Mar 30, 2014

Your guide to trout fishing the Kenai

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When the subject of wild trophy rainbow trout is brought up, it’s rare that the Kenai doesn’t enter the conversation. The Kenai is a free flowing glacial fed stream that runs from its headwaters at Kenai Lake to Cook Inlet. Every year the Kenai gets returns of all the pacific salmon species including chum salmon and even steelhead. For years the Kenai was famous for these anadromous fish runs, it wasn’t until recently that it became well known for the oversized rainbows that lurk in its aqua blue waters. The Kenai is a big fish factory with a deserved reputation for consistently putting out the biggest and baddest rainbows in the world. 

This write up is a guide to when, where and how to catch these girthy critters.

The Kenai is like any other fishery in that certain times of the year offer better fishing than others. The Kenai is closed from May 1st until June 11 to protect spawning rainbows. Fishing this river before May is not for the faint of heart. Extremely harsh weather conditions can make even the toughest of anglers call it a day early.


June 11th marks the start of the fishing season for rainbow trout. This part of the year can produce good fishing however there are still a lot of rainbows actively spawning on beds. You may hear about how great the fishing is on the opener, but keep in mind a lot those people are harassing rainbows on their spawning beds. This is a practice that has become very popular but in my mind is extremely unethical. You should not be proud of a fish caught off a spawning bed for a few reasons. The first, it’s extremely easy. Fly fishing is supposed to be a challenge, if you target these spawning fish because it’s the easiest way to catch a monster, then you should throw away your fly rod and get a bobber and some worms. The second reason, these fish are under a lot of stress and very weak. Spawning rainbows are not actively feeding and they are already expending a lot of energy due to the fast current they spawn in. Fighting fish when they are in this condition greatly increases the chance of mortality. Third, you are interrupting the reproduction process. Every time you yank a rainbow off a spawning bed you are taking an active breeder in the process of producing offspring. Every second that fish is off its bed it is dropping eggs or sperm that should be in spawning gravel. To make a long story short, if you do find yourself on the Kenai early season. Please fish the deep slow water and leave the spawning rainbows alone.

Early season Bow


Now that we have that out of the way we can talk about tactics to use for early season trout. Kenai trout fishing became famous due to the large numbers of rainbows that stack up behind spawning salmon in the fall. The feeding frenzy that takes place makes these rainbows extremely vulnerable to take an artificial. In June, that food source is not there, so we find ourselves using a variety of different tactics to trick trout into eating. The most common used fly for early season trout is flesh, now were not talking about the 5 inch long bunny flesh you commonly hear about these rainbows eating. Small and sparse is the way in the early season. The Kenai is a glacial fed stream. In early summer as the water begins to rise. Old salmon carcass that have been lying on the banks for months get recycled back into the system, becoming an important early season protein source for these trout. Washed out colors like ginger, crème, gray, white are all good producers. The most effective way to fish these flies is to dead drift underneath an indicator. Another popular method for early season rainbows is streamer fishing. With the Kenai low on food hungry rainbows and char are very willing to chase down sculpin and leech imitations for a quick protein boost. Most sizes from little size 12 buggers to magnum 5 inch long moal leeches will produce strikes in the right conditions. Taking a steelhead approach to this method is the best way to fish streamers. Starting at the top of a bar, casting and taking a step till you get to the end of the run.


The first of July marks the beginning of the toughest trout fishing of the season. Low supply of food and an influx of sockeye salmon make the trout bite almost nonexistent. If you’re planning a trip to the Kenai with the intent of catching trout. I would avoid this month. If you do find yourself on the Kenai this time of year I would apply the same program as June with the addition of some mayfly and stonefly nymphs. This is the toughest time of year to catch good numbers of trout. Fishing can be very inconsistent. That being said we do have some very productive days in July but for the most part a couple fish to hand is what to expect. As a whole, trout fishing in July is fairly unproductive, however it is one of the only times of year we find trout rising on the Kenai. The Kenai runs cold so it takes the right weather conditions for the Kenai’s hatches to reach a point where the trout pay attention. On the days where the conditions are right. The banks of the Kenai can look like the Missouri river in Craig Montana. Every foot of the bank has a trout nose continually sipping bugs. If you find yourself on the Kenai when one of these hatches are going on, fish simple large dries such as a parachute adams, para caddis, or any of your favorite mayfly/caddis imitations. These fish rarely see artificial dries so they are usually willing to eat any dry that is presented properly. Even though we get these hatches every year. I would not plan your trip to the Kenai around them as they are very inconsistent and short lived.


August, now we’re getting somewhere. The bulk of the sockeye have entered the system, they are resting in the eddies as opposed to moving on the gravel bars. There is a large amount of flesh in the system due to folks cleaning sockeye on the banks, and the trout are beginning to eat. August is when we finally start to see some consistent bites happening. Early in the month flesh is the most productive method to be using. With thousands of people cleaning sockeye and throwing the carcasses into the river, the trout take full advantage by gorging on the large chunks of carcass. This Time of year I prefer to use fresh colored flesh flies. Orange, pink, and red all produce fish when they are keyed in on this food source. Around mid-august the biggest and baddest salmon in the Kenai begin to spawn, the kings. King salmon spawn in the main channels of the Kenai, often in the fastest most turbulent seam in the river. This marks the beginning of the legendary trout fishing you hear about. Trout stack up behind spawning kings, eating loose eggs that don’t make it into the spawning gravel. The best method to catch trout that are on these feeding lanes is dead drifting 8mm and 10mm beads. Good colors for kings are orange clear, tangerine, dark roe. Remember this, a little splash of nail polish on your beads can make a world of difference. Towards the end of the month, the shallow gravel bars of the Kenai begin to fill up with spawning sockeye. Like the king beds, the trout stack up on these gravel bars gorging themselves on the thousands of loose eggs floating down the river. The best imitations to use when fishing these areas are 6mm and 8mm trout beads in dark roe, tangerine, orange, orange pearl. If you find yourself on an active bar it is not uncommon to hook 20 trout in an hour’s time, often times getting a take down on every cast. It is hard to believe, but if you have ever been on this river when it’s happening, it will never leave your memory banks.

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September is the time of year where we can see some the best days of fishing, as well as some of the toughest. Typically in early to mid-September we see what locals refer to as the “glut”. This word refers to the fact that there is so much food in the system that the trout become full and content. You can find a stretch of river that has produced multiple 100 fish days in the previous week that now only gives up a couple fish. It’s nearly impossible to predict when in September this will happen but it’s safe to say that it happens every year. Sometime it last a day or two, sometimes a couple weeks. It’s all dependent on how many salmon are in the system. More often than not it will last a few days and only happens on certain parts of the river. But if you fish the Kenai in September and the conditions are tough, just remember, you’ve been warned. When the fishing is good the program is very similar to later august. 6 and 8mm beads in various colors will produce fish. Late in the month you can start to see trout large flesh flies.


October is my favorite time of year to fish. This is the time of year where fish are fat, hot and pulling moves that would test the abilities of a seasoned tarpon fishermen. If you are planning a trip to the Kenai this time of year I would recommend packing warm. Temps can get down to the single digits this time of year. And don’t expect your trip to be cancelled if it gets this cold. Some of my best days on the Kenai have been on the most miserable weather days. Large amounts of food keep rainbows active in conditions that would shut down most fisheries. This time of year flesh is the primary food source. All the salmon that have been spawning the past two months have now died and began to deteriorate, large chunks break off the carcasses and become high protein snacks for the trout. I like to fish large patterns this time of year, even sometimes fishing flies that are 8 inches long. My favorite colors for this time of year are ginger, cream, and yellow, white, gray. Fishing these large flesh flies on the swing or under an indicator will produce good numbers of fish when they key into flesh. As the amount of salmon flesh in the river goes down, we start to see the streamer bite pick up again. Late in October can be one the most productive times of year to swing a leech or sculpin imitation.


November marks the end of most peoples fishing season. The only folks left on the water this time of year are the die hard's. Battling negative air temps are the name of the game this time of year. You can still have productive days but it is far too cold for most people to fish.

If the Kenai has been on the list of destinations you wish to visit, then take this information into consideration before booking any trips. Like I mentioned before, even the greatest fisheries in the world have certain times that are ideal to fish. If you find yourself on the Kenai during its peak times, be prepared for sore arms and worn out drags, because this fishery is notorious for just that.

Jeff Heiskell
Gorge Fly Shop

"Fly Fish the World with Us"

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