Home » Alaska » A-Mazing World-Class Rainbows on the Kenai River

Few rivers can attain the world-class rainbows that inhabit the Kenai River. Never a dull moment fishing these waters. Fishing on the Kenai River was always a cornerstone for our dream Alaskan RV vacation.

The Kenai is considered a world-class river running 80-miles starting in the Chugach Range Mountains to the pristine glacier water of Kenai Lake, continuing through Skilak Lake and the Kenai Wildlife Refuge before emptying into beautiful Cook Inlet. These crystal blue waters hold not only trophy Rainbows but are known for record-setting salmon catches as well.

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Fishing the Kenai River in Alaska is a popular activity among anglers from all over the world. We know the Kenai River for its large salmon runs, including Chinook (King), Sockeye (Red), Coho (Silver), and Pink Salmon.

The mighty Kenai river-Kenai mountains
Kenai River

Important to know Before you go

If you are planning to fish the Kenai River, you will need to obtain a fishing license from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. You should also research the regulations for the specific species you plan to target, as there may be restrictions on the size or number of fish you can catch.

When fishing the Kenai River, it is important to practice catch and release to preserve the fishery for future generations. You should also be aware of and respect the local wildlife, including bears and eagles, which are commonly seen along the river.

Alaska Fishing Guide Service

Kenai River Fishing with Alaska Fishing Service

The best way to ensure that you have the time of your life catching and not just fishing is to hire an experienced guide. The Kenai River is world famous and for a reason, local guides will find locate fish faster using the right pattern, without wasting precious time. Fishing with a guide from a boat offers the best chance at catching a giant Kenai Rainbow. We chose professional guide Kevin Thurman, owner of Alaska Fishing Service. Kevin has a first-rate resume with a 40-year career fishing. He is a licensed Coast Guard captain and certified Kenai River guide. He supplies all the fishing gear necessary to reeling in a world record salmon or trophy rainbow trout. As a guide, he goes the extra mile, even stopping off the evening before to schedule the early morning pick up and plan the day’s adventure.

Stunning Kenai River
Stunning Kenai River

Getting an Early Start on the River

The early morning starts with at 5 am with the short drive down the Sterling Highway. With the 20 plus hours of daylight in Alaska, rising early is key to having a full day on the river. The highway follows the shoreline of the river as we approach the turnoff for Bing’s Landing. The small pontoon boat launches effortlessly into the river. We are glad we are dressed in layers as the clouds have moved in overnight with a chill in the air. Today, both of us have a waterproof rain jacket and rain pants, fleece jacket, and gloves that we can remove as the temperature rises throughout the day.

This trip is a far cry from the “combat fishing” we saw earlier at the Russian River, where hundreds of people line up elbow-to-elbow to fight for a few fish getting their lines tangled definitely in a league of their own.

“What I miss most about living in Alaska is the fishing

The Kenai River Stunning Scenery

The Kenai river has its headwaters at Kenai lake beginning near Cooper landing. The middle Kenai River flows out of Skilak Lake and runs down to the Sterling Highway Bridge at Soldotna. Kevin is an expert at maneuvering the boat upriver, passing through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Here, the shoreline is untouched by residential homes. We spot an occasional moose on the forested shoreline but do not see grizzlies today. Nothing compares to the beauty of the Kenai. The rain overnight has turned clouded this section of the river, but as we pass the Killey River, the surreal glacial silt color of the water returns as we enter Skilak Lake.

Bend in the Kenai River eroded bank with spruce trees
First-Class Kenai River

Kevin explains how the Rainbows have just finished spawning as we motor into Skilak Lake to begin our drift downstream. They are ready to fatten up. They are ambush predators lying in wait for salmon smolt balls to pass downstream. Early season rainbows fresh off the spawn eagerly chase streamers as they feast on the salmon smolt or salmon carcasses. Dead drifting flesh flies (peach, orange, pink) in the eddies increases your chances of getting a strike. If the fish are feasting on sockeye carcasses, adding a bead to the leader will get the streamer lower in the water column, simulating how the flesh tumbles downstream.

Kenai River View
Kenai River View

Getting Setup for Kenai Trophy Rainbows

Float fishing requires a long spin rod with the reel set up for easier casting, braided fluorocarbon line, a Drennen 6 gr float, and shot make up the rest of the float set up. Drift management includes a perfect boat position to provide the best possible casting opportunities for these 10 lbs or larger rainbows. These are the norm for this first-class river.

Kenai River Rainbow
World-Class Kenai River Rainbow

Kenai River Rainbow Trout Fishing

Kevin continues to give tips and tricks so that we can get the best bites. Before long, Barry hooks up with a fish. Over the next 20-minutes, the fish makes several runs leaping out of the water. Just before Kevin can net the fish, it swings into the river, dislodging the hook. Alas, the big one gets away.

As our outstanding day continues, we catch and release many rainbow trout ranging from 3 to 4 lbs. The day has been rewarding watching these hard-fighting rainbows bend our lines. The Kenai River is truly an angler’s paradise! Kevin Thurman was not only a patient guide, he was a fantastic teacher! He is an expert angler and knows the Kenai intimately. 

Kevin Alaska Fishing Service
Kevin Alaska Fishing Service

Tips for your trip

Kenai Middle River Skilak Lake headwaters
Kenai Lake Middle River

Final Thoughts on Kenai River Fishing

There are many fishing guides and outfitters available in the area that can provide you with equipment and expertise. They can also take you to the best fishing spots and help you navigate the river, which can be challenging for inexperienced anglers.

At the end of our perfect day, we returned to our RV for a fresh salmon dinner. Even though the sun never sets this time of the year, we sleep well this night dreaming of our return to catch the big one!

Have you been to Alaska? Dreaming of catching the big fish? Tell us about your fishing adventure. Share in the comments below, we love hearing your stories!

Fishing the Kenai River