Kenai River Trout Fishing
Upper Kenai Rainbow Trout taking a dry fly from the topwater.

Our Favorite Sport Fish

Kenai River rainbow trout stocks are highly sought after and provide a world-renowned sport fishery.  They are our favorite sport fish by far and make up the backbone of our Kenai River guided fishing trips.  The majority of rainbow trout in the Kenai River are resident species and can be found in the river system throughout the year.  The Kenai River does support a small population of anadromous or sea-run rainbow trout (steelhead), which leaves the river to feed in the ocean and then returns for spawning.  Rainbow trout are caught throughout the entire river system, but anglers generally target them on the Upper Kenai River and Middle Kenai River.

Kenai River Fishing Guide
A healthy rainbow trout visiting with a dolly varden in the rubber net

Populations and Habits

Of our resident Kenai River Rainbow trout populations, at least two main groups are recognized- those that feed and spawn on the Upper Kenai River and overwinter in Kenai Lake, and those that feed and spawn on the Middle Kenai River and overwinter in Skilak Lake. Tagging studies have shown that the two populations are genetically diverse from one another and they return to the same spots year after year and generation after generation to feed, spawn, and overwinter.  Of these two main groups, there are also smaller sub-populations that live in each area but overwinter in the mainstem of the river rather than in the lakes.

Kenai River Rainbow trout migrate from their over-wintering locations to spawning locations in the spring.  A large population of rainbow trout on the Upper Kenai River migrates to the Russian River and Kenai River confluence area to spawn during May and June.  Rainbow trout on the Middle Kenai River primarily congregate in the few miles below the outlet of Skilak Lake for spawning during May and June.  The rainbow trout that spawn in the mainstem and back channels of the Upper Kenai River tend to spawn later in the season, as temperatures of the mainstem Kenai River take longer in the spring to warm up than the snow-melt Russian River.  Kenai River rainbows then move into their summer feeding areas where they reside from late June through September, gorging themselves on delicious sockeye salmon eggs, among other food sources, and growing to trophy girths.  In late September through November, Kenai River rainbows migrate again from their summer feeding areas and return to their favorite lake overwintering spot, and usually will have completed the winter migration by December.

beautiful middle kenai river rainbow trout
A nice Middle Kenai rainbow

Management History

The Kenai River rainbow trout fishery is an important element of the economy and culture of the Kenai Peninsula, and Cooper Landing specifically.  In the 90’s the total catch of Kenai River rainbows alone made up more than half of all rainbow trout caught on the entire Kenai Peninsula.  At that time it was also estimated that the annual Kenai River Rainbow catch was between 8,720 and 62,152 fish since 1984.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that Kenai River is the most heavily fished in all of Alaska.  The popularity of fishing for rainbow trout on the Kenai River has increased dramatically since the 80’s and 90’s, which has led to some changes to the fishery in order to protect the populations.

The Upper Kenai was managed as a trophy rainbow trout fishery since 1989 under the Cook Inlet/Copper River Basin Rainbow/Steelhead Trout Management Policy and became a catch-and-release fishery beginning in 1997.  There was a gradual increase in size for the allowed harvest of rainbow trout from 20” in 1988 to 24” in 1991 and then 30” in 1993, which led to serious damage to the trophy size fish populations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game then completely closed the Kenai River to any rainbow trout retention to promote healthy stocks of larger fish. In 2005 retention of rainbow trout was once again allowed, this time for one fish per day under 16”. During the early 2000’s, the Upper Kenai River was closed to fishing from December 31st to June 11th from the Sterling Highway bridge to the Mile 53 bridge to protect spawning rainbow trout. In 2005, the management technique changed to the rules we follow today, allowing fishing up until May 1st and closing the entire Upper Kenai River for fishing until June 11th.

Kenai River Rainbow Trout
Releasing an Upper Kenai rainbow trout

Why catch and release?

We encourage anglers to voluntarily practice catch and release because of its proven benefits to trout populations.  Although it is permitted by ADFG regulations to harvest one rainbow trout and one dolly varden on the Upper Kenai per person under 16″ per day, we discourage harvest of these species.  We fear the impact to our resource would be too great if we as guides promoted the harvest of these fish.  Collectively we all hook up our hundreds of clients per season very successfully, and if we were to all harvest those fish on our guide boats, it would not be sustainable.  Catch and release is very useful on streams and rivers where there are highly valuable populations that are facing heavy fishing pressure. Curtailing harvest in these situations can help increase and sustain trout populations, and has done so in most situations where catch and release has been used. Proper catch and release techniques are important to ensure our friends, the trout, will remain unharmed in our sporty pursuit of them.  Each second you keep a fish out of water decreases its chance of survival.  The responsibility of sustainable fishing falls on the shoulders of every individual angler.  We always use barbless hooks and rubber nets when fishing the Kenai River for rainbow trout.

Upper Kenai rainbow trout staying wet and happy

How to Practice Proper Catch and Release Fishing for Kenai River Rainbow Trout

  1.  Land the fish quickly and keep the battle short.  Learn good rod/reel and net techniques to move fish in the current and reel them into the net with the least resistance.  An overplayed fish will also be overstressed and will not recover as quickly or as well from the encounter.
  2. Keep the fish in the water while removing the hook with a proper removal tool.  Do this quickly.  Do this gently.  Be calm and if you must touch the fish to support it while the hook is removed, make sure to wet your hands first so you do not disturb the fish’s protective slime coating.  Barbless hooks can be removed easily.  If the hook has been deeply swallowed or cannot be removed, cut the line down to the shank. The hook will rust away and hurt the fish less than you ripping it out and causing injury.
  3. If you absolutely must take a picture, the best thing for the fish is to keep it in the water at all times.  Have fun with some underwater shots.  If you must remove the fish from the water, keep it above the water and net at all times.  Be quick and gently return the fish to the water as fast as you can.  You should hold your breath while you do this so you know how our friend the fish is feeling.  Do not drop the fish or touch its eyes or gills.
  4. Return the fish back to the river, facing upstream in slow current while gently holding its tail and cradling its belly.  If you did a good job in steps 1-3, the fish will be quite spry and swim out of your hands quickly.  Larger, older fish and fish that were overstressed by the catch may take a little more time to revive.  Make sure to tell the fish thank you when you say goodbye.
Proper release of a Kenai rainbow trout

Kenai River Rainbow Trout Record

We have heard tales of an old-timer landing a 44-inch rainbow trout while targeting king salmon on the lower Kenai River.  It’s hard to say how accurate this record is as the old-timers were known to spin yarns long enough to knit a sweater.  There has never been an official record of this size for a Kenai River rainbow registered with the state of Alaska, but it sure is fun dreaming about a leviathan trout of that size lurking in the depths.  The current official statewide record for a sea-run rainbow trout (steelhead) is 42lbs 3oz, caught in 1970 on Bell Island.
We typically see fish in the size range of 12-24 inches on the Upper Kenai River, with occasional catches 25 inches and greater.  Rainbow trout seem to be more plentiful and on the smaller end on the Upper Kenai River (for the exception of the Kenai River Canyon) and less plentiful but larger below Skilak Lake.  Kenai River rainbows measuring 30 inches and larger are caught every season near the inlet and outlet of Skilak Lake.  If you are lucky, time your trip right, and put in some time, you could be that lucky angler to land the trout of a lifetime. Let’s go fishing!

enormous rainbow trout caught on upper kenai
A rare super duper XL Upper Kenai Rainbow Trout

More Resources

ADFG Wildlife Notebook Series Rainbow Trout

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile

FREE Kenai River Rainbow Trout Coloring Page for the Kids