From Kenai Lake, the Kenai River flows 82 miles to the mouth in the city of Kenai where it meets the saltwater of Cook Inlet.
With the first run in June and the second run in July, these unique seven year old fish return to their birth place as the largest King salmon in the world. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game carefully monitors both runs allowing fishing during certain time periods in only certain areas of the river with specific regulations on bait, tackle, boats and motors. High tech counting cameras are located in the lower river to estimate the size of the run and creel surveys estimate the “escapement” to the spawning grounds.
Using a professional guide is a key to success. Not only does a licensed guide know where the Kings swim, but they are familiar with the most successful techniques, baits and regulations.
Licensed Kenai Guides must attend a week long guide school held only in Kenai, and pay up to $2000 per year for certification. In addition to the Kenai Guide license, the pros have to have First Aid Training, CPR certification and an inland waters Coast Guard six pack license. There is no other river in the world with such strict requirements.
Even with all the licensing and certification, the most important tool in a Kenai Guide’s toolbox is experience. With ever changing water color, temperature and depth, an experienced, hard working guide is needed to “put you on fish”
Once the fish are in the river, they do not feed actively. These monsters ranging in size from 30-90 lbs bite for only a few reasons. First, they get aggravated or act aggressively toward an artificial lure, representing a smaller fish, theoretically attacking their offspring eggs. Or, they pick up a clump of real or artificial egg bait and swim it back to their nest.
There are several proven techniques that have been refined over the years. Regulations allow power boats of up to 21 ft in length (max) with 50 HP motors, carrying only 4 passengers during the King season. Drift boats are also used but are effective only in certain sections of the river and limited to only a few “passes” in some holes.
The most popular technique is called back trolling where the guide engages the motor in a forward gear against the current so that the boat “slips” slightly downstream as an artificial lure, sometimes wrapped with sardine, bounces off the bottom in front of the migrating Kings. With the rod in a rod holder for a steady troll, this is a more passive approach, but very effective. The strike is normally very aggressive.
Another more active approach is back bouncing. A similar, but slower, management of the backward drift is undertaken by the guide, while anglers use 2-12 oz. of weight to bounce their bait off the bottom. The strike is a simple pickup and the fisherman has the excitement of a powerful hook set.
A third popular technique is dragging, or boondoggling. The boat is turned sideways and maneuvered perpendicular to the bank while the current drags your weighted bait (salmon eggs during bait season) along the bottom. The fisherman again is holding the rod and a very distinct strike takes place as your bait is heading quickly in one direction while the salmon is swimming the other way.
A fourth technique of actual trolling near the mouth can be affective at slack high tide.
Knowledgeable, experienced guides should know which techniques are producing bites during the season and trying different techniques until successful.
Reels are normally level-wind conventional with 300 yds of 30-50 lbs test braid or mono. Heavy duty mono or fluorocarbon leaders up to 50 lb are used to eliminate the chance of abrasion break offs from the salmon’s teeth. An 8-10 ft med-heavy or heavy rod is needed for these giants as they can run up or downstream at any time peeling off a lot of line against drags set at 6-10 lbs.
June and July on the Kenai can be an incredible experience or it can be hours without a bite. When the bite is on, there is nothing more exciting. And even when fishing is slow, there are huge Chinooks swimming somewhere in the river. Every year fish over 80 lbs are taken and trophy fish are 40 lbs+. The world record 97 lbs was caught in May 1985 and 8 of the top ten Kings ever caught were caught from the Kenai.
With proper management, the Kenai will be a great river to fish for generations to come. And maybe you will be the next lucky one to hook that trophy or even a new world record.
There are hundreds of guides on the river, and may lodges and outfitters. Check out www.russellfishingcompany.com for details, photos and videos. There is even a special section on selecting a guide.
Russell Fishing Company