The Kasilof River

Tustamena Lake And The Kasilof River
Tustamena Lake and The Kasilof River At Sunset

The Kasilof River is a river on the western Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska located just 10 miles south of the Kenai River and the town of Soldotna. The name is an anglicization of Reka Kasilova, the name given to the river by early Russian settlers in the area. It’s often considered the little brother of the Kenai River. While it may not receive the attention of the nearby Kenai River, Kasilof River fishing is something that needs to be considered on every Alaska fishing vacation. Alaska department of fish and game keep track of Kasilof River fish counts as well so there is very good historical data on the sockeye salmon that spawn up this river.

It begins at Tustumena Lake and flows northwest to Cook Inlet near Kasilof. The upper section of the river is very swift, with several sections considered Class II whitewater, and underwater hazards are difficult to detect, due to the silty nature of the glacial runoff that comprises most of the river. The entire river has powerful currents and is very cold. There is public access to the lower section from the Sterling Highway. Drift and bank fishing for salmon is popular on the lower Kasilof.

Boat Launches & Pull Outs

There are two boat launches and one pull-out located on the river.  One known as the Upper Kasilof Boat Launch is located right where Tustamena Lake starts to flow into the Kasilof River. The second at mile 109 of the Sterling Highway known as the Kasilof River State Recreation Area. The third is a pull-out only located near the mouth of the river and cook inlet run privately by Kasilof River Lodge Pullout. This pull our deserves it’s own special section and we’ll discuss this later.

Kasilof River State Parks & Recreation Areas

There are three state parks associated with the Kasilof River.  At mile 109 of the Sterling Highway, adjacent to the bridge where the highway crosses the river is the Kasilof River State Recreation Site, a day-use only park with picnic areas and a boat launch. The Crooked Creek State Recreation Site has a large campground and walk-in access to the point where Crooked Creek joins the river, a prime salmon fishing spot. Johnson Lake State Recreation Area is situated on 332 wooded acres on the shores of Johnson Lake. It has a large campground, picnic areas, and access to the Tustumena Lake road, which ends at the Slackwater boat launch on the river with a small, free campground.

While the Kasilof River does not get the same overall volume of salmon as the Kenai, the fact that the river is so much smaller makes the fishing every bit as exciting and productive. Any time the Kasilof River fish count for sockeye reaches around 3000 we can expect good days of fishing. 

Fishing The Kasilof River

Fishing the entirety of the Kasilof River can be done in a single but long day. Some of the best Kasilof River fishing spots for sockeye salmon are on the upper float. However, some of best Kasilof River spots for king salmon are on the lower float. Many guides and anglers will choose to do the upper portion which begins at the Tustamena Lake boat launch and ends at the Sterling Highway bridge at the Kasilof State Recreation Park. The lower portion begins at the Kasilof State Recreation Park and ends at the Kasilof River Lodge pullout. The total length of the river is 17 miles. As mentioned above the river is shallow, fast at some locations, and very cold. Tustamena Lake is absolutely huge at 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. It’s as beautiful as it is big. It is fed by several glaciers and due to it’s enormous size, cold temperatures, and nearby mountain ranges the weather can really create big waves on this lake at times. We’re talking waves measured in feet here due to winds blowing off the glaciers. This river supports king salmon, sockeye salmon, silver salmon, pink salmon and trout. 

Catching a King Salmon on the Kenai River from the bank is nearly an impossible task. The size of the fish and the strength of the current simply lends itself to getting completely spooled out or breaking equipment. There are excellent opportunities to get a king salmon from the bank especially near the areas surrounding Crooked Creek Campground.

The Kasilof undergoes a pretty radical transformation throughout the summer. As the long days and sunlight increase the glacier melt the river absolutely swells in size and volume. Add in some seasonal rain and now you’ve got some really big water. Getting anchors to hold in July can sometimes be challenging and it’s not uncommon to toss two anchors into the river. 

Kasilof River King Salmon Fishing

While some of the basic techniques of fishing for salmon are the same as the Kenai, the Kasilof is a much different experience. Because it is shallow, the Kasilof is a drift boat only river making it very peaceful and relaxed. It wanders through a wide variety of terrain and wildlife sightings are frequent. The state also runs a king salmon hatchery at crooked creek state park near the Sterling Highway bridge and Kasilof State Recreation site. 

The lower Kasilof drift is the more popular of the trips due to the king salmon hatchery’s location near the Sterling highway bridge. Like the Kenai River, the Kasilof River has two runs of King Salmon and their numbers during May and June are a little better than those of the Kenai. This makes the Kasilof River a popular fishery in the early part of the fishing season. While the Kasilof River king salmon may not be as big as the Kenai River king salmon, they are generally more plentiful and are a mix of both hatchery king salmon and wild king salmon. The late run Kasilof River king salmon, much like the Kenai River late-run king salmon, arrive in mid-June and continue through mid-August. 

Bait is allowed on the Kasilof River starting on May 16th, and you are allowed to keep fishing after you’ve retained a King Salmon. When fishing on the Kenai you are required to stop fishing once you have retained a king salmon. If the Kenai River fishery is restricted to catch-and-release, the Kasilof River restricts the use of bait at that time as well. The reason for this is that when the Kenai River moves to catch-and-release the Kasilof sees an increase in angler pressure. Regulations are built into the state fishing regulations to automatically compensate.

The Kasilof River sockeye salmon fishing is pretty spectacular as well along the entirety of the river.  Make sure to check out our salmon run timing page to select the peak sockeye fishing times on the Kasilof. 

Kasilof River Regulations

January 1–June 30:

  • 20 inches or longer:
    • 2  per day, 2 in possession, only 1 may be a naturally-produced king salmon, recognized by the presence of the adipose fin.
    • Fish with an adipose fin (wild king salmon)  may be kept only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
    • There is a combined annual limit of 5 king salmon 20 inches or longer from the waters of the following areas: Cook Inlet Salt Waters, West Cook Inlet, Susitna River Drainage, Knik Arm, Anchorage Bowl, Kenai River and Kenai Peninsula.
  • Less than 20 inches: 10 per day, 10 in possession.

July 1–July 31:

  • 1 per day, 1 in possession (naturally-produced or hatchery-produced)
  • Less than 20 inches: 10 per day, 10 in possession.

Kasilof River Early Run King Salmon and Late Run King Salmon

On both the Kenai River and Kasilof River king salmon early runs, the opinion is that these fish are smaller in size than the late run. An early run Kasilof River king salmon will average between 15-25 lbs while the late run averages between 20-40lbs. One thing to keep in mind is that while these are averages it doesn’t mean some really big fish are to be caught. Remember, the world record was caught on the Kenai River on May 17, just two days into the early run in 1985. 

From our drift boat while back trolling and back bouncing either eggs with a Spin-n-Glo or a sardine-wrapped plug will be our primary technique for catching these king salmon. is your best bet for catching prized Kasilof king salmon. Often we’ll use back trolling and Kwikfish most of the time and consider back bouncing eggs as the tide comes in. We may even finish a particular run and walk (or row depending upon the current at the time) the boat back upstream to hit it again! 

Kasilof River Sockeye Salmon & Silver Salmon Fishing

Kenai River fish counts, Kasilof River fish counts, Russian River fish counts
Kenai River fish counts, Kasilof River fish counts, Russian River fish counts

The Kasilof River has a very good run of sockeye salmon as well as you can see from the green graph at the bottom showing the Kasilof River fish count for sockeye salmon. While there is nothing quite like the size of a 2nd run Kenai River salmon, the Kasilof River sockeye salmon fishery is fantastic. The fishing gets good on the Kenai River when the fish counts start to approach and exceed 20,000 – 30,000 fish per day.  On the Kasilof, it’s when the fish counts start to approach and exceed 3,000 fish per day. 

You can see from the  historical Kasilof river fish count, shown on this page in green, that the Kasilof sockeye fishing will start getting good around June 15 and usually provide good fishing until around the 3rd week of August. Because these sockeye are spawning throughout the river and into Tustamena lake the sockeye fishing is excellent over the entire span of the river. 

As mentioned above, the sockeye salmon run begins in mid-June and each year has an annual escapement of around 1,000,000 fish. In some years, the run starts in mid-May. The best resource for tracking the Kasilof River fish counts, as well as other rivers and species in the state is with the Alaska FishTopia mobile app.

Like the Kenai River, the Kasilof River also provides a really good silver salmon fishery. This run will peak around the same time as the Kenai River’s early run Silver salmon which is mid-August (The second run of Kenai River silver salmon peaks around the middle of September). This Kasilof River silver salmon run will start in late July and end near the end of September. 

April and May as well as October and November provide good opportunities for Steelhead, Rainbow Trout, and Dolly Varden. These can make really great fall fishing days once the salmon season has ended. 

Kasilof River Pullout

The most popular drift on the Kasilof river is the lower section that begins at the Kasilof River State Recreation area adjacent to the sterling highway and proceeds about 6 miles downtream to the mouth of the Kasilof River and Cook Inlet. This area is heavily influenced by the tides and can expose two dozen feet vertically of pure mud. Soft mud, the kind you sink down into your knees if you step in it.

The pullout here is honestly a bit of a mess. This is a combination of dealing with mother natures tidal flow and silty mud being dropped everywhere and a very limited boat launch that only allows for one boat at a time to be pulled out. The problem is compounded further by the infrastructure used to pull out the boat. It requires many sequential steps that each take quite a bit of time. 

Kasilof River Pull Out Steps

Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

  • Once the pull-out is reached, someone needs to walk up the embankment and get the vehicle and trailer and drive it down to the pull-out.  This will take 10 minutes minimum if there is no one in line already
  • The trailer is backed up to a wooden stand where the boat will eventually be drug up onto and the trailer is disconnected from the truck
  • A cable is then walked down and cleated to the front of the drift boat and the other end is connected to the pickup truck
  • The truck then drives away from the unhitched trailer dragging the boat up the embankment, through the mud and eventually onto the wooden ramp. At some point the truck needs to actually make a turn where there is a spindle that will help the wire continue making a straight pull to the drift boat (seriously…you can’t make this stuff up)
  • Once the drift boat is sitting on the wooden ramp and just before it falls off on the trailer, the driver stops pulling on the boat, disconnects the wire cable, and backs the truck up again to reattach it to the drift boat trailer
  • At this point the trailering winch can be hooked up and a combination of winching and muscle can slide the drift boat onto the trailer
  • The cabling can now all be reset for the next lucky guide.

The entire process probably takes at least a half an hour and the wait can sometimes be long if there are several boats already in front of you when you arrive for the day.

At the Kenai Riverside we will plan on picking our clients up at this pull-out immediately and the guides and staff will work this process out while you work your way back to the lodge to relax.