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Kenai River Rainbows

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Beautiful Kenai River Rainbow

The Kenia river is world renowned for its runs of King and Sockeye Salmon. It is what draws anglers from around the world to this amazing place. As summer rolls into fall most of the anglers have left, and the area returns to a slower pace. These dark, cold and quiet days of late autumn create the perfect conditions for a hatch of hard core anglers that emerge out of thin air to take advantage of some incredible fishing. Like a reverse hibernation, there is a group of anglers that wake up as the days get shorter and darker. They are hungry for one thing…huge Kenai River Rainbow Trout.

Every year I travel to Anchorage, Alaska this time of year for business and I always try to squeeze in one day of fishing for these amazing fish. As usual, this year I scheduled myself out on the red eye from Anchorage to Portland so that I could make the run down to the Kenai, fish for the day and get back to Anchorage in time to catch my 12:45am flight. The drive from Anchorage to Soldotna this time of year can be interesting. It is dark both coming and going, the weather is usually bad and you need to keep an eye out for moose, but otherwise it is an easy drive.

I arrived in Soldotna around 9:00am, took care of some business, then headed back to meet my good friend and incredible fishing guide, Mike Fenton of Fenton Brothers Guide Service. We met at Bings landing just outside of Sterling, and to my delight the other half of Fenton Brothers Guide service, Murray Fenton was going to be fishing with us today. To make it even better Mike’s daughter Molly and her friend Dillon would be joining us today as well. I could not have been happier to be included in a fishing day with so many great people!

We all greeted each other, got on the boat and headed up river. I had a feeling it was going to be a magical day when the first thing we saw was a cow and calf moose crossing the river right in front of us. Mike has a knack for including wildlife viewing into his guided trips, but this was above and beyond. The day could have ended right here and I would have been happy, but we had much more adventure ahead of us.

We went further up river and Mike set us up for our first drift. Mike rigged each of us with trout beads fished under an indicator on 7 weight fly rods. It did not take long to start catching fish. We all hooked and released several nice trout and a few dolly varden in the first hour, but nothing huge.

Mike made another run up river, we got our lines back int the water and Murray’s reel started screaming. Murray’s fish jumped completely out of the water several times, and went on long run after long run. After a five minutes battle, Murray landed a beautiful fish. This is what we were after…big, beautiful, Kenai River Rainbows.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Mike and Murry Fenton with the first big fish of the day!

On the next drift I watched as my indicator shot under the green glacial water of the Kenai River and I set the hook on a chrome and pink rocket. The trout shot straight out of the water and then took off up river. It was at this point that Mike reminded me that although I had hooked many of these big rainbows with him, I had never actually landed one. My mind flashed back to all the mistakes I had made over the years, all the missed opportunities to land one of these glorious fish and all the heartbreak when I made a mistake at a critical moment, the crushing defeat and the massive depression that followed. “Thanks Mike”, I said with a smile and a laugh as I held on for dear life, “thanks for reminding me”. It was a genius move on Mike's part as it not only reminded me to be careful, but also brought a smile to my face, as only Mike can do. When the fish finally made its way into the net, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and was in total awe of this beautiful creature I was now holding in my hands.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Finally! A big Kenai River Rainbow!

The next few drifts continued to produce amazing fish for Molly, Dillon, Murray and me. The quality of fish that we were catching was simply amazing. There were lots of smiles and lots of laughs, and I did not think it could possibly get any better.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Doubled up on two nice Kenai River Rainbows

It was about this time that Molly decided to turn it up a notch and show us what the Kenai River is all about. Molly went on a run that was nothing short of incredible. It started with a giant chunk of a fish that she fought for over seven minutes before landing it. We all agreed that this was the fish of the day. Well, we were wrong.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Molly with the first of four incredible fish!

On the next cast Molly hooked into an even bigger fish that jumped out of the water several times and went on several big runs. This fish took skill and patience to land and I am positive that I would have lost it, but Molly landed it like a pro. Again we thought this had to be the fish of the day, and again we were wrong.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Molly with her second huge Rainbow!

On the next drift, Molly caught another one that was similar in size and color to the first one on the streak. This was another amazing fish that was easily in the top three fish of the day. It was an amazing three fish run for Molly, but she was not finished yet.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Great Father Daughter picture with Rainbow number 3!

It was getting late in the day now, and I watched as Molly made a perfect cast with her fly rod. I saw the indicator go under and I saw the fish break the water. The fish made such a big swirl that I was sure this had to be a Coho Salmon. The drag on Molly’s fly reel was singing all the way into her backing as the fish shot up river. The fish then turned and ran right back towards the boat. It was all that she could do to keep up with it and as soon as she caught up to the fish, it shot right back up river again and jumped clear out of the water. It was at this point that we all got a good look at it. This was no Coho, it was a big Kenai steelhead. In order to land a fish like this you have to do everything perfectly right, and that is just what Molly did. She played everything perfectly and after a fight that seemed like an eternity, she guided the fish next to the boat and Murray put it in the net! The big fish was in the 30” range and was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen. We took some quick pictures and released the fish back into the river. That was definitely the fish of the day and we decided to end the day on that note.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Fish of the day! This is why Anglers come to the Kenai!

As we motored down river towards the boat ramp, I was thinking about the the day and realized that the fish that Molly caught is the thing that causes the hatch of anglers on these cold, dark days along the Kenai River. They go through a reverse hibernation and emerge in boats and along the river bank for the opportunity to catch one of these amazing fish. I understand how they feel and that is why I will continue to come to this special river in late October for as long as I can.

Bill Matthews Outdoors
Beautiful color on this Kenai fish!

This is definitely a “Bucket List” fishery for any serious angler. If you decide to go I highly recommend that you contact Mike Fenton with Fenton Brothers Guide service and book a trip. They are amazing guides and fantastic people.

Thanks for reading,



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