledge about rods, reels, tackle, technique and more.
It's hard to describe King Salmon fishing on the Kenai River. Beautiful scenery, wildlife abounds everywhere, and while the action is not the non-stop action that sometimes exists with Kenai River sockeye fishing, if your lucky enough to land one of the elusive, majestic animals, you will have caught the fish of a life-time.
Only on the Kenai River is it possible to catch a king salmon of this size. Kenai River king salmon fishing is the most sought after trophy fish in the state. The largest ever recorded and certified by the International Game fish Association was a Kenai River king caught on May 17th of 1985 by Les Anderson using 30 lb test and weighed in at a whopping 97lbs 4 oz.
It's important to use quality rods, reels, hooks, and even then they don't always end up in the net. Even salmon half this size will give you a fight you'll remember.
Catching a Kenai River king salmon requires experience, tenacity, good planning, good tackle, and a good bit of luck.
The first and most important thing to consider when going after a mighty Kenai River king salmon is to show up when the fish do! Kenai River kings spawn in the freshwater and remain there for approximately 1 year before spending anywhere between 1 and 5 years in the salt water before returning to spawn.
Each year thousands of Kenai River king salmon return to spawn in an early run and late run. Kenai River king salmon begin to enter the river in mid-May for the early run which continues until June 30th. The late run officially begins on July 1 and continues until approximately August 20th, but king salmon fishing on the Kenai River ends by regulation at midnight on July 31st.
The exact peak days that these giants return every year moves randomly a few days forward or backward but by averaging a number of years together we can start to understand which days will likely provide the best fishing opportunity.
The graphs shown here are the 3 year 2017-2019 daily average. The peak of the early run is from June 3 - June 16 and the late run peak is from July 11 - Aug 8.
Kenai River King Salmon Run Timing
While catching a Kenai River king salmon can happen anytime starting in mid-May, these specific dates just highlighted will provide the best opportunities. Notice that the early run peaks at around 225 fish per day and the late run peaks at around 600 fish per day. Certainly July fishing provides more opportunity in terms of the pure numbers of fish but it's also the most crowded time on the river as this king salmon run also largely coincides with the immensely popular sockeye salmon migration that peaks at roughly the same time. The early run in June is far more relaxing with less boat traffic and angler pressure and don't forget that the world-record was caught at the very opening of this run.
The graph on the right of the daily run counts is the king salmon escapement 3 year average. Escapement basically means the total number of fish that have made it through the ocean life-cycle and managed to survive the journey back to the river to spawn. It's not more complicated than taking the daily number of fish that enter the river and creating a running total. This escapement goal is set and managed with great attention by the Alaska Department of fish and game. The red and orange horizontal lines indicate the minimum and optimal escapement goal that fish and game has set to create a sustainable fishery. Too few fish in the river and there won't be enough fish to spawn for future years. We'll discuss this more in the regulations section.
You can learn more and study this on your own in an app called Alaska Fishtopia available on the App Store and Play Store. The fish count graphs above are directly from that app with a little text added for clarification. You can download the app here:
King Salmon Behavior & Biology
Now that we understand when they return, now we need to understand a bit about their biology to determine the best method of targeting these fish as they make their way up the rivers.
Chinook salmon will spend approximately 12-18 months in the fresh water after spawning before moving downstream to the brackish estuaries closer to the salt water ocean where they will remain for several more months before venturing into the ocean. Once in the ocean things take on a different picture. Young king salmon feed on terrestrial and aquatic insects, amphipods, and other crustaceans and as they get older the king become hunters primarily feed on other fish such as herring, pilchard, sandlance, squid, and crustaceans. Salmon grow rapidly in the ocean and often double their weight during a single summer season.
Targeting salmon in the saltwater usually involves trolling herring or other bait and waiting for these hunters to strike. However, once these fish enter the fresh water they generally stop feeding and can go as along as 16 weeks without eating. Additionally, the stomach starts to shrink to make more room for developing eggs and sperm. King Salmon are typically traveling and spawning in the deeper parts of the rivers and we can use this to our advantage as well.
Knowing that these fish, for the majority of their lives in the ocean were powerful hunters, the biology changes that take place as they enter the fresh water, and theories about natural selection processes, we can now develop methods to catch them.
How To Target King Salmon
There are 3 main ways that we use biology & natural selection to target king salmon are: annoyance, hunting instinct, & natural selection instinct.
When salmon are migrating up fresh water to spawn they are either trying to get somewhere or they are already where they would like to be. In either case, the goal is to present a lure that they will strike at it either out of aggression to make it move so they can continue their journey upstream, or strike it out of protection because they want to protect the area they are claiming for spawning, or strike at it in the case of eggs to limit competition. The trick is to present the lure in a way that it actually annoys them but also in a natural and gentle enough way that it does not force the salmon to flee instead of fight and strike. This is usually done with a combination of back-trolling speed, river current management, and lure selection. The preferred lures for Kenai River king salmon are size 14 to 16 Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish and Spin-N-Glo's each with bait if allowed.
Alaska king salmon were hunters for the majority of their lives targeting their preferred diet of herring while in the salt water. The theory is that this biological instinct must still be lingering in them as they are swimming in the fresh water even though their desire to hunt and eat is diminished. If we place a nice oily fish like herring, sardine, or tuna, for example, natural hunting instinct embedded in their DNA will compel them to strike the lure. This is the theory behind wrapping a piece of fish fillet on a Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish.
Lastly we can target their natural selection instinct which we exploit by using salmon eggs from king salmon or another type of salmon such as sockeye, chum, silver, or pink. Often cured with Pautzke’s Fire Cure in a variety of colors and added scents such as krill, sugar for sweetness, and a drop or two of anise oil. There are literally a million "secret recipes". But what they all have in common is curing a salmon egg to entice that king salmon to strike out of a desire to limit the gene pool of a competitive salmon thereby increasing the chances of propagating it's own genes. Fish eggs are usually best presented either with a spin-n-glo setup or simply by back bouncing with a weight.
When fishing for Kenai River kings it's best to try lots of combinations of the above. What's working one day and one hour might not be working the next. We'll cover in more detail later how to best rig these setups and how to get the best presentation.
Kenai River King Salmon Regulations
The Kenai River is one of the most heavily fished rivers in the world and certainly in the state of Alaska. The trophy sized world record king salmon, large hard fighting sockeye that come up the river by the millions, and the proximity and easy access from Anchorage, make it a favorite destination. As such, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closely monitors and tightly manages this river in hopes of healthy sustainable fisheries. There are limitations that protect the amount of harvest based on fish count and escapement goals but there are also regulations to protect the habitat.
We've mentioned that there are two runs of king salmon on the Kenai River. The early run from May 15 - June 30, and the late run from July 1 - Aug 20. Each of these runs is managed completely independent from each other and regulations that are in effect for the early run usually, but not always, expire on June 30th with a new set of rules starting. The only way to know what rules are in effect are to constantly monitor the river news and what are known as emergency orders from ADF&G. Emergency orders are not always as ominous as it sounds, and the term simply means ADF&G has modified the current in-effect regulations in some way. Sometimes an emergency order actually eases the rules or liberalizes the fishery and other times restricts it in some fashion.
An example of an actual emergency order from Aug 5, 2019 is shown. In August, and after king salmon fishing has ended by regulation on July 31 at midnight, it is usually possible to start targeting coho salmon using more aggressive techniques than is allowed for king salmon such as the use of treble hooks and bait. The late run king salmon for 2019 was in serious jeopardy of not reaching the targeted minimum escapement goal for the year. In fact, sadly, it did not achieve the minimum escapement goal. When it's time to spawn, these fish will aggressively protect their spawning beds, and in order to ensure maximum survival of as many fish as possible ADF&G issued an emergency order that restricted the use of treble hooks that would normally be allowed to target silvers as it significantly increases mortality rates of fish caught and there are still plenty of king salmon entering the river as the silver salmon run ramps up that they don't want caught or killed if accidentally caught and released. The emergency orders usually begin 48 hours after they are issued to give time for dissemination.
This regulations we discuss here are not exhaustive but will be helpful to provide an overview some of the tools used to manage the fishery, what we have to consider, how it affects how we fish, and how it affects fishing productivity.
Boat Types & Setup For King Salmon Fishing
Catching a mighty Kenai River king salmon from the bank is a pretty rare feat. It will very likely get itself into the current and run until all the line has been stripped off your rod or something simply breaks. While landing one from shore can occasionally happen it is much easier from a power boat or drift boat capable of moving through the water as the fish runs up and downstream.
Power boats provide the obvious advantage of allowing you to go up and down to quickly try out new spots in search of the fish. Since they are migrating upstream, generally in groups, catching one or seeing one caught gives some indication as to where they are and moving location quickly could be beneficial. Mobility is obviously limited in a drift boat - but drift boats do have other advantages.
Guides will often share information with other guides helping to at least provide some indication as to where the fish are. When the king salmon strikes, the power boat also give you the ability to follow the salmon upriver or downriver improving the opportunity to net the fish
Drift boats provide a very peaceful day of fishing and are the best opportunity to catch a king salmon on Mondays on the Kenai River due to the restriction of power boat fishing on Mondays. They are also able to fish in locations where power boats are not allowed or not capable of navigating. The Upper Kenai River and the Kasilof River make great examples of where drift boats can go but power boats cannot.
Our guide boats, and rental boats too for that matter, are setup for a comfortable day of fishing on the water. Like about 80% or more of the boats on the river and maybe even more than 95% of all the guides boats on the river, our boats are setup to be driven by the tiller and not a steering wheel console. This first reason for this is that it creates a lot more room in the boat which is really important when that monster king is going up, down, left, right and under the boat. The second reason is that it is more precise to drive when we are trying to maintain a constant track through the water. Having direct control of the propulsion without the cabling required of a steering wheel is mechanically simpler and more precise when the current is pushing the boat around.
The general setup of our boats will usually look like the following:
Life jackets, fire extinguisher, throw pillow, river anchor, and other required safety gear
Padded seats for all day comfort with built-in storage boxes for gear, coats, and other personal items
Large king salmon net
4 king salmon rods & reels with line counters, 4 sockeye salmon rods
Fair number of previously tied leaders, plenty of Kwikfish to try, and previously setup spin-n-glo rigs
Herring and cured salmon eggs if bait is allowed
Knives, pliers, leader line, swivels, hooks, fish bonker, and extra basic tackle
King Salmon Rods, Reels, Line, Hooks, Swivels
King Salmon Fishing Rods
The gear being used can make all the difference in the world. You don't want a rod too bulky and heavy without enough flexibility and something too light might break. You want something with reasonable action and a strong backbone.
G-Loomis and Lamiglas are probably the most commonly used gear for king salmon fishing on the Kenai River. You'll find plenty of guides using both and we use both in our guide service. Our G-Loomis 40 lb rated rods have moderate action but the most important thing is 40 lb rating to handle the fight. We also use two different lengths of rods 9' for the back rods and 10'6 for the side rods for reasons we'll explain in the back-trolling and technique section below.
You don't have to spend a fortune on rods and reels. While we prefer the G-Loomis and Lamiglas rods we've caught plenty of king salmon on Shakespeare Ugly Stiks.
King Salmon Fishing Line
One of the biggest developments in fishing the last few decades has been the development of braided fishing line. We absolutely love it, and we love it so much we use it everywhere. We've standardized on 80' test and we use it on our king salmon rods, sockeye rods, silver salmon rods (which is really just our king rods usually) and even on our halibut rigs.
Braided line is strong, handles abrasion fairly well, and most importantly is extremely easy to work with regardless of the strength. The line diameter does not get significantly larger with higher strength test the way monofilament does. Monofilament would cause problems with large diameters at high strength limiting the amount you could place on a reel and it has "memory problems" getting permanently twisted. Those days are gone!
One thing we will do however is transition to a 3' to 4' monofilament 40-60 lb test leader as we attach the lure to add a little stretch, forgiveness and shock absorption.
King Salmon Fishing Reels
There a lots of great choices of reels from manufacturers such as Penn, Abu Garcia, Okuma, Daiwa and many more. Generally speaking your are looking for a bait casting reel with good capacity, a good drag system, and a reliable winding system with a line counter. The line counter is a really important feature we'll discuss below when we cover backtrolling technique.
When it comes to capacity you want to have a enough to hold a couple hundred yards. A gear ratio between 4.5 - 6.5 is a good target.
We use Okuma CW-454D Cold water series. With a 6.2 gear ratio this reel can pick up the slack pretty well as the king salmon charges the boat. Despite it's attractive price of $150.00 this is a very reliable reel
King Salmon Hooks & Swivels
Good sharp hooks and smooth swivels and snap swivels are the next thing to discuss. Most Kwikfish come with two sets of treble hooks, one on the belly and one on the tail when you purchase them retail. This does not meet the legal limitations for kings on the Kenai River so the hooks must be taken off. Only a single hook maybe allowed so the one on the belly of the Kwikfish must be removed permanently and the one on the tail must be replaced with a single hook. We use 6/0 hooks from Owner Octopus for both our Kwikfish and our Spin-n-Glo setups.
Swivels and snap swivels are used to transition between lines and attaching Kwikfish or Spin-n-Glo rigs. A size 3 or 4 will work with a size 3 usually providing between 60 and 100 lbs of breaking strength depending upon the manufacturer.
Kenai River King Salmon Back-Trolling Techniques
Catching a mighty Kenai River king salmon from the bank is a pretty rare feat. It will very likely get itself into the current and run until all the line has been stripped off your rod. While landing one from shore can occasionally happen it is much easier from a power boat or drift boat capable of moving through the water as the fish runs up and downstream. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, back-trolling allows us to fish a large section of the river continuously without retriever and casting.
Back trolling Kwikfish and Spin-n-Glo lures is the most common type of Kenai River king salmon fishing. The setup is nearly identical for each of them with the only difference being the final lure.
In each setup a jet diver is added on a slider just before the barrel swivel that connects the braided line to the 3' monofilament leader. Jet divers are available in a wide range of sizes and we typically use a size 20. The size refers to the depth that the jet diver will dive to and a 20' depth will put the diver on the bottom of most of the entire river. The depth that the jet diver will reach is dependent upon the type, thickness and weight of the line being used, the amount of line that is let out, and the speed of the current. A jet divers diving depth is specified for 100' of line length but only 1-2 miles of current flow and the Kenai is much stronger than that in most places. The jet divers job is take the Kwikfish or Spin-n-Glo to the bottom and at the 50-60 feet of trolling length we use and the speed and power of the kenai river we are fairly well assured the jet diver is at the bottom of the river.
There are several advantages of using the jet diver instead of a weight. The first is that the jet diver is much lighter and is always under good constant tension from the force of the river keeping the line from tangling. The second is that the jet diver is very good at "hopping" over rocks and other potential snags on the bottom of the river. While snags do still occasionally happen it is much rarer than it would be if heavy weights were being used. Another good quality of the jet divers is that they absorb quite a bit of the tension from the river flow allowing the Kwikfish or Spin-n-glo to be under less strain so their action is improved as well.
When we back-troll for king salmon we are looking for nice straight sections of river, ideally where the river narrows as of course this would help corral the fish a bit, and we are looking for deep spots where we know they would prefer to run. Once our river path is setup we will take the boats upstream to the top of the "hole" (the straight line we wish to fish) and use just enough motor power that we slowly lose ground to the current which will move our lures slowly downstream on the bottom of the river.
If you'd like to see a map of the fishing holes of the Lower Kenai River as well as some fantastic drone footage with the names of the fishing holes annotated, check out our Kenai River Fishing Page.
We can fish up to 4 rods at a time back-trolling for king salmon on the Kenai River. This is both a regulation set by ADF&G and a practical limit as keeping 4 rods from tangling with 60 feet of line out the back is already challenging enough. River current, river bottom geography, Kwikfish movement, and the occasion lack of attention by the driver can cause the lines to tangle. When this happens you're no longer fishing and are instead untangling lines unproductively. Fortunately there are some techniques we can employ to help keep them from tangling as often.
The first is spacing between the rods themselves. We fish two rods out of the back of the boat, and two additional rods out the sides. The two side rods are fished straight out and parallel to the water. The longer rods (10' 6") are used on the sides and the shorter rods (9') are used out the back, although longer rods could be used on all 4 rods if desired. By placing a 10' 6" rod pointed straight out the side of the boat, this provides 10' 6" worth of separation from the two rods on the left side of the boat since the other rod is pointed straight out the back. The same thing happens on the right side of the boat.
So now that we have some good separation between our rods & lines we can discuss line length used for back-trolling that further helps separate the lines. The lines out the very back of the boat need to be around 60' out the back and the side rods need to be about 45' out the back. If all the lines are on the bottom of the river, and we know that they are from the use of the jet divers, then we also know there is about 15' of separation in length between the rods on the back of the boat from the ones on the side of the boat (60' minus 45' = 15'). This setup creates 10' 6" feet of lateral separation between the rods and 15' of length separation between the lures helping to keep the lures from tangling into one another as they meander and wander in the current and on the bottom of the river - within limits anyway.
We mentioned above that line counters were really important when selecting a reel. The reason for this is so that we know exactly how far back each of the lines is being located. If you tell someone to put a line back 40' and they don't have a line counter some people will end up putting it 60' or more, some will put it 20' and now you really have no idea actually how far back the line is. This not only creates inconsistent fishing but if the lines are not set out properly it increases the opportunity for tangles.
Proper drag on the reel is important as well. The drag should be set such that a firm pull with the hand will allow you to pull line from the reel. It should not be too tight and this is a common mistake.
Now it's up to the operator or your guide to run a good straight line. River currents will of course push the boat left and right requiring the operator to constantly correct the direction of the boat - much like keeping a car in it's own lane. Large correction angles should be unnecessary if the operator has been paying attention. Large correction angles to change position in the river can foul the lines together.
Presenting the lure properly is the next big challenge. The speed at which you need to back-troll is really determined by the speed of the current and the action your trying to get on the Kwikfish. It's more difficult to tell with a Spin-n-glo but quite easy to tell using a Kwikfish if you're back trolling speed is at the proper rate. You can tell simply from looking at the rod tip. The rod should be bent in a nice gentle arc that is thumping at a nice gentle rate created by the action of the Kwikfish. If the rod is bent so severely and thumping so hard that you can sense the heavy strain, the current is too swift and you need to back-troll through the hole a little faster. Too much rod tip action indicates that the Kwikfish is vibrating extremely aggressively in the water and this will simply scare the fish into retreating instead of striking. Increasing the speed at which you move downriver will reduce the force the river is putting on the lure and therefore reduce the action if needed. However, moving too quickly through the stretch of water will race the lure downstream potentially scaring the fish as well. This is why finding the right water is really key and it changes regularly based on rain, outside air temperature which melts snow and glacier pack, tides on the lower part of the river and more. Striking a balance among all these things is key. Using a Spin-N-Glo is usually a little more forgiving as they do not need to be tuned to run a straight line and have much less action than a Kwikfish plug creating what is generally a more gentle presentation.
Many, if not most, Kwikfish lures need to be tuned in order to run straight. Luhr Jensen has developed some models that claim they do not need to be tuned but many experienced anglers don't feel like these fish as well. Lots of factors affect performance such as their overall balance out of the factory, the eyelet location & eyelet rotation, and adding bait such as sardine wraps which changes their weight and balance as well. All of these things change the action of the Kwikfish. Tuning Kwikfish is a topic of enormous conversation and there are thousands of conversations online detailing all aspects of this so we won't go into it here.
Landing A Kenai River King Salmon
The rod has gone off! Now what? Now the excitement begins. 99% of the time the rod is in the rod holder when the strike occurs. It's really not possible to grab the rod and set the hook quickly enough so we'll use a quick thrust of the engine to set the hook. Everyone should grab their rods at this point and reel them in to get lines out of the water as quickly as possible. When everything is stowed, it's time to grab the king net and stand it up in the boat. This lets all the other boats and anglers nearby know that your the best fisherman on the river and just got a king. Okay, kidding there, but it does let everyone know that a king is on and river etiquette dictates that boats downstream that might impeded landing the fish will pull their lines and move out of the way to help provide room to fight the fish.
Many times the first thing that happens is the fish takes an aggressive swim upstream towards the boat and you think that it's come off the hook. Keep reeling! It's simply running towards the boat and we want to keep the line taught. At some point the salmon will start to put up a good fight and when it runs away from the boat the drag should be set so that the fish gets some line but it always "encouraged" to turn around back upstream. Remember there is a couple hundred yards of line and we can also use the boat to move up and down the river with them. We want to keep the line tight at all times but manage the strain to keep the tackle from breaking. If you start to get low on line you'll have no choice but to gently tighten up the drag just a little bit.
Soon the fish will be near the boat but the first time you see it is the first time it sees you and it's going to get a surge of energy and run from the boat - or under it! Allow it to run but as before the drag should be set in a manner that allows the fish to take line but also keeps tugging it to face upstream. Remember, the hook is always in the mouth so we have good control over the direction we're trying to point the fish. This process likely take place several times before the fish is tired enough to be netted.
It's an extremely exciting time and lots can go wrong between hooking a fish and landing a fish. It's important that the boat operator pays constant attention to the boat and the river as debris, other boats, and rocks and other obstacles are a constant concern on the river. Safety and boat navigation is the primary job of the operator.
You don't want to try and net the fish too early. This is a common mistake. The first few times the king salmon's body touches the air at the surface it will get a burst of energy and attempt to dive deep. It may do this a number of times. But when it's time and the fish is sufficiently close to the boat you can give a good tug on the rod and attempt to net it. It's really important never try and net the fish from the tail. The minute the net touches the tail this fish will get an additional burst of energy and take off. Always net from the head and underneath while the boat is in neutral as this allows the boat to float with the current keeping the river from putting huge drag forces on the net.
Once in the net we can begin figuring out whether to release the fish from the boat, the shore, or whether it's going into the boat. It's worth repeating here that really large kings are worth releasing to allow this gene pool to propagate - and as mentioned previously many river guides have a 100% catch-and-release policy for king salmon of any size. Normally, we'll try and release from the shore as it allows time for great pictures, being in the water with the fish, and giving it the best chance of regaining strength before being released. We want to always keep the gills in the water and move expeditiously to minimize stress any potential injury to the fish.
Let's Go Fishing!
By now you've probably realized that fishing the Kenai River is something you don't just want to do but you have to do! We'd love to do with you. This article should give you some insight into what fishing the Kenai River for king salmon is like, how we use biology, river conditions, gear and tackle, regulations, boats, and more to target these amazing fish.
You likely still have lots of questions and we'd be happy to answer them. Give us a call!