King Of The Kenai

by Louis Bignami

Alaska's Kenai River must, in its 85 miles of glacial silt-clouded water, be the most popular trophy chinook salmon fishery in the world.

No place else finds so many kings, the Alaskan term for chinook salmon that anglers in other areas respectfully call "spring salmon or tyee". No place else concentrates so many huge fish in such a small area so convenient to transportation, lodging and guide services. As a result, Alaskan locals and "lower 48" visitors invest over 125,000 man-days of fishing in this area. This means plenty of competition for the biggest salmon, which in 1993 increased the size limits you can keep to over 52 inches, or about 70 pounds to sustain the trophy fishery and, it should be added, the main industry of the towns of Kenai and Soldotna.

Locals, like Lester Anderson, and guided fishermen do have an advantage. In 1985, Anderson used his knowledge of the special demands of the Kenai kings to take a 97-pound, 4-ounce monster. Had Anderson weighed it immediately, it might have topped the 100-pound mark. Visitors who want to better his feat are well-advised to book guided trips, for the Kenai River bites. The heavy flows that evolved monster-size salmon also upset boats and can drown fishermen unfamiliar with Alaskan rivers.

Gearing Up With Lester Anderson

85 lb. King caught 6/11/89 in the Kenai River by Henry Schellert of Renton, Washington.

Anderson, then the owner of the Ford dealership in nearby Soldotna, had worked out the special problems fishermen face when trying to lure salmon in big rivers with poor visibility due to glacial silt, and the bigger problems trying to land huge fish in heavy water. According to Anderson, "Visitors who don't go with guides generally don't have the right gear. I used a big Garcia spinning reel with top-quality 25 pound test line and a special rod my buddy Clarence Wait made. Most 'lower 48' rods don't have enough backbone for Kenai kings."

Most experts would argue that a level-wind reel with a quality drag and the capacity to hold at least 250 yards of 20 to 30-pound line is the choice. But Anderson caught the record his way. Like many river regulars, Anderson used Spin-N-Glo, a strange-looking cork body lure with rubber wings often used in combination with a plastic hootchie skirt and a big single hook. Add a few beads and the extremely ugly result is ready to go. The art here is the proper selection from the hundreds of combinations in Spin-N-Glo and hootchie colors and sizes -- locally called Kenai Specials. There is one basic truth to these permutations. Whatever the hot combination or size, you'll be missing a vital component even it you tote 50 pounds of parts in a confusion of sizes and a rainbow of colors.

Anderson continues, "Most of the guides on the river backtroll plugs. This keeps clients from snagging bottom quite as often. My brother-in-law and I use really big Kenai Specials. We think big kings see them better in the murky water. I know a bit more than some about the smaller holes, and can handle our Kenai Specials a bit better. So we'd look for tough spots to fish that held undisturbed kings."

"We had a nice Monarch aluminum boat with a 25 h.p. motor that got my brother-in-law, Bud Lofstedt, and me to the action. Sometimes we'd go down to Big Eddy Hole. Other times we would fish up at Morgan's Hole. We have some spots without names too. Big kings hang in the current around pool heads and, if you work the lure right, it'll move right along with a drifting boat to cover lots of river bottom and tempt good fish."

Anderson's 100 Pounds of Action

"The day we took the big fish we got out early before I had to go to the car agency. It was about seven in the morning when I hooked the fish. It immediately jumped over my brother-in-law's line. Then ran off nearly 200 yards. We had to follow it. It ran. We followed. Fortunately, we had room to work the fish. Good thing it wasn't Memorial Day. You wouldn't believe the crowds here on Memorial Day!"

Even without other boats to worry about, Anderson and Lofstedt nearly lost the fish. When Lofstedt tried to net the fish, he couldn't get enough of the fish's huge body into the net to lift it into the boat, and the big king flopped back in the river. So, after another couple of runs, they beached their boat on an island spit well downstream from the spot where Anderson first hooked the fish.

Anderson remembers, "I pulled and Bud pushed and we got the fish out on the sand. It was so heavy we could barely drag it into our boat. We should have weighed it right away, but stayed out until eleven or so." The Fish and Game biologist that weighed the fish said 'it probably lost five pounds.' That would put it over 100 pounds. Anderson's fish set a new IGFA 30-pound line class and both IGFA and NFWFHF all-tackle world records. It's now mounted and hangs in the Soldatna Penninsula Community Center.

Publisher's note: To see what's where topographic maps help on the river and in the many small streams, lakes and other areas you can reach by vehicle, train or float plane. . While you can buy individual "quads" for limited areas you might consider the new, and up to date CD-ROMs that might cover 200 or more quads. These let you examine large areas in great detail to turn up new spots to fish, and they allow you to then print only the areas you want. Even better they work with GPS systems as well