25th Annual Kenai River Classic Blends Tournament Angling with Fisheries Management

Yamaha-sponsored Alaska event draws hundreds to compete, communicates conservation message

More than 120 anglers participated in the Yamaha-sponsored 25th Annual Kenai River Classic in August out of Soldotna, Alaska. The fundraising event, hosted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, featured the two-day silver salmon tournament, a banquet and auctions. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R, Ak) participated (she's the angler in the yellow/black foul-weather jacket in the video), and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R, Ak) chaired a U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act the day before the tournament. Select clips from the video are courtesy of Yamaha Marine.

Alaska Salmon

Kenai River Salmon
Capt. David "Cat Daddy" Drake poses a coho (silver) salmon for photos during the 25th anniversary Kenai River Classic in Soldotna, Alaska.Chris Woodward

Mention “Alaska” to fishermen, and chances are you’ve just referenced one of their top bucket-list destinations. Alaska manages its fisheries using a wide variety of tools; its state and federal lawmakers pay close attention to the commercial and recreational fishing industries as well as to the resource.

That’s why it’s no surprise that groups such as the Kenai River Sportfishing Association can be so effective. The KRSA has looked after the 82-mile-long Kenai River for 37 years. This August, the advocacy organization presented its 25th annual Kenai River Classic invitational salmon-fishing tournament, sponsored by Yamaha Marine and held in Soldotna, Alaska.

Running the Kenai River

Boat Running Kenai River, Alaska
Small aluminum skiffs, powered by Yamaha 50 hp outboards, plied the Kenai River in search of salmon during the August tournament.Chris Woodward

I was fortunate enough to participate in the event and caught four cohos from 6.9 to 9.4 pounds. Alaskan Geoffrey Lundfelt won the Classic with a 13.6-pound silver salmon. The Classic raised more than $200,000 for its fishery conservation programs, which include habitat restoration, and fisheries education and research.

One day prior to the competition, the Classic hosted a U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearing to explore reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The hearing punctuated the many years of fisheries roundtable discussions the Classic first spawned in the 1990s.

Fisheries Hearing

U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hearing in Alaska
About 100 attendees watch testimony during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, chaired by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Ak.), in Soldotna, Alaska.Chris Woodward

Magnuson-Stevens is partly named after former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, of Alaska, whose legacy — before and after his passing in 2009 — as a fisheries champion has been inimitable. Stevens co-founded the Classic in 1993.

Following the hearing, and before sunrise on days two and three, 120 anglers boarded aluminum skiffs, each powered by a 50 hp tiller-steered Yamaha outboard. Each angler was allowed to claim two silver salmon per day during the two-day competition. But once an angler caught that limit, his or her fishing rod had to be retired for the rest of the day.

Anchored for Salmon

Salmon Fishing Kenai River, Alaska
Capt. David "Cat Daddy" Drake in the captain's seat astern helps monitor four anglers and their rods.Chris Woodward

Boats anchored up or backtrolled along the bank, about 17 miles upriver from the river’s mouth at Cook Inlet. My captain on the first day of fishing — David “Cat Daddy” Drake — anchored up using a float ball attached to the line so we could quickly toss the ball and chase these soft-mouthed fish.

Cat Daddy deployed four Luhr Jensen Kwikfish lures, sweetened with a patch of sardine lashed with thread to the lure between the hooks. He placed each rod in a Scotty holder after its line-counter reel registered 30 to 35 feet.

Boats Anchored in the Kenai River, Alaska
Boats anchor up along the outside edge of a river bend, deploying lures in the swift current to attract cohos.Chris Woodward

Salmon Lures

Luhr Jensen Kwikfish Salmon Lures
Lures such as Luhr Jensen's Kwikfish and similar styles work well when sweetened with a piece of bait.Chris Woodward

To an East Coaster like me, this is unusual fishing. I’m not used to sitting in a padded swivel chair while I watch the rod. And lashing a piece of cut bait to a lure…? But when in Soldotna, one does as the experienced and knowledgeable guides suggest.

And Cat Daddy produced on cue. My lure, attached to one of the two rods between the boat and the bank, disappeared in splash of swift river water. The rod tip arced hard, though the fish took no drag.

Netting Silvers

Netting a Salmon in the Kenai River
Capt. David "Cat Daddy" Drake nets a silver salmon for one of his tournament anglers.Chris Woodward

We tossed the anchor ball and drifted back to the fish. Cat Daddy netted the silver and quickly placed it on deck. To identify the fish as mine, he threaded a colored zip-tie through its mouth and gill and placed it in the forward fish box. (In Alaska, the water and the aluminum boats stay cold enough to refrigerate fish without ice.)

Two of our four anglers aboard limited out within the first few hours of the morning.

Catching an Early Limit

Angler with Two Coho Salmon
The author holds up her limit of two cohos during Day 1 of the Kenai River Classic. The fish weighed 8.1 and 9.4 pounds. Respectable, though not contenders.Chris Woodward

As we approached the 1 p.m. lines-out deadline, we still needed a few more fish. The early morning bite had waned, but we finally picked up our eight-salmon limit and motored 10 minutes back to the dock.

Silver Salmon Prize

Coho Salmon in Net
Silver salmon are generally smaller and more plentiful in the Kenai than their king salmon cousins.Chris Woodward
Food Transfer on the Kenai River
A tournament boat, left, transfers snacks and sweets in a basket to our anchored skiff.Chris Woodward
Color Coding Silver Salmon
Colorful cable ties identify which angler caught which fish during the Kenai River Classic.Chris Woodward

Our second fishing day, we again departed before sunrise, but limited well before the 11:30 a.m. lines-out call. Both evenings, the KRSA held fundraisers culminating in auctions both silent and live.

Tournament Prep

Early Morning Fishing Tournament Sendoff
Tournament anglers stage up to board their assigned boats before dawn on the river.Chris Woodward
Boats in the Kenai River, Alaska
Captains idle against the strong current in the Kenai River, waiting to pick up their anglers.Chris Woodward
Captain Winds on Bait to Lure
His hands blurred in the near-darkness, this captain winds line around a piece of dead bait secured between the hooks of a Kwikfish lure.Chris Woodward

Second Day Limit

Martin Peters Hooked Up to Salmon
Martin Peters, Yamaha's senior manager of communications and government relations, hooked into his first salmon of the day.Chris Woodward
Captain Nets Kenai River Salmon
Success is in the bag! When fishing with lures, anglers are never completely sure that the salmon will stay hooked, until it's in the net.Chris Woodward
Tournament Angler with Silver Salmon
Tournament angler Spud Woodward with a 9.9-pounder.Chris Woodward

Beyond the event, Soldotna proved a welcoming host town. We stayed at the beautifully appointed Kenai River Raven Wing bed and breakfast, perched on a bluff above the roiling river.

The drive to and from the airport in Anchorage, through a portion of the Chugach National Forest, proved thoroughly picturesque. Alaska will always remain on my bucket list, no matter how many times I visit. (Besides, there’s just about no better place for a Southerner to go in August than Alaska!)

Alaska Lodge Life

Kenai River from Lodge
View of the Kenai River from the Kenai River Raven Wing bed and breakfast.Chris Woodward
Kenai River Raven Wing
The Kenai River Raven Wing bed and breakfast juts out above a steep bluff overlooking the river.Chris Woodward
Kenai River Raven Wing
Various salmon species mounts adorn the high ceiling in the Kenai River Raven Wing bed and breakfast in Soldotna.Chris Woodward