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Alaska’s lower Kenai River, located south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, is notorious for its dense, bank-to-bank flotilla of back-trolling power boats, especially during the tourism-intensive summer season. The crowds plus the wide, deep and off-color nature of the Kenai’s water (it’s off-color because it carries a glacial silt load) make the stream something less than an ideal place for flyrodders. Yet the lower Kenai is undeniably the best place in the world to have a chance at hooking a truly large king. In fact, the 97-pound world record was caught here in 1985.
It’s true that the early salmon runs here in 1991, 1992 and 1993 were poor (so poor, in fact, that Alaska Fish and Game issued emergency orders to zero out all bag limits and institute a catch-and-release only fishery), but the 1995 season saw more 70 and 80-pound fish hauled in from the lower Kenai than any other season in memory. This year promises to be even better, at least as regards the number of fish that are expected to be in the river. The Fish and Game forecasts I have seen are nothing short of phenomenal. They are estimating that more than 91,000 king salmon will return to the Kenai River during the month of July. To put that number in perspective, last year’s July run was a shade more than 60,000, and the highest recorded return – which occurred in 1986 – was 79,000 king salmon.
Most of these salmon will be pursued by boats trolling in salt water out in the Cook Inlet. However, there is a more exciting way to seek them out. It is by flycasting for them from the beaches of Cook Inlet just south of the mouth of the Kenai River. I decided to try this way of fishing after hearing countless anglers talk about kings breaking the water and porpoising just beyond the breakers in this area.
The fishing I have discovered is not unlike that enjoyed by fly fishermen in the Northeast who hit the beaches in search of stripers. The only difference is, as far as I know, I’m the only angler at this point to have taken a king salmon with fly fishing gear from a Cook Inlet beach. No one else I know is even trying it, so this news is truly fresh off the press.
If you’d like to give this fishery a try, the drill is to cast your fly as far as you possibly can and strip-retrieve it. The farther you can cast, the longer your fly will be in the water and the greater the chance it will be intercepted by kings running parallel to the shore. I experimented with a 16-foot Spey rod, but found that although it makes punching out long casts easy, you don’t need it. Any 10-weight outfit that you would normally use for tarpon, or even an eight or nine-weight steelhead outfit will all work just fine. Regardless of the outfit you use, there will be fish you simply cannot hold, of course. Bringing 40 pounds of king salmon to the beach is an awesome feat, and a fish twice that size would be next to impossible to land unless you could follow it with a boat.
The best set-ups use shooting head systems. Carry an assortment with different sink rates, because conditions and the behavior of the fish change. Because of the wave action, sink tips with the fastest sink rates will probably turn out to be the most valuable. As for fly patterns to use, this fishery is in its infancy, so no one really knows what to use. I had success with Abel Anchovies, Lefty’s Deceivers, Flash Flies and Clouser Minnows.
The place to concentrate your efforts is the 20-mile stretch of beach that roughly parallels Route 1 (also known as the Sterling Highway at this point) from Anchor Point north to the Ninilchik/Deep Creek area. The two main access points to the beach are at the Deep Creek State Recreation Area (*) and at Anchor Point. There is also an unimproved access road at Whiskey Gulch, which is just north of the Stariski Creek State Recreation Site at mile 152 of the Sterling Highway. The road is steep and can be awfully muddy if it has rained, and I wouldn’t consider attempting it without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Even then I’d walk it first and take a look at it. If you decide not to drive it, you can still park at the highway and take the five-minute walk in. You can start fishing the beach right there and then proceed either south or north.
I strongly recommend that you get a tide book if you plan to give this fishery a try – they’re available locally almost everywhere – because you’ll want to keep track of the diurnal fluctuations that can range as much as 39 feet. So far I’ve found that high tides offer the best fishing. Even better are high tides that coincide with low light levels. Remember, during the summer there is near-continuous daylight, so optimum high tides will be those occurring sometime between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m..
In addition to your regular sportfishing license ($30 for a 14-day, non-resident), you’ll need a king salmon tag. For non-residents, a one-day tag costs $10, a three-day is $15 and a 14-day tag is $35. Also, check the regulations closely, because there are restrictions on how close to some river mouths that you can fish.
With summertime tourist traffic, plan on taking about five hours to drive from Anchorage to Anchor Point. The route is simple. Simply take Route 1 south out of Anchorage, through Soldotna and almost to Homer. Anchor Point is 16 miles north of Homer. All the major car rental agencies have Anchorage outlets, but inquire early because most of them get booked up for the summer. The same is true of lodging in Anchorage. As far as lodging in Anchor Point goes, I’ve stayed at and recommend the Anchor River Inn (*). A room with two queen-sized beds, full bath and color TV runs $85 per night for two people. The Inn also operates a restaurant, lounge and grocery and liquor stores. Good luck! – Tony Route.
(Don Causey: If you give this new fishery a try, be sure and file an Angler Network Report so the rest of us will know how you did.)