The Rainbow Trout
These are not your average rainbow trout; they are silver spotted river-rockets capable of performing 6-foot aerial leaps, ending in a triple somersault. When you consider that these trout can exceed 30 inches and 20 pounds, and are still capable of such aerobatics, you realize how incredible these fish are. Because of their massive size and strength, these fish are often mistaken for steelhead or anadromous trout (a trout born in fresh water that retreats to the sea for most of its adult life and returns to fresh water to spawn). While Kenai trout have access to the ocean and may be diadromous (a trout that freely ranges between fresh and salt water), they probably don't enter Cook Inlet, and if they do, they don't stay long. The reason is, they have everything that they need where they live, in Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake, and the Kenai River.
Rainbow trout season opens on June 15. The season is closed in the spring in an effort to protect the spawning trout from angling pressure. The trout are hungry after the long winter. They are lean and know by instinct that the food that they consume in the next four months of summer will carry them through the next frozen winter. Kenai rainbows will often add 30 to 40 percent their body weight before summer's end.
Opening day is generally prime time to find the rainbow trout stacked up waiting in ambush for migrating salmon smolts. In a few areas of the river, the trout rip through the schooling smolts creating feeding frenzies usually associated with predatory ocean fish.
The escaping smolt will often take to the air in an effort to escape the rampaging trout. This attracts the birds that hover over the melee in an effort to capture a smolt meal. The astute angler uses his eyes, ears, and nose to locate feeding fish. The visual queue is to look for splashing water or flocking-feeding birds. The thrashing of the feeding fish can often be heard over long distances and just like on the ocean, the smell of fish in the air signals a feeding frenzy in progress. If you are lucky enough to encounter this situation, virtually any minnow or smolt pattern cast into a boil will evoke a strike.
If the trout are not feeding en masse, it will be necessary to "search cast" streamers to likely holding areas or cover lots of water searching for trout. The flies of choice for this are smolt patterns, Woolly Buggers or heavily weighted leeches. I prefer heavy black or purple bunny leeches with dumbell eyes. You'll need a 7 or 8-weight fly rod because search casting requires lots of long casts to cover the maximum amount of water.
The best fly lines are 300 grain (type IV or V) sinking-tip or full-sinking lines or shooting heads. Additional weight may need to be added to get and keep your fly on the bottom. Your leader should be short (3 feet maximum) so the fly doesn't ride up in the water column, and end in 1X or 2X tippet. The trout are not very leader-shy in the early season and you need the heavier tippet to absorb the shock of the vicious grab that typically occurs mid-strip or on the swing.
I advise keeping a tight grip on the fly rod because these fish hit so hard that they can (and have) ripped rods right out of the hands of anglers who were unprepared for the sudden strike. The retrieve should be a short, brisk inconsistent strip that imitates a wounded smolt. A good tip anytime you are fishing streamers is to keep your rod tip close to the water. If you hold your rod tip very high above the water, the weight of the fly line between your rod tip and the water inhibits the fly from coming to a complete stop. Any died-in-the-wool streamer fisherman will stress the importance of stopping the fly for fishing success.
Kenai river anglers will often drift and cast into the bank. This is one of my favorites because it allows me to cover the most water and provides constantly changing scenery.
The smolt run begins tapering off early in July. At about the same time, the adult salmon are starting to appear in the river, which will change things for the next month and a half. The salmon are full of vigor and are staking out territory. The river is in turmoil and July and the first couple weeks of August are not considered prime trout fishing periods on the Kenai. During this time, there can be a million salmon in the river that will eagerly burn up and smoke a fly reel. The trout-focused angler should, however, plan to return in the middle of August for the egg-eating rainbows of the Kenai.
Eggs and Trout
Sockeye salmon eggs Where the salmon find the spawning gravel they are looking for, they select their mates and begin digging redds (large depressions in the gravel). Female salmon lay thousands of eggs, which are heavier than water and settle to the bottom. When there are thousands of spawning salmon laying thousands of eggs, millions upon millions of salmon eggs become available to the trout. Salmon eggs are extremely nutritious, abundant, and inanimate, so the trout need expend little energy to feed upon this vast food source. I have seen areas of stream bottom where eggs have collected, covering the bottom in as layer of eggs one to two feet deep. It's little wonder the trout get so large, and feed so selectively on eggs.
On the Kenai, "matching the hatch" means using flies that imitate salmon smolts (June/July), salmon eggs (August/September), or rotting salmon flesh (October), and presenting your pattern in a realistic manner. The best time to sight-fish for enormous rainbows is when the fish are keyed on sockeye salmon eggs (left).
The advantage of being in a boat is that it allows you to drift with a fighting trout as it muscles downstream. A wading angler has only two options when hooked into a big Kenai rainbow and the fish starts barreling down current: A) run and hope you can keep up, or B) palm your reel and pray. In either case, fighting a Kenai rainbow is a challenge and experience no angler will soon forget. So come and lets enjoy this together. Come as a client and leave as a friend!
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