Soldotna & The Kenai River

Soldotna & The Kenai River

Soldotna

Soldotna, Alaska is one of the top Alaska destinations, and for good reason. Visitors from all over the world visit here. The Kenai Peninsula is known as Alaska’s Playground, and Soldotna is the center of that playground. It balances easy access to the entire south-central region, and the world-famous mighty Kenai River flows right through the middle of it. Soldotna is one of the larger towns in Alaska and has a host of resources including many restaurants, Fred Meyers, Trustworthy Hardware, a large Sportsman’s Warehouse, and a Walmart and Home Depot located a few miles down the road in Kenai.

Soldotna is located in the Southcentral portion of Alaska on the central-western portion of the Kenai Peninsula. The city limits span 7 square miles along the Kenai River, which empties into the Cook Inlet in the nearby city of Kenai. The Kenai River was selected by CNN Travel as one of the “World’s 15 Best Rivers for Travelers,” due to its fishing and hunting opportunities. Soldotna is located on the western edge of the vast Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area spanning nearly 2 million acres and home to bears, moose, caribou, sheep, and many fish and bird species.

Soldotna Local Resources

The city is located at the junction of the Sterling Highway and the Kenai Spur Highway, which has enabled Soldotna to develop as a service and retail hub for the Central Peninsula as well as for travelers between Anchorage and Homer. The Central Peninsula Hospital serves the medical needs of the region’s residents and tourists. The Kenai Peninsula College, a branch of the University of Alaska Anchorage, operates the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna. Additionally, the headquarters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are located in the city.

The Kenai River is certainly one of the main attractions of this town and the entire Kenai Peninsula. The variety of salmon, trout, and wildlife in the area is unparalleled. The Kenai River flowing through this area is complemented by the entirely of the Chugach National Park, The Russian River tributary of the Kenai River, and the nearby Kasilof river, as well as the incredibly productive surrounding salt-water fisheries.

Soldotna Recreation & Entertainment

The Soldotna area also offers opportunities for entertainment as well including farmers markets, parks, recreational activities, and weekly summer music. The City of Soldotna operates eleven recreational parks and a memorial park:

Additionally, the city owns Arc Lake, located on the Sterling Highway just south of the city limits.

Tsalteshi Trails are located just south of Soldotna with two trailheads; behind Skyview Middle School and across from the Soldotna Sports Center on Kalifornsky Beach Road. The trail system contains over 25 kilometers (15 miles) of trails groomed for cross country skiing in the winter and open for hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and leashed dogs when there is no snow.

The Soldotna Regional Sports Complex is home to the Kenai River Brown Bears, a Tier II junior hockey team that plays in the North American Hockey League

Les Anderson, at the time the owner of Soldotna’s Ford dealership, holds the record for the largest king salmon, caught here on May 17, 1985, and weighing in at 97 lb 4 oz. The record-setting fish is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center.

Soldotna Sports Complex

Kenai River Brown Bears

Music In the Park

Soldotna Visitors Center

The Kenai River

The Kenai River is the longest river in the Kenai Peninsula of south-central Alaska. It runs 82 miles westward from Kenai Lake in the Kenai Mountains, through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Skilak Lake to its outlet into the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean near Kenai and Soldotna. The waters flowing from Kenai Lake are glacier melt and have an amazing turquoise blue color. 

As the river flows almost 80 miles it picks up continual dirt and sediment until it is not near as clear near the outlet of Cook Inlet. It’s not uncommon to spend 3-4 days of a week’s vacation or more exploring the many sections and tributaries of this river. July and August are the busiest times as these form the peaks of the salmon runs. The upper river from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake meanders through the Chugach National Forest and the last few miles known as “The Canyon” are in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, simply known locally as “The Refuge”.  

Three Unique Sections Of River

The Kenai River is a meltwater river that drains the central Kenai Peninsula region. Its source is Kenai Lake. Near Cooper Landing, the lake narrows to form the river. About 12 miles from the lake, the river passes through Kenai Canyon for about 2 miles  of fast-flowing whitewater rapids. The Russian River empties into the Kenai several miles west of Cooper Landing. 

Seventeen point three miles from Kenai Lake, the river enters Skilak Lake. The Kenai Lake to Skilak section is commonly referred to as the “Upper River”. The 19.5 miles portion from Skilak Lake downstream to the Sterling Highway bridge near Soldotna is known as the “Middle River”. The final 21 miles from the Soldotna bridge to the mouth at Cook Inlet is known as the “Lower River”, where the flow is much gentler. The final 12 miles are greatly influenced by changing tides.

The Kenai River is the most popular sport fishing destination in Alaska, particularly for king salmon, red salmon, and silver salmon. The timing varies on each of these runs. Each year there are two runs each of king salmon, coho salmon, sockeye salmon, plus a run of pink salmon every other year on the even-numbered years. The world record king salmon, which weighed about 97 lbs, was caught in the Kenai River in 1985. The Kenai is also the home of trophy size rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Stretching to sizes over 30 inches. Occasionally there will be reports of catching of Steelhead but the Kenai River is not necessarily known for its Steelhead Trout fishery.

Kenai River King Salmon, Silver Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, and Pink Salmon

The king salmon fishery is not as prolific as in other Alaskan rivers, but the Kenai is known for its large fish. A typical king in the second run, beginning in mid-July, weighs 40–85 pounds, with considerably larger specimens not uncommon. The “Lower Kenai” is well known for its run and sizes of its king salmon. In recent years, the king salmon fishery has been closed or heavily restricted due to low returns of fish.

The coho salmon runs occur in early August through the end of September. The September run is favored by local anglers due to the larger size of the silver salmon. The limit is usually increased from two silver salmon per person per day at that time to 3 silver salmon per person per day.

The sockeye salmon runs are in late-June and early-August. Sockeyes are considered the premier salmon for eating, canning, and smoking.

The pink salmon run occurs in even-numbered years only. On a heavy day, even a casual fisher might catch several dozen of the species and we’ve had customers that have caught over a 100 in a single day of fishing. 

Upper Kenai River, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge & “The Canyon”

The upper river consists of the waters flowing out of Kenai Lake and working their way about 15 minutes until reaching Skilak Lake. The towering Chugach mountain and range and cold glacier meltwaters literally create their own weather pattern on the lake and waves several feet in height are not uncommon on windy days. 

No motors are allowed on the upper section of the river as it is simply too shallow. Therefore rafts and drift boats are very common but canoes, kayaks, and lately a great deal of paddleboarding is taking place. The upper Kenai River is also home to the best trout fishing on the entirety of the river. The clear water, and millions of spawned salmon eggs are a feeding frenzy for the rainbow and dolly varden that are year-long residents of the river.

The Canyon

The last several miles of the upper Kenai River is known as the Kenai Canyon and it traverses the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This section of the river through “The Refuge” requires a special limited guide permit and as a result, has a great deal less traffic than the rest of the upper river and middle and lower sections as well. 

After passing through the Canyon, the river enter’s Skilak lake. It is approximately 7 miles from where the river dumps into Skilak Lake to the first boat launch so this can take approximately 45 minutes to an hour to cross Skilak Lake to the upper Skilak Lake Boat Launch assuming good water conditions. If the weather on Skilak gets too rough it’s not uncommon to tie up the boat and hike about 1.5 miles out on foot through Hidden Creek Trail. 

Russian River & Upper Kenai River 

The Russian River is one of the most famous tributaries of the Kenai River. It is formed by an upper and lower Russian Lake and is created from the glacial melt as well. This section of river is well known for its extremely high clarity but also because most of the first run of sockeye salmon entering the Kenai River in June are headed for the Russian River.  

The late-run sockeye salmon are much greater in number but only a fraction of those fish are destined for the Russian River. While only a small fraction of the 2nd run of sockeye salmon are destined for the Russian River, around 3%, the overall volume of that run is so enormous that the total number of fish in both the first and second runs destined for the Russian River are approximately the same. This makes for great fishing on the Russian River during both runs. Particularly since the water is so clear and the Russian River is so narrow, you can almost target the fish individually. The Russian River is also really well known for its trout fishery.  Clear waters, plenty of vegetation, and large boulders make it a trout paradise.

Middle Kenai River

The Middle Kenai River begins its journey at the outlet of Skilak Lake and continues through the lower part of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge for only a couple of miles before the National Wildlife Refuge ends. The middle river is a great area to target both salmon and trout and is definitely a beautiful and scenic area to spend the day. We prefer to fish the middle river later in the season when we are doing our combo salmon and trout fishing trips but we’ll often target the middle if the daily salmon sonar counts are low and we know of a pretty good push of fish that came up a few days earlier and would now be in the middle section of the river.

Most trips on the middle river will pull out at Bings Landing just above the town of Sterling. Slightly below Bings Landing is a pretty nasty stretch of water known as Naptown Rapids. There are times of the year where this is navigable by powerboat but most folks stay clearly away from it unless they are in a raft or drift boat and specifically set up to tackle that stretch of water.  Just below Naptowne you can find the town of Sterling and the confluence of the Moose River and The Kenai River.  There is a boat launch here as well, not surprisingly, located just below Naptown Rapids. This middle section of river ends at the Soldotna bridge. 

Lower Kenai River

While the Kenai River is the most heavily fished river in the state, the section known as the Lower Kenai River is the most heavily fished section of that river. Being in close proximity to the towns of Sterling, Soldotna, and Kenai, and having several easily accessible boat launches, as well as having a very gentle slope compared to the rest of the river, makes this a prime angling area. The Lower Kenai River begins its journey at the Soldotna Bridge located right in the middle of the town of Soldotna. 

The Soldotna bridge is located 105′ MSL and there are 21 miles of river between the bridge and the end of the river at Cook Inlet. The terrain is not a constant angle though which means the area near the bridge is more swift than the lower part near eagle rock. Also,  huge tide swings that take place every 6 hours influence the river’s flow all the way to Eagle Rock.  At extreme high tides, the river is nearly standing still at Eagle Rock. While there are no rapids to worry about but there are lots of shallow points and gravel bars for the inexperienced to be concerned about.

Due to the shallow nature of the river in general, in the early weeks of May and June, we typically restricted ourselves below Pillars Boat Launch area and below. The lower river makes for a great place to target these incoming tidal salmon when they are strong, fresh, and dime bright. The river’s current in this section makes for great action on a Kwik-Fish or Spin-N-Glo. It’s all of these reasons that make the lower Kenai River such a popular area for fishing on the Kenai.