Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and its spectacular sport fishing opportunities are a far cry from being a worldly secret. Every summer, thousands of visitors travel to the Great Land in the pursuit of filling fish boxes with some of the cleanest and tastiest sockeye, king, and silver salmon on the planet. This occurrence has been happening for decades. In most fishing circles, going to the Kenai during the summer migratory runs of salmon would even almost be considered “old hat.” In fact, I myself even turned a cold shoulder to it. As a veteran Bristol Bay guide, I couldn't imagine any good reason at all to punish myself, or anyone else for that matter, by enduring the crowds of summer on the Kenai Peninsula.
It just didn't seem worth it. Sure, the fishing was incredible, but it was at the price of standing in line either by boat or by foot next to hundreds of my “brothers in arms”, none of which I knew well enough to be comfortable in those proximities. That was until at the suggestion of a friend to give the late fall steelhead fishing a try. In an effort to make my re-entry to society easier, I gave it a shot. I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I wouldn't have fun and I would hate the crowds. After the first day, I knew the worst wasn't going to happen, and that I had found a new place/time to fish steelhead.
That first trip was in early October. I fished the Anchor and Kasilof rivers. There were plenty of steelhead willing to eat dead drifted beads as well as swung flies. The weather was equally as pleasant as the number of anglers were few.
It was almost too good to be true. How could it be that this Shangri-La of Alaska steelheading could still exist? Furthermore, how long into fall would the fishing sustain? AKA- How long could I stay and do this every single day until the rivers froze or I spent every dollar I had earned over the summer? Whichever came first, I was hell bent to find out.
That year, I think I stayed until the third week of October. It was all I could afford both financially and personally. Kids, dogs, and girlfriends have this thing about me being away from home for extended periods of time. Especially the dogs. I was kicking and screaming the whole way to the airport. Fishing at that time was nothing short of remarkable and I didn't want to leave. Some of the locals I met during my abode on the peninsula encouraged me to not even come back the following year until November 1, as long as the temps held out. At first, I wasn't sure if this was a carefully plotted ruse just so I wouldn't be there to “fish their water” or if it was a genuine act of rare angling kindness. After all, anglers are known for their sometimes harmlessly nefarious actions to keep the local water local. That wasn't the case here. This was a genuine act of kindness and sharing amongst steelheaders in pursuit of one common goal. I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, that is the Alaska way.
In the years that followed, I fished the Kenai Peninsula later and later. As long as the weather and temps held out, the steelhead were there but, without the crowds of anglers. November/December in Alaska can be very, very cold, with potential of more cold brutality at any given moment. This keeps most fair-weather steelheaders away. Fellow Bristol Bay guide and lifelong Kenai guide Matt Duncan fishes easily into November and some years well into December, with an occasional January boat launch. Growing up in Anchorage gives him, and other local resident guides, the hands down advantage when it comes to Kenai conditions. Mike Brown at Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage is also a great source of information regarding Kenai fisheries.
When I’m planning a late season Kenai Steelhead trip, either for myself or others, I try to take into consideration that on a five-day trip, at least one of those days is going to be a cribbage day. Maybe even two days. Weather can blow in and blow out just that fast. As long as you know the potential is there, it won't be that big a deal. There are numerous Airbnb, VRBO, and local cabin rentals on the lower Kenai Peninsula that will accommodate a world championship cribbage tournament should the need arise. While you are fishing, plan accordingly on how you dress. I wear boot foot waders and full synthetic layers no matter if I am in a boat or walking in to wade fish. And don’t even think about wearing anything but a quality rain jacket.
A friend joined me on a November Kenai steelhead adventure that only brought a “brand x” wind breaker that was water resistant. After about 90 minutes our fishing day morphed into an excursion into Homer for the purchase of a brand new Grundens product. Don't be that guy. Ever.
In regards to fishing tackle, you will see a myriad of techniques being used on the Kenai Peninsula. Everything from conventional float rods and beads to spey rods and swung flies tied with the rarest of materials. All of it works and has its own place in the system. I have stood next to center pin anglers, float anglers and single hand fly anglers in a parking lot while I rig my spey rod for the day. Nobody cares what you fish with and nobody cares where you are from. Its Alaska, most people are from somewhere else anyway. Everyone just wants to fish. I find it refreshing.
If you are up for a unique steelhead experience at a time of year when most everyone has forgotten the Great Land exists, check flights to Anchorage. Winter flights are sometimes ridiculously cheap, especially from the PNW. The local guides are still working every last day they can before the unforgiving arctic freeze sets in. You could be on the verge of discovering your new Thanksgiving family fishing vacation.......