In the Shadow of Giants
The Kenai’s lesser known neighbor has a king-sized reputation all its own.
By Mark Glassmaker
When most people think about visiting the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai River naturally takes center stage. Home of the largest king salmon in the world and rainbow trout as long as your arm; the Kenai often backs up its colossal reputation with one magical experience after another.
If it were not less than 15 miles from Alaska’s most fabled salmon river, the Kasilof (pronounced Kah-sea-lof) would likely enjoy far more independent notoriety. For just like the Kenai, the Kasilof sees two distinct runs of king salmon, along with hundreds of thousands of sockeye, and a serious run of silver salmon. It also supports large populations of resident rainbow trout and dolly varden and to top the Kenai, it even has a substantial return of steelhead. But much like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, the Kasilof has always remained a side-act while the mighty Kenai remains the headliner. It’s tough to compete with a river twice as big and ten times as accessible. Unlike the Kenai, the Kasilof is largely unfishable with a motor for most of May and June. Because it is fairly shallow, swift and rocky, the Kasilof proves challenging and dangerous for an outboard and motor use while fishing is actually prohibited during May, June and July on the lower portion of the river. Except for certain sections and in high water, seeing a motorized vessel on the Kasilof is pretty rare.
The Kasilof has less than five feasible access points and all but two are private. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge maintains a boat launch facility at the outlet of Tustamena Lake, officially mile 18.5 of the river. From here, the river makes a slow and winding entrance for roughly a mile and then carves a very swift, rapid-like descent to Cook Inlet. This descent is punctuated by a number of very popular and productive fishing holes, most of which are in the final 8 miles before salt and below the Sterling Highway Bridge.
More than 90% of all boat traffic on the Kasilof River enters the river from the Kasilof River State Park site, located immediately upriver of the Sterling Highway. The only remaining launch open to both private boaters and professional guides is Coho Cove, located at mile 6 on the lower Kasilof and within tidal reach. This access is popular with those that wish to launch their drift boat, fish the tide, and then take out at the same location. This launch also serves as a take-out for boaters traveling downriver from the Sterling Highway Bridge that do not wish to travel the remaining several miles to one of two remaining (private) takeouts near the mouth of the river where it enters Cook Inlet.
Even though it may not carry the reputation of its sibling the Kenai, the Kasilof has certainly been well discovered for its own sportfishing opportunities. Fishing activity in May and June centers around Crooked Creek, a small tributary to the Kasilof just above tidal influence. Alaska Department of Fish and Game operates a hatchery facility just a short distance beyond the confluence of Crooked Creek and the Kasilof and they have been enhancing the early run of Crooked Creek king salmon for the past 30 years. As a general rule, Alaska’s fishery managers are naturally reluctant toward planting hatchery fish on top of wild stocks, although the Crooked Creek project has long been an exception.
“The Crooked Creek hatchery was established in the early 1970’s,” according to the current biologist in charge of Kasilof River King Salmon, Jeff Breakfield. “It began as a Fisheries Rehabilitation and Enhancement Division (F.R.E.D) project to produce sockeye, steelhead, coho and chinook.” Today it acts primarily as a recovery and limited holding facility for Chinook only rather than a full blown A-Z hatchery. “Essentially we capture a certain number of returning adults each season to use as brood stock. The eggs are actually raised in hatcheries elsewhere and then returned to the Crooked Creek facility as smolt for imprinting and subsequent release,” added Breakfield.
The first enhancement of king salmon began with a smolt release in 1975. The planted fish were originally taken from wild Crooked Creek stock, raised at the hatchery, and then released not only back into the Kasilof via Crooked Creek but were also introduced to a number of different watersheds throughout the Kenai Peninsula (from Sport Lake near Soldotna to Resurrection Bay in Seward.)
Due to straying concerns into the Kenai River, managers deciding to mark all hatchery origin Crooked Creek king salmon in 2000. This decision would help ensure biologists could distinguish between the stocked fish and those early run fish that were reproducing naturally in Crooked Creek and the Kasilof River itself. It also made them easier to identify in cases of straying, something that was a concern after several crooked creek hatchery fish were reportedly discovered in Slikok Creek, a tributary of the Kenai just downstream from Soldotna. Among the choices for mitigating the possible straying issue, fin clipping was deemed the most affordable. This reduced the size of the run from a 210,000 smolt released in 1999 to a 105,000 release in 2000.
Clipping the fins and reducing the overall release of hatchery fish occurred at a time when fishing popularity and pressure on the Kasilof was peaking. According to Alaska State Parks records, the number of guides on the Kasilof went from 75 in 2000 to 134 in 2002. These numbers decreased to 108 in 2004.
Early run brings bright kings, anglers and new rules.
It is interesting to note that 90% of guided anglers access this fishery during the May-June “early run” when an abundance of hatchery fish are available. From the opening day of bait on May 16 to about the third week of June (the historical decline of newly arriving early run hatchery fish) one can count on a regular flow of drift boats as well as bank anglers, all presenting favorite baits and lures to newly arriving hatchery and naturally-produced Kasilof Kings.
For those fishing from shore, the Kasilof also offers fairly good access at a number of points, the most popular being the Alaska State Parks and Recreation site near the Crooked Creek Campground. Unlike the larger Kenai where bank fishing is very difficult for king salmon, the Kasilof offers bank anglers an excellent opportunity to catch a king from the shore. Public access adjacent to Crooked Creek campground provides hiking trails to what has popularly become know as the “People’s Hole;” a long, deep holding area located just above tidal influence and just below the confluence of Crooked Creek. Both staging and newly arriving king salmon frequently pile up in this area, perhaps more so than any other section of the river. According to Fish and Game Statewide Harvest Survey Data, 53% of the early run kings caught on the Kasilof River over the past five seasons were taken from the bank.
Despite the smolt reductions and there being fewer hatchery kings than in the past, the overall number of fish has remained remarkably steady. The mix of both natural producing kings and hatchery stocks means one can expect good fishing in late May, extending at times well past mid June. But the Kasilof has not maintained this steady supply of early run king salmon without a few hurdles along the way.
The Kasilof has always been seen more as a “meat and potatoes” fishery where one had a greater chance to harvest a king than on the more technical and prestigious Kenai. At times when the Kenai is slow or emergency restrictions are placed on the early run of Kenai Kings, a significant amount of angling pressure can overwhelm the Kasilof in a hurry. With only one primary put-in and a small hand full of take-outs, some crowding during peak times has occurred. In recent years, private anglers looking for a more reliable and predictable fishery during the early season naturally chose the Kasilof, and likewise, many local guide services (primarily based on the Kenai or in one of the peripheral areas such as Seward, Cooper Landing or Ninilchik) have purchased drift boats and hired guides, so that their guests can access the Kasilof in May and June (particularly during lean years on the Kenai). Many visiting anglers have discovered the benefit to planning a variety of fishing trips when they visit the Kenai Peninsula. Since the Kenai, even on its best days, is not known for producing sheer numbers of one after another fishing, peripheral fisheries such as halibut fishing, trout fishing, fly out fishing and the Kasilof all offer something totally unique.
For many visiting anglers, simply catching a fish is their main goal; it need not be a 70lb. Kenai King. Consistency makes the Kasilof very popular in this regard, and the quiet drift boat experience adds to the Kasilof’s charm. Certainly the influx of hatchery fish is largely responsible for the more “predictable” fishing, but behind that run of planted, adipose fin-clipped kings is also a strong return of wild spawners from both Crooked Creek and the main stem Kasilof River.
Since for many years the hatchery fish returning to Crooked Creek were not adipose-clipped, some of the hatchery stock surely mixed with naturally produced fish in the creek. Not being able to distinguish between the two stocks meant managers were unable to estimate run strength of the wild or naturally produced Crooked Creek king salmon. This cloudy stock assessment, along with the recent rise in popularity led the Alaska Board of Fisheries to impose a number of restrictions for the 2003 season. Among the more extreme measures taken was prohibiting the retention of naturally-produced, unclipped Kasilof Kings in May and June. This meant that in order to keep a king it had to have a clipped adipose fin, but at the time, only a certain percentage of the hatchery return would arrive with clipped fins. It would be 2004 before all parent years of hatchery fish were marked. Limiting retention to adipose-clipped kings only was also accompanied by no fishing after retaining a king, single hook only and several other restrictive measures. This was all done to curb pressure and limit harvest numbers until Fish and Game could get a reasonable handle on the number of early season king salmon spawning naturally within Crooked Creek and establish a Sustainable Escapement goal (SEG) which is now set at 650-1700 kings.
For many that fish the Kasilof frequently during this return, the new regulations delivered a different attitude and feel to the fishery, as not being able to readily harvest whatever you catch did reduce fishing pressure. The Kasilof’s reputation as a “meat and potatoes,” harvest-oriented fishery was beginning to wane.
In addition to a new attitude, the new regulations also revealed some interesting trends within the make-up of the king return. A large number of wild or un-clipped king salmon were present beginning in mid May and at times seemed to outnumber the hatchery return. Combined in-season harvest surveys and creel samples from 2003 through 2005 revealed nearly 55% of all the king salmon caught on the Kasilof during these three years were naturally produced Chinook.
The Board of Fisheries once again met in early 2005 for its annual Cook Inlet meeting. They were presented with evidence from the department and anecdotal evidence from attending Kasilof River guides, noting the apparent strength of this natural return of Early Run Kasilof kings. It seemed along with ample numbers of wild fish, a large number of hatchery fish were not being harvested under the current regulations. Given these circumstances, the board saw fit to return some of the rules they had rescinded just two years prior. They returned fishing after retention, gave back multiple hooks and allowed an angler to keep wild fish on two days of the week: Tuesdays and Saturdays. With only 2 years of definitive data on the status of this stock, Fish and Game recommended limited harvest (two days a week) to be sure this wild segment of the early run of Kings on the Kasilof was truly headed in the right direction. The Board did establish regulations allowing Fish and Game managers to adjust in-season the number of days wild harvest is allowed, particularly in years of extreme surplus. On May 8, 2006, Fish and Game announced they would add one additional day per week for the harvest of wild Crooked Creek King salmon with the following explanation: “Beginning May 18, Thursday will be an additional day anglers may keep a naturally produced king salmon…According to ADF&G weir count data, escapement of naturally produced king salmon has been exceeding the goal of 650-1700 fish. In 2005, for example, 1903 naturally produced king salmon were counted past the weir on Crooked Creek…and adding Thursday will likely help meet the escapement goal while increasing king salmon fishing opportunity for recreation anglers.”
And this is where the regulations stand today, with a new Cook Inlet Board of Fish Cycle approaching in early 2008. If this wild segment of the early run continues to prosper, perhaps the harvest of wild kings will be allowed seven days a week. Until then, the Kasilof early run is once again what it has always been: a fun-filled, action-packed salmon fishery where someone visiting Alaska or from Anchorage can jump in their car, drive to the river, catch a king for the dinner table (or release it ), and head back to Anchorage all in one day. Quality road accessible fisheries like the Kasilof River are hardly a dime a dozen in Alaska.
Dr. June and Mr. July
Comparing the Kasilof in May and June to the same river in mid to late July is like explaining the difference between winter and summer in Alaska, there simply is no comparison. During July the river literally triples in size as the seasonal snowmelt, glacial runoff and rain all converge into one mother of a flow, a raging torrent fed by Tustamena, the largest lake on the Kenai Peninsula and the fifth largest in the state!
In July, the Kasilof becomes an entirely different river in many regards; the amount of fishing pressure is greatly reduced as the late run Kenai King Fishery explodes. The size and origin of the king salmon also changes as large quantities of hatchery king returns dwindle and somewhat limited numbers of big, wild second run kings arrive. Likewise, the river you catch them in changes dramatically and the volume of water and relentless current makes back-trolling from a drift boat in July very difficult.
With the majority of the July King Salmon effort on the Kenai Peninsula fixed on the Kenai, the Kasilof late run has passed under the radar for years from both an angling perspective, and also when it comes to documentation by fish and game. In fact, ADF&G readily admits they know very little about the late run of King salmon on the Kasilof and in the last few years they have redirected some funding in an effort to establish some baseline for a preliminary stock assessment. Interest in the late run of Kasilof kings dates back to 2002 when the Fish and Game launched a feasibility study to see if the kings could be live captured in the Kasilof for testing purposes. Results from this study were favorable and subsequent netting, radio telemetry and harvest monitoring projects proceeded in 2003 and 2005.
Perhaps those that know the most about these fabled late run Kasilof kings are the small handful of guides and locals that have fished the run for generations. Their stories are filled with all the same lore and legend as you’ll hear from longtime Kenai guides. No, the record did not come from the Kasilof and certainly there are not as many fish, but make no mistake, these are very large and very unique Chinook, much like their cousins only one stream to the north. The largest late run Kasilof King salmon sampled in river by ADF&G in recent memory was estimated to weigh over 80 pounds, and every year fish approaching seventy pounds are reported.
As with many sockeye producing river systems in Cook Inlet, king salmon returning to the same river as the sockeye are often intercepted in both onshore set and off shore drift gill nets primarily targeting the more profitable sockeye. Set gill nets on the beaches south of the Kasilof intercept passing schools of both Kasilof and Kenai bound sockeye along with newly arriving Kenai and Kasilof late run Chinook. Along with a native run of sockeye, the Kasilof was also artificially enhanced with a stocking program in Tustamena Lake. This program was started by the state and taken over in the mid 1990’s by local Cook Inlet commercial fishing group Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. Kasilof sockeye returns have easily exceeded their escapement goals in the past several seasons and this has resulted in record commercial harvests of king salmon in the Kasilof district.
Court Decision may reduce sockeye returns
A 2004 decision made it illegal to commercially enhance sockeye on the Kasilof River since it was being done in Federal waters. In the case of: The Wilderness Society and Alaska Center for the Environment vs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The 9th circuit Court of Appeals ruled commercial enterprises should not be allowed in the National Wildlife Refuge as it was almost entirely wilderness area and does not permit commercial uses in its enabling legislation (Wilderness Act of 1964) ”There is no exception given for commercial enterprise in wilderness when it has benign purpose and minimally intrusive impact,” the court ruled. Local Kenai attorney, Trout Unlimited President and avid sport angler Joe Ray Skrha followed the Tustamena stocking case very closely and commented on the court’s decision, “In previous years, agencies have chosen to…authorize the dumping of up to 6 million sockeye fry into Tustamena Lake. The goal was to have those fry return several years later to the east side of Cook Inlet as fully mature four – to eight -pound salmon.
Commercial fishermen are allowed mostly unlimited fishing time below the Blanchard line (Kasilof-Kenai harvest area dividing line) on the theory that if these enhanced salmon are not caught, they will go to waste. Unfortunately, in capturing these “enhanced hatchery-raised” salmon, many wild fish are taken incidentally; among these are wild Tustamena sockeye, Kasilof Chinook, Kasilof steelhead and Kenai Chinook salmon. If those “enhanced hatchery-raised” sockeyes are kept out of Cook Inlet, there will be no need to start fishing the “lower beaches” below the Blanchard Line by the end of June and if those lower beaches are allowed to fish only when the “wild run” returns, many more king salmon destined for the Kenai River (and Kasilof) will make it…and not be incidentally caught along with the “enhanced hatchery-raised” sockeyes of Tustamena Lake.” 2008 will be the last year that the vast majority of enhanced Tustamena Lake sockeye salmon will return to the Kasilof River. Unlike the Kenai, which has an advanced sonar system specifically set up to count incoming king salmon, the overall population estimates for late run Kasilof King Salmon remain as murky as the water these large Chinook lay their eggs in. Baseline population estimates will allow managers to establish vital escapement goals and management plans which can help to assure these genetically unique king salmon are well protected into the future.
Despite the complexity of its salmon runs and the myriad of sport fishing opportunities it offers, it seems highly unlikely the Kasilof will ever become a household name like the Kenai. This said the Kasilof continues to assume more and more independent infamy and is certainly one of the most exciting and predictable road-accessible king fisheries in all of Alaska. Its ability to produce regular action for those just looking to land one of Alaska’s most venerable game fish is paramount to its reputation. There are many that credit the Kasilof for taking much needed pressure from the Kenai’s less predictable early season king returns although the Kenai, with its own recent regulation changes and revised escapement goals, seems far more stable heading into the future. When fishing both of these rivers, it is very important for anglers to remember and respect the tremendous resiliency these rivers display given the level of pressure they receive on an annual basis. The Kasilof, much like the Kenai, is rich in angling mystic and its chalky, glacial green waters teem with fish. It provides countless annual fishing opportunities for both Alaskans and visitors alike and deserves unique consideration for its individual and distinctive allure. If this sounds like an appealing invitation to you than you may soon find yourself in the shadow of giants.