Alaska’s Middle Kenai is Home to Beastly Rainbows and Lots of ‘Em
By Pat Hoglund
“Get it into the gooey water,” says Nick Ohlrich, who’s slowly maneuvering a 20-foot aluminum boat downriver as Mitch Foster, Jeremy Anderson and I cast our beads upriver. Gooey water is Nick-speak for a prime holding lane and it’s one of countless “Nickisms” Mitch and I will hear for the next two days. Jeremy, who has known Nick since college and has heard Nickisms for the past 10 years, just smiles.
A quick bump on the forward throttle and a slight turn with the tiller Nick puts the boat in position for the three of us to drift our beads into the slot he is setting us up to fish. Jeremy is at the bow of the boat and Mitch is positioned in the “happy corner”, located at the boat’s stern. Happy corner is Nick’s term for the best place to fish in the boat. I’m in between both of them. All three of our fly lines float on the surface and attached to our leader is a large strike indicator roughly the size of a golf ball. Twelve feet below is a plastic bead painted to look like a salmon egg and some split shot. The bow of the boat is pointed upriver, the motor is idling in neutral and we’re drifting at the speed of the current. It’s the first cast we’ve made into the Kenai River and anticipation couldn’t be more palpable.
Mitch’s strike indicator disappears and he sets the hook and comes tight to a fish. As Mitch and I would learn over the course of the next two days it’s anyone’s guess what size of trout has just grabbed his bead. It could be a 12-inch Dolly Varden, or a 30-inch rainbow trout. One thing’s certain, this is not a 12-inch trout. Mitch’s rod is bent at a 30-degree angle and the fish is swimming up river, which is always a good sign.
“We have 17 gallons of gas and 45 miles of river and we’ll use all of them if we have to,” Nick says to Mitch. The trout makes a couple runs but eventually tires as Jeremy slips the net under the fish. It’s a honest-to-goodness 25-inch rainbow.
“Welcome to Kenai,” says Jeremy, who along with Nigel Fox is partners with Nick in Drift Away Adventures. Both Mitch and I are beside ourselves. In disbelief really. And as we would later learn catching a 24-inch rainbow on the Middle Kenai is a fairly common occurrence. And after taking a couple obligatory photos the three of us get back to fishing.
Mitch and I have the pleasure of fishing with Nick and Jeremy, who are taking two days off guiding to show us the river and fish. There is a definite vibe in the boat and it’s good. Both Nick and Jeremy set the tone each day and it’s loose and fun. Jeremy, 33, is quiet and confident and easy going. He’s ingratiating, easy to talk to and behind his bushy beard you’ll find a wry smile. My dad would call it a shit-eating grin. I’m guessing that he’s smiling because he’s listening to Nick, who is 34 with an infectious personality. His Nickisms are comical. He refers to big trout as “piggies”, prime trout water as “gooey water” or “grocery water”. The list is never ending and they roll off his tongue throughout the day.
Together they’ve been fishing the Kenai for the past 13 years and have been guiding all but two of the years. They were college roommates at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, where Jeremy majored in business while Nick graduated with an art degree with an emphasis in oil painting. Instead of getting real jobs after college they found work as camp hosts on the upper Kenai, which morphed into a guiding rafters in the canyon stretch of the Kenai. After two seasons they became partners and started Alaska Drift Away Adventures where they guided on the upper Kenai before moving to the middle Kenai. Their bushy beards and pleasant disposition have been regular fixtures on this section of river for the past 11 seasons. They live in Alaska year-round and in the off-season they’re ski instructors. Which is to say they’re trout bums and ski bums and living a life we all secretly wish for. Their happiness permeates throughout the boat. Like I said there’s a definite vibe in the boat.
The middle Kenai cuts a wide swath from Skilak Lake to the town of Soldotna. It flows for 19 ½ river miles and is anything but a wilderness; rather it passes by homes, fishing shacks, summer homes and small parcels of land that are masked as glorified fish camps. Bears are common but still secretive. Moose are more common. Spruce trees and poplars line the Kenai that is a mix of cut banks and gravel bars. Most of the river flows at a constant pace that is deep and deceptively fast. It is wide and daunting. It is glacially fed and the river is a dull turquoise color. In the fall the leaves are changing and the skies are a brilliant blue and the occasional white cloud wisps overhead. It is a beautiful setting. And despite the fact that this section of river is heavily fished and homes line the river it is possible to feel that you are alone and away from people. You will find that brief solitude at the upper end of this section near Skilak Lake, one of two lakes on the river. Kenai Lake is the upper most lake and it is the highest landmark on the upper Kenai.
There is some debate as to what section of river holds the best trout fishing. Nick and Jeremy are convinced the middle Kenai has the biggest rainbows, and from all appearances I can’t argue. Kenai rainbows are beasts that are well fed and strong.
It is hard to say what the average size trout is in the Kenai. In two days of fishing Mitch and I each caught well over 50 trout a day and the size ran the spectrum. We caught 10-inch trout and just missed the 30-inch mark. I did manage to hook a 30-plus inch rainbow that I never landed. It came out of the water twice and each time it became airborne I was convinced it was a salmon. After it threw the hook Nick smiled and said, “You just got your ass kicked.” He was laughing of course. Then he asked me if I needed a hug. I declined, but deep down I could’ve used one.
The Kenai rainbows are fat and strong for a reason. They live in a big river that has four runs of salmon annually: kings, silvers, sockeye (reds), and pinks. From May through November there’s salmon spawning in the river and when each specie spawns, hundreds of millions of salmon eggs are deposited and millions of eggs are dislodged from the spawning beds and drift in the current. Trout feed six months on salmon eggs and they grow to mammoth sizes. After spawning each salmon dies and the carcass deteriorates and washes into the river. That flesh helps in many ways. It provides nutrients for immature salmon and trout, and chunks of flesh tumble in the river current and the mature rainbows gorge themselves on flesh. When you take a step back and look at how everything works in concert together it’s remarkable.
Because trout are so focused on the salmon eggs fishermen match the hatch with small plastic beads that are affixed to your leader and are made to imitate a salmon egg. It was in the late ‘80s when trout fishermen abandoned the yarn-tied Glo Blug fly and started using plastic beads to imitate salmon eggs. Over the past three decades fishing beads has become so routine that younger fishermen wouldn’t know a Glo Bug from a Wooly Bugger. And there are few people more in-tune with the size, color and shape of beads than Nick and Jeremy. It sounds trite and inconsequential but it is evident when you are fishing around other boats; we consistently caught trout while the nearby fishermen scratched for bites.
Jeremy and Nick give meticulous care to each bead. Get this. They order ‘standard’ colored beads by the gross (50,000 at a time) and they spend the winter painting them different colors that imitate a salmon egg. (Don’t tell Nick his art degree is useless). A quick glance into their bead boxes and you’ll see different shades of peach, orange, red and white with a few odd colors mixed in (yellow, for example). Each one has a name: Peach Fire, Peach Fuzz, Dominator, Flesh, Dead Red, Mellow Yellow and the list goes on. Some are translucent, some have UV coating. Some are hand-painted individually, others are stirred and shaken. The beads come perfectly round, but Jeremy and Nick paint and dry them so the shape is irregular giving each bead a more realistic shape. It is as geeky as you can get with trout beads, and Nick and Jeremy share their bead entomology with very few people. It’s part of what separates them from everyone else.
Bead size and colors are important, but equally important to their success is knowing where the trout live. Jeremy is keen to the trout lanes. At one point after Mitch and I made a cast and Jeremy asked us both to reposition our beads to locations that were closer to shore. And as if on cue we both hooked into trout. Because he was so intimate with their “lanes” Mitch wanted to know if he had these trout named. It was funny at the time, but it was pretty accurate.
Ninety percent of the fly fishing for rainbows on the middle Kenai is done from either a drift boat or a powerboat. Occasionally you will see someone fishing from shore, but it’s rare. Fishing from a boat gives you the best opportunity to present your fly drag free for an extended period. Ideally you cast slightly upriver and drift with the current in the “trout lanes” — the water that is usually between 5 and 10 feet deep and within 15 feet of the bank.
Jeremy and Nick outfit their clients with 9-foot, 9-inch Sage One fly rods with Sage 1080 reels that are loaded with 8 weight, WF floating line. They run 12-foot leaders with two large split shot that brings your bead to the bottom. Strike indicators are one foot from the end of the fly line. Bead sizes vary from 7mm to 12mm depending on the week, day and even the hour. It wasn’t uncommon to see them change beads until they found one that would work. Once they dialed in the pattern they stuck with it until it stopped working.
Sometimes the bead size and color would change with the water temperature. Nick paid close attention to the water temperature as he looked at the depth sounder. The magic temperature in late-September was 57 degrees.
Like most Kenai guides Jeremy and Nick view the trout world much different than the rest of us. They release upwards of 250 trout a week and they fish between 20 and 24 weeks a season. They see more trout in a week than most people see in a lifetime. Many of the trout they see are in the 10- to 14-inch range and there is a large percentage in the 14- to 24-inch range. It may come as a shock (it did to me) that those trout don’t even warrant a second look from either of them. They just ask that you reel in the fish so they can grab the leader and release them untouched and unharmed. Anything over 25 inches gets their attention. Both of them make it clear they will net any fish you want photos of, which is why we took photos of the first trout I landed, a 22-incher. After our second day we felt silly about asking to take photos of those small trout. To illustrate the point on our second day Mitch landed a 27-inch rainbow with a 17-inch girth. He also landed a 25 x 15, a 25 x 14 and a 25 x 13. We lost count of the “24 and Happy” rainbows we caught because we stopped photographing them because they were more common than not. It sounds like a fish story, but it’s true.
Perspective notwithstanding, big trout have a way of shutting down the boat chatter. At one point the four of us were discussing steelhead fishing on the Anchor River and Mitch’s strike indicator darted beneath the surface. And his fly line raced upriver. Nick said something about it’s acting like a big fish and suddenly the conversation stopped. Jeremy put the boat in position and Nick was dispensing advice on how to handle the fish like a father talking to his son about the birds and the bees. “Keep your rod at a 30 degree angle.” “Lift slowly.” “Reel down.” “Lift again.” “Take a step to the back of the boat.” “Reel down.” And so it went for the better part of 10 minutes until Mitch was able to tire the fish. Jeremy turned the boat sideways into the river and Nick was able to net the fish. At that point cheers erupted at the sight of a 27-inch long, 17-inch girth rainbow.
“That’s a Kenai fatty,” Nick said. “A well-fed one indeed.”
“I think I need a cigarette,” Mitch joked. “And I don’t even smoke.”
After we took some measurements and snapped some photos Mitch released the trout back into the river. Two drifts later and Mitch stuck a 25-inch rainbow. And at that point Mitch asked me if I wanted to fish from “the Happy Corner.”
Jeremy was quick to point out that there was some good Mojo going on in the boat and changing spots might upset the vibe. “Pat will get his chance,” he said. “Let’s keep it going.” Prophetic words they were.
Three hours later, casting from the bow of the boat (Nick calls it the “bikini deck”) I dropped a 50-foot cast into a boil along a long gravel bar. Instantly my strike indicator was ripped under water and I came tight to what was obviously a solid fish. It immediately tore into the main river and then shook its head trying to shake the hook. Again the conversation in the boat went from loose to serious and after 10 minutes of a good fight I was able to get it close enough to net. Nick looked at Jeremy. “Uh, this one might go 30.” As in 30 inches. I peered into the net and sure enough a Kenai toad was resting quietly. It taped out at 29 inches long and 17 ½ inches in girth. Not quite 30 inches, but damn close.
Mitch and I kept looking at each other asking ourselves if this was really happening. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and quite frankly we could’ve picked up and called it a day. But Jeremy was quick to point out that the afternoon bite was just starting so he grabbed the tiller and ran the boat back upriver and for the next 90 minutes the four of us took turns catching and releasing rainbows in the 22- to 24-inch range. At one point I landed a 24-inch rainbow and Nick asked me if I wanted a photo of it. “Nah, not big enough,” I said.
“Welcome to the Kenai,” he said.
I just smiled at my newly found perspective.