Freelance Fishing Fun On The Kenai

The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

A little bit of this, a little bit of that … Longtime outdoors writer Cal Kellogg suggests a “freelance” trip to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to make the most of its varied and plentiful fisheries. The region’s large halibut put up epic battles that will test the resolve of any angler. (CAL KELLOGG)


From January through May I guide for trout and landlocked salmon in Northern California almost every day. Most of my clients know I worked as editor/owner of a fishing magazine for nearly two decades and that I’ve fished almost every major location from the Rockies to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Alaska to Puerto Vallarta. As a result, between hookups anglers often ask me about destination fishing.

Some of them are curious about long-range fishing for monster tuna out of San Diego, while others are interested in fishing along the Baja Peninsula. But the place I get asked about most often is Alaska. The questions come from guys who have been contemplating a trip north

for years, but because the state is so large and intimidating, they haven’t pulled the trigger. Here’s what I tell them: Alaska is a big place and I certainly haven’t sampled everything. You can focus on lake fishing, river fishing or ocean fishing for a variety of species that range from pike to lingcod. Personally, I’m a saltwater junkie. River fishing is fun, but I go north to battle big halibut and world-class lingcod.

These anglers scored limits of coho salmon and halibut while working the waters of Cook Inlet during a July fishing trip with Captain Steve Smith. (CAL KELLOGG)


I think a first-time visitor in Alaska should consider putting together a freelance trip that provides a chance to sample a variety of options rather than staying at a lodge offering strictly saltwater fishing or river fishing.

And for a freelance adventurer, especially for an Alaskan greenhorn visiting from the Lower 48, I don’t think there is a better region to explore than the Kenai Peninsula. Not only does the Kenai/Cook Inlet area offer diverse opportunities in terms of fishing, it also offers easy access and a wide range of services, including lodging, restaurants, grocery stores and tackle shops, and there is a diverse community of guides and outfitters ready to serve you as well.

A rewarding trip begins with research, drawing up an itinerary and then coordinating a schedule. Let’s say you decide to visit during the peak of the summer season in mid- to late July: You might want to do a self-guided trip on the Russian River for sockeye and hit the Kenai the next day for a guided sockeye or silver salmon trip.

After two days of river fishing, you may choose to recharge with some sightseeing before spending a day with a skipper battling halibut on Cook Inlet.

With a supply of halibut filets secured, perhaps you’ll wrap up your freelance adventure with a classic bushplane fly-out trip to the far side of the Cook Inlet, where there are few people, lots of bears and unbelievable coho fishing.

A trip like this is very doable, but you’ll need to figure out what outfitters you want to utilize, contact them and lock in dates that work with your timeline. Honestly, the research and planning for such a trip does nothing but add to the anticipation and excitement you’ll feel when you board a big Alaska Airlines jet headed for Anchorage.

The coastal islands of the Gulf of Alaska beyond Homer offer world-class lingcod fishing and beautiful scenery. (CAL KELLOGG)


As I mentioned, the Kenai Peninsula offers outstanding access. Highway 1, also known as the Sterling Highway, connects Anchorage to Homer, some 223 miles to the south. Along the way, the highway passes through a number of towns and hamlets, including Portage, Cooper Landing, Sterling, Soldotna, Ninilchik and Anchor Point.

Having arranged for a rental car, you’ll pick up your vehicle in Anchorage. You might opt for a standard car or SUV and spend your nights in motels, hotels and lodges. For the more independent, you can opt for a camper van or even an RV.

When you compare cost and flexibility, traveling with a well-organized backpack full of supplies and living out of a camper van roving from one campground to another makes sense. You’ll save money by skipping the restaurants and utilizing store-bought groceries supplemented with blood-red sockeye filets!

The fact is, an entire book could be written about freelance fishing along the Kenai Peninsula when you factor in the various seasons, species and options. Rather than going in depth, I’m going to give you a thumbnail sketch of what’s available to start the gears in your mind churning.

If you love hunting hard-fighting lings and haven’t sampled Alaska’s rich bottomfishing grounds, stop wasting time and plan your adventure now! (CAL KELLOGG)


Let’s begin with the seasons. Peak season in terms of tourism and fishing activity takes place from roughly June 15 to the middle of August, perhaps extending to the third week of August. If you live in the Lower 48, you’ve got to remember that early spring for us is still winter in Alaska.

Fishing really doesn’t get going until May, with May and the first half of June considered the “early” season. Likewise, when it’s late summer in places like California, fall is in the air in Alaska.

Some species of fish are available all year long, such as halibut, but salmon runs typically begin and peak during summer, with July 15 being sort of a center point for sockeye and silver fishing.

Lingcod fishing is also a summer fishery for anglers leaving the sheltered waters of Cook Inlet to explore the remote reefs in the Gulf of Alaska.

King salmon fishing is highly restricted along the Kenai Peninsula and opportunities have been reduced for the 2024 season. Having said that, there are opportunities for both saltwater and river anglers to harvest kings. Be advised, the regulations are confusing and game wardens will be out and about. Knowledge is power. Do research, make phone calls and send emails so that you know what the restrictions are before you wet a line. When fishing with a guide, they will know the rules and keep you on the straight and narrow in terms of harvest and gear restrictions.

While crowds are light in the early season, they are even lighter as summer gives way to fall, say, beyond August 15. Fall offers outstanding halibut fishing and reliably calm water on Cook Inlet, but the key attraction for anglers is the rainbow trout and steelhead action.

Big sockeye like these are common on the Kenai River. Not only do they put up epic battles, but they provide the best-eating salmon filets Alaska has to offer. (CAL KELLOGG)


The Kenai River, especially the upper river, is home to massive 10-plus-pound wild rainbows that grow big and muscular while gobbling salmon eggs all summer. Rainbows are best chased from a boat with an experienced river guide who will help you drift your egg-imitating bead through the perfect slot.

Steelhead fishing is the most overlooked opportunity on the Kenai Peninsula because the best fishing takes place after almost all the tourists have gone home. The action starts in early September and extends until the snow flies in October.

One of the awesome things about Kenai Peninsula steelhead fishing is that the action takes place in small coastal streams such as the Anchor River, which offers drive-up access. This is a catch-and-release fishery with special regulations and gear restrictions. Just make sure you know where you are and what the regs are on that body of water.

Don’t expect to encounter 10-plus-pound monsters, but rest assured, you’ll have your hands full when you hook a 4- to 6-pounder that has only been out of the salt for an hour or two on light spinning gear or a fly rod!

The Kenai also offers outstanding action for coho and monster rainbow trout. (CAL KELLOGG)


When anglers travel up to Alaska, salmon, halibut and to some extent lingcod are the species on their minds. Here are my notes on these species from a boots-on-the-ground perspective.

Salmon: Kenai king salmon grow to massive proportions, but again, fishing for the species is highly restricted, and for the most part kings are off limits. That’s OK, since sockeye and silvers provide plenty of sport.

Sockeye runs have been so strong on the Kenai River that the limit in 2024 has been raised to six fish per day and 12 in possession throughout the season. Not only are Kenai sockeye energetic fighters – they run anywhere from 5 to 11 pounds – they also offer the best table fare of any Alaskan salmon.

Sockeye aren’t biters, so you’ll be flossing or lining the fish, a sophisticated type of snagging. Don’t let the term snagging turn you off. It’s a ton of fun and a visit to any tackle shop will provide you with both the needed tackle and a tutorial on how to hook them.
Guided sockeye trips are fun, but honestly, when the fish are running, you can do well on your own.

Unlike sockeye, silvers are biters that go absolutely nuts when you hook them. Drifting roe is an effective method, but spinners hook plenty of fish, plus you’ll likely find that working a spinner is a lot more fun than bouncing roe along the bottom. The average coho runs 4 to 8 pounds, but I’ve seen fish over 12 landed on multiple occasions.

If you are going to book a guided river trip, I’d opt for silver fishing. The boat will give you access to the best areas and the guide’s instructions and advice will give you an edge.

Halibut: Cook Inlet is filled with halibut that range from 10 to 300-plus pounds. Do your research and book with a skipper focused on landing quality fish. Some operators will limit you out quickly on small fish. That’s not what you want.

The limit is two halibut; one has to be a smaller fish (28 inches or less) and one can be a larger keeper. For your larger halibut, you are looking for something in the 40- to 60-pound class. These fish offer a lot of high-quality meat. Fish beyond 60 offer great eating, but in my opinion, fish that are 40 or 60 pounds offer the best table fare.

Halibut fishing is typically done with bait such as cut herring or salmon heads. Cook Inlet-style halibut fishing is something you’ll want to experience, but be warned that it can be physically demanding.

Much of the time the current is strong in Cook Inlet, plus big halibut can pull so hard they’ll make your soul sweat. But the sense of satisfaction you get when you see a halibut weighing from 50 to 150 pounds coming over the rail is the stuff dreams are made of.

A big Pacific halibut is definitely a bucket-list achievement for anyone who enjoys West Coast saltwater fishing.

A guided trip on the Kenai almost always ends with a pile of beautiful salmon filets. (CAL KELLOGG)

Lingcod: The trip from Homer and Cook Inlet to the lingcod grounds in the Gulf of Alaska is long and the aluminum six-pack boats most skippers fish from are light, rigid and unforgiving, yet the 70-mile run is worth the effort.

Lingcod fishing takes place over reefs connecting small, evergreen-tipped volcanic islands. Black bears walking the beaches are a common sight as you drop jigs to tempt lingcod, rockfish and the occasional magnum halibut that has come to rest on a sandy spot among the rocks.

I’m a passionate lingcod angler. I originally went to Alaska looking for something over 30 pounds. I’ve caught a lot of fish in the 40- and 50-pound class, and my personal-best Alaskan ling hit 61 pounds.

Lingcod addicts are a special breed. We love battling the toothy predators and will endure long boat rides and rough seas to get a shot at a new personal best. If you are part of the fraternity, you know what I’m talking about. If you are a lingcodder and you haven’t dropped jigs in the Gulf of Alaska, you need to make it happen.

Let me put it this way: There is baseball and then there is pitching in Yankee Stadium wearing the pinstripes. The waters beyond the Cook Inlet are the Yankee Stadium of lingcod fishing. ’Nuff said!

Massive 100-plus-pound Pacific halibut like this impressive“barn door” are common catches for anglers soaking bait in Cook Inlet’s fabled waters. (CAL KELLOGG)


For a trip along the Kenai Peninsula, the minimum requirements are rain gear, waders, high-performance layered clothing, a pair of spinning rods and perhaps a fly rod.

Fancy one-piece, high-end graphite rods are awesome, but if you’re traveling from the Lower 48, leave them at home and go with something rugged that breaks down into two pieces. I know, I know, you’re a pro and only fish with the best stuff, but nevertheless, grab a pair of two-piece Ugly Stiks and thank me later.

You want one 6.5- to 7-foot rod rated for 6- to 15-pound line with a fast action. This is the rod you’ll use the most. The other rod should also be a 7-foot fast-action unit rated for 8- to 20-pound test. This rod may come in handy should you decide to try your luck at saltwater shore fishing for flounder, Pacific cod or halibut. Yes, you can catch these species from the bank!

The rods should be matched with appropriately sized spinning reels loaded with braid. If you’ll be fishing for silver salmon, bring some large Rooster Tail and Arctic Fox spinners, along with a collection of slinky weights, octopus hooks in random sizes and maybe some brightly colored steelhead fishing yarn. Finally, bring an extra spool or two of braid and some fluorocarbon leader material in 10-, 15- and 25-pound test.

For fly gear, a low-cost 8-weight outfit will cover most situations. If steelhead are on the menu, stock up on egg patterns in both bright and subtle colors.

Beyond the minimal lures and flies I’ve listed, leave everything else at home and stock up on local favorites at regional tackle shops. The folks working at these stores know what the fish are hitting on now and they will steer you in the right direction.

Rather than traveling with a knife, bring a simple knife sharpener and buy a cheap filet knife in Alaska and give it to another angler before you depart.

When fishing with outfitters, gear and fish cleaning will be included in your trip. If you decide to take my advice and rent a camper van, utilize backpacking equipment for day-to-day living, including a lightweight down sleeping bag and a quality minimalist sleeping pad.

Beyond what I’ve outlined, do plenty of research, plan ahead and ask a lot of questions when you contact guides and outfitters. Preplanning and planning some more set the stage for success! ASJ

Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer and guide. Check out his YouTube channel – Fish, Hunt, Shoot – at @FHSTackle.