Trout Fishing on the Kenai River & Tributaries
By Colin E. Lowe
It’s a common believe through both articles and word of mouth that trout fishing in the great state of Alaska is limited to flesh patterns & egg imitations. Well, I ‘m here to tell you that those words, spoken or written, couldn’t be further from the truth. In this article, I will share with you the seasonal variances of food sources that keep our trout healthy and ready for battle.
Find the food and find the fish!! This is a maxim I pretty much live by. This critical component for success will more often than not put you on the fish. There is always a food source predominant during different times of the year and the locations will vary. The Kenai River and its tributaries play host to a spectacular amount of food source activities, that keep our trout and char fat and healthy.
Alaska, throughout the seasons, provides trout with a variety of feeding options such as Sculpins, Lamprey, Smolt, salmon eggs, trout eggs, fish carcasses, aquatic insects and small fury critters. We also have earth worms and caterpillars and other land based morsels for them to feast upon.
One season, we had an absurd amount of small brown moths throughout South Central Alaska and as such became a significant part of the fly fisherman’s arsenal that was in the know. Another insect was the Carpenter Ant which also made an overwhelming appearance this past season and needless to say, black ant patterns of the right size were the best option especially during the months of June and July. So here it is by the seasons for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Spring: So what’s in the water in the spring? Well let’s explore that thought for a bit. One thing we get lots of during the summers in Alaska are insects and lots of them. Most of these bugs come from the water where adults lay their eggs and the process begins.
During the spring months (April & May) most of our river fish are keyed in on nymphs of varying sizes and shades. The predominant colors are black and olive. Having said that, it is hard to go wrong with a black nymph. Some of the favorite patterns for the spring are Kaufmann Nymphs, AP Blacks, Bead Head Princess Nymphs, Princes Nymphs, Zug Bugs, Grey Hares Ear, Beaded Grey Hares Ear, Damsels and a variety of other natural colored nymphs sizes 8-12.
Another occurrence during the spring months is the anticipated Smolt out from the past seasons spawning. Smolt that hold over in the lakes begin there down migration in large quantities creating a significant feeding opportunity for hungry trout and char. Key in on lake and stream outlets during these periods and keep a sharp lookout for these schools and rig up accordingly. Another good indicator of migration are diving Terns as they are keyed in to this event this time of year for good reason.
Sculpins are also high on the trout and char food list in the spring as they forage the bottoms for both nymphs and the high protein supplement of the ever present Sculpins. The most effective technique for Sculpin fishing is a down ward presentation and stripping it in to trigger aggressive strikes.
The last option that I want to mention is flesh patterns. Bleached patterns as well as old dirty grey flesh are good choices as they best match the carcasses that were frozen in the shelf ice over the winter and released into the food chain in the spring. Some areas have higher concentrations of these remains than others. Look out for good amounts of carcasses and chances are the trout and char will be keyed into them into them as a food option.
Summer: This is a great time of the year for salmon and yes, good amounts of trout. Many Summer time fishermen make the mistake of using predominantly flesh and egg patterns which can make for some slow fishing. This time of year is similar in many instances to Spring circumstances as far a food options are concerned with one exception; in and below areas with heavy amounts of fishing/fish cleaning activities. This is the exception because these sources of food are otherwise unavailable to our trout and char.
Our peninsula trout and char over the decades are becoming more and more dependent on this premature entry of eggs and flesh into their diets. Moreover, the flesh from fresh salmon is richer in nutrients then from depleted carcasses that they would normally get in the end. So do your part and return those fish parts back to the river. After all, our fish populations and health of the quarry are dependent on this very practice.
I digress and so back to the patterns at hand. Use fresh flesh patterns (peach, orange, pink) and egg cluster patterns or beads (naturals) to replicate this offering when fishing in the aforementioned areas. Increasingly popular in the flesh department are flesh flies that incorporate beads in them and also strands of stiff mono to replicate bones.
Again, nymph and Sculpin patterns are a great option as well as leech patterns in black and olive. Pay attention to the years nuances such as black ants and moths especially after a good rain which is the main cause for them being pushed into the rivers. Also after a good rain, especially around creek mouths and moreover run of locations into the river, use earth worm patterns such as the San Juan Worm.
Lastly, we have a unique creature that appears on the branches of overhanging Cottonwoods during the month of July and it’s a pea green inch worm. These worms are about an inch to 1 1⁄2 inches in length and often fall prey to trout below waiting for them to drop form the branches above.
Fall: More like late summer and into the fall, the magic period has arrived. August brings with it the first of our usual salmon spawns in key areas of the peninsula. Typically the King salmon are spawning in the main river and the Sockeye are spawning in our tributaries. Quartz Creek is one of our main August Sockeye spawning tributaries in Cooper Landing and as such plays host to thousands of spawners.
Typically on or about the 1st of August is when the spawn in Quartz Creek is going full swing in this very scenic and wadable creek. Beads replicating the exact spawn or pretty darn close are essential to consistently connecting with fish. Pay close attention to bead size and color. During the initial 2 weeks of the spawn choose a natural color and in a size 6mm or my favorite, an 8mm in size. A trout & Chars preference for size and color can and will change from time to time.
Another tributary in our area is the Russian River during the same period. The same rules for Quartz Creek apply to the Russian. Guys fishing our area during that time often jump between Quartz and the Russian in the same day for their 2nd round of fishing and have a blast doing it. Ahh the great life indeed.
The mighty King salmon are on the spawn around the middle of August (some as early as July) and are primarily in the main channels of the river itself. This bead bite can be phenomenal on the Kenai River and is heavily dependent on the amount of King Salmon escapement beyond the King Fishermen. It should come as little surprise that in years where the lower King Salmon catch numbers were low, we benefited from an extraordinary amount of Kings spawning. From this we were rewarded with a bead bite of epic proportions. The typical bead size for the King spawn are 10mm to 14mm beads and as with the other spawns, start with natural bead colors for consistent success.
With our typical high escapement numbers, which are critical for our unparalleled trout fishing, one can expect a hook up on just about every drift, and that, is Alaska baby!
The month of September is when the 2nd run of Sockeye spawn in the Kenai River and can be found throughout the river system. A couple of the most popular areas for cashing in on this event are the Upper Kenai River from the bridge on Kenai Lake and beyond and the Russian River. The fishing can be fast and furious. Again during the initial stages of the spawn, stick with fresh egg patterns in either a 6mm or 8mm bead.
One of the most critical components of bead fishing is that the bead must be painted to replicate the change in an eggs appearance once it is exposed to the water. As far as paint color is concerned, anything white/translucent in color will normally be in the ball park. Of course, everyone has their favorite color that works best for them so experiment.
On even years, we are further blessed on the Kenai River with a Pink salmon run in excess of a million fish. This is the super bowl of trout fishing as they are usually the last of the spawners and draw fish from throughout the river system to partake in the last big feast before winter. This event also coincides with the larger fish that depart Skilak Lake and the vicinity during the Summer months and return not only in preparation for wintering in the lake but to feed on the bounty.
This time of year accounts for more trophy Rainbows and Dollies than any other on the river where fish have been known to reach lengths of 43inches and over 30 pounds. September through November (yes November) are prime during pink spawns. Toward the later part of fall, large, washed out flesh flies become very popular but prior to that beads once again.
Winter: Good portions of the Kenai River remain open during the winter months especially on the upper section in Cooper landing. Most of our trout winter over in the lakes, primarily in Kenai Lake and Skilak Lake. As such some of the best areas to fish are at or near the outlets. One of the primary food sources for these fish during the winter months are the eggs and the carcasses of Silver Salmon that continue to make their way in to the rivers. Use either flesh patterns or beads to match the food source.
Another key source of food during the winter months are Sculpins. Fish the deep holes as the Dollies and Rainbows are in energy conservation mode and become very lethargic until hooked. One of the best methods for getting these Fish to strike during the winter is to strip leeches slowly through these holes. Use a sink tip to facilitate this process. Leeches in black or Sculpins in either black, olive or brown, usually does well. Avoid walking over ice on rivers as thin spots can be unpredictable. Most days can be productive but keep an eye open for those warm fronts as they create activity.
Hopefully you found this discussion informative and useful to you for your future endeavors trout fishing in our neck of the woods. Trout fishing on the Kenai River and its tributaries is essentially no different than most rivers and streams in the lower 48. The amounts and types of food are just as seasonal here as with any other body of water throughout the world and learning to adjust to these changes can make the difference between catching fish or not. As with most articles about fishing, this article is far from inclusive and is just another source of “bits & pieces” to add to the overall equation. Good fishing and we hope to see you soon!
Cheers and tight lines.