By Joseph Robertia
The chalky, turquoise water of the upper Kenai River murmured softly as Justin Cooley stepped into it from the smooth-cobbled shoreline. He paused a moment to take in his surroundings — thin, wispy, cirrus clouds stretching across the blue sky overhead and evergreen spruce and still-leafless birch trees behind. In front of him flowed possibility.
“Nature is part of the draw,” he said. “But so is the challenge. You ask yourself, ‘Will this work?’ and you don’t know the answer until you hear the smack of a fish bite. Then the question is, ‘Will this be a 12-inch rainbow or a 30-incher?’ You don’t know until you see it.”
Cooley spooled some fluorescent slack from his fly reel and began the whipping motion necessary to build energy to compose a perfect cast. Unlike spin casting, during which the lure’s weight pulls the line out, in fly casting the weight of the line carries the lure — a delicately crafted imitation insect. It requires timing more than strength to properly direct the energy.
“The whole thing is an art form really, from tying the flies to selecting which one to use to laying it out there. There’s a lot to the presentation, making it look as natural as possible. It’s not easy to do and definitely not as easy as just sinking bait and bumping it along the bottom.”
Elevating any activity to art takes time, though. Michelangelo didn’t sculpt David in a day. Da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa the first time he picked up a brush. The mechanics of casting skillfully and with precision take practice. And learning to apply that skill — reading the rippling surface to intuit where to drop a fly — can only come through experience.
There’s been plenty of opportunity for that this spring while fishing for rainbow trout in the Kenai River and its associated tributaries and drainages.
“I’ve been fishing since I was 10. I fished trout all over California — where I grew up — then moved to Kenai about five years ago and got even heavier into it. ‘Addiction’ is a good way to describe what trout fishing is for me now,” Cooley said.
Time away from the activity is tough for Cooley to endure. He needs his fix. Like many trout fishermen, he pauses his piscatorial pursuits during the winter when the rivers freeze up or develop a thick mantle of ice. Spring is particularly tough to bear, with water opening up but access limited by punchy deep snow lingering on the shoreline or ice shelves along the banks that make walking and launching boats difficult to downright dangerous.
Not this year, though.
“In a normal winter I go crazy. It’s all I think about and I can’t wait to get back on the water. But this winter was so mild, and so good for anglers, I got out several times in December and January and this spring,” Cooley said.
He wasn’t the only one.
“There have been more people fishing, for sure. I think the warm weather is the culprit. With the weather being what it was, you could stay out longer and really enjoy it,” said Lee Kuepper, co-owner and guide at the Sterling-based Alaska’s Angling Addiction.
Kuepper said that the allure for anglers was more than simply fishing in friendly temperatures. Many of his clients are enticed by the possibility of not just catching a rainbow trout, but landing a lunker.
“The trophy potential is the big draw. Even our average fish are really impressive in size. Rainbows in the 18- to 20-inch range are common, and there’s always potential for something in the 30-inch range,” Kuepper said.
Kenai rainbows not only have length, they’ve got style. The slate gray of their dorsal area gives way to bright chrome on their streamlined bodies, covered in a constellation of black speckles as numerous as stars in a clear night sky. Pastel pink swirls over their cheeks and ribbons down each flank, from gill to tail. These are telltale characteristics of all rainbows, though.
And they’ve got size. Kenai Peninsula streams offer a gluttonous habitat for trout, well stocked with billions of smooth, spherical eggs deposited behind by anadromous salmon. Kenai rainbows exceeding 30 inches may tip the scales at 20 pounds or more.
“When people think of trophy rainbows, the big three rivers are the Naknek, Kvichak (both on the Alaska Peninsula), and the Kenai,” Kuepper said.
Of these, the Kenai is the only river on the road system, making it easily accessible for tourists not looking to break their bank accounts, as well as residents who enjoy flogging the water after work or on weekends.
“Not everyone has $6,000 to fish remotely, or wants to travel to Katmai,” Kuepper said. “Fishing the Kenai can be really scenic, especially in the canyon and refuge areas, but there are also a lot of hikes and post-fishing activities for visitors and their nonfishing family members. Anchorage and Kenai residents can also go home to their families at the end of the day.”
Taking people trout fishing from other parts of the state, the Lower 48 and beyond, Kuepper said that he bears the responsibility of sending his clients home with a memory of an authentic Alaska outdoor experience so clear as to balance the lack of fish. Because unlike sockeye salmon and halibut fisheries, which allow visitors to take fillets home by the boxful, the rainbow fishery is primarily catch and release. That requires even more ecological etiquette, according to Kuepper, and he said that instilling in people the principles of being good stewards of the resource is as important to him as them catching fish.
“Good conservation and good ethics, we try to teach that every day, regardless of the season,” he said. “This means making sure fish are taken care of. We teach people to keep trout in the water as much as possible, not bring them in the boat, avoid touching the sensitive areas of the fish, like the gills, not holding them up unsupported and reviving and releasing fish by keeping water flowing through their gills and in the proper direction. Since we get people from Outside and all over the world, we hope they take back some of these techniques to their home waters.”
Brendyn Shiflea, of Kenai, was born and raised in Alaska and began fishing for rainbow trout at 3 years old. He learned at an early age to take the sport and all its responsibilities seriously. Doing both for so long has left Shiflea with a profound appreciation for the species.
“I’ve been a lifelong fisherman, and while I like landing a sockeye and throwing it on my grill, I enjoy fishing for rainbow trout over other species. I enjoy the fish themselves. They feed voraciously, fight well and they’re often the most beautiful, colorful fish in our systems.”
As with Cooley, chasing rainbows is a recreation that borders on obsession for Shiflea. He said he survives winter by spending inordinate amounts of time tying flies, teaching others how to do so, and reading fishing magazines or Internet articles and columns.
Shiflea is not opposed to cold weather fishing, but said that the balmy weather the past few months on the Kenai made for much more agreeable angling.
“While it was still a little nippy out in early spring I used a two-handed switch rod and swing flies, essentially casting out and downstream, to let the fly swing in a pendulum motion across the water below me. It’s not always the most effective method to catch fish, but it’s fun to cast, your fly is on a longer path in the water and I can typically keep one hand in my pocket to stay warm,” he said.
As the days grow longer, Shiflea said that the fish grow more voracious and will aggressively feed on various food sources in the weeks to come.
“Generally in the spring the fish are pretty hungry and go after many fly patterns that mimic small bait fish, sculpins, leeches and bugs like stoneflies, nymphs, etc. I would expect those same fly patterns to work well for the next few weeks until the closure,” he said.
As the May 1 closure for rainbow fishing looms, Shiflea said that he targets trout in deeper main channels, away from their potential spawning beds in shallow gravel bars.
Preserving the resource for future generations is important, Shiflea said. Just as he learned how to trout fish at an early age from his parents, he’s begun teaching his kids the basics. His daughter caught her first trout two years ago when she was only 2 years old.
“While it was only a 12-inch fish, I will never forget the smile on her face as she worked to reel it in and land it,” he said. “She still talks about her ‘first fish’ to this day.”