The Kenai River has attracted people for thousands of years. The earliest archeological sites were occupied between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, not long after glaciers receded from the area. Intensive salmon fishing began at least 2,000 years ago by the Riverine Kachemak and later by the Kenaitze Dena’ina. Both cultures were not only attracted by salmon, but also offshore fish, moose, and caribou. The river continues to provide food for local people, other Alaskans, and the world.
Russian fur traders arrived in 1741 and established a Russian settlement and fur and fish trading post in 1791. Explorer Captain James Cook sailed his namesake Cook Inlet in 1778.
Since the late 1880s, commercial fishing has been an important part of the culture and economy of the Alaska. Even before statehood, canneries and buying stations had a significant impact on the Kenai Peninsula. Commercial fishing thrived in Cook Inlet for decades and it became an essential fishery during the great depression and during World War II. The salmon industry flourished atthis time and provided needed protein for Americans in the 1930s and 1940s during the food rationing by the U.S. Government. Overharvest caused salmon runs declined significantly in the 1940s and 1950s. The federal government relinquished fisheries management control when Alaska became a state in 1959, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game was founded.
The newly formed Alaska state government tasked the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with restoring the salmon runs in Cook Inlet. Biologists began collecting data about salmon to assess the size and strength of each run. Allowing an abundance of salmon to spawn in the rivers in Cook Inlet worked to gradually increase the salmon runs. New management techniques determining salmon abundance and harvest rates allowed biologists to effectively identify when to allow commercial fishing. It took nearly three decades to restore the salmon runs and in 1980, a record return of salmon returned to Alaskan waters. The large salmon returns in the 1980s symbolized the success of Alaskan commercial fisheries management.
Meanwhile, the Kenai Peninsula’s population began to grow and so did the popularity of sport fishing. In the 1970s and 80s inventive fishers tried a multitude of new techniques to catch king salmon and the sport fishery erupted when the world record 97 pound, 4 ounce king salmon was caught on the Kenai River in 1985. Ever since, king salmon fishing has been a tremendously popular sport on the Kenai. Today the Kenai River is the most popular fishing river in the state, boasting often healthy returns of sockeye salmon.
In 1984 the Alaska legislature recognized the importance of the Kenai River to all Alaskans and established the Kenai River Special Management Area (KRSMA). KRSMA is managed by Alaska State Parks and consists of more than 105 linear miles of river and lakes, including Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake, and the Kenai River from river mile
82 downstream to four miles above the river’s mouth at Cook Inlet. Adjacent to these waters are sixteen Alaska State Park sub-units, land owned by cities, the borough, the federal government, and private lands.
The Kenai River continues to be important to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula and remains an extremely popular sport fishery. Thousands of fishermen and women flock to the shores of the Kenai to catch their limit of salmon or catch and release a trophy rainbow trout. The draw of the Kenai is often the fishing, but the area also provides a scenic landscape highlighting the turquois blue water and stunning Kenai Mountains.