Peak in the Kenai Mountains of Alaska is seen from
Portage Lake in Chugach National Forest.
Alaska — Here’s what it’s like fishing the Kenai
4 a.m., you’ve been straddling a narrow path on the edge
of a rushing current, your back against a steep,
15-foot-high slope of hard-packed mud. There’s barely
room to swing the rod, your feet are wet and there’s no
place to sit down.
average Joe, you’re thinking ahead to winter, hoping to
stock up your freezer. You’re swinging the fishing rod
at warp speed, two casts a minute, minimum. Each cast is a
quick, side-hand jerk that drops the hook in mid-river
among tens of thousands of "reds" (sockeye),
swimming upstream to spawn. The fish aren’t hungry, but
when they see the hook slide by, some swipe at it. If you
reel in the hook like Ahab with the whale, you’ll catch
o’clock the river banks are overrun with fishermen
standing 20 feet apart, on the mud, in the bushes and in
the shallows. The scene is a madhouse, but a madhouse that
no "sourdough," a card-carrying Alaska resident,
would pass up. For a "cheechako" like me,
visiting from the Lower 48 with my kids, it ended in
mid-afternoon when my ride — the guide and motorboat —
finally came to pick me up.
count yourself lucky if you’re the only fisherman on
your stretch of river bank and doubly lucky if you catch
four or five big sockeyes. If you happen to hook a king
salmon, aka Chinook, you’ve found the holy grail, the
reason the Kenai attracts sports competitors from five
continents, big spenders determined to go home with a
there’s a better way to fish and appease your family at
the same time. Rule 1: Don’t come all this way just to
fish. There’s a world of wonder on this frying
pan-shaped hunk of land, a wilderness as spectacular as
the Tetons and as big as Massachusetts and Connecticut put
together. Close to Anchorage, it’s just a couple of
hours’ drive away on Alaska’s most scenic paved
an accident of geography, the Kenai Peninsula is one of
the few places in Alaska where history, adventure, sports,
hiking trails, glaciers, bays, rivers, bears, birds,
hotels, lodges, rustic cabins and great fresh seafood
restaurants intersect. Think of the Kenai as a
three-dimensional Alaska album, a new experience on each
page and an ideal place to introduce Alaska to your kids,
your friends, neighbors, even the engaged couple across
planned a week’s trip, rented a car and covered a lot of
ground. Too much, actually. But looking back at the
photos, we remember it all. There was the glacier-viewing
cruise through Prince William Sound, to see giant slabs of
ice calving into the sea and to learn about glacial
action. And the flightseeing tour over the vast Harding
Icefield, mother of most of the area glaciers. We hiked to
Exit Glacier, looking for brown bears and eagles. We didn’t
try kayaking or windsurfing, but we watched other intrepid
sportsmen breasting the whitecaps in Resurrection Bay. And
we took the wildlife sightseeing cruise to the far end of
the bay, stopping at Fox Island for a salmon bake,
lingering in front of Bear Glacier, a huge tidewater
glacier, and idling beside sea lion and puffin colonies.
Later we saw more sea lions and puffins but a close range,
in the rescue wing of the extraordinary Alaska SeaLife
Center, the aquarium and wildlife rescue center in Seward.
ate, shopped and explored Seward, the gateway to Alaska in
the pre-railroad era, where recent excavations have
revealed ancient aboriginal village sites. We took a
guided float trip on the Kenai River, spotting a couple of
moose and learning about other pre-European village sites
spent a night in Homer, a budding artists’ colony on the
southwest tip of the peninsula, driving the length of the
thin strip of sand known as the Homer Spit and strolling
along the boardwalk past bars, cafes, shops and boat
got a brief look at early Russian history, still alive at
the miniscule Russian orthodox churches in the villages of
Kenai and Ninilchik. We stopped at North Beach, near
Kenai, to watch hopeful fishermen wielding huge, round dip
nets. It sounded so easy when a friend described it, but
holding one of those metal nets in the breakers was darn
hard. And we ate fresh fish at every meal, from grilled
salmon and king crab to the kids’ first choice, fish and
chips. They liked cod better than halibut: go figure.
that was Rule 1. Here’s Rule 2.
you want to fish the Kenai River, book a cabin for a
couple of nights with Bill White or Joe Connors, two good
ol’ boys who share prime Kenai River frontage near
Sterling. Real-time sourdoughs, they’ve got cabins,
docks you can fish from any time of day, and rods and
reels to borrow. In the middle is a campfire ring where
other good ol’ boys (guests from elsewhere) sit around
with a beer in hand, reliving the day’s fishing.
a licensed guide and owner of Big Sky Charter &
FishCamp, shows newcomers how to catch sockeye (unique to
this river), sells fishing licenses and books half and
full-day guided motorboat fishing. His guides will clean
and filet your salmon, and truck it to the fast-freeze
plant in Sterling.
former University of Alaska professor and member of the
Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Joe is also founder
of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, AFCC, a
group dedicated to minimizing the damage that 20-foot-tall
set nets, used by commercial fisheries, inflict on the
annual king salmon runs. The sockeye are a legitimate
catch. But the nets, anchored parallel to the shore, also
trap king salmon. With many fewer kings reaching their
spawning grounds — and the numbers are down — future
generations of kings are endangered, as is today’s sport
White and his wife, and Bill Jr., who run their place as
the Alaska Sports Lodge, helped us settle into our cabin
and loaned us rods, reels and knee-high rubber boots. The
cabins offer basic shelter and an efficiency kitchen —
remember, fishermen are not there for the décor — and a
sofa, chairs, breakfast table, beds and bunks downstairs
and in the loft. Our cabin slept six, and had a delightful
front deck with deck chairs and a gas grill. It looked
bare when we arrived. It felt like home when we left.
our photo count at 2,351 and a notebook crammed with
details, we spent our last long day driving back to
Anchorage, and to the airport for a night flight home. As
we whizzed past now-familiar names and places, I can’t
tell you how many times I heard a voice from the back seat
say, "Next time, I want to stay here longer."
hope they will.
Anchorage at www.anchorage.net, or call (907)257-2363.
the Kenai Peninsula: www.kenaipeninsula.org.
the Alaska SeaLife Center, see www.sealifecenter.org.
Seward Windsong lodge at www.sewardwindsong.com.
Bill White’s cabins, see www.alaskasportslodge.com.
Joe Connors’ cabins and guides: www.kenaiguide.com.
Kenai River float trips: see www.AlaskaRiverAdventures.com.