Refuge Notebook: Fishing on the Swanson River is not a secret, but sometimes forgotten

USFWS photo Rainbow trout provide opportunities for anglers in the Swanson River and many of the lakes in the wilderness canoe system.

I spent a morning recently with some other fishermen at the Captain Cook State Recreation Area waiting for the tide to bring some fresh coho (silver) salmon into the Swanson River. Although I wasn’t alone, I didn’t have to elbow my way into a spot or wear a hardhat to protect against stray hooks and flying lead from my neighbors. In fact, it was a rather pleasant experience after dealing with this year’s chaos on the Kenai River with the dipnet and sockeye “flip” fisheries. Not only that, the fishing was pretty good!


As we all know, the Kenai Peninsula is a world-class fishing destination. With all the hoopla surrounding popular sport fisheries on the Kenai River, other streams can sometimes slip under the radar. The Swanson River is one of these streams. Although certainly not a secret, the Swanson River can sometimes be forgotten.

When you ask people on the Peninsula what they know about the Swanson River, most will mention the wilderness canoe trail system. The Swanson River canoe system is a nationally-recognized route and is one of the gems of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The canoe system provides a great opportunity to experience the Dave Spencer Wilderness Area. Depending on how much you want to challenge yourself, you can do part of it over a long weekend, or plan a week to experience the whole route. Alternatively, you can avoid all of the lakes (and the portages!) by choosing to float the 24 river miles from Swanson River Landing to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. The Refuge Visitor Center on Ski Hill Road has a wealth of information to help you plan your trip.

What most people don’t know much about are the fisheries resources and fishing opportunities on the Swanson River. Most lakes in the Swanson River canoe system provide good fishing for rainbow trout, although some are better than others. A few lakes (Berry, Twig, Redpoll, Eider, and Olsjold) don’t have any sport fish present, but most other lakes are worth at least a cast or two, and some can provide downright good fishing. The Swanson River itself also provides good rainbow trout and coho fishing.

Back in the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a series of fisheries assessment projects on the Swanson River to document these valuable resources. A weir was operated on the lower river to count returning adult salmon, and numerous surveys were done in the mainstem river and many of the headwater lakes and streams to collect information on juvenile salmon and resident species like rainbow trout.

Coho is the primary salmon species in the Swanson River, and over 20,000 were counted at the weir in both years the project was operated. Peak numbers of coho passed the weir during the third week in August, and these adults go on to spawn in the upper mainstem river as well as the inlets and outlets of 14 headwater lakes. Sockeye, pink, and even a few chinook salmon were also counted at the weir in the late 1980s.

The lakes, streams, and interconnected channels in the Swanson River provide a great place for juvenile salmon to grow up before heading to the ocean, while also providing excellent rainbow trout habitat. Rainbows are the most abundant sport fish in the Swanson and were found in most lakes and stream sections during surveys in the late 1980s. Studies also showed that rainbow trout migrate extensively throughout the Swanson River system for spawning and feeding. Arctic char were sampled in a couple of lakes, and some Dolly Varden were sampled in other flowing waters of the Swanson River, but rainbow trout are what most anglers hope to catch. Don’t forget to check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) regulations before you go: the Swanson River is closed to all fishing April 15-June 14 to protect spawning rainbow trout.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. Eggs collected from Swanson River rainbow trout from 1974 to 1984 were used by ADFG to develop their hatchery broodstock. If you fish for rainbow trout in any of the stocked lakes in northern and southcentral Alaska, you are likely catching trout whose ancestors originated in the Swanson River!

Part of what keeps the Swanson River and its fisheries under the radar for a lot of people is the fact that most of it isn’t easy to access. You can drive to the Swanson River Landing near Sterling and you can drive to the river’s mouth at Captain Cook State Recreation Area, but the rest of the river is only accessible via the canoe system or after a long hike. Much of the Swanson River flows through the Dave Spencer Wilderness Area, and you need to commit at least a couple of days to fish that stretch.

The Swanson River offers both great fishing and opportunities to experience different levels of solitude. Most fishing occurs near the mouth of the river, especially right now during the coho season. But even during the busiest season, you can still have a nice big stretch of the Swanson River all to yourself without even trying too hard. That’s a pretty neat concept on the Kenai Peninsula these days!

Jeffry Anderson is the Field Supervisor of the Kenai Fish & Wildlife Field Office in Soldotna. You can find more information about the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at or