Coho, halibut, more on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

Bob Funk holds a nice rainbow trout caught on the middle Kenai River. 

Few places on earth offer the numbers and diversity of big fish you'll find on the Kenai Peninsula.

Every year during May and July thousands of anglers from around the world stream into camps and hotels near the Kenai River's banks to fish for the famed run of truly giant king salmon.

The flurry continues through June and July as hordes of sockeye salmon rush upstream with anglers standing shoulder to shoulder in places, hoping for and usually getting an easy limit.

By the beginning of August, most anglers believe the fun is over.

But they're missing out on some of the most fun and exciting fishing of the year, both in the freshwater and the salt.

Coho are streaming into the rivers and still swim in the salt along with halibut and rockfish, while big rainbow trout feed rabidly on the eggs of spawning salmon.

With all the options available, it's easy to plan a trip that will fit within your budget and lead you to your own personal fishing Vahalla.

The following is but one possible itinerary.

Day 1: Lower Kenai River

We left before light.

The three jetboats made their way down the river from Harry Gaines fishing camp, visible only by their bow lights and white wake on the blackness of the river.

We anchored up just as the sky began to turn a light gray, with edges of pink where the sun would eventually rise.

Our guide affixed eggs to our baitloops and we backed the eggs down the run where the coho were traveling.

The Kenai is a large river that flows deep and swift, spanning a width of several hundred yards.

The guides and fishermen have named every eddy and prominent landmark along its path.

It is truly one of the most famous fishing rivers in the United States, and a worthy goal of every serious fisherman.

Just after the sun crested the trees behind us, Keith struck and his fishing rod bent sharply toward the surface.

Downstream a coho rocketed high out of the water. After several minutes, the coho was netted.

One down, five to go for the three anglers in the boat.

Not long after, Lamiglas' John Posey hammered his hook home and brought to the boat a chrome-bright 15-pound hen.

We fished for several more hours and by noon were on our way back to the cabins.

We arrived to find all the other boats had limited faster, and the halibut steaks were almost ready to come off the grill.

One of the great things about staying at a place like Harry Gaines cabins right on the river is that you can always fish.

Pink salmon were traveling along the banks, and the rest of the day was spent casting spinners on low-stretch line for the aggressive humpies.

Day 2: Seward

It began with bubbles.

They began surfacing all around the boat as Capt. Mike Flores of Ninilchik Charters stopped the motors after a several-hour ride on the calm waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

The deckhand baited and handed us our rods, simple strips of herring attached to our hooks.

Not 30 seconds after Bill Mathews had dropped his line in the water, he yelled, "fish on."

Standing next to him I could see other silvers slashing greedily next to his fish as it came out of the deep.

Soon the cry became a chorus as everyone began to hook up and the action on the deck of the Arctic Endeavor turned into a flurry of netting and re-baiting.

Soon many of the silvers were right up next to the surface, and to catch one you simply had to drop your line a couple of feet down and watch the fish strike at the bait.

Within 45 minutes it was all over and all seven of us had our limits of three silvers apiece.

The light rods went back to their holders and out came the short, stout halibut rods.

Only two things about halibut fishing are difficult. The first is finding the fish.

Luckily for us, Flores had taken care of that. The second part is cranking the leviathans up from the depths. Actually fishing for them is easy.

A hunk of smelly fish on a big hook will work, with some Mustad Ultrabite squirted on for good measure, dropped overboard with a large weight to get it down.

I could feel the salmon striking at the bait as it dropped through the school, then the wait.

My rod dropped after only a few minutes, and the slow throbbing of a halibut telegraphed its way up the line.

Thankfully this one was under 30 pounds and came up easily.

The guides refer to these as "chicken" halibut, as they make better eating than the 200-pound behemoths typically seen in brochures.

After two hours most everyone had caught a halibut and every one was bigger than mine. Not that I cared.

Day 3: Middle Kenai River

We met guide Mark Glassmaker on the middle river to fish for some of the rainbows lined up to feed on the eggs and decaying flesh of spawning king salmon.

Some of these rainbow grow to 10 pounds, a far cry from the trout to which most of us are accustomed.

Glassmaker drove the jet boat up from the launch and let us drift sideways down the current.

We had light spinning rods with some lead and a small bead attached next to a hook tipped with prawn.

Every drift produced a sizeable rainbow for at least one of us, and many smaller ones.

Fighting these hard-charging fish on light tackle was a real challenge and an excellent break from the heavier rods we were using for silvers and halibut.

Day 4: Seward

This time we started with halibut. The deckhands had dropped chumbags at the bow of the boat as we drifted stern first along with the current.

In addition to the simple chunks of fish, some on the boat also fished jigs. They hooked fewer halibut, but the ones hooked were usually bigger.

One of the rods dipped hard and I was the first one to it. I could barely keep the rod above the rail. The reel began to squawk as line peeled from it.

"It's a big one, get the belt," said Capt. Andy Mezirow of Crackerjack Charters to his deckhand. Before I knew it I had a leather belt to rest the rod in.

After the run stopped I began to lift, reel up the slack and repeat.

Several times the fish ran eliminating whatever progress I had made.

Time slowed as it became a matter of simply lifting the halibut to the surface. When it came to the top, Andy and his deckhands were ready.

One gunshot to the head and the two deckhands lifted the 125-pound halibut onto the deck. I was tired.

After catching another easy limit of coho, we moved on to bottomfish. Lingcod, yelloweye and sea bass also came aboard.

Day 5: Flyout across Cook Inlet

As Glassmaker steered his boat up the lake toward the river, Mustad's Bob Funk and I watched the Alaska West Air seaplane taxi and take back to the air.

Other than the other empty boats at the landing sight, the place seemed abandoned.

We traveled up a silt-laden river to a place where the water miraculously cleared for several hundred yards.

We could see the coho stacked up by the hundreds, waiting to travel upstream.

Funk hooked a coho on his first cast on a Bunny Leech pattern. "Give me a dry fly," he said after the fish was landed.

As Bob twitched his pink Wog fly along, the coho would follow and then either sip it in delicately like a spring creek trout or, if two fish were chasing it, smash it with abandon.

Double hook-up after double hook-up ensued for the next several hours, with each fish carefully released with a flick of pliers.

For me, this was the pinnacle of fishing: casting dry flies to bright coho on a remote river.

When to go

For the flyout trips, the fishing starts in late July and runs through about the first of September, says Glassmaker.

The run on the Kenai begins about two weeks later around Aug. 5, with two separate runs of coho. Fishing remains good through September.

The rainbow fishing starts June 15, but really picks up in late August and September as the salmon begin to spawn and die.

Getting there

Flights to Anchorage leave several times from most major airports. Era Aviation (800-866-8394) offers flights from Anchorage to Kenai Airport.

The flight from Anchorage is enjoyable as the plane flew low enough that I could see a black bear moving across the lakestrewn landscape of the upper peninsula.

Getting around

A rental car is a necessity on the Kenai Peninsula if you plan to fish in more than one place while you're there.

Several companies offer rentals, but it would be wise to book ahead.

Accomodations and guides

Harry Gaines Kenai River Fishing (907-262-5097) and Mark Glassmaker Fishing (800-622-1177) offer comfortable cabins on the Kenai River with barbecues and more to make your stay enjoyable.

For other guides, check the Kenai River Guide Service at krpga.org.

For fly-out trips contact Alaska West Air (907-776-5147).

For saltwater fishing, try Ninilchik Charters (888-290-3507) or Cracker Jack Charters (877-224-2606).


While your guide will provide you with gear, if you want to bring your own rods, a seven-weight fly rod or three-eighths ounce baitcasting or spinning rod rated for 10 to 20-pound test will work for the coho and pinks.

Be sure to bring waders and rain gear. Breathable waders will work fine as the August weather is very mild.

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