The river supports two runs of sockeye, two of Chinook, two of coho salmon, and is home to thirty-three other different species of fish. As such, the Kenai River is the likely the most popular sport fishery river in Alaska. There are 4000 to 6000 people fishing daily along the banks of the Kenai River during the peak of the sockeye salmon run. The Kenai River is an irreplaceable asset to Alaskans and local wildlife, but a popular fishery cannot be maintained without careful management.
The popularity of the Kenai River puts a strain on its resources. Clean water, abundant food resources, low water velocity, vegetated banks and other habitat conditions are important to the survival of this fishery. Eighty percent of the Kenai River’s juvenile salmon live within six feet of the riverbank. The riverbank’s overhanging vegetation slows water velocities, provides cover, and traps food for the juvenile salmon. Numerous minor disturbances by thousands of anglers can have a devastating cumulative effect on the fragile ecosystem. Heavy foot traffic and boat wakes can destroy miles of salmon rearing habitat. Loss of riverbank vegetation means less rearing habitat is available for juvenile
salmon and the overall productivity of the Kenai River is diminished.
It is hard to find streams that are developed, like the lower Kenai River, that continue to produce salmon. When the riverbank is unhealthy, young fish cannot thrive. Without healthy vegetation along the banks of the Kenai, the number of salmon will dwindle. Please help protect the stream bank vegetation by using existing trails, boardwalks and fishing platforms when accessing the river.
Upper River - Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake
Kenai Lake is a large, glacially fed lake at the headwaters of the Kenai River. Kenai Lake flows into the Upper Kenai River in the community of Cooper Landing. The Upper Kenai River, or ‘Upper Kenai’ as it is commonly known, from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake is a drift-only section of the Kenai River Special Management Area. The entire Kenai River is popular for fishing, but an incredible amount of people fish near the confluence of the Russian River and Kenai River for the first run of sockeye salmon. This is one of the most congested areas on the river system. During fishing season it is important to be vigilant in this area. The Russian River Ferry also transports people across the river near the confluence of the Russian River at mile 73.5. The Sterling Highway parallels a stretch of the Upper River, allowing easy access for bank fishermen. Popular bank fishing areas occur at several locations along this segment. Boaters should be prepared if floating the Kenai River Canyon below Jim’s Landing as several Class II and III rapids exist.
High winds can whip Kenai and Skilak Lakes into frothy whitecaps in minutes. Please be aware that the water temperature is quite cold, possibly below 40 degrees almost year round. Use caution when boating on the lakes, remember to check the weather, leave a float plan, and always wear a life jacket. Consider staying on shore when it is windy.
Middle River - Skilak Lake to Soldotna Bridge
The outlet of Skilak Lake to the Upper Killey River is highly stable because of the presence of large gravel dunes created by a pre-1950’s flood surge. This section of the Kenai River contains important habitats for spawning and rearing salmon. This section of the river is more developed than the Upper River and can be very busy, especially during the months of July and August when salmon runs are high. Several species are targeted by recreational anglers in this area, including king, coho, and sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden.
Naptowne Rapids is rated class III/IV whitewater and is located directly downstream from Bings Landing. Boaters need to use extreme caution when launching from this site. Power boaters should make sure that the boat motor is operating properly and allow it time to warm up. Everyone should wear a life jacket. There are numerous rocks and gravel bars between Skilak Lake and the Soldotna Bridge. Many rocks are partially submerged and may be difficult to see.
Lower River – Soldotna Bridge to Cook Inlet
The lower Kenai River is often congested with boat traffic. Please follow the rules of the road when operating on this section of the river and give way to all non-motorized boats. It is important to note that the lower reach of the Kenai River is tidally influenced upstream to approximately river mile 13, near Honeymoon Cove. Be aware of gravel bars, mud flats, and rocks, which in some cases, are only visible at low tide. Please be courteous to other boaters while operating on the Lower Kenai River.
Along with the usual hazards of rocks and gravel bars, this stretch of river generally has a significant amount of boat traffic during June, July, August and even September. Please be aware and courteous to other boaters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game operates fish wheels, sonar sites and in river test fishing below the Soldotna Bridge during the summer months. Please stay mid-channel and avoid all fish and game equipment while operating on the Kenai River. Beware also of commercial fishing vessels moored near Cook Inlet.