Kenai Peninsula: The Big Picture
The Kenai Peninsula is an offshoot of the Chugach Mountain Range, extending approximately 150 miles southwest before it meets the Gulf of Alaska. Beginning about 45 road miles southeast of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula is separated from the mainland by the Turnagain Arm of Cook inlet to the north and Prince William Sound to the south. Running the length of the peninsula is the Kenai range which divides the area into 2 distinct geographical regions for visiting anglers.
The south side is characterized by a high coastal range with heavy precipitation, resulting in many small, high-gradient streams. With the exception of Seward and Whittier, much of the south side is uninhabited and roadless, requiring a boat or plane for access.
The northwestern side of the peninsula is dominated by the Kenai lowlands, a lake-studded flat in which several large rivers make their way to the sea. The northwestern half of the peninsula is perhaps the most easily accessible fishing area in Alaska, with several roads running throughout. The region's "crown jewel", the mighty Kenai River, is the centerpiece attraction for the peninsula fly angler. Flowing for over 80 miles from its headwaters at Kenai Lake, much of the river is road-accessible and as a result it is probably the most heavily-utilized fishing resource on the Kenai Peninsula, perhaps in all of Alaska. If you don't like crowds, there are a multitude of other rivers, creeks and lakes in the southern half of the peninsula that offer great fishing without nearly as much competition.
The rivers and streams of the Kenai Peninsula are best characterized by the word "meander". Not that they move slowly, but due to the relatively flat topography of the lowlands, they tend to be moderate to swift flows with cut banks and gravel bars. Four of the five species of pacific salmon (king, coho, sockeye, and pink) are present in the region's rivers, as are rainbow trout, steelhead, and Dolly Varden. The lakes of the peninsula are largely of the shallow, soft bottom variety, and for the most part bank access is limited and swampy. Fish species available to the stillwater enthusiast on the Kenai peninsula include rainbow and lake trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, and whitefish.
As much fun as estuary fishing is in some other parts of the state, it is not recommended on the Kenai Peninsula, particularly the northwestern side. Some of the beaches are safe to walk on, but others are composed of fine, flour-like glacial silt. The silt beaches are easy to get mired down in, and even the most experienced beach-goers tread with care. Another phenomena that brings sometimes unwanted excitement to the estuary angler is the amazing tidal range of Cook Inlet, covering 38 feet and occasionally creating bore-tide waves in some estuaries. As with all estuarine and saltwater beach fishing, use caution. Carry a tide book (and know how to use it), and always fish with a partner. While tides can be predicted, bears can not. The United States Forest Service (USFS) has a tremendous amount of information on traveling and camping safely in bear country. We strongly recommend reading this and getting a clear understanding of the essential practices.
Fly Fishing on the Kenai Peninsula: When & Where To Go
Spring: April and May
The ice starts to melt on many Kenai Peninsula lakes with the lengthening days of April, and this ice-out period can bring some of the year's best stillwater angling. After 6 months of frigid conditions, the lake denizens are eager to eat and often pursue offerings with reckless abandon. Pike, grayling, rainbow and lake trout, and Dolly Varden are available in many peninsula lakes, and these early season fish can often be tempted with patterns imitations leeches, sculpins and salmon fry. Also more traditional nymph patterns imitating dragon flies, may flies, caddis and midges can be effective.
The month of May also is the start of the downstream migration of the salmon fry, and where these abundant swimmers go, predators follow. Dolly Varden, lake trout, and rainbow trout often key in on lake-outlet streams during the fry migration, and these locations provide an excellent fishing opportunity. Use minnow and fry-type flies such as the Alaskan Sockeye Fry, Clouser Deep Minnow, and the Lord of the Fry.
PLEASE CHECK YOUR REGULATIONS. The Kenai Peninsula includes many heavily-used fishing areas, and the ADF&G regulates opening and closing dates very tightly. Many systems have closed areas and prohibited species, especially during the Rainbow trout spawning season (May 1 - June 11).
Early Summer: June and July
The long summer days of June bring the first runs of salmon to peninsula rivers. The legendary king salmon of the Kenai River can reach 90+ Lbs, and 50+ lb fish are caught every year. Many other rivers have king runs as well, and these fish are the pinnacle of the heavyweight freshwater fly angling experience in Alaska. As of late, the Kenai Peninsula's king runs have been small in returning numbers. Be sure to check the regulations before fishing for these precious trophies. Articulated Hareball Leeches, Fat Freddies, and Intruder Flies are good choices when pursuing kings.
Sockeye salmon begin their run in June as well, with the Kenai River and Kasilof River hosting some of the largest road-accessible runs anywhere in the world. While there are many popular "combat fishing" areas for sockeye on the Kenai River, there are also other, less crowded systems that host runs of these impressive battlers. Popular flies for sockeye include the Sockeye Lantern, Montana Brassies, and Copper Swans.
Dolly Varden and rainbow trout are now available in the peninsula rivers after their springtime buffet of migrating salmon fry. These fish will still chase minnow patterns and can also be caught on sculpin and leech patterns such as Sculpzilla and Willie Nelson.
Late Summer: August and September
August brings the "last casts" for late run kings and sockeye on the Kenai Peninsula as these fish finish their spawning runs, but on even years (2020, 2022 for example) it also brings the first of the pink salmon. In late July the pink salmon begin massing in the lower reaches of their spawning streams, and by August their run is in full swing, providing the fly angler with many great opportunities to catch fish until their arms are tired. Pinks are often eager biters, providing the best chance for the novice fly angler to experience what the fun is all about. These tenacious little salmon are particularly fond of the color pink, and will usually chase such offerings as the Humpy Hooker, Searunner Special, Clouser Minnow, and Neon Shrimp when fished on a floating line.
The month of August also brings the first of the peninsula's coho runs. The coho is a game fighter when caught on fly tackle, and many area streams host large runs of these silvery-bright salmon until well into September. Flies such as the Dolly Llama, Pink & White Clouser and Egg Hareball Leech are good go-to patterns for coho, while nymphing with Coho Kryptonite can be just as effective.
Rainbow trout fishing heats up in August, as many species of salmon are spawning by this time. Beads are the "hot ticket" for big 'bows, but the old standbys, the Unreal Egg and the Glo-Bug, are still effective. Steelhead start to appear in some peninsula watersheds in late August as well. These sea-going rainbow trout run into October in some area rivers, and are particularly receptive to Steelhead Glo-Bugs and 10mm beads during the late summer.
Fall: October and November
With the last of the coho runs waning in October, the peninsula fly fisher turns to steelhead and rainbow trout for their fall fishing fix. Fall is a time for big rainbows on the Kenai, as their seasonal buffet of salmon eggs is rapidly coming to an end. Now is the time to experiment with the "dead-egg" colors to find out what the big guys are eating, as well as switching up to flesh patterns. Leeches and sculpins will take their share of fish, too. Steelhead are also available in the fall, and many systems host small runs of these elusive fish. Beads, Klamath Intruders, Mini Intruders, and other small to medium sized flies...steelhead are receptive to a wide variety of flies and colors, so be sure you have a wide selection to choose from.
Fall also heralds the last of the stillwater angling opportunities on the Kenai Peninsula. Most of the lake vegetation has died back, the lakes are starting to settle for the winter, and hungry fish are looking for one more meal before they settle in for another 6 months of icy darkness. Casting large, bushy leeches can often bring hits from hungry, late season Dolly Varden, lake trout, and pike.