We have caught and released post spawn steelhead in April, May and June, chrome bright upsteam bound fish in September and October and holding fish with some color in November and December. Steelhead have some characteristics that are different from our resident rainbows. Fins are usually more translucent and spots are often smaller. The body shape of anadromous steelhead is usually more streamlined and rounded, rather than deep. Steelhead have a narrower tail wrist than our big resident rainbows.
Note the characteristics of the fish on the left. Is this a Kenai Steelhead? Note the resident Kenai River rainbow below.
There is some dispute as to whether they exist at all, but we have no doubt. Are we simply catching a few strays or is there a spawning population? Based on observation, the fish look very much like steelhead from the Lower Peninsula streams like the Anchor River. The fact that steelhead are in more than a half dozen other peninsula streams begs the question as to why would there not be a population in the Kenai River? It is largely answered in that there is a thriving population of resident rainbows with plenty of food, huge lakes for refuge and no need to leave for the ocean. While that is likely true, a few fish always stray from every population. With good winter flows and prime spring conditions, it is clear that some Steelhead do indeed spawn in the Kenai.
The Kasilof River
The Kasilof River has a population of self sustaining Steelhead using Crooked and Nikolai Creeks as spawning habitat. For some years, the Crooked Creek Hatchery enhanced the run. While that is no longer the case, a fair number of Steelhead are returning and can be caught in the Fall and Spring. As in the Kenai, Steelhead are often taken incidentally by anglers fishing for Salmon. Some anglers target them in the Spring as soon as the ice clears and before the King Salmon run is in full swing. The Kenai River's mouth empties into Cook Inlet only 12 miles from the Kasilof. The Harding Icefield glacially feeds both systems. It is likely that some of the Kenai strays and spawners originated from the Kasilof side of the drainage.
Steelhead are usually incidental catches while fishing for rainbows or salmon. In the Kasilof, some anglers target them by dead drifting beads or swinging streamers. In the Kenai, these same tactics are used for the rainbows, so there is little difference. To catch steelhead in the Kenai, you can increase your odds by fishing late in the season and fishing with larger attracter style eggs or flies.
Well Known Kenai Peninsula Steelhead Waters
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Kenai River - Cooper Landing, Alaska
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