Sockeye Q&A

How can you know when enough sockeyes are in the Kenai River to justify fishing for them?


The best way is if someone calls you on a cell phone from the river and says, “They’re in! Get down here, now!”

The second-best way is to go to the river every few minutes and see if people are catching fish. If fish are splashing, a few “test casts” can be informative. It might be worthwhile to check on what’s happening in the dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river, 19 miles downstream from where the fish are counted by a sonar counter.

Finally, watch the numbers from the sonar counter at River Mile 19, about 2 miles downstream from the Soldotna bridge. Call 262-9097 for a recorded phone message, or visit the Department of Fish and Game Web site. Be aware that the sonar count numbers are about what happened yesterday.

Good sockeye fishing is mainly about numbers. When less than 15,000 per day swim past a given spot, you might catch one every hour or so. On a day when 50,000 pass by, you might catch one on every cast. A sockeye migrates upstream at an average rate of speed of about 3 miles per hour, so those fish that swam past the sonar counter yesterday will likely be in the Sterling area and beyond by the time you get the count.

What are the “unwritten rules” for sockeye fishing?

The best unwritten rule is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Apply this to how much room to put between yourself and other anglers. Also apply this rule to taking someone’s fishing spot.

A good way to get along with other anglers in crowded areas is to watch them, and then do what they’re doing.

If you’re fishing in a crowd and hook a fish, yelling “Fish on!” gives others fair warning to pull in their lines to avoid tangling with yours. If you hear “Fish on!” pull your line from the water and be helpful.

Use tackle capable of landing a red quickly, so you don’t tie up a section of river and keep others from fishing. If you see that a fish is hooked elsewhere than in the mouth — illegally hooked — don’t even try to land it. It’s better for the fish, as well as other anglers, to simply break your line.

Where can I find the written rules for sockeye fishing?

Free copies of the “Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations Summary” for 2011, Southcentral Alaska, are available anywhere fishing licenses are sold. You’ll find some of the rules on Page 4, under “Methods and Means.” Rules about snagging are under “Freshwater sport fishing.” Other rules are under “Fly-fishing-only waters.” On page 5, you’ll find definitions for “snag,” “single hook,” “molesting,” “sport fishing,” “possession limit” and others that may apply. Other regulations pertaining to the Kenai River are on pages 48 to 55.

Where can I fish from the bank?

Much of land along the lower 50 miles of the Kenai River is privately owned and not open to fishing by the public. That said, private land extends only to the mean-high-water line, usually understood to be the line where vegetation begins. It’s perfectly proper to stand or fish in the water in front of private property.

To protect riparian habitat for juvenile salmon, more than 20 miles of the publicly owned lands along the lower Kenai are “seasonally closed to fishing from the riverbank.” In these areas, which are marked by signs, fishing from the bank or in the water within 10 feet of the Kenai River waterline is not allowed. See pages 52 and 53 of the regulations for maps and other information. Be aware than not all public lands along the river are closed to fishing. Fishing from gravel banks is allowed in areas where it doesn’t damage vegetation, mainly along high banks.

You’ll find 20 public access points downstream from Skilak Lake, and a few more along the upper river, between Skilak Lake and Kenai Lake. Look for these on Pages 54 and 55 of the regulations.

Be safe, be courteous, and I’ll see you on the river.

Email Les Palmer at


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