Kenai Peninsula: There's no fishing like rainbow fishing

Road Journals Blog—For a world-famous trout river, the Upper Kenai in Alaska can be hard work. My first task: stumbling out of my cabin at 4:30 a.m. to meet my fishing guide, Todd Harris, for breakfast.

Our guide, our author, and a fish. | Chris Woolston

Todd looked ridiculously cheerful—almost as if he enjoyed this sort of thing. As planned, we were the first boat on the water. (The attendant at the boat ramp was in his booth, sleeping off a party, when we arrived.)  Even in the dim light, the big, bruising river glowed turquoise with runoff from upstream glaciers. The bald eagle sitting in a nearby tree looked really sleepy, but perhaps I was just projecting.

I had dropped several hints with Todd to let him know that I wasn’t an amateur with a fly rod. I’m from Montana, I told him. I’ve fished the Bighorn River a bunch of times. If he was impressed, he managed to hide it.

Also on our boat was a couple from Virginia, Steve and Kelly—Air Force people who worked at the Pentagon. We fished with flies designed to look like chunks of rotting salmon flesh.

A hundred yards downstream from the boat ramp, Todd not-so-gently suggested that Steve might want to cast next to a filet table standing in the water. Sure enough, Steve’s rod doubled over and the reel started to zing. And then the fish—a big-shouldered rainbow trout—was gone.

That would be a theme for the day, for all of us: Todd had somehow surrounded himself with three people seemingly incapable of setting a hook.

River on the Kenai Peninsula | Sujohn Das/Flickr

They say fishing takes patience, but it’s the guides who really deserve an award for not completely losing their minds on a daily basis. No matter how many times Todd told me how to lift the rod when I had a strike, I managed to screw it up.

Turns out that casting on a drift boat (something I hadn’t done much) is quite a bit different than casting from shore. You’re supposed to lift the rod upward and outward instead of jerking the whole thing toward you, which is my normal approach.

The few rainbows I landed that day must have really wanted to be caught. We were on the water for about eight hours, and I caught five, none bigger than 14 inches.

Although brown bears and moose often hang out on these waters, we didn’t see much wildlife other than a few eagles. But we could see Alaska in every direction—big trees, mountain peaks, meadows, and the occasional camper van loaded down with fishing gear.

Todd had some time to tell his stories. Like the bald eagle that swooped down to grab a rainbow that was still on a client’s line. (The eagle won that particular tug of war.) And the time a few years ago when Todd guided Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, secret service agents in tow. Todd said Jimmy was a friendly guy who really enjoyed the whole Kenai experience. And he knew how to set a hook.

Unlike some people.

This blog post was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.