Trout fishing on the Kenai River is always good, and more often than not it is great. If the salmon pursuit is slow, it seems you can always depend on the trout to save the day. Some years are certainly better than others and to the extent we find angling success for trout is largely related to what else…the salmon. You see here in Alaska, trout and salmon are forever connected. The salmon’s mysterious life cycle is everything but a mystery to the Kenai’s thriving trout population.
Unlike famous trout streams in the lower 48 where astute anglers cast hand tied replicas of mayflies or caddis, the Kenai is an underwater show, almost entirely subsurface. In a river the size of the Kenai, it seems there is enough food on the river’s bottom to make the rise to the rivers surface a waste of time and energy. One might argue that one big bite of salmon flesh or loose spawn has 100 times the nutrient value of one aquatic insect. From the trout’s perspective, why waste your time chasing a snack when a full course meal is all around you.
When the millions of Pacific Salmon return to their natal Kenai each summer, they bring with them a vital store of energy from the ocean. Years of intense feeding in the North Pacific has allowed them to double in size many times before heeding the instinctual urge to come home and spawn. Protein that once took the form of krill or herring is now transformed into pulsing salmon flesh on a one way mission to reproduce. Once the salmon’s first life expires, another begins. A dead salmon becomes many things and if you’re trying to catch a trophy rainbow in the Kenai River, flesh and eggs are life after death.
Of course the tremendous tendency trout show toward these two food sources should not surprise us as it follows trout tendencies worldwide. Trout (much like those that pursue them) are opportunists. They are simple taking advantage of the most prolific, available and overall nutritious food source. Just like more “traditional” trout in fabled places like Montana or Idaho that sip incessantly at floating insects, they are eating what’s in front of them. Not that Alaska does not have plenty of floating insects, it is more that Montana does not have millions of salmon. You see my point.
So when it comes time to pursue your trophy rainbow in Alaska, think salmon. By this I mean focus on the salmon bi-products(s) that the rainbows eat. Once you have accepted that your #16 deer hair cadis is not the best bet, you’re well on your way.
Eggs and Flesh
You may wonder if any ‘ol bunny flesh pattern or glo-bug will do the trick or if the size and pattern of flesh and egg are important? The overwhelming answer is most definitely yes. A refined flesh and egg pattern is essential. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more plainly than when I see another boat using clusters of real salmon eggs and occasionally catching very few small fish and I am drifting with artificial single egg patterns, consistently landing many more and far larger trout. You might think it would be the opposite, but big trout don’t get big by being stupid. They are looking for the real thing, the food they eat day after day, year after year. They do not see clusters of eggs (unless they have a hook attached) as all the eggs that come from the salmon are in single egg form. When the female salmon lays her eggs in the gravel they have already separated from the skein. Inevitably, thousands will not get buried and the trout depend on this loose single egg spawn for the bulk of their mid to late summer diet. I have caught many, many trout that have so many single eggs in their mouth that they cannot close their jaws and the translucent light orange salmon eggs are pouring out both sides. Often the eggs are mixed with rocks and this is an indication that the trout are actually digging into buried salmon redds to root out the buried treasure.
It seems this pirate behavior is more often displayed by the rival dolly varden (much like a trout, but actually a char). They inhabit the same water and share similar habits, but their physical appearance and fighting styles are distinctly different. Dollies and arctic char have a sleek chrome-like exterior that lacks the pronounced scales that a rainbow possesses. Instead they have random pink spots scattered along their flanks. We have both resident and anadromous (sea-run) dolly varden and they can be best distinguished by the coloration on their bellies. Those that have arrived from the ocean will have clean, white undersides, the telltale marking of ocean camouflage. Those that have wintered in the Lake have a silty sometimes-blackened appearance. Both will take on extreme coloration changes including white fins and flame orange sides, and lips as they begin to spawn in very late fall. Dolly Varden and Arctic Char spawn last in Alaska’s long line of annual spawners.
Guess who spawns first? The rainbow. Adult rainbows begin to concentrate on spawning in late March on the Kenai and the spawn seems to last throughout April and into May. The fish congregate in certain distinct gravel laden sections of the river, many of which will host returning salmon in the coming months. From the air, I have surveyed these packs of rainbow trout. They school together in large groups when the river is just shedding winter ice and snow and flows are low and clear. Many are the size of salmon and larger, indeed the Kenai is the home to a monstrous strain of rainbow trout. Some become easy picking for hungry eagle as their backs dimple the shallow waters near the rivers edge while spawning. Perhaps at no other portion of the year do so many of the rivers large rainbows congregate in the same place and there can be no doubt that many fish over twenty pounds are present. Wisely ADF&G closes trout fishing between April 15 and June 16 to allow the trout ample time to complete their spawn. They escape disturbance from the many salmon anglers, soon to come.
Trout alter their feeding habits during reproduction. They get skinny and very colorful in their competition amongst peers. Once they finish their spawn, the trout quickly look to the river for food and nourishment. When the water rises and the current becomes stronger, it awakens them to the approaching summer and they feed with more intensity by the day. Below Skilak Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge they share their spring retreat with nesting Trumpeter swans who enjoy their own spring protection in a three-mile sanctuary of the river below the lake. Until June 15, no motors are allowed here as to not disturb the swans. This protection is a haven for the rainbows who spawn in the same waters, as do thousands of salmon annually; their protein rich bodies littering the bottom. With this abundance of dead salmon as well as outward migrating juvenile salmon smolt, the rainbows recover from their spawn magnificently. They take on a nickel bright sheen and strike a lure with unfathomed ferocity. Their first reaction to being hooked is to exit the water in multiple summersaults. It is not uncommon for them to clear the water as many as ten times in a matter of seconds, completely out of the water with every amazing leap. Unlike the dollies that seldom jump, the rainbows are masters of the air and this makes them very exciting to catch. With the real big ones, that first leap is enough to put a lump in your throat. It normally is touch and go for the first half of the fight as the fish does really whatever it wants. Incessant leaps and slack line runs are normal tactics. Once you finally turn the handle enough to catch up, it’s frightening to feel their sheer strength. They take our long noodle rods to the back bone with ease and with 6 lb. monofilament, these hearty wild trout definitely have the upper hand (or fin). For the many that have finally slipped unwillingly into my rubber catch and release net, there are many others that said goodbye in mid air, throwing the hook in protest or snapping the leader with one head shake.
Through the years our passion for trout fishing on the Kenai has grown and with it our respect for these great fish. Since I began guiding I have always felt that visiting anglers should not just focus on our renown salmon fishing, but also spend some time releasing the river’s most prolific year round residents. Pursuing the trout will lead you to the Kenai’s most beautiful sections, often away for the hustle bustle of salmon fishing. It will find you surrounded by calling loons and mountain backdrops. From the moment you hurl your line upstream and sink back in your seat, you’ll know a day of trout fishing was the right thing to do.