Kenai River Sockeye Salmon Fishing

Alaska’s Kenai River sockeye salmon fishing is one of most people’s favorite fishing experiences in Alaska. Sockeye salmon are some of the most sought-after fish in Alaska and the world. The Kenai River boasts one of the largest run of sockeye salmon in terms of both sheer volume and physical size. These are some of the hardest fighting fish anywhere. And when you’re in the middle of the run, limits come easy. Kenai River sockeye average 8-12 lbs on the Kenai River but are a bit smaller elsewhere in the state. These fish can be targeted right from our river banks but we enjoy the days chasing them up and down the river!

Make sure to also check out our king salmon,  silver salmonpink salmonhalibut, and trout fishing pages

Alaska Sockeye Salmon Fishing Introduction

Alaska Sockeye salmon are known for their bright red color their bodies become during spawning time but in the ocean and for several days to weeks after these fish enter the rivers they are still dime bright. The Sockeye Salmon is known by many different name, the most common being red salmon, obviously, but they are also called, kokanee salmon, blueback salmon, redfish, and summer sockeye. 

When we teach people to sport fish for sockeye salmon it usually begins with a lot of disbelief, and then amazement when outing after outing ends in limits of fish for everyone. It doesn’t always go that way (that’s why we call it fishing and not catching), but if you understand the nuances of the sockeye salmon run, the personality of the fish, and the proper technique, all of which we’ll tell you about below and teach you about on our guided trips, you’ll catch sockeye.

Sockeye salmon fishing is a numbers game. When the daily number of fish entering the river starts upwards of 20,000 fish per day we know the run is coming and the fishing is about to get good. It all starts with the run timing…

Alaska Sockeye Salmon Fishing Run Timing

Alaska Sockeye Fishing - Kasilof River Sockeye, Russian River Sockeye, and Kenai River Sockeye run timing
Run timing of the Kasilof River sockeye salmon, Russian River early and late-run sockeye salmon timing, and Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon run timing

The first and most important thing to consider when Alaska sockeye salmon fishing is to show up when the fish do! We make this the first and most important point on all of our specific salmon fishing pages and it’s particularly true in the case of the sockeye salmon. For reasons, we’ll discuss later.

There are actually two, or depending upon your perspective, three runs of sockeye salmon that pass through the Kenai River. Two runs of sockeye salmon on the Russian River and one run of sockeye salmon on the Kasilof River. Of the three runs that pass through the Kenai River, the first run is entirely headed for the Russian River and other Kenai River tributaries. In July there are actually two runs of sockeye salmon passing through the Kenai. One run will spawn directly in the Kenai River and the other will continue up to the Russian River. Those fish headed for the Russian River and tributaries have to pass through the Kenai but are not counted as Kenai River fish because they don’t spawn directly in the Kenai River but instead spawn in the Russian and other tributaries.

Specifically, the peak days for each of those runs would look like this:

Russian River Early Run:  June 10 – July 3 
Russian River Late Run:   July 30 – Aug 15

Kenai River (Late) Run:    July 11 – Aug 19

Kasilof River: July 6 – Aug 8

Understanding Daily Fish Counts

A few things to keep in mind. The scales on these two charts are radically different with the peak daily fish counts of the Russian River are 3000 fish per day, while the peak counts on the Kenai are 60,000 fish per day.

If you were to look at any given year by itself, there are enormous spikes where more than 100,000 fish per day can be counted on the Kenai and more than 5,000 fish per day on the Russian. The red line is depicting the 3 year daily averages which average out any of the huge daily spikes from year to year but gives us the best overall history daily view – and that tells us when someone should go fishing!

As previously mentioned, the Russian River early sockeye run from June 10 – July 3 actually passed through the Kenai River but are not counted at the Kenai River sonar because those fish are not spawning in the Kenai River but instead spawning in the Russian River and other tributaries. The Russian River sonar is actually very close to the Russian River lake, several miles upstream from where we can sport fish for them, so the best fishing days on the Russian River and the confluence of the Kenai River & Russian River, is actually a few days earlier than June 10 – July 3. This is because it takes the sockeye a few days to get to the Russian River counting location which is further upstream than our sport fishing area. Good estimates would be June 6 – June 30.

Russian River and Kenai River Sockeye Runs

The late run Russian River sockeye run and the Kenai River Sockeye run are closely related. Essentially, about 3.5% of the July run of Kenai River sockeye go to the Russian River, and the rest spawn pretty much all over the 82 miles of the Kenai River. The Kenai River sockeye counter is at river mile 19 and we can fish for sockeye both above it and all the way to Kenai Lake, and below it to about Eagle Rock. 

When fishing the Russian River we want to see fish counts of about 1000 fish per day or greater for a good day of fishing.  For sockeye fishing the Kenai River we need to see significantly more than this, like 20,000 fish per day and ideally 30,000 fish per day, or more. The more the better! You can fish when the fish numbers are less but you’ll be working a lot harder and longer at it.

The primary reason for such a big difference in the numbers required for good fishing is due to the difference in the size of the rivers. The Russian river is significantly smaller than the Kenai River so the fish are narrowed into a bottleneck. The river is also much shallower so the fish are simply more concentrated horizontally and vertically making the fishing easier. Another reason is the water is much clearer the further upstream you go and it’s actually possible in certain places to see the fish which makes them easier to target. This is not possible on lower sections of the Kenai river due to water clarity. 

Sockeye Salmon Behavior & Biology

Like all salmon fishing, Alaska sockeye salmon fishing starts with understanding the fish. Spawning sockeye salmon are notoriously hard to get to strike a lure or bait. Occasionally we can get one to take a strike at a Kwifish or Spin-n-Glo but it’s a very rare event. The theory behind why these salmon are so docile when compared to kings, silvers, and pinks is related to their diet. Sockeye salmon, unlike other species of Pacific salmon, feed extensively on zooplankton. They are not the hunters and aggressors like kings, silver, and pinks. And this is the theory as to while they are so difficult to strike our wiggle-warts, worms, and other traditional baits and lures. That and they are on a mission – get to the spawning grounds!

The average size of these fish is about 6 to 10 pounds throughout the state but the second run of Kenai River late run sockeye are 2-3 lbs heavier on average. We’re happy to boast that the International game fish association world record was caught right on the Kenai River, on August 9th, 1987 weighing in at 15 lbs 3 oz.

Targeting Sockeye Salmon

So if they don’t strike a lure then how do we catch the sockeye salmon? We use a technique that goes by a variety of names such as flossing, lining, flipping, plunking, and the locally named Kenai flip. Essentially we are exploiting 2 things about these fish. The first is the sheer numbers they enter the river, which we explained above, and the second is the fact that they come up the river extremely close to the bank is the shallower slower moving water. So, we know when they are coming and we know where they are swimming. Now what type of equipment should we use and how do we catch them?

You can read more below about gear and terminal tackle but we’d really like to point you to a video done by Scott McLean at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on How To Fish For Klutina River Red Salmon. Scott’s description and basic technique can be applied to any of the freshwater rivers of Alaska when targeting sockeye.

Sockeye Salmon Rods, Reels, Line, Hooks, Swivels

The setup for this sockeye flipping is pretty simple and you can do it with any type of rod, reel, line, and hook. None of that is particularly important when it comes to fishing for the sockeye salmon. What is important is a setup that will allow you to do it all day comfortably and enjoy the experience. But if you’re only in Alaska for a day or two there’s no need to go spend a bunch of money on sockeye rod and reels as you can certainly get by with whatever you have for a day or two.

The preferred setup however is an 8-10 ft. 8-9 weight fly rod and a basic fly fishing reel. We prefer a long rod over a shorter one and usually head for a 10′ rod as the rod length allows us to work the water a little further out and not needing to wade into the river so deep. The 8-9 wt rod will create an amazing experience allowing you truly feel the amount of power in these fish.

Line Type

Line type is not particularly specific either so long as you’re not using a floating tip you can use braid, mono, or sinking tip fly line with backing.  

One of the biggest developments in fishing in the last few decades has been the development of braided fishing line. We absolutely love it, and we love it so much we use it everywhere. We’ve standardized on 80 lb test and we use it on our king salmon rods, sockeye rods, silver salmon rods, and even on our halibut rigs.

Braided line is strong, handles abrasion fairly well, and most importantly is extremely easy to work with. And, regardless of the strength rating the line diameter does not get significantly larger with higher strength test the way monofilament does. 

One thing we will do however is transition to a 3′ to 4′ monofilament 20# lb monofilament test leader as we attach the lure to add a little stretch, forgiveness, and shock absorption. But most importantly so that a strong tug will break it away if it gets hung up on a rock a snagged somehow in the river which happens pretty frequently.

Reels, Hooks, & Swivels

There are lots of great choices of reels from manufacturers such as Penn, Abu Garcia, Okuma, Daiwa, and more. We’ve standardized on Okuma 7/8 fly reels as they are really good value, only costing about $45.00, they have a good drag system and are easy to service. But, again, it’s a matter of personal preference, and spinning reels, baitcasting reels, and fly fishing reels will all work just fine.

Good sharp hooks, smooth swivels, and snap swivels are the next things to discuss. We use 3/0 hooks when there is no hook restriction. The Russian River has a fly fishing only rule which doesn’t mean you have to use fly fishing rod and reels but it does mean you need to use a fly type hook.  What all this really means is that on the Russian River you are required to use a hook where the gap between the shank (body) of the hook and the tip is no greater than 3/8 of an inch. That’s it.  

We’ll usually transition from the braid to 20# monofilament with a size 1/0 or 2/0 barrel swivel or three-way swivel. Your choice of weight system is really up to you. Rubber grip weights, slinkies & surgical tubing, egg sinkers, and others all work fine. Experiment and see which one you like best. We prefer split shot as changing the weights are super easy, they are low cost, and readily available. 

We usually pre-tie a couple of dozen leaders so that we can quickly rig them when they break off due to a snag. An example of a pre-tied leader is shown and it’s extremely helpful to have these with you. If you don’t have time to tie your own you can purchase them pre-tied at nearly every tackle store. 

Putting a Kenai, Kasilof, or Russian River Sockeye In The Net!

Olya with a Kenai River Sockeye
Olya holding a Kenai River Sockeye Salmon

Now we’re at the fun stuff! Hooking into one of these fish is such a good time. Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t wade into the water past your knees. It’s simply not necessary and the bottom of the river is slippery. We always say: It’s not a question of if you’re going to fall in, it’s a question of when. Staying knee-deep or less will help you keep your balance in the current and keep you from getting cold and wet.

  • Position your back 45 degrees to the current and flip out various distances at angles of about 10 O’Clock to 2 O’Clock. Keep tension on the line the entire time.

  • You should have enough weight to gently feel the weight clicking the bottom of the river 2 to 4 times during the drift. If you are constantly snagging reduce the weight and if you are not touching the bottom increase it.

  • When you reach the 2 O’Clock to 3 O’Clock position if you feel a stronger resistance “set the hook!”. If not, don’t become one of those people ripping the line through the water at the end of every drift. You’re only going to foul hook the fish at that point if you get one at all.

  • Keep the rod 90 degrees to where ever the fish is. Never point the rod tip at the fish. We always tell clients, if the rod isn’t bending you’re not doing it right. We want the rod tip flexing as it keeps tension on the line as the fish attempts the escape!

  • Keep the rod tip down until you are ready to net it. The fish wants to be at the bottom and lifting the rod tip UP pulls the fish to the top of the water and only makes it fight harder. If you’re looking for a fight, by all means, lift up! But, if you’re looking to land it without it breaking away or throwing the hook, keep the tip down and “encourage” the fish to come your way. We’ve demonstrated time and time again for clients how after the initial hook has been set we can literally take the fish for a calm gentle walk up the river when we’re doing it right. Of course, sometimes the fish just wants a fight!

  • When your net partner is ready, pull up on the rod to bring the fish up to where your netter can see it and get underneath it. Always net the fish from the head and underneath and never from the tail. If you can’t net from the head of the fish, wait until you’re in a position to do so. If you don’t have a net or a netter you can always play the fish on the banks.

  • Be careful of flying hooks. Because these fish are being caught by a “flossing” technique the hook is never buried deep in its mouth. The hook is typically barely in the corner of the fish’s mouth, or sometimes in a foul hook location. This creates a lot of opportunities for hooks to come loose and when there is lots of tension on the rod when it happens, hooks will fly!

  • Finally, as detailed in the How To Fish For Klutina River Red Salmon video, if the fish is not hooked directly in the mouth it needs to be released without ever removing it from the water

Let's Go Fishing!

By now you’ve probably realized that fishing the heading out for a day of sockeye fishing isn’t is something you don’t just want to do but you have to do! We’d love to do it with you. This article should give you some insight into what fishing the Kenai River for sockeye salmon is like, how we use biology, river conditions, gear and tackle, regulations, boats, and more to target these amazing fish.

The limits are sockeye fishing are generally pretty liberal with 3 to 6 fish per day being the norm depending on the time of year and the strength of the run. This allows a great opportunity to put some premium fish in the freezer for the entire winter. 

You likely still have lots of questions and we’d be happy to answer them. Give us a call!