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When it comes to salmon fishing, the Kenai Peninsula's Kasilof River is often overshadowed by its bigger neighbor to the north, the Kenai River.
Yet many anglers, especially drift boaters, prefer this often low-key alternative to the busy powerboat crazed king fishery on the Kenai. Doug Morris, who is owner of Northwind Charters and strictly a drift-boat guide, is one of those avid anglers. He enjoys the more relaxed atmosphere the Kasilof fishery provides.
"It's a quieter and a much more quaint experience," Morris says, "you don't feel as crowded."
He also likes the fact that everything is close by. "The drift is fairly short," he says, when compared to the Kenai, "so you don't spend as much time traveling, either on the river or the road, which means more time spent fishing."
And while he divides his time evenly between the two rivers, he thinks fishing is just as good and just as exciting on the Kasilof. The kings aren't quite as big, but the days his clients limit out are just as numerous if not more, and because it's "drift-only" it's always a more serene experience.
While smaller than the Kenai kings, the fish in the Kasilof are anything but diminutive. Although they average about 20 pounds, Morris says in his 12 years of guiding on the Kasilof his largest king weighed in at 56 pounds and the fish he's boated in the 40- to 50-pound range are too numerous to count. While considered by many to be more mellow than the Kenai River, the Kasilof can get crowded - just like any fishery on the road system - especially if the salmon are in. Flowing out of Tustumena Lake and crossing the Sterling Highway at Mile 109.5, the river supports two runs of king salmon, which usually begin arriving in mid-May and run through July. This swift glacial river also has a significant sockeye return, usually beginning in June and peaking by mid-July, as well as a fairly substantial silver run in the fall.
Shore anglers for all three species flock to Crooked Creek Campground, about two miles down Cohoe Road, which intersects the Sterling Highway at Mile 111. Though quite a bit of shoreline is open for angling, this state-run campground can become busy at the height of the season. During these busy days it is wise to use heavy gear and employ the same rules for combat fishing as you would on the Kenai or Russian rivers. Haul your fish in quickly, so as not to take away too much of the bank from other anglers and get out of the way of those with fish on and allow them to land theirs before re-entering the water. Sometimes it can be difficult, however, to hurry. This is especially true if you are lucky enough to hook into a king from shore. Jeff Breakfield, who regularly fishes the river from both a boat and the bank, knows this first hand.
"It's why a lot of us opt for the Kasilof," he says. "It's probably the shore angler's best opportunity to tangle with one of these big fish. It's a river where you also usually have room to play them, and being a smaller river than, say, the Kenai, kings are more apt to be traveling by close to shore, rather than just in the deep holes in the middle."
For drift boaters going after kings, and later on silvers, back trolling plugs or Spin-N-Glos is the main technique. It's basically the same as pulling any plug above a given hole, except that with salmon, especially kings, you want to make sure you are fishing deep. To accomplish this most anglers use a small jet planer on a slide swivel and three to five feet of leader. Once rigged, it's the paddler's job to hold the craft against the current, crisscrossing a particular hole, or moving slowly along a riffle, while maneuvering the boat ever so slightly downstream.
The Division of State Parks maintains a wayside and launch site for drift boat fishermen. It's located where the river and highway meet, at Mile 109.5. If fishing has been slow on the Kenai River, expect large numbers of displaced salmon fishermen to descend upon this launch. On the other hand, if the Kenai is seeing strong returns of salmon, a float down the Kasilof is certain to be the much more relaxing of the two.
The silvers that return here are generally an early run, arriving in July and tapering off by mid-September. With the visibility of the water usually being extremely poor, many anglers opt for a cluster of salmon eggs. Because the river is often so silty, it isn't an ideal choice for the traditional fly-fisher. That doesn't mean you can't catch fish, and plenty of them, with artificial lures. Anyone not using bait should try an extremely flashy spinner, spoon or fly in order to get the attention of these fish, or try fishing in Crooked Creek, which runs clear and usually opens in August. It enters the Kasilof at the campground that bears its name. It can also be accessed at a small pullout on the Sterling Highway, just before Cohoe Road. Along with silvers, the area also supports a small return of steelhead, which is predominantly a fall run that begins to show up in August. Many of these fish overwinter and can be caught exiting the Kasilof in April and May (Crooked Creek is closed at this time). It's an extremely small run and usually only the most hard-core early birds can be seen casting this often partially frozen stretch of the river in the spring. They are often using egg imitations, egg-sucking leeches or any variety of traditional steelhead patterns. These fish are purely catch-and-release and should always be handled, and turned back to the river, with care.
Whether trying your early season luck at steelhead, flipping for reds, back trolling for kings or casting for silvers, The Kasilof is more than simply a close-by alternative to the Kenai; it's a dynamic and unique waterway that deserves to stand on its own as one of Alaska's premier fisheries.
Freelance writer Dave Atcheson lives in Sterling. He is the author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."