Home » Alaska » Fishing Amazing Alaska-Hunting for Trophy Kenai Rainbows
Updated April 29, 2023

From the moment the plane touched down in Anchorage, all I could think about was getting on a lake or river and fishing. There is breathtaking scenery at every turn of the Seward highway. It is impossible to not stop along the way to Soldotna and not snap pictures of the snow-capped mountains. Amazing as Alaska is, the thought of catching a trophy rainbow on the Kenai has been on mind since we booked this trip way back in January. If this is not on your bucket list, it should absolutely be added to your itinerary. For everyone!

On our first trip to Alaska, my husband Barry did a full day of guided fishing on the Kenai for rainbows in 2012. Although I had a dream bear-viewing trip on that same day with High Adventure Air to Wolverine Creek, I was jealous of not being able to join him. The photos did not do justice to the world-class rainbows he caught that day. This time around, I wanted in on any trip on the Kenai.

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The mighty Kenai river-Kenai mountains
Kenai River view of the Kenai Mountains

HUNTING FOR TROPHY KENAI RAINBOWS-Choosing the Best Guide Service-Alaska Fish & Lodge-

A guide can take you to the best spots and provide you with tips and instruction to help you catch trophy Kenai rainbows. We chose Alaska Fishing & Lodging a company that specializes in guided fishing trips in Alaska. Their guided fishing trips take guests to some of the best fishing locations in Alaska, including the Kenai River, Kasilof River, and Russian River. The trips hunting for trophy rainbows on the Kenai River are no exception. They came highly recommended after our guide from the first trip to fish. The Kenai retired to Anchorage. Their experienced guides provide all necessary equipment and can offer tips and instruction for anglers of all skill levels.

World-Class Fishing the Kenai River

Tyland Vanlier, the owner, was extremely professional from beginning to end. The evening prior to our adventure, our guide Damond Blankenship contacted us to arrange where and when we would meetup. The last trip started from Bing’s Landing, a place we knew well. We decided on an 8 am rendezvous time.

That evening we walked the Soldotna riverfront and observed a huge hatch of mayflies. Watching the smolts taking the flies on the surface of the water, we knew this was only a preview of what we would see on the river the next day.

Know Before you go Fishing Amazing Alaska-Hunting for Trophy Kenai Rainbows

If you’re planning to go fishing for trophy Kenai rainbows in Alaska, there are a few things you should know before you go:

  • Get a fishing license: Before you can fish in Alaska, you’ll need to get a fishing license. You can purchase an Alaska State fishing license online or in person at a licensed vendor.
  • Dress appropriately: The weather in Alaska can be unpredictable, so be sure to dress in layers and bring rain gear. Also, make sure you have Comfortable Shoes/boots for walking on slippery riverbanks.
  • If equipment is not provided by your guide, you’ll need a sturdy rod and reel with a good drag system, as well as a variety of lures and flies. Be sure to also bring a landing net, waders, and polarized sunglasses.
  • For changing weather include rain gear, sunscreen,. Hat and gloves to adjust for temperature changes throughout the day.
  • Depending on the location and time of year, bugs can be a nuisance, so bring some bug spray.
  •  Medications, sea-sickness pills or patches if you get motion sickness.
  • You’ll want to capture the memories of your fishing trip, so bring a camera or smartphone to take photos. Don’t forget your binoculars
  • Bring enough food & beverages to keep you fueled and hydrated for the duration of your trip,

Note: Bears are highly active along the river. Be bear aware, carry bear spray when going ashore. Make plenty of noise.

Kenai river through the trees

Fishing Glacial Blue Waters of the Alaska’s Kenai River – Seeking Trophy Rainbows

We arrived early, hoping to get out onto the river. Damond already had the boat in the water, everything ready for our trip. He gave us a brief safety orientation before we launched into the river, moving upstream. I could see the Naptowne rapids directly below, not something I would want to venture through in early June when the river is running high. The water levels and color change dramatically every day. Today I notice the river is relatively clear.

The run up river was a tad chilly. The week we spent on the Kenai, the weather was overcast for most of the week. I would suggest that when visiting Alaska to dress in layers. The mornings in June are often unpredictable, with clouds and some rain more the norm. Today I have insulated hiking pants, fleece-lined jacket for the wind and wool socks.

Boat Ride up the Middle Kenai

Understanding the WATERS of the Majestic Kenai River

Damond told us as we made our way upriver that the 81-mile Kenai begins its journey to Cook Inlet from the glacial Kenai lake. Much of the river is meltwater supplied by runoff from the majestic Kenai Mountain range. After Cooper Landing, the river becomes constrained as it flows through the narrow river canyon in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This section is called the Upper Kenai and includes the area near the Russian River before it empties Skilak lake. The Middle Kenai starts where the Kenai leaves Skilak lake. The wide portion of the river meanders to the narrow gorge of Naptowne Rapids near Bing’s Landing. The Kenai is a catch and-release fishery from the confluence of the Moose River upstream near the Naptowne rapids to Skilak Lake. The season runs from June 11 to May 1st.

Our previous trout experience on rivers such as the Madison in Yellowstone was to use a fly to entice the trout to bite. The flies imitate insect-based forage that are native to the river you are fishing. The Kenai is a much different river. Here, regular trout flies used in Montana or Utah do not work. Instead, the technique today requires throwing a larger fly known as a flesh fly. Also popular with anglers will also use wet flies, streamer flies, spinning lures, and patterns imitating shrimp or salmon roe.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge - Moose
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge – Moose Credit: Damond Blankenship

Accessing the Fish on the Mighty Kenai River

The Kenai is home to trophy-sized wild rainbow trout. Most anglers at this time of the year who visit the Kenai are fishing or King Salmon that return to the river each year to spawn. The King salmon used to return in massive numbers however, there has been a steep decline in the run. In 2020, they estimated the decline to be 48% below the previous year. This prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the season early on the Kenai.

Most local residents fish from the bank for Sockeye in June. We had caught our limit of “reds” the day before this trip with High Adventure Air. Sockeye will not take a lure, so the most efficient method is to use a weighted hook and basically drag the hook upstream, hoping to catch them as they open and close their mouths. Anglers must immediately release any snagged fish.

Damon remarked that walk-In access is very limited in the middle section of the Kenai. Most of the land is privately owned, and the higher eroded banks also limit much of the access.

Tackling the Prized Kenai Rainbows-today’s gear

Our guide, Damond Blankenship, makes his own flesh fly. He uses rabbit fur. The white fur represents bleached out salmon flesh with a size 1/0 Daiichi 2557 Intruder hook. Damond emphasized how important a strong, sharp hook. Often referred to as Dali Lama or Battle bunny flies, the rabbit fur provides a lot of action. In conversation, he stated that the Kenai ‘bows are insatiably hungry in the spring, as they recover from the April-May spawn. The bright red and orange flesh flies imitate fresh, rotting salmon.

Today’s Equipment

Most of the Kenai River rainbow trout are year-round residents with some anadromous steelhead being found in the river as well. New spawning salmon provide a fresh surplus of fresh eggs and decaying flesh. Fresh eggs and decayed flesh from dead salmon bounce along the bottom, sometimes becoming entangled in river snags or rock outcrops. Therefore, it is important to have the fly near the bottom of the river.

Fly-fishing Rig for Trout
Fly Rig

Pursuing Trophy Rainbows navigating the kenai river

The best way to navigate the Kenai is by drift boat. Holding the boat into the river current and slowly slipping backwards, allowing the fly to slowly bounce off the bottom.. Proper casting technique is critical when targeting Kenai Rainbows. It took some time as we practiced casting accuracy and distance, as well as presentation. A drag-free drift is essential to fooling these wary fish. We needed to take our time and make every cast count. Your guide can provide valuable insights into the fishery, help you choose the right gear and flies, and increase your chances of success.

Damond explained how we want the flesh fly to “dead drift” along with the current bouncing along the bottom. Much the same as the rotted salmon flesh chunks would move along the bottom. He showed how the weighted fly is cast upstream at a 45-degree angle approximately 10-15 feet out into the current. The fly was then reeled in once it was downstream. He then the action repeated. They call this bottom bouncing.

Netting my first monster Kenai Rainbow
My First Kenai Rainbow

In the beginning, he had to remind the two of us to not set the hook like we were bass fishing (our normal). The secret is to gently tick-tick (moving the rod very little). The fly moves along the gravel river bottom. The fly must be presented naturally, the rainbows will not take it. It took us a bit, but I eventually hooked into my first rainbow of the day. Damon walked me through, reeling in the huge rainbow. The lightweight rods require a gentle hand to finesse the fish to the boat. His coaching safely got the fish into the net. This first fish was a solid 24 inches. To say I was elated was an understatement. The morning brought a few more hits and a few misses. We even caught a few Dolly Varden, a fish I had never caught before.

Kenai River Brown Bears
Kenai River Brown Bears Credit: Damond Blankenship

Continued Kenai River Success, finding the hefty trout

Damon was one of the best guides, paying unequalled attention to detail throughout the trip. I know that I truly appreciated the hot cocoa, a welcome delight mid-morning when the chill of the water seeped into my hands. The warm up and a quick lunch break on the shore re-energized us for the afternoon.

In the afternoon, the sun made an appearance. We were grateful for the change. We ran up the river many times to make passes over gravel bars where the fish lie in wait for a meal. At one of the deeper holes my line screamed, stripping the line off the reel faster than I could keep up and, unfortunately, the line snapped. Thinking it could have been a king salmon. The ultralight equipment we are using today is not meant to handle these giants.

We continued to enjoy catching and releasing a few more hefty rainbows. The largest for me was about 27 inches. No complaints. We had excellent company and conversation. I can honestly say that this was the trip was everything I dreamed of. Even without the fishing, the Kenai surprised us with awe-inspiring views. Lots of bald eagles perched along the riverbanks, a large moose, and we just missed a bear, so a group of boaters told us. It thrilled me to see a few common loons. I love the call of the loon; it is hauntingly beautiful. I miss that most living in Florida.

Amazing Alaska Hunting for Trophy Kenai Rainbows-24 inch monster
Kenai Rainbow-My First!

Final Thoughts on Awesome Alaska-Hunting for Prize Kenai Rainbows

Alaska offers one of a kind angling opportunities. Alaska Fish & Lodge provide first-class fishing trips besides bear viewing and other adventures. Besides fishing trips, Alaska Fish & Lodge also provides accommodations at their lodge in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula. The lodge features comfortable rooms, a dining area, and a lounge for guests to relax after a day of fishing.

Alaska Fish & Lodge exemplifies everything you would expect of an Alaskan guide service. The glacial blue waters of the Kenai here are renown for their prize rainbows. Here in this river they can weigh up to 18 pounds and be 30 inches long. Even though we did not catch a monster fish today, we plan to return for another chance to hunt for our own trophy rainbow.

Have you fished the Kenai? What did you love best about your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Common Loon on the River
Common Loon on the River