DULUTH, Minn. — Andrew Chadwick didn’t know at the time he would one day be a fishing guide on the Kenai River in Alaska. But, two years out of the University of Minnesota Duluth, he knew one thing.
He had to get up there.
“It was something I’d always wanted to do,” said Chadwick, 28. “I had a friend who was a disabled vet. We just decided to wing it. We loaded up my Jeep and started driving.”
That was almost four years ago, the summer of 2013. Chadwick and his buddy, Proctor graduate James Gilbertson, found a place to live that summer in Soldotna, Alaska, on the banks of the famed Kenai River, home to big runs of Pacific salmon.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Chadwick said. “My first summer was a lot of trial-and-error. I figured it out pretty quick. It’s similar to fishing the North Shore for steelhead.”
He caught on with another fishing guide in the summer of 2014 and broke out on his own the following year. This year will be his third as a full-time guide on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Now he spends long Alaskan days from May through September guiding anglers for big king salmon, sockeye salmon, silver salmon and rainbows.
“Full-time” is an understatement for his life as a guide.
“I guide pretty much every single day starting the first week of June,” says Chadwick, who splits his year living in Soldotna and Duluth. “Sometimes, I do two to three trips a day. The alarm goes off at 3 or 4 a.m. Some days I’m on the water until midnight.”
He takes an occasional day off.
“But it’s not very common,” he said.
Chadwick guides from a 20-foot aluminum boat on the Kenai and sometimes from a 20-foot oar-powered drift boat on the smaller Kasilof River.
He keeps his boat trailered, which gives him the flexibility to follow a run of fish as it makes its way up the Kenai River.
“You can time them,” he said. “They might be at river mile 10 today. They could be at river mile 20 the next day.”
Gilbertson, 34, now lives in Soldotna and has fished with Chadwick often.
“If the fish are in the river, I guarantee you there is not another guide on the river who spends more time and energy figuring out where those fish are moving and how to present your lure to get them to bite,” Gilbertson said.
The world-record king salmon — more than 97 pounds — was caught on the Kenai River, and Chadwick’s clients usually get kings up to 50 pounds each summer.
“It’s always fun when you’re back-trolling down the river, and a 50-pound king gets hooked on a client’s rod,” Chadwick said. “It’s pretty much pure chaos for a while.”
Sometimes he wades to fish, and that can offer other kinds of stimulus.
“You might be walking along a small river, and you come around a corner and you’re face-to-face with a brown bear,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
When he’s on a river that might have bears, he carries a gun and bear spray, although he’s had to use neither.
Seth Spencer, who grew up in Duluth and went to UMD with Chadwick, hired him as a guide last summer.
“One thing I really like about hanging out with Andrew — he’s very professional, very open with people and really cares about the resource. He understands the fish counts and understands why it’s important to keep that resource in good shape,” Spencer said.
At UMD, Chadwick was an environmental education major. UMD professor Ken Gilbertson (no relation to James Gilbertson) remembers Chadwick as a quiet student who sometimes arrived late for a management class during the North Shore spring steelhead run.
“He’s living his dream,” Ken Gilbertson said. “He’s making it work. When I see him on Facebook showing some big fish, you can tell by the look on his face that he’s loving it. He could have easily become a fisheries manager, what he knows about fish.”
Kenai River salmon runs
Alaska’s Kenai River takes runs of four species of Pacific salmon — kings, silvers (cohos), sockeyes and pinks. The various species enter the river at different times and proceed upstream to spawn. Here is the general timing of those runs, according to fishing guide Andrew Chadwick. Pink salmon are not a popular sport fish among most anglers.
- May-June: Early-run kings, a little smaller than those that will come later. “A lot of fun on lighter tackle, up to 25-pound fish,” Chadwick said.
- Mid-June to mid-July: The June sockeyes (red salmon) make their run, which trickles into the river until mid-July, when a larger wave enters the river. “We’ve had days with over 200,000 fish up the river in one day,” Chadwick said. “The river takes a run of more than a million sockeyes.”
- July: This is the time of the river’s famed king salmon run. It continues until the end of the month. The freshwater world-record king salmon — 97 pounds, 4 ounces — was caught in the Kenai River in 1985.
- August: Now the silver (coho) salmon run begins. “Those are my favorites,” Chadwick said. “They’re very active. They average 9 to 14 pounds. When you hook one, they’re the fastest fish you’ll hook in freshwater.”
- September: Less fishing pressure. Very good silver (coho) fishing. Excellent fishing for trophy-sized rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.