Jim Chamberlain

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Fishing the Kenai River in Alaska

4 mint bright sockeye salmon on our first day by the author and his wife

The boat sped upstream with only the ghostly light of the moon showing our guide his route upstream from Bing’s Landing. The first light of day appeared on the horizon as we cruised into our destination along the shores of Skilak Lake. The line counter on the reel was barely visible as it turned showing the amount of line that was being let out. The bobbing rod tip showed that the lure was working as our guide began trolling for Sockeye. The suns rays turned the lake waters to gold as morning dawned. The first fish hit the lure hard and the rod bounced up and down. Fish On!

Morning on the Kenai
Ready to net

I have fished all along the Pacific Coast of the United States and in Canada. Alaska is my favorite destination for a fishing trip.  Five species of Salmon, Trophy Rainbow Trout, Giant Halibut, Grayling, and Dolly Varden trout can be caught here during the summer. Fishing trips to Alaska can be expensive. The best fishing trip for my money in Alaska is to the Kenai River.

The Kenai River system is huge covering hundreds of square miles and home to most species of Salmon and other trophy fish. The world record King Salmon was caught on the Kenai. Every year Salmon weighing over 70 lbs. are caught here. Sockeye salmon return to the Kenai in two major runs each summer. Silver Salmon storm up the river in August. Pink Salmon arrive every two years. Huge Rainbow trout many weighing over ten pounds feed on the salmon eggs and grow huge in this river.   The Kenai empties into Cook Inlet and that body of salt water is home to huge numbers of Halibut. Day trips for this prized white fish can be combined with Salmon fishing on the Kenai by most lodges and guide services. Fly out fishing or bear viewing is a common add on for many Kenai Peninsula fishing trips. The Kenai River has everything you could want in an Alaska fishing experience.

4 mint bright sockeye salmon on our first day by the author and his wife

Remote fishing lodges that you have to take float planes to get to are fantastic. The experience of being isolated in the wilderness is important to many who venture to Alaska to fish. However, the more remote the lodge the greater the expense to the fisherman. Transportation and shipping of fish from Alaska is not cheap. Most lodges charge a fee to process, freeze, and fly your fish from the remote lodge to your departure point and you still will have to pay baggage charges for your airline. If not, the fish will have to be shipped by freight carrier at $5.00 or more a pound. If you bring back 50 lbs. of fish fillets that cost can be several hundred dollars. This is not including the five to ten thousand dollars you are spending for the 5 days remote lodge fishing experience. You can have a great fishing experience and explore the wildness of Alaska for a lot less money.

Trolling the Kenai

Here are my reasons to pick the Kenai River as your destination to fish Alaska.

1. The Fishing: Late July brings the second Sockeye Salmon run to the Kenai along with the last week of King Salmon season. In even years, Pink Salmon are in the river starting in late July. Most years the daily limit of Sockeye is three which average 7 to 9 pounds. If the run is huge the limit can be as high as six. King Salmon is one per day if the season is open. Trout is catch and release for the bigger fish but smaller ones can be kept. Halibut trips are but a one hour drive away at Ninchilik. 4 days of fishing will probably yield at least 6 to 8 sockeye and 2 halibut per person. 50 pounds of fish fillets is a common result of 4 days of fishing here.

Sockeye catch Day 3

2. The Sights: Soldotna sits in the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula about a 3 hour drive from Anchorage by car. Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet parallels the roadway out of Anchorage. You can stop at viewpoints with names like Beluga Point and Bird Creek. The Alyeska Resort near the town of Girdwood and Portage Glacier are scenic stops to make on the way south to the Kenai. A cable car to the resort takes you high up among hanging glaciers, dense forests and barking marmots. A short boat ride at Portage takes to the face of a large tidewater glacier where the ice glows blue. A 50 mile detour takes you to Seward. It is home to the Kenai Fjords National Park where there are several glaciers amid snow capped peaks and wildlife abound. You could take a dinner cruise here after your day of fishing on the Kenai. On your way to Kenai from Seward stop at Exit Glacier where you can walk up to a wall of ice a short distance from the parking lot.

Dawn colors the sky on the Kenai River

3. The Accommodations: There are variety of accommodations near the Kenai River, with most being of the lodge and cabin type. Many are right on the Kenai River allowing you to fish from their shoreline. Many of these cabins can accommodate 4 people and have kitchens, queen beds, and full baths set in wooded areas where Moose are common sights wandering the area. The nearby town of Soldotna has all the grocery stores, fish processing, craft breweries, restaurants, and other amenities you will need to make your trip relaxing and convenient after a hard day landing fish. The smaller towns of Coopers Landing and Sterling have additional places to stay in the area. Most lodges provide or contract with local guides to provide guests guided fishing opportunities while staying on the Kenai. These packages can be a great value if you choose wisely.  My choice was the Silvertip Lodge and Cabins and their Alaska Drift Away Fishing guide service in Soldotna. They offer a great value and some of the best guides on the Kenai.

4. The Wildlife: I was privileged to see moose while driving to town, a black bear and several bald eagles while fishing for Salmon and two sea otters on my Halibut trip. A boat trip in Kenai Fjords will bring you the opportunity to see Humpback Whales, Puffins, Sea Otters, Sea Lions, and even Killer whales. Alaska’s wildlife are a treasure to enjoy and next to Denali, The Kenai Peninsula is a great place to see them. I recommend flying to Katmai National Park from Soldotna to see Alaskan Brown Bears fishing at Brooks Falls.

An Alaskan Brown Bear at Katmai National Park

5. The Cost: Most offer fishing/lodging packages on the Kenai for 4 days of guided fishing (3 Salmon/Trout and 1 Halibut) with a room or cabin for about $1500-1800 a person. Many lodges have fish processing rooms. You can process your fish filets, vacuum seal and freeze them to save even more money over a professional processing service. Fish boxes to package your catch for shipment can be bought at the local superstore ($20 for a 50 lb. box).

Results of a Halibut trip with J&J Smart Charters for 6

You will need a rental car for your trip, I think this is an advantage for the Kenai area as the car allows you to explore this scenic peninsula when you are not fishing and select tours at costs that are lower as the company does not have to bus you around. Buy your own food to cook and things to drink at lower costs at the local supermarket for even more savings over a remote lodge.

At the end of your trip you drive your frozen fish back to Anchorage and pay the low extra baggage fee for your 50 lbs. of fish fillets ($25-35) and you will be enjoying several hundred dollars worth of fresh Alaskan fish for months without paying $20 or more a pound at the local grocery back home. If you take the value of the fish you bring home off the cost of your trip, the Kenai shines as a destination.

The Kenai Peninsula and its famous river offer a world class fishing experience along with great wildlife and natural wonders to see while allowing you to do so at an affordable cost. July and August offer the best opportunities to catch a lot of fish. Plan ahead as many of these lodges book over a year in advance. A great destination with knowledgeable guides and plentiful services make the Kenai River, The Best Alaskan Fishing Trip.

Watch you pole

I was six feet away from an 800 lb. giant in brown fur with huge paws and I didn’t get eaten. If you want one of the greatest wildlife experiences in your life, put Katmai National Park in Southeast Alaska on your list of future destinations.

There are 2,200 Alaskan brown bears inhabiting Katmai National Park. They are called Grizzly Bears in the lower 48 states of the U.S. During the summer the salmon return to the rivers of Alaska by the millions.  The bears of Katmai have lost a lot of their body weight while hibernating are looking for food and a lot of it.  Sow bears may have cubs to feed and to teach how to fish. This brings them to the Brooks River and especially Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park to find their salmon feast of  Sockeye in June and July and Silver salmon in late August and September.  Flying in a small plane is mandatory if you want to get there.

The four seat Beaver float plane I was in, skimmed over the emerald green expanse of Southeast Alaska. I was nervous in anticipation of arriving at Katmai National Park or maybe from being in a small plane with only one engine.  I wanted to see the giant brown bears fishing, playing, fighting, and to watch mothers with their cubs.

I knew any adventure to Alaska even in summer is weather dependent. The weather in late July was warm and partly cloudy with patches of blue sky peeking through the cloud cover. I couldn’t wait to get my camera out of my backpack and get going.

The floatplane skimmed to a smooth landing on a calm and glassy Lake Naknek and coasted up to a sandy beach at Brooks Cam p. I had to attend “Bear School” by a Park Ranger before continuing my trek to the bears. This is a 20 to 30 minutes orientation to the bears and their habits and especially how to keep all of you parts intact.  The rules are simple but they work, I know.  I still have all my parts even after a close encounter on the trail. Luckily, the bears are used to humans and have so  much to eat at this park you can get closer than any place else to these large carnivores.  If you got as close say in Denali National Park you would probably be missing some pieces.

Once you receive your “bear” pin you are allowed to take the well worn trails to the three viewing platforms to catch your first views of the magnificent animals with golden to dark brown fur.  I got maybe 50 yards down the forested trail when I and other new arrivals were stopped by a Park Ranger and told we would have to wait on a bear that was passing by.  This common occurrence can  result in a “Bear Jam” of several tourists waiting to continue their hike to the best viewing platform at Brooks Falls about 1.2 miles from Brooks Camp.  I saw Rangers constantly patrolling the main trails to keep everyone safe.

The wooden bridge, over the gently flowing waters of the lower river, swayed as I and others walked across it to the Lower River platform. This area is quiet and peaceful with gently flowing waters where if you look you can see the bright red Sockeye resting in the clear water before their journey upstream to the falls to past the gauntlet of hungry predators to spawn.

Once you pass off the main road onto the narrow but well travelled trail to the falls, start singing or chanting to let any nearby furry friends know you are there, as bears frequent the same trails and roads as people in Katmai and they have the right of way.

I could hear the roar of rushing water and of bears growling before I saw the Falls. Your first view puts a huge grin on your face as you see the bears fishing for the first time. The viewing platform at Brooks Falls is well worth the hike for you get a wonderful view of Alaskan Brown Bears fishing for Salmon just 25 to 50 yards away.  Most of the pictures you have seen of bears catching Salmon in their mouths were probably shot here.  During my two evening visits to the Falls I saw 18 and 21 different bears visit this area on respective evenings. What a sight! Several family groups of a sow and her cubs stopped by to fish too.

This place is nothing short of amazing. I had bears pass by the viewing platform at distance s of 6 feet. A mother and her three cubs even decided to take a nap right below the platform.  A large adult male who had the best fishing spot was named Lefty.  He was good too.  I watched him catching salmon every few minutes. He would rapidly eat the bright red fish and go back for more.  He had to earn the best spot to fish and has the scars to prove it including only half a left ear and scars from claw marks on his hip and chest. He caught so many fish he had to take a break and just sit down in water to rest.

Another bear seemed to just enjoyed the Jacuzzi like waters at the bottom of the falls. I sometimes get so busy shootings images I forget to stop and just watch this amazing ritual of nature.

The Falls viewing platform can get crowded during the peak visitor times from late morning to mid afternoon when most of the tourists fly in on day trips from Anchorage, King Salmon, or Homer. The best opportunities to see a lot of bears is to stay at Brooks Camp either in the lodge or campground. I spent two nights here and it was worth it as my best experiences were early in the morning or late in the afternoon when there were less people around.  One morning, I had the Falls platform to myself. That was when I saw my first bear fight.  A mother with three cubs challenged a young male adult for his spot at the falls.  She and her opponent got up on their hind legs and with huge claws out, roared at the each other and bared their large teeth.  Three cute little cubs watched from nearby.  The female prevailed and the young male moved off.

I almost missed the sign for the Mid-river platform as it is accessed off the same board walk as the Falls. I was thrilled to see another Sow with dark brown yearling cubs working the riffles for bright red salmon as the morning sun broke thru the clouds to light up the river.

You can also experience the desolation and beauty of the Valley of 10,.000 smokes while at Katmai to see a wondrous area left by the largest volcanic eruption of the last century. I missed this experience as I was busy shooting bear pictures. Fishing here is also great.  Again I was after bears not fish. (Insert Fishing Katmai)

Getting to Katmai National Park is not difficult but it is a remote locations that can only be accessed by plane or boat. Most people fly commercially into King Salmon and then take a 30 minute float plane trip to the park. There are several day trips you can take as mentioned earlier from other cities. Be prepared though nothing in Alaska is cheap during the summer but this experience is well worth the bucks.

You should also make your reservation several months to a year in advance as they fill up fast. I cannot tell you to go here enough.  Go to Katmai, Go to Katmai, Go to Katmai.  If you can’t go but want to share the experience virtually go to Exlpore.org in early July thru September and watch their live ‘Bear Cam” of Brooks Falls.  You will see many of the same things I did but it is not the same.  Katmai is a place you must experience in person.