The Elusive Alaskan Bear – There When You Least Expect It

The sockeyes were on the move. Limits were coming quickly and my boat was anchored on the rubble shoreline of the Kenai River and the anglers I was guiding were spread out, ankle-deep in the current, reeling them in. There was one in the party that caught a quick limit and was relaxingwith a book in the boat. I heard her exclaim, “Is that a bear over there!” I looked up and sure enough, an Alaskan brown bear was slipping into the water on the opposite shore to swim over and pay us a visit.

Everyone who comes to Alaska in the summer wants to see a bear. The Kenai River just might be the best place on Alaska’s road systems to see a brown or black bear. Alaska’s bears are everywhere from the bottom of southeast Alaska all the way to Prudoe Bay, but they aren’t always easy to find with out a big price tag because it can take a plane ride to some remote areas for the best odds of seeing one.

When we fish the Upper Kenai River after the first run of sockeye salmon show up to swim up river and spawn in the Russian River tributary, we have a great chance of seeing brown and black bears.

The bears wake up in the spring time and get real hungry real quick. There’s not a lot to forage. Just fresh grasses and shoots sprouting in the spring and tasty roots, as well as any old rotten winter kill animals and decaying salmon left over from the previous fall spawn. Bears will eat most anything they can find in the spring after their long hibernation where they lose up to – and sometime more than – 20% of their weight. When the bears pop out of their dens it takes a week or two for their metabolism to get back to 100 percent, then they need to put on the pounds to get ready for the next winter.

The Kenai River has all five pacific salmon spawning in this resource, and its many smaller tributaries make for great fishing, not only for anglers but also for the bears. The first good opportunity for the bears to get a nice easy meal is the filleted sockeye salmon carcasses that the Kenai River anglers toss back into the river after cleaning their catch. It is expected of the Kenai River and Russian River anglers to clean their fresh caught sockeye salmon on the banks of the river and throw the filleted carcasses back into the river to keep the bio mass in the water for the rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char, bald eagles, gulls, and the bears to eat. Adding to the angler’s butchered fish, the salmon that make it past the anglers and all the way to their spawning grounds perform their spawning ritual then die and there carcasses naturally stay in the river until they wash up on shore creating nutrients for all the animals in the water and forest. If anglers didn’t put the carcasses of filleted fish back in the river it would mean a lot less forage available to the wildlife.

When we stand on the banks of the Kenai River sockeye fishing, or run drifts out of our drift boats we get lots of opportunities to see both brown and black bears. The carcasses that are filleted naturally get pushed to shore and hang up on rocks and timber in the river. This creates a welcome dinner for the bears as they wander up or down the banks of the Kenai looking for the easy meal that filleted salmon provide. The best time to see the bears foraging on the banks of the Kenai is early morning. Bears are nocturnal and will be finishing up there hunt for food in the wee hours of the mornings.

If you want to see bears with out paying for an expensive scenic fly out the best bet for you is an early morning sockeye trip on the Upper Kenai River. You can hopefully get some delicious salmon for the table and see some bears all in the same day. Bears are shy and wary of people so there are no guarantees to see a bear, but your best bet at seeing a bear for an affordable price while doubling down on your money is the full day sockeye trip on the Upper Kenai River. That bear that was headed toward my drift boat from the other shore took a u-turn when we all started making noise and waving our arms. With all the carcasses drifting downstream I have little doubt the big brown bear was full and napping by noon.

The Best Time to Fish the Kenai River

If you ask a guide in the Lower 48 when the best time to fish a particular species on their body of water would be, they will always say, “When they’re biting.” In Alaska when you ask a guide when the best time to be fishing is, they will tell you, “At the peak of the run,” if you are fishing for salmon, and “Anytime,” if you are fishing for trout or char.

Every summer droves of anglers show up from all corners of the world to try their hand at catching one of Alaska’s pacific salmon. Sockeye salmon, and silver salmon are the most sought after with king salmon being a close second or third. The chum and pink salmon are fun to catch but don’t make the best table fare compared to the others.

Summer time is when the sockeye salmon are moving up the Kenai, but that can be a very busy time both on and off the river. Silver salmon start showing up in numbers at the end of August and run good until the end of October.

The big masses of visitors starts to wane as school starts and the weather cools which leaves lots of opportunity for the angler who wants less crowds and great fishing.  The fall fishing on the Kenai is also when the rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char fishing is hitting it’s peak.

From the last 10 days of August until October 31st, I spend 90 percent of my time on the water doing combo trips for silver salmon, rainbow trout, and char.  We usually trout fish from one great spot to another great spot catching as many huge trout and char as possible. Then we float into the silver spots and fish the salmon until we catch them all out of that hole or they get lock jaw and won’t bite anymore.

Silver salmon are no different than any other fish. Somedays they are hard to keep off the hook and other days they make you work hard to get a sniff, but with time on the water you can usually make something happen.

The truth is I love fishing the Kenai River all year long, but my favorite time to fish this incredible resource is in late fall starting the last two weeks of September through October for Silver salmon, rainbows, and char.

The most enjoyable part of silver salmon fishing is the fact that I can incorporate a lot of different options to catch them. I can use my fly rod, casting and stripping line for them. I can cast spinners and spoons with my spinning gear or run plugs with my casting rods by back trolling. There’s nothing like running big drifts with my float rods and I can do this and all the others the same day.

Of course, I’m blessed to get lots and lots of days on the Kenai River every year and love to use all the tools in my tool box. I’m a purist and I just love to fish and believe a good guide should master all the disciplines of the sport in order to create the best possible time on the river with my anglers.

If you want to see Alaska and the Kenai River with less people and fish the scrappy silver salmon, the fall time is the right time to come to Cooper Landing and fish with Jason’s Guide Service. Fall is without a doubt the perfect time for that combo trip where we fish for silver salmon, target some trout and add some char to the mix. Trust me when I say it doesn’t get any better.