Driftfishing on Alaska’s Magnificent Kenai Peninsula

by Naomi K. Shapiro
Last updated Sep 24, 2019| Adventure, Fishing, Travel, Travel Blogs
Driftfishers in the mist

It’s 4:30 a.m.

Quote: “I’ll be disappointed if we’re not off the river by 8:00 a.m.” are the first words I hear from fishing guide Rob Gardiner when I arrive at the Kasilof River landing for my first drift-fishing experience.   Although I like his cocky, confident attitude, I secretly hope my fishing day won’t be quite that short.

Two hours earlier, Linda Heath of Alaska Legends Adventure Resort tapped lightly on my door to make sure I was awake. 

2:30 a.m.?  Say what?  Yep — that’s when you have to get up to go drift-fishing for the ‘big salmon’ — which, at this particular time, were swimming up the nearby Kasilof River. Kasilof is near the well-known Kenai River, both known for their rewarding salmon fishing. 

I climbed out of my warm, comfy bed, fumbled into my clothes, grabbed my down jacket to fend off the river’s early-morning cool, wet air, and made my way down Legend’s polished log staircase.

After a quick breakfast, Linda handed me my lunch, and drove me from Legends, (which is on the Kenai River outside of Soldotna) over to the Kasilof River landing to meet Rob and our other fishing companions.

I was about to experience another page in the never-ending story of Alaskan outdoor adventure:  High summer on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula — just 125 miles from Anchorage — and, the livin’ and fishin’ is… EXCELLENT!

I’d already been horseback riding in the mountains near Moose Pass, canoed jewel-like lakes in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, helicoptered to Godwin Glacier for a sled-dog-ride near Seward, kayaked in the Pacific out of the picture-book community of Seldovia (see my story “A Town Called Herring”), and walked the shoreline of picturesque Homer, Alaska.

But since I always try to include a fishing component with my travels, I was about to experience another “Alaska high”.

“If you go salmon fishing on the Kenai Peninsula, choose drift-fishing,” advised friend, radio host, and Beloit, Wisconsin, fishing guide, Jim Cheadle, before I left on my trip.  “It’s a slower pace and you’ll get to know your guide better than if you’re motoring on the river.”

I later learned that the Kasilof River is closed to motors anyway, so only a few drift boats and some bank anglers get to fish one of the top-producing streams of the Kenai Peninsula.  

I was lucky to hook up with the beautiful, new Alaska Legends Adventure Resort and their exclusive fishing guide, at a time when everyone else in the area was booked for the short, intense season.  So, salmon anyone?  Yes, salmon EVERYONE!   Especially me!

Meanwhile, back at the Kasilof boat landing, Rob officiously directed us to our seats in the 20-foot, v-hulled, aluminum driftboat with two individual, padded seats in the bow, two in the middle, and one in the stern, for the guide. The boat’s unique, banana-shape is what allows the river water to rush by without moving you with it.

My fishing companions this day were Doug Bell and Mike Koogle, two nice guys from Colorado who tried to catch their own salmon for a couple of days, and ended up with runny noses and an empty boat.  So they hooked up with Rob to do some real catchin’.

Cowboy-hat-wearing, strong-and-handsome, six-foot-tall, 190-pound, 24-year-old Rob told me he’d been guiding in Alaska since taking a one-way flight from Oregon in 1994.  He told me he returns to Wyoming and Montana each fall to guide for big game hunting — and do some rodeo bull-riding in his spare time!  

Drift fishing is strictly row-row-row your boat gently UP the (swiftly moving) stream, (this is also a pull-out quote: Row-Row-Row Your Boat Gently UP The Stream) and then, let the current push you along as far as you care to let it. You have to be strong and skillful to captain, guide and fish from a drift boat.  And Rob was!   

He eased the boat from the landing, agitated that he wasn’t the first one to cast off. 

It was about 5 a.m. and we were on the river — mists rising in the cool morning air.  We passed under the bridge near the landing with about 20 other boats and guides doing the same thing.  Filled with anticipation, tempered by ennui from the early wake up call, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop… into the water.

The maneuvering began, and the swift-moving current caused some close calls as the drift-rowers jockeyed for position, trying to find the fish, respect each other’s space and help their clients find fish.  

Rob quickly fixed our lines, adding his special attractant — little packets of salmon eggs, cut-up sardines, and “a pinch of Copenhagen, for flavor.”

It was now 5:30 a.m., and Rob said the salmon would be coming in soon.  

From time to time, he dropped a special little anchor to hold us in one spot.  Our poles stood at the ready, in holders, with the lines streaming out about 20 feet from the bow and sides of the boat.

As long as it was still quiet, I began to interview Rob.  He told me he liked the attention, “because guides don’t usually get interviewed by their clients.”   

‘What’s important to you?” I probed, referring to his attitude about life.  Rob mused, and then said, “My most important thing is to make sure you have a good time and catch fish.”  

“C’mon, that’s not what I meant,” I said, and then he told me true:  “If you don’t think you’re the best at anything you do, then you’re not.”  Believe me, this kid believed what he said.

Time passed.  7:30 a.m.  Everyone in our boat was silent.  Well, that isn’t totally true:  Mike started chanting,  “Meester Feeshy, where are you?” — and Doug and I had a good laugh every time he did this.  Rob didn’t laugh.

The tension mounted.

Then, Doug and Mike each got strikes and missed a couple of fish.  “It’s not as easy today as it was yesterday,” Rob offered.  The tension mounted a little more as we each waited for a hit.

Then… WHOCK!  My rod bent and Rob yelled at me to grab the pole out of its holder, which I did.  

I started reeling, but the line went slack.  “It’s not there any more,” I said, dejectedly.  “Yes it is,” they all yelled excitedly — “it’s made a run toward the boat, keep reeling!”  They were right, and I kept reeling.  Soon I felt the tension on the line again, jammed the butt of the pole into my gut and kept reeling until I could swing the fish into the net that Rob had ready.

And there it was, what Alaska is all about:  A gorgeous, shimmering, King Salmon.  

“Yessir!!”  Rob smiled.  My two new friends from Colorado sheepishly smiled and said, ‘Ladies first?’

OK — I got mine.  Now I became an observer.  Rob continued to row, we continued to drift, and then we were at ‘the hole’ — a good fishing spot.  In short order, Doug nailed a 20-pounder and Mike got a 20.5 pounder.  

And, while happy for everyone, I was disappointed that my fish, at 15 pounds, was the smallest of the three, even though I was the first to bring one in!   

It was now about 9:00 a.m.  

 “Should’ve had you guys back on shore by now,” Rob muttered.  We were all quiet because we didn’t want our fishing day to be over so quickly.  

We fished casually until we neared the boat ramp, which was located about a quarter of a mile before the Kasilof River empties into the bay.

Some of the other guides, including a woman, were in the shallow water pulling their boatloads of clients back UPSTREAM.   (Yep, they get into the water — it’s shallow in most places — and they pull their banana boats back to make another run through ‘last chance hole’ or ‘desperation alley,’ to try to boat salmon for their clients before they reach the end of the line, again).

We were happy and doing high fives as Rob effortlessly winched our boat up the steep ramp.  Then we hopped into Rob’s pickup for a ride back to the first landing, where we took photos of the two Colorado guys with their salmon, and said good-bye.  

Rob drove me back to Legends Adventure Resort. 

On the way, he offered me some Alaskan snack food:  smoked salmon sticks that he’d made himself!   We munched, and smiled, and looked out at the scenery, including the distant mountains, and we talked about life…  

I had dreamed about driftfishing for salmon in Alaska, and here I was, noshing salmon sticks with a great kid and grand guide — and we’re bringing home the catch of the day!

At Legends, we shot some more pictures and then Rob took my salmon into nearby Soldotna to have it processed by one of the area’s first-class plants.  A few days later, FedEx rang my doorbell in Wisconsin and handed me a box with my perfectly packed, partially-frozen salmon.

The experience of drift fishing, like all of Alaska, was so special — in the most positive and wondrous way.  

The Kenai Peninsula is utterly awesome, with tons of wildlife — moose, bears, and soaring eagles… great fishing, and all manner of outdoor and recreational activities.

Footnote: I stayed at the brand new Alaska Legends Adventure Resort, about ten miles out of Soldotna on the Kenai River.  Legends is run by Linda Heath and her daughters Marnie and Michelle and their families, who had a vision that they were to build a lodge in Alaska, and people would come!  Well, they did (build it), and people did (come)!

Legends was first-class all the way, offering packages that include accommodations, 3 gourmet meals a day prepared by the house chef; drinks before dinner, wine with dinner, snacks, planning, activities, reservations, tickets; and transportation to and from the major tourist activities in the area.  They also happily pick up and drop off at the Kenai airport, as they did for me.   

Activities include just about anything people can do from that Kenai Peninsula location:   Salmon fishing; halibut fishing; wilderness canoeing; horseback riding; Misty Fjords scenic boat trips; the Marine Museum in Seward; and trips to other parts of Alaska, like Denali National Park.

And, yes, there were  fishing poles in the foyer at Legends, so you could walk a few steps to the Kenai River, and wet a line whenever the urge came over you.

I know I will return for another awe-inspiring Alaskan adventure soon — about as fast as you could say: “Fish-for-salmon-on-the-Kenai-Peninsula!” 


If you go:

Alaska Visitor Information

c/o Alaska Travel Industry Association

Toll Free: 800-862-5275 

web: www.travelalaska.com 

Kenai Peninsula Tourism

Phone: 800-535-3624; 907-262-5229

e-mail: info@KenaiPeninsula.org

web: www.KenaiPeninsula.org

Alaska Legends Adventure Resort: 

Note:  This story has been recently updated and Alaska Legends is no longer listed, so we are all the poorer…   


We ate, then we ate, then we ate more!
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With all the delicious food we indulged, it was time to get some serious exercise. We rented bikes and rode along the waterside with the city in view.  It was never too crowded with plenty of places to stop along the way.

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