Hiking into the refuge by using frozen lakes as access. (Photo by Nate Perrine)

Hiking into the refuge by using frozen lakes as access. (Photo by Nate Perrine)

Refuge Notebook: Winter camping and ice fishing on the refuge

When people think of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is salmon fishing or some other activity that occurs during tourist season or the warm months.

It is true the refuge is famous for its world-class summer activities of salmon fishing, hiking, river floating, bear viewing and mushroom hunting, just to name a few. But the winter also provides many opportunities to recreate and enjoy the spectacular beauty we are fortunate enough to have around us.

I believe one of the most underused activities to take advantage of is winter camping. Some of the best outdoor experiences we can do are while the lakes are frozen, and the ground is covered in snow. One of my favorite places to visit in the winter is the Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe route systems.

This part of the refuge is an excellent choice to explore because the network of linked lakes through portages provides easy access to areas deep into the refuge under frozen conditions.

It doesn’t take a long hike away from Swanson River or Swan Lake roads to get an exceptional winter experience that will be memorable and rewarding. On a calm day, the blanket of snow absorbs many of the sound waves, which makes it seem exceptionally quiet.

It’s a perfect setting for unwinding with your own thoughts from the realities of the civilized world. Some things you may hear are distant wolves howling or the high-pitched whistling call from a bald eagle.

Nights are always special. When it’s clear, you get a chance to enjoy the bright constellations, away from any light pollution. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a showing of the northern lights.

On cloudy nights, the advantage is that it probably won’t be as cold and sleeping in a tent wrapped up inside a warm sleeping bag while listening to the gentle sound of light snow falling around you is one of the most relaxing things ever.

Most people pull some type of small sled behind them while hiking in. Sleds are a great way to carry the extra gear required in the winter without needing to wear a super heavy pack.

There isn’t a need to get too fancy with outdoor gear to be successful. If you have some food, a way to make a fire and boil water, warm and dry clothes, and a shelter and sleeping bag, then you’re basically ready. An excellent spot to set up camp is on the edge of a frozen lake, perfectly flat and with plenty of room!

Ice fishing is a fun activity to do while you’re out there. Most of the lakes in the area have sport fish present in them, including rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, and even some landlocked coho or sockeye salmon.

The Kenai NWR website has many resources to help you navigate the system, including numerous lake bathymetric maps (86!). Locate these and many other maps at: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/map.html.

The maps will tell you lake topography and depths, which species of fish are present in individual lakes, and the access points or routes along the system. Make sure to view or download the maps before you go and be aware that sport fish are not present in all the lakes on the system.

Even though I am far from a good fisherman, the fishing is so good that I can’t remember ever getting “skunked.” Sometimes, it may be someone in your party rather than yourself that catches a fish, but personally that still counts as success to me!

There are lots of different opinions on the best techniques, locations or lures to use for ice fishing. But, for myself, I rarely change tactics. A small, white or neon soft green plastic jig is all I use.

The only reason I don’t change is because I’ve always been able to catch fish with one of these, so I go with what I know works! But there’s no doubt a wide variety of techniques and lures will be successful.

Preplanning involves looking up lake bathymetric maps on the refuge website and determining a good spot to try fishing based on depths and underwater features. Generally, somewhere between 5 to 10 feet of water on a point or narrow channel is an excellent spot to try to find a hungry fish patrolling the shallows in search of its next meal.

Dropping the lure down to the bottom and bringing it back up so that it’s about 1 to 2 feet above the bottom is a solid technique. Sometimes the fish can be very aggressive and respond to a lot of jigging action. Other times, they are timid and just holding the lure very still will trigger strikes.

Of course, check all the fishing regulations before going for gear requirements and fishing limitations. The lakes in the canoe system have held fish for thousands of years and have maintained populations through natural reproduction. Catch and release is a good option to help maintain the natural balance.

Be sure to pack out what you pack in, and if you’re away from the road, vault toilets are not available, so the refuge recommends “go anywhere toilet kits” or “WAG” bags be used to ensure the area stays pristine.

So, if you’re up for an adventure and are at least a little bit hearty, consider going winter camping and try ice fishing. While out there, please enjoy yourself and appreciate how special a place the Kenai is, especially in the winter months.

Nate Perrine is the Assistant Fire Management Officer (AFMO) for Southern Alaska Refuges based out of Kenai NWR. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html and stay connected https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

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