100 Best: Kenai
Type of stream: Freestone
Angling methods: Fly, spin
Species: King, red, silver, pink salmon; rainbows, steelhead, dolly varden
Season: Varies by species and location
Supporting Services: Kenai, Soldotna
Short take: Salmon you can find everywhere, but not these great ‘bows
Handicapped Access: No
For 82 miles from Cook Inlet up to Kenai Lake, the river of the same name is a highway for salmon. The 17 miles of the upper river begin as the lake narrows and becomes a gently wandering stream of gravelly riffles. After six miles, the valley constricts further but its gradient is still slight. But six miles further on, it enters the Kenai Canyon. Two miles of rapids challenge experienced kayakers before the river leaves the canyon, gradient lessens, and makes the final run down into Skilak Lake. Most who fish the Upper Kenai float it in non-motorized drift boats.
The middle river flows from the mouth of the lake for about 30 miles into Soldotna. Experienced captains can push jet boats up this section and through a mile of the rigorous Naptowne Rapids known for large boat breaking boulders. Only 100 miles by good roads from Anchorage, much of the Kenai is followed by the Sterling Highway from its mouth to its headwaters. Nearly 300,000 angler days are spent on the river each year.
The draw, of course, is truly trophy salmon and trout. Kings of 50 pounds are, according to fisheries biologists, “fairly common.” Early kings enter the Kenai in May and tend to be smaller than the bigger ones which arrive in early July. More than a million sockeye spawn beginning in June. Silvers make their debut in late July and fish well into early October. Because of their two-year lifecycle, pinks use the river only on even numbered years in late July and early August.
Rainbows are mostly resident to the river, but a few steelhead use the Kenai as well. That the river is open year ‘round provides flingers of the fly to fish early in the season before the meat fishermen hatch. Most Kenai rainbows average 17 inches, and at least one angler in every party of four will catch a 20 to 24 inch fish.